As the evening sun was settling over the small hills, I
steadily hiked along the concrete path that led into
the center of the campus quad. I hung to the strap of my
book bag with a light wind sweeping through the air, then
walked past the student store and the food court. The garlic
aroma of chicken chimichangas was overwhelming and
floated around seamlessly. My god, did it smell good. I
almost wished I had five bucks to waste.
Instead, I ignored the aching grumble in my stomach
and moved on.
The dorms were located on the outskirts of the school
next to a highway that was often busy at this time of day.
When I reached Da Vinci Hall, I passed along a few students
bundled in a corner with large pads sketching the scattered
trees on the forefront of the breaking dawn. I had missed the
elevator going up just as the doors were closing. Damn.
Exasperated, I punched in the button for the next one.
But the wait was so long I decided to just forget it and
took the stairs instead.
Crossing down the hallway, I fumbled inside the withered
pocket of my jacket for the keys. I unlocked the door and
then stepped into a tiny cubicle, where I hit my knee passing
by the end table. At that point, I couldn’t decide whether the
furniture was moving closer or the room was just shrinking.
I limped across the room and dropped my bag on
a nearby chair. Then I took off my cap and tossed it
aside. Oh, what a day, I thought while my fingers stroked
through the thick strands of my dark hair. I couldn’t believe
I stayed up half the night to study for a quiz the
teacher decided not to have after all. What a shame. I was
really looking forward to it, too.
After spotting my bed just a few feet away, I fell on
top of it landing on a soft pillow that cradled my head.
Humble sighs trickled through as the evening sun cast a
mild afterglow through the shiny window, shadowing the
room with a tinted orange. I yawned while the soothing
warmth poured across my tanned face. Then I closed my
eyes as a tranquil slumber soon began to take its course.
Suddenly, the door quickly slammed open, and I instantly
“Hey, good news you lucky people, I’m here!”
“Jesus Christ!” I yelled, responding to the triumphant
arrival of my roommate, Anna.
She looked at me with cavalier naïveté. “Oh, were you
“No, I wasn’t,” I answered. “I was just trying to, that’s
“Well, as long as you weren’t sleeping.” Casually humming,
she sauntered back into the hall and returned with
several large shopping bags. Most of them looked like
they weighed more than she did.
“Been to the mall, lately?” I asked.
“Just for the last half hour.”
“And that’s all you got?”
“Well, I couldn’t really get much because I had to come
back for a class.”
“Oh, of course.”
I watched as Anna closed the door behind her so she
could peek at the mirror nailed in the back. She twirled
around a few times, checking out all the angles of herself.
Then she fluffed her short, reddish-brown hair, which was
decorated with bright, silver streaks. Under closer inspection,
she turned from side to side and caressed the light,
delicate skin on her face. She checked out everything from
the straight arches in her eye brows to the rich, glossy
color of her lips. Oh, brother, I thought as I reclined back
There was just no doubt about it. Anna Zapata was
the “Chicana from Beverly Hills.” She, technically, came
from Orange County, but she was possessed by someone
in Beverly Hills. Note: Anytime you see the word “hills”
in a city name, you just know it’s a fancy, ritzy area packed
with people, who just have too much money. For example,
Anaheim Hills, Woodland Hills, Chino Hills, Beverly Hills.
Need I say more?
“Do you think I need to add another streak?” Anna
“Yeah, right here near my bangs.”
“Well, I don’t know,” I answered. “I think you wouldn’t
look any different.”
“Would you get up and look,” she insisted.
“Why, I can remember what you look like.”
“Will you just look.”
“Okay, fine,” I said with a roll of my eyes.
With a discouraging grunt, I hoisted myself up and
leaned on the tips of my elbows. I cocked my head in her
direction, straining to give her a glance. My face crinkled
in confusion as I attempted to drum up an opinion.
“Well?” she persisted.
“Honestly……you’d look the same.”
“Oh, no I wouldn’t.”
“Yes, you would.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“Yes, you would.”
“Oh, what do you know?”
I collapsed back on the bed with a loud murmur under
“Can’t you see that one streak will add balance to my
“No, I clearly don’t see that,” I said.
