Lorena Ortiz

El Bal Blue 


Lorena Ortiz is a Mexican American writer born in California, living in Washington DC. She was raised by immigrant parents and her work is influenced by her roots and the mysticism of Mexican culture. When she is not working at her day job as a healthcare data analyst, she is busy writing short stories and working on a novel. Her debut short story Augustine’s Mother was published as a podcast on PenDust Radio. She is a 2021 Compass Fellowship finalist and a 2021 cohort member of the Stanford Continuing Studies Certificate Program in Novel Writing.

On a street we had not frequented since we were kids, before the brown people, our people, were dislocated to the gritty numbered streets of Oakland, Eduardo and I ran into our reflections in the cobalt windows of a renovated uptown building. We stood speechless, starstruck, staring at our reflections, our forms sheathed in sparkling sapphire. The surrounding area was revived. Rejuvenated. Revitalized. At least that’s what they liked to call it, with its fresh mural of Oscar Grant alongside boutique cafes that sold twenty-two-dollar roasted asiago sandwiches in a balsamic aioli reduction.

When did they stop calling it a grilled cheese?

The windows were the color of the Nivea Crème glass jars and Vicks bottles of our 1970s childhood. Those blue glass jars that we would keep after the substance inside was gone. Storage for loose earrings and thread and thumbtacks and Mexican pesos to be remembered for the next trip.

Eduardo touched my shoulder softly and I looked up to see his brow furrowed and a bit of pink rimming his eyes. A deliberately forgotten memory rose to the edge of my throat like vomit. I swallowed hard, pushing down the spew from that long-ago day and the childhood questions we had ruminated over incessantly as kids swirled in my head.

 Is it just as blue inside? Is it like being underwater in the ocean? Or maybe, is it like the inside of a genie's bottle?

I turned to the windows. The middle-aged woman and man in the reflection in their work-day outfits faded away, and two boney brown-skinned kids took their place. Their hand-me-down clothes were one size too big. The boy was still shorter and the girl’s frank smile was made lopsided by the not-yet-straightened toothy grin. Two kids with a dream, and a mission.


Summertime 1979

The windows of my Papá’s gold Cadillac, the one with the front end that looked like alligator teeth, were rolled down, and I hung halfway out like a happy dog, the piney summer scent of Eucalyptus in my face. It was Friday, school and work were behind us, and every Friday my family and the families of my dad's two cousins would get together.

Collectively, we were La Familia. Sometimes we would congregate at each other's houses, sometimes at a party, sometimes at a time-worn restaurant that would inevitably have mariachis strolling between jam-packed tables. But the best times were when we met at the Valentino Bal Teatro in a part of Oakland flooded in the aroma of fresh corn fried into tortillas where you could buy yerba buena and effigies of Santos that cured any ailment. El Bal, as we called it, was a dilapidated, run-down theatre that played old Mexican films that were classics back home.

It was the lifelong dream of my Eduardo, my cousin slash soulmate, and I to know what lay behind the magical El Bal windows. Fascinated by their brilliance, we wondered to each other; Was it blue inside of the box office? Was it like an aquarium? Like the ocean? Like a nightclub? You might think it peculiar that a nine and eleven year old would be familiar with the inside of  a nightclub, but in the 1970s there were many Mexican restaurants in our neighborhood that converted to bars after 9:00 p.m., and we had sat in countless sticky booths eating quesadillas and coloring in too-old, too-used-already coloring books while our parents danced.

When the gold alligator pulled into the alley parking lot behind El Bal, the burgundy van belonging to my Tío Luis was already parked and my cousins, aunts and uncles, and other assorted family were pouring out the side door like slow-moving cake batter that needs to be scraped off the sides. I manually rolled up the backseat windows and scanned the heap of people to see if I could spot my cousin. Eduardo stood next to my Tía, his mom, his hand over his eyes like a visor to block out the sun. When he saw our Cadillac cruise into the parking lot, he pulled on my Tía’s sleeve.  

“I see Lalo!” I crawled back and forth across the extra-long back seat like a tiger in a cage as my dad parked the alligator.

Eduardo was mouthing my name, Lola, as I was mouthing his name, Lalo. He quickly looked around to check that no one was watching and lifted out of his jeans pocket a Slinky toy. While my dad traded out his sunglasses for his all-day glasses and my mom checked her lipstick in the visor mirror, I swiftly produced the rolled-up jump rope that I had tucked into my tube sock. Our matching brown eyes locked, we sent each other a telepathic high-five, and then we returned our paraphernalia to their hiding spots.  

El Bal wasn’t grand or modern, or even well-maintained, but the heavy cobalt windows encasing the octagon shaped box office transformed the theater into a blue crystal palace, as if by the wand of a fairy godmother. The marquee overhead was laced with bright chasing lights that bounced off the cobalt like the castillo fireworks during summer breaks in Mexico. Of course, when I was eleven, I had no idea the color was called ‘cobalt’. If it had been a crayon in my Crayola box of 64 colors, it would have been called El Bal Blue.

