Sunday, December 03, 2023

Songs of the Heartland

—Poetry by Charles Mariano, Sacramento, CA
—Photos of Merced River
Courtesy of Public Domain


i go back
through the written years
the daily notes
endless pages
and see myself,
an incredible view
wings spread
all those days
hundreds, thousands
of emotions

the colors, shades
to blinding

it seems
my mind traveled everywhere
and yet,
i  never left
a while ago
a concerned friend
in the midst of my review
the pages turning,
dazzling my tired eyes
he said to me,
“I knew you’d be there,
stuck in that room”
and i said,

you’re wrong,
i’m not here,

i’m flying”

(Merced, CA)  
Years ago 
when Mama talked about someone,
I’d stop her occasionally
and ask
where this person lived

She’d wave her arm a direction
left or right, and say,

“Ohh, they lived over there, under the freeway”

At first I thought
it was people
who lived underground,
which sounded strange,
but didn’t question it

I realized, as I grew older
she must’ve meant homeless people
camped out
a long time ago,
under the overpass

Why would I doubt it?  
we were poor, so in Mama’s day,
pitifully poorer

Years later
home from college one day,
Mama was telling me a story
about my relatives, and said
they too
lived under the freeway

“Wait a minute, tio Vicente and tia Lupe
lived under the freeway?” I asked

I knew for a fact
they didn’t,
so that had to be wrong

“Just the other side of 13th”
she answered,
pointing towards M Street

I look out the kitchen window
of our house,
the projects on 12th & K
and about fifty feet away
was the massive presence,
of Highway 99

“Si Mijo,” she says,
waving her arms and pointing
that direction again,

“Before the new 99
smashed down all their houses,
they lived right there,
under the freeway”


i realize
after decades away
thousands of trips home,

Highway 99,
that stretch of road
between Sacramento and Merced,
is now part of me
and constant

holidays, family events
numbing, traumatizing

on the 99, always the 99,

i realize
the winding rivers of my youth
flowing all directions
in Merced County,
are also constant

like the river
by Henderson Park
family gatherings,

or the river in Winton,
by Shaffer Bridge
where we swam,
just down the road
from the sweet potato fields,
we worked

and further down
in Ballico,
another bridge,
the river
where we catfished,
went swimming
near the asparagus fields,
where Daddy worked

and later, as a teenager
drinking, driving
the backroads through Snelling,
along the river,
that led to Mariposa,
and higher,
all the way to Yosemite

from there
the powerful, mesmerizing
Merced River
that rages down the mountains
from Yosemite,
caressing rocks, boulders
to glistening jewels,

flowing wildly, mightily
to the lower valley,
that feeds
into all the streams and rivers
of my childhood

i realize now,
it’s always been

the Merced River
and the 99

that bind,

take me home


a story in the Sacramento Bee
said a man saved another man
from a horrible fire.  

A man on the side of the road
trapped in a burning car.  
People standing there,
frozen, watching him screaming,
burning to death.  

Suddenly, another car stops,
a man jumps out,
races into the flames,
busts out a window,
and pulls the man to safety.  

“He came out of nowhere,”
a witness said,
“Like Superman!”

The newspaper didn’t say
He was a Mexican immigrant
who spoke no English,
because he was.

It didn’t say
he dove into the fire
to save a white man.  

It didn’t say a Catholic man
saved a Christian man,
or poor man
saved a rich man.  

He was just a man.

Through a translator
they asked this hero
why he risked his life
diving into the fire.  

“He needed help,
so I helped him,”
he answered simply.

Not a brown face,
or a purple face,
a human face.  

Able to leap
religion, race,
insane, stupid politics
in a single bound.  

More powerful
than runaway hate,


(Poem reprinted from
Song of the San Joaquin, 2009;
Sacramento Bee article referenced was pub. 8/14/2006)


at some point
all the silly faces
giggles and laughter
will stop,

and my little girl
will look past me,
move on

for today, though,
this sunshine
and funny songs,
six years and counting,
loves me to pieces

wish i could bottle up
her adoration,
pure innocence

“yes mijita”
“i sang a new song today
in school”
“you did, that’s great,
sing it to me”

“i love my grandpa,
he loves me too…
we go to the park and laugh
and plaaaayy,
i love my grandpa,
he loves me toooo”

she stops, looks up at me
with that goofy smile,
my heart, in her tiny hands

“please, please, never grow up,”
i whisper

“what grandpa?”

“that was great, mija,
sing it to me again”


don’t want to get into
it felt so bad
that we were poor

i wore ugly shoes
and pants
that fit too big,
with holes

that brown duplex
on 12th and K
we lived in,

government housing
for those
woefully without

it bothered me

when i drove by
saw every building
an empty lot

i stopped
took it all in
the air
hauntingly quiet

it’s all gone now
like Mama
and my childhood
nothing’s forever

family gatherings
Mama cooking up a storm
in that small kitchen

the black neighbors
the McMartins,
the Harrises
magnificently poor,
like us

shared tables,
best friends

a variety of music
Trio Los Panchos,
Nat King Cole,
James Brown,
out our windows

the sweet smell
of capirotada and barbecue
wafting, curling

a framed picture
of JFK
next to the Virgin Mary
a lit candle in the middle

Thanksgiving, Christmas,
countless birthdays
that ugly house
filled to the brim
with warm memories
every loving inch

don’t want to get into
this empty lot bothers me
why my chest aches
for every last
precious piece

i see Mama at the window
her foodstained apron,
hair in bobbypins
her scarf
wrapped tight around her head
like Aunt Jemimah,

waving goodbye


Today’s LittleNip:

—Charles Mariano

it’s so easy
to not see them,
in the fields

but they’re there
always there

rows and rows
of stick figures
against the sun

bundled, faceless
chopping, picking,

it’s okay,
it’s them, not you

just turn your head
drive by

they’re not there


—Medusa, with many thanks to Charles Mariano for his fine poetry today! Charlie’s book,
Between Here and There: Central Valley Off the 99, is available at


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