To most people, San Bernardino has never been a glamorous destination. It’s not L.A. or Palm Springs but a spot in between, maybe where you stop for gas.
That’s why those of us who called it home had to explain to everyone where it was. But some of them would look at us with a confused expression and say, “I still have no idea where that is.”
No matter how much people have heard now about San Bernardino, or how much they research the Inland Empire, they will never know what it was like before the Dec. 2 terrorist attack, which killed 14 people and injured 22.
When I was a child in the 1990s, San Bernardino was growing, diversifying and transitioning into more than just a town off Route 66. It was a place to start over, build families and get working-class jobs.
When I was 7, my parents would say, “We’re lucky we don’t live in the city” — they meant L.A.. I would disagree then, but now I see they made the right choice for us.
We were a family of six. In the late ’90s, my father injured his back at work. Our family had just settled into a house and my mother had stopped working to take care of us. For my parents, the American Dream was suddenly at risk.
My mother went back to work. My father was now at home, picking us up from school, packing our lunches and fixing our bikes for the summer. As a child, I had no idea how much our family was struggling. I assumed that everyone ate bean tacos and ramen for dinner, and that everyone’s dad made their bikes out of old pieces from the junkyard.
There also were idyllic aspects to our lives. My dad would drive us to Silverwood Lake, a small reservoir in San Bernardino County, and teach us how to fish. I remember coming home with an ice bucket filled with trout, and dirt all over my pink jeans. We fed ducks at Jurupa Hills, explored the remnants of Santa’s Village near Lake Arrowhead and caught frogs at Lytle Creek.
As I got older, I realized the many ways in which the Inland Empire was different from where my father had grown up — in the East L.A. housing projects.
He wanted our lives to be better, and they were.
We had an endless supply of orange groves and chicken farms around us. The fields stretched on for miles and tumbleweeds scattered around town when the Santa Ana winds hit.
We woke up early on Saturdays to barter for Mexican candy and beaded necklaces at various flea markets called “swap meets,” where the smell of roasted peanuts and cinnamon churros filled the air.
We’d run across the street to catch the palatero man, who sold frozen fruit popsicles, which never seemed to melt even in the 100-degree weather.
There were two seasons, the hot and not so hot. Everyone fixed their cars in the driveway because most of our neighbors “knew a guy” who could help. In my neighborhood, that guy was my dad.
There were bad areas of town, where you couldn’t tell if a loud noise came from fireworks or gunshots. Our parents taught us to lie on the floor when we heard them.
San Bernardino or San Berghetto. That’s what we called it sometimes. People would joke about it all the time. Nowadays it’s not that funny anymore. We never used to be “famous,” at least not for the reason we are now.
Before the shootings, the TV cameras and the national news coverage, we had plenty of problems. In 2013, the whole Inland Empire had the highest rate of poverty in the nation. The city of San Bernardino itself went into bankruptcy several years ago.
Crime rates rose over 50 percent from 2005 to 2012 and San Bernardino was hit with street gangs, unrest and uncertainty. The area as a whole is spread out, underfunded and underrepresented. It’s hard to unite a community with so many moving in and out. For many people, living in San Bernardino and the surrounding areas was temporary and cheaper than living in Orange County or Los Angeles.
I saw new buildings pop up all over the county, and not long after they would be boarded up and closed. There were new homes built in Fontana and Rialto, where people would move into them, only to lose them in the housing crisis in 2008.
Some would get second or third jobs at warehouses to avoid foreclosures. It became a harder life, but most people still managed to stay afloat.
Today when I see “San Bernardino” in bold red letters on CNN, it breaks my heart. All these people, people just like me, gone in an instant. I suppose that’s how terrorism works. After we go through this state of “high alert,” panic and mourning, what will happen to us?
What will happen to San Bernardino? We can’t wear a #San Bernardino Strong and hope to suddenly heal. That’s not how this works.
This Christmas I’ll be returning to the San Bernardino area. I know it’s not the same, but I do hope the little things haven’t changed. I hope there are still cars overflowing in the driveway, endless tamales for dinner and hot chocolate around the fire pit in the backyard.
I hope my dad still tells his corny jokes, my sisters laugh until their stomachs hurt and my brother breaks another cup in the kitchen. It’s tradition. I hope I come home to my mom sitting with my niece and sister-in-law on the couch, singing along to “Frosty the Snowman.”
Most of all, I hope we can just all be together and safe.