Each visit to El Bal included a plan to get behind those windows and up until this night our schemes had failed. That is not to say that some of our plans didn’t have true grit and potential. One Friday we had the ingenious idea of asking our mothers if we could treat them to a snack from the snack bar.

You see, like the box office, the snack bar was also encased in cobalt windows. After holding still for wet kisses from our mothers, who were charmed with our hospitality, we made it to the front of the line and spoke into the grated intercom to the side of the windows,  “Dos aguas frescas y un Roqui Ro porfavor,” A rotating drum window, like those revolving doors in front of the immigration office in San Francisco, opened and the girl inside slid the beverages and candy into the inner pocket and turned the drum. We grabbed the snacks and put our saved-up coins into the drum. We kept our eyes peeled on the hollow space in the drum, but not once did we get a glimpse of the inside of the snack bar. Not even a twinkle of blue.

But this night, our strategy was foolproof. With our detective style paraphernalia in our pockets we entered the theatre that Friday walking tall, excitement bursting in our souls. Our familia took a side aisle towards the front and filled up four or five rows quickly. Piles of coats and purses laid over a line of seats. Our mothers pulled out the homemade still-warm tinfoil wrapped tacos and gorditas and made us sit and eat before the previews started. Old bolero music floated from hidden speakers and everyone settled in. An orchestra of laughter rang through the theater and you could hear comadre and compadre at every turn. How did they know which comadre?  Which compadre? They were all compadres. Eduardo and I were an aisle apart and he kept looking back over his shoulder at me, his cheeks ballooning with flaky tortilla.

I was taking the last bites of my refried bean and melty-cheese filled gordita when the lights dimmed, and the volume dial turned to the right.


“Que empiezan el pinche movie!

I wiped my mouth with my sleeve, and I tugged at my mom.

Mamá ya acabe, puedo ir?” My mom barely glanced at the foil wrapping I held out for her inspection and she said, “Portate bien, no salgas de aqui.”

“Lalo c'mon!”

Eduardo also looked to his mom who gave him a nonchalant nod, and then our mothers turned in their seats to continue their chit-chat. Eduardo slipped out of his aisle and into mine and took my hand. We walk-ran to the front of the theatre holding hands.

By the center stage, we were bombarded by a bunch of kids that we were friends with straightaway. All kids knew that at El Bal, there were no divides, no clicas. Everyone was a friend, ready to play hide-n-seek or tag. The older kids, teenagers, spread to the back rows and maybe a few brave ones would hold hands or sneak a kiss, right there, behind our very strict parents. At eleven, I had no interest in sitting in the back. But even at eleven I elicited a few whistles when I walked by tween boys. They scared me a little, and at the same time, it made my heart beat faster, a warm feeling inside.

“All manos in!” said the boy who always wore a Chivas jersey. Naturally, we called him Chivas. He was probably around seven or eight but a natural born leader.

An assortment of brown and beige fists assembled into a lopsided circle ready to be counted.

"One potatuh, two potatuh, three potatuh four…" Chivas went around the circle hitting fists with his own fist and when he got around to himself, he hit his left fist with his right, then his own chin, and continued on around. When he would get to the 'more' in the rhyme, that fist would be out. The rhyme went around and around until only two fists were left.

"Don't be chapusero Chivas!"  

"Oye you skipped one!"

Until finally the last fist came down and a little girl of about ten was called ‘it.’ She wore glasses and two long pigtails that fell like thick ropes past her small waist. Her eyes were wild. She was ready. We knew she would be a beast at hide-n-seek.

Pigtails wasted no time and started counting "Uno, dos, tres, cuatro…." I grabbed Eduardo’s hand and we ran up the aisle towards the teenager rows. Most of the younger kids were shy around the wise and experienced teenagers which made hiding in their midst a good call. Miguelito, my coolest cousin ever, was the king of the group, so we hid under his legs that rested on the seat in front of him, assured that we would not be found.

"Diez-y-nueve, y VEINTE! Ready or Not here I come!!!" Pigtails took off running. Squeals rang out as Pigtails caught kid after kid and shrieks of, “SAFE!!'” could be heard as kids made a run for base at the front of the theatre. It was mayhem. Eduardo and I kept a lookout, taking turns popping our head up over the threadbare velvet seats. But it was hard to hear above the noise of the film and the adults who were doing much more gossiping and spreading chisme than watching the movie.

The game wound down, Pigtails, hands on her prepubescent hips, beamed with victory over her captives, and the kids who had not been found materialized out of the seats and made their way back to base. From our floor seat in the back aisle we decided that this was our chance to make our move and execute our plan, our very purpose in life.

