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El Freebird

A lifetime is too long.

Exercise yard, State Penitentiary... Santa Fe, New Mexico 1982. Danny "El Freebird" Gonzales (far left)

I can still feel the warm summer breeze, the heat of the sun on my skin... As I break from my mother's grip of holding my hand, I take a look around with my innocent eyes remembering the reason for the barbed wire fences, suddenly my heart jolts at the sound of a metal door buzzing... Here I am, once again, spending my Saturday morning at Central Correctional Facility. I take a deep breath and step in with the weight of my mother's hand nudging me to move forward. My mother's voice faint, almost non-existent as I look into the double plexiglass window at the familiar face of officer Ramirez as he flashes me a smile, kind of like, "Hey kid, I'm sorry."

Buzz, click and another door opens... I get butterflies as we step in front of another window hoping to see him waiting for me ...Buzz, click. My heart racing from holding my breath, I hear his voice break the silence of that cold empty waiting area... "Hey!!" I run to him and melt in his arms, "Daddy!!!!"

Whenever I sit and look back on those days, it saddens me that it was and is a life I had to live. I wasn't given a choice, and at the same time... I still choose to be in that light. It's been 38 years since my father has seen the outside world. I can't even begin to imagine what it's like to be in a place like that. I often try to put myself in his shoes, but those are some mighty big shoes to be filled taken into account all that my father has been through. It's like a nightmare on loop, like Groundhog Day the movie. For myself, it feels the same, a bad dream on repeat. Although my scenery changes the feelings and waiting are on a loop, never-ending. As a child, I didn't know that what I was doing, going to visit my dad in prison wasn't something everyone else did, but to me it was normal. Waking up every Saturday & Sunday to the sound of New Mexican Rancheras blaring on 89.1 KANW as my tata (grandfather) whistled along, rolling a cigarette while sitting with a hot cup of coffee. My mom would call me into the living room and motion me to climb on a chair she borrowed from the kitchen. I'd sit there and she'd braid my long black hair or try and pull it back into a ponytail. Ninety-eight percent of the time my mother would be frustrated with me either because I wouldn't stop moving or my long hair was just impossible. I'd go and put my cotton black Mary Jane's on, the ones with a beautiful magenta flower embroidered on the toe; I used to call them my "Bruce Lee's". I'd grab a toy and we were off, that drive seemed so long, but to a four-year-old everything's bigger and longer. I would buckle up and on goes the radio... music is my life! I give thanks to my dad for that, my father is my very own Richie Valens. There I'd sit in the passenger seat of my tata's 1979 Pontiac Catalina with the window down singing to every song that played on the radio, it was 1984 & Huey Lewis and The News was my all time favorite band. Driving through the South Valley I'd try to find something different in the scenery I've seen a hundred times before passing Pajarito & Los Padillas road; on our way to Los Lunas which is south of Albuquerque, and passing Isleta Pueblo. Soon, the crisp clean air would turn heavy & a bit musty, "The Swamps" were ahead of us. Swamp to the right, train tracks to the left... As I write these beautiful memories of my grandmother Annie (gramz) warm my heart, she would pull over in "The Swamps" every once and a while so my twin cousins and I could pick Cattails. I remember holding one of my Cattails out my window and crushing it to see it fly away in the wind as we drove off. My mom would ask me to hand her her purse pulling up to Main St. in Los Lunas, I was always fascinated by The Luna Mansion & the scary ghost stories I heard of that place. At the age of four and today, 2018, the Luna Mansion is a fully functioning restaurant, a tourist attraction of sorts. My mom & I would turn left on Main St., pulling into the carwash, stopping to change our dollars to quarters so we could eat breakfast and lunch with my dad out of vending machines. Other times my mom and I would stop at New Mexican famous Allsups for a few been & beef burritos before we'd head to the prison. When we got there, there was always an officer who sat in a booth checking ID's and writing down license plate numbers, he'd get my mom's information and motion us to pull into the parking lot. I'd be so excited I would be the first one out of the car, my mom, silent, would seem emotionless as we walked in. For her it wasn't easy having to visit her husband and father of her child in prison every weekend of four years... But for me, those were the best days of my childhood.

Standing at the front desk my mom would hand them her car keys & ID, sign us in. We'd have to take off our shoes and belts if we had one, empty our pockets & step through the metal detector... In exchange for my mom's keys and ID, they would give her a plastic deal on a key ring with a number on it; it looked like an old-school motel key. My mom would sit while we waited, I would walk around the waiting room or head over to a big display case where the Corrections Facility held some of the inmates' art that they sold to help out the inmates. There was always something new and it was all beautiful & handcrafted. I'd hear the phone ring at the front desk, the officer would pick up and call our last name to let us know my dad was ready, "Gonzales!!!" I couldn't wait to be in his arms. 

Read next: Pickpockets
Melissa Gonzales-Clines
Melissa Gonzales-Clines

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico raised in the Jemez/Ponderosa Mountains. Meztiza, half Native, half Hispanic. I grew up listening to the sound of my Dad's acoustic guitar. Burque bred with the red dirt of Walatowa running through my vaines.

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