Morning sunlight flooded the pleasant reception area of the neighborhood clinic, as Adam Castillo bent over a clipboard filling out intake forms for his son's school physical while 5-year-old Reynardo fidgeted and flopped around next to him. Castillo, proud and solicitous of Reynardo, would glance reassuringly at him every once in a while, now and then offering one of the storybooks he had brought.
The scene had a Norman Rockwell look about it, a slice of Americana--even though the Castillos had arrived in this country from Nicaragua only four months ago; even though the clinic, Edificio Romero, was dedicated only a few months ago; even though the cheerful look of freshly painted pastel walls and whimsically placed artificial flowers was jarred by a grim painting of a woman grieving over the corpse of a young man lying in a street near a building bearing the word Venceremos (we shall overcome).
And, in fact, what happened at the center--"the nation's first multi-service center organized for Central American refugees"--as the day progressed was a slice of Americana, but a not-always-pleasant one.
The doors of the storefront building on Olympic Boulevard had been open for only a few minutes but already the reception area was busy with people signing in at the desks of Clinica Msr. Oscar A. Romero for medical help, El Rescate for legal counseling and social services and the Community Counseling Service for mental health problems--walk-ins at the clinic and El Rescate, scheduled appointments for individual and group counseling.
Ricardo Garcia, the receptionist for El Rescate, was already filling page after page of a telephone message pad, alternately speaking Spanish and English. A Salvadoran who has been here for 10 years, he is an art student and member of "Los Cipotes," a group of Central American artists. A graphic arts textbook lay beside the telephone, impossible to get to.
Forms completed, the Castillos took their places on the cushioned benches where the clinic patients, mostly women with babies and young children, waited. Castillo did not join in the women's chitchat, but stared studiously at the walls.
Soon Aurora Martinez, a retired R.N., ushered them into a consultation room. As one of the founders of the clinic and a volunteer, this calm, efficient Chicana knows the system of health care in Los Angeles and the culture of her patients well. And she extracts information painlessly.
In no time at all, she observed, "Well, here is a 5-year-old child who is still on a bottle three times a day, who sucks his thumb, who is severely constipated and who is very, very nervous. It's usual with Nicaraguans. It's good they came in. Health care is pretty good in Nicaragua, so he's up to date on his immunizations."
On to the examining room to wait for the doctor. Castillo was eager to cooperate, helping his son undress, then wrapping him in sweaters against the chill, urging picture books on the increasingly apprehensive little boy.
Not to worry. Kendra Gorlitsky, a second-year resident in community medicine from Kaiser Permanente assigned to the clinic for her elective time, has a way with children. Castillo engaged in lively conversation with her as she started examining Reynardo from the toes up, offering as an aside to a visitor that doing it that way is "often less threatening with children."
The boy was frightened to the point of crying only when she came at him with a flashlight to look at his ears and eyes. That part of the exam was conducted while he cuddled on his father's lap as Castillo gently kissed him.
When tested, Reynardo knew his colors, his body parts, knew how to count, and was communicative, polite, friendly, humorous.
"Probably this kid would be great in school. He's really responsive to me," Gorlitsky said.
But Reynardo does not want to go to school. He was very firm about that, shaking his finger for emphasis.
He does not speak English, and that is what they speak at the school. He frets about this, and all the assurances in the world do not impress or dissuade him.
Much advice and commentary in Spanish pass between the doctor and Castillo. No, Castillo explained, he is not employed, but is looking for work. He brings out a business card he had printed up advertising sign-making. He can make signs, he said. He used to work with the health ministry in Nicaragua, where his wife and two other children still live. He lives here with Reynardo, another son and a 13-year-old daughter who is not doing well, he said. She is very sad without her mother, is nervous and insecure, is afraid to go out. Castillo said he doesn't know if or when his wife will be able to join him here.
Castillo delivers all this information in a matter-of-fact tone, his manner friendly and cooperative but formal.