"C'mon cuz, let's go…" I pulled Eduardo up with me, but before we made our exit, Miguelito grabbed me around my waist and tickled my ribs. I screeched with laughter, "Stop Stop Stop!!!” stumbling and squirming, breathless through my laughter. Finally, he stopped and turned back to the pretty long-haired girl who sat next to him, stars in her eyes, enraptured with his every word. Eduardo and I crawled like spiders along the back wall and pushed the exit door just enough to slide our narrow bodies through, trying our best not to be noticed.

Out in the lobby, the El Bal ushers were talking and smoking Lucky Strikes. No one gave us a second glance. The coast looked clear, but then an American lady, a gringa, came walking fast towards us. We scrambled to let her pass, but not quick enough. She paused for a fraction of a second to lay a dirty look on us and then she disappeared behind the swinging theatre doors. Eduardo had scooted behind me and was holding onto the belt loops in my jeans. “Lola, who was that?” he whispered into my neck. Every now and then Americans would show up at El Bal, but always by the time the movie was over, and the stage lights came on, their seats would be empty and forgotten. My narrow shoulders lifted and touched my ears in response. 

Shaken, but certainly not defeated, we did our best low-key saunter, whistling, over to the mysterious back door that led into the box office. Like the front of the box-office, the back of the box-office was also shaped like a stop sign. Eduardo took the left side of the octagon and I took the right. I looped my jump rope around the handle of the door and tiptoed around the right corner. My heart pounded against my chest bone nearly freeing itself from my ribcage. The plan was for Eduardo to reach his hand around from the left side and knock on the door. When the door opened, it was up to me, as the older cousin, to pull on the rope and pull the door open wide so Eduardo could see inside and also place the Slinky in the door jamb, giving me enough time to come from the right and also have a peek inside. It was a brilliant plan. But we hesitated. We heard an usher yell at us, "Oye, niños!! What are you doing? Quitense de ahí or I'll find your Papá!" At the word Papá, our survival instincts kicked in and we bolted for the door back into the theatre, jump rope and Slinky left behind as evidence. We also did not take the time to slide back into the theatre inconspicuously. We barreled in, the bright lobby light illuminated the theatre, and people turned to gawk at us as we ran down a side aisle to escape potential doom.

A lady in a middle row, stepped out into the aisle and we crashed like a freight train right into her. A geyser of brown cola shot into the air and came raining down on the two of us. The American lady, the white lady from the lobby, stood before us, arrows in her eyes.

"Animals! This is a movie theatre not a playground," she said looking at us like we were flies at a picnic. Cola dripped from our clothes, and we both peeked at her from under our identical bowl-cut bangs.  

A lady seated close by said, "Son niños, dejalos en paz," another lady added "Estaban jugando, no lo hicieron a propósito.” And that should have been the end of it. We were just kids playing. The white lady’s boyfriend or husband, jumped up to wipe the few drops of cola that had spattered on her, not once asking if either of us was okay. We had taken the brunt of the spill and the sugary stickiness perfumed my hands and face.

“Where are the parents of these kids?!" the man yelled. He grabbed both Eduardo and I, his fingernails digging slightly too much into our skinny arms. Eduardo’s eyes popped out from their sockets and I was falling over the edge of a steep drop on a rollercoaster. Only parents, and aunts or uncles had the right to grab us like that. My cousin screamed, "Papá!!!!" In nearly all precarious circumstances that could befall a kid: hunger, falling off a bike, losing a tooth, and falling in love, you scream for your Mamá. But if someone is threatening your life you scream for your Papá. The American man, not impressed with us in the slightest, said even louder, "Someone better claim these hooligans RIGHT NOW!"

"Leggo uv dem!" said a man who was making his way down the aisle towards the growing crowd that surrounded us. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the usher in his velvet uniform and squat cap look puzzled. He didn't know what the to do, until a man sitting close by yelled at him to go get the manager, at which point he clambered out of the theatre.

"Hey meester, thees not you keed. Lettim go," said our approaching savior trying to diffuse the chaos as best as possible.

"Like hell I will. They bumped into my wife when they should be sitting down. What's wrong with YOU people?" Curses could be heard from all directions and some of the men started to stand up, getting ready to defend the honor of their own. 

And then, out of the throng, came my dad’s deep voice like a life ring thrown out to rescue us.

"Get your cotton-picking hands off my kids!" said my dad in his accent-less English. He was the most Americanized of the bunch.

"These your kids?" said the white man dropping his grip on our arms.

"You bet like hell they are and I'm going to send you to hell if you hurt them," he said, his fists balled up and his eyes were flames. My dad stood a foot shorter than the white man, but he turned into the Hulk when his kids were threatened.