“Obviously.” She looked back at the mirror. “Maybe I
should just start all over with a brand new color. What do
you think about that?”
“Why don’t you just go back with the color God gave
you?” I asked.
“Well, that kinda presents a problem,” she said. “See, I
sorta forgot my original hair color.”
“Are you serious?”
“Nope, I’ve been dyeing my hair for years, and it just
sorta slipped my mind.”
“Well, why don’t you ask your mom then?”
“Are you kidding?” she responded. “Who do you think
taught me how to dye my hair? My mother couldn’t find
her own roots if she was digging for gold.”
“Okay, point well taken,” I mentioned. At least now I
knew where her obsession with hair started from.
“Ya know, I think I will add that extra streak,” she
“Whatever you say.”
“And while I’m at the salon, I’ll get a manicure, pedicure,
and a facial,” she added. “I’ll just beautify all this
“Are you sure you’re Mexican?” I asked once again.
“For the last time, I am Mexican,” she replied in defiance.
“Yo sé hablar español y todo. I just don’t listen to Spanish
music or eat spicy foods. Why, don’t I sound Mexican?”
“I resent that,” she said. “I would stay and fight
you on that, but I gotta go get my facial, manicure, and
“So, back to the mall you go?”
“That’s right,” she said. “Oh, and while I’m there, I
might as well get that cashmere blouse I was thinking
about buying but didn’t. See ya.”
With giddy excitement, Anna glided out of the room.
Finally! Now where was I? Oh, yeah, I was trying to
I lied there and closed my eyes, gradually reacquainting
myself with the peaceful and quiet sounds around me.
At some point, I actually wondered whether or not I went
deaf. But I didn’t. There was absolutely no noise. Wow,
this was nothing like home back in the barrio, I thought.
Back home I had the raucous sounds of police helicopters
flying overhead to lull me to sleep. But not here.
Sounds of the barrio didn’t exist. I haven’t heard screeching
tires against the harsh gravel of the streets, or the sounds
of drunken cholos clashing with shattered beer bottles. Up
until now I figured I’d be stuck with those noises for the
rest of my life. It was amazing. I mean, I’ve heard about
lawns being greener on the other side of the fence; but it’s
another thing to actually sink your feet into that beautiful
grass and wiggle your toes in it. Could I really have done
it? I wondered. Could I have gotten myself away from
the other side and made it all the way here—at the Atkins
Art Institute, the place I’ve been working so hard to get
to ever since I saw Bugs Bunny as a kid? Could this be a
dream? Yes, it was a dream—it was a dream come true!
After conquering the world of high school as a kid
and cherishing the last few moments of summer with
the people who meant the most to me, I can now say
that I had finally made it. I did it! I was here, standing in
the middle of a whole new adventure, ready to begin the
grand odyssey of college life, ready to discover the answer
to the question that’s been nagging me for years: What’s
beyond The Gardens?
Ever since I was born in the small town of Hawaiian
Gardens—a California barrio that a lot of the locals referred
to as The Gardens— my life always had barbed
wire around it, and I just couldn’t get through. I was
caged like a raggedy, flea-infested dog, always snuggled in
a dirty corner while surrounded by the foul stench of that
filthy pound. I would look at the world through steel bars,
wondering what it would be like to be on the other side.
Was there some other life beyond those gates? Was there
something better over that fence? I never knew; I’ve always
just wondered. And I kept on wondering even when we
moved to East L.A., where I was only transferred from a
smaller cage to a bigger one—my curiosities still the same
though. I knew I was going to die if I stayed right where
I was. I knew it was never going to get any better unless I
got out. Well, now, I was a dog that had gone free. I finally
escaped my cell. I have passed the gates of limitations,
running every step of the way, ready to discover what I
have been missing all my life. I was now going to see this
new world through fascinated eyes and finally mark my
territory wherever I go. What changes await me? What
will I find? Who will I meet? How will the next chapters
of my life going to end this time? Or were they going to
end at all? Maybe my ending will turn out to be a brand
new beginning. I couldn’t wait to find out!
To read the full story of Beyond the Gardens by Sandra Lopez, copies are available here:
For more information, visit the author’s website at www.sandra-lopez.com or connect with her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sandra-Lopez/173657042664609