"YOUR kids ran into my wife and ruined her dress! Why are your kids running around, this is a goddamn movie theatre!" the man responded. My dad and the white man exchanged a tangle of obscenities while the swarm narrowed around us. Eduardo made a run for it. He dropped to all fours to squeeze out of the circle underneath the legs of the crowd. My dad slid me behind him with his broad arm. I nibbled at my nails while I peeked through the crack between his body and arm to catch the action.

"My wife and I are going to Puerto Vallarta and we need to practice our Spanish but how can we do that with a bunch of animals in here," said the man.

"Honey let's just tell the manager, these people don't even speak English," said his wife in an embarrassed whisper.

"Like hell I don't Ma'am," said my dad.

"Really Roger lets go tell the manager they will know what to do." She was pulling on her husband's arm now, all her previous bravado gone.

The teenage boys jumped on their seats and pumped their fists in the air. From somewhere, the manager appeared, and the lights came on. I felt disoriented. I had never been inside El Bal if it wasn't dim and dark.

"Señores, señores, how ken I help you? " The manager said mainly to the white man. To my dad he said, "¿Que diablo pasó?"    

"Este puto de madre amenazo a mi hija," my dad replied, sweeping his arm in a half back-hand motion.

"My wife and I paid good money to come in here to watch a movie, and kids are running around like crazy, knocking people over! You need to throw these animals out! Or else I'm calling the police." said the white man.

"Meester I will give you your money back," offered Señor Lopez.

" I came to watch a movie and I'm going to watch it,” The white man stood firm.

"Meester, El Bal is a special place. People come here to relax and to talk..."

My dad had had enough negotiation.

"Why do YOU pinche people think you can…” 

The white man cut my dad off and turned to the manager, "I came to watch a movie and no DAMN spic is going to tell me what I can or can't do."

A collective gasp filled the room. I was only eleven, but even at eleven I knew a line had been crossed. My dad pulled his fist back so fast and so violently he unintentionally sent me flying back, crashing into an aisle. A woman smelling of powdery Jean Naté scooped me up.

"Mamacita estás bien? Algo te duele?" She inspected me quickly to make sure I was not hurt. Then she reached inside her brightly colored mesh bag and pulled some sheets off a toilet paper roll. She touched them to her tongue and wiped the sticky cola off my face and hands.

My Tío Javier emerged and parted the crowd, cutting through the chaos and noise, and from behind, he put one hand on each of my dad’s shoulders. "Primo no te metes con estos güeros. José, no valen la pena." gringosHe delicately pulled my dad back making sure not to agitate him in this testy situation. The crowd agreed, these weren't worth it. It was not worth the fight. What if police were called? The police were all white. Who would they side with? They reasoned. My Tíos told my dad to forget it and yelled over to the ladies to pack it all up. Words of encouragement and condolence were offered from the crowd as we gathered all the coats and jackets we had just taken off. The manager caught my dad as we walked out, "La proxima te envito yo, Don José," but my dad was deaf in his anger. I stood at exactly the right level to see the seated white man’s big smile as we passed. His wife stared at the floor.  By the cars, the men spoke through their teeth to one another. Eduardo and I stood to the side; our shoulders pressed together, not a sliver of space separating us. And then, we all piled into the cars and went home, never to return.


The middle-aged man in the reflection turned to face me. Eduardo put his hands on both my shoulders and looked down at me. Our childhood telepathy reignited. My heart felt broken and my voice came out scratchy.

“Lalo, do you remember…” he put his hand up to stop my words and he reached into his inner suit pocket and pulled out a small notepad. He handed it to me.

“Just in case they try to stop us, you jam this in the door…”

I buckled over laughing. We laughed like children, gasping, and holding our bellies. When Eduardo regained his composure, his face turned serious.

“The hell with those pendejos! They thought they won cuz. They didn’t win Lola. We won. We will always have El Bal. It doesn’t matter how much they take or how much of our shit gets torn down,” he did a quick look-around at the booming neighborhood, minus the old spots that had made it feel like home. “It doesn’t matter cuz. They can’t take El Bal from us, it’s who we are.

Eduardo’s words wrapped around me like my Abuelita’s lacey church rebozo, like  pan con chocolate at bedtime, like the Virgen de Guadalupe that protects and serves us, like the sizzle of a handmade tortilla hitting the oil in a pan, and like the way I know Eduardo the way I know my own hands. Every line, crease, and bony bump is familiar, an extension of myself. My family is who I am.

Eduardo sensed that an emotional waterworks show was imminent and grabbed my hand, "Come on cuz let's do this," and he led me towards the El Bal Blue colored windows. We looked at each other with lopsided smiles.

I start us off.

"I bet it's like an ocean,"

"I bet it's likes being inside of a genie bottle,"

"I bet it's like an aquarium,”

Eduardo opens the door and takes a small step backwards to allow me to enter first. Still holding hands, we peer in, we take the first step in, and we giggle in delight.

© The Acentos Review 2021