In Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," the woman with the big blue eyes and hair "long and lustrous and black" is known as "Terry, the Mexican girl."
In a memorable 20-page section in the book, Kerouac chronicled his passionate 1947 fling with the woman. They met on a bus in Bakersfield and spent 15 days together in a relationship that took them from a run-down Los Angeles hotel to a hard-scrabble migrant farmworker camp in the Central Valley. It's Kerouac's version of the story, of course. What he chose to tell — and how he told it — was his prerogative as the author. The Mexican girl was simply a supporting character in what became a defining work of the postwar Beat Generation.
But "Terry" had a real name.
It was Bea Franco, and she was from Selma.
And her eyes were green.
Scholars knew Franco's name because Kerouac wrote about her in his journals, and love letters from her to him exist. But no one had ever tracked her down — or, as the years went on, even dreamed she was still alive.
Then came Tim Z. Hernandez, the poet, writer and performance artist whose rich family farmworker history — an upbringing rooted in the fertile fields of the Valley — has informed much of his art. In 2010 he found the 90-year-old Bea, who had remarried and went by her last name of Kozera, living just down the street from Fresno's Roosevelt High School.
It was only a mile and half from his own home. He knocked at her door to ask, essentially, if she would talk about an affair she had 65 years ago.
The result is his seductive and fascinating book "Manana Means Heaven," a blend of fiction and non-fiction, in which we get a version of the "Mexican girl's" story in "On the Road."
"I wanted to capture not only her story, but a real portrayal of the San Joaquin Valley," Hernandez says.
The book, which was published by University of Arizona Press last August, has been steadily garnering critical attention. Two weeks ago it won a first-place award for best historical fiction at the International Latino Book Awards in Las Vegas.
At Hernandez's side at the awards ceremony was Bea's son, Albert Franco, who as a toddler is mentioned as "Little Johnny" in "On the Road."
Hernandez, who just accepted a full-time position as assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso, was in the headlines last year for his work uncovering the names of the 28 Mexican citizens killed in a 1948 plane crash in Los Gatos. He helped raise money for a granite memorial with the farmworkers' names, which was unveiled in September at Fresno's Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery.
He's working on a book about the farmworkers in the crash — known as the "deportees" — as well. (Busy guy.)
Hernandez was actually working on the Bea Franco book when he stumbled upon the deportee project. His search for Franco and determination to tell a story from her point of view was a journey several years in the making.
Initially he planned on offering an entirely fictional account. But a private investigator he'd hired to track down Franco's family asked him an intriguing question: "Have you ever thought she might be alive?"
In 2008, after lots of dead ends, he was ready to give up on finding the family. His mother, Lydia Hernandez, who lives in Visalia — and who has extensive contacts in the migrant farmworker community — told him not so fast.
"Twenty-four hours later, she called me and said: 'I have two addresses for you,' " he says with a laugh.
Bea and her family were wary at first when he knocked on her door. Her daughter told Hernandez that he couldn't possibly have the right person.
But there were those love letters, written in Bea's own hand. Hernandez was persistent, and after bonding with Bea and her family over multiple interviews, he was able to ask her about Kerouac.
The astonishing thing is that after the numerous biographies written about Kerouac and "On the Road," all of which mention Bea Franco's name, neither she nor her family had any idea that her affair with him had become part of a revered book in American literature.
In one of Hernandez's earliest interviews with the family, Bea's son grabbed a computer, typed his mother's former married name into Google and was amazed.
Hernandez eventually got to know Bea quite well, and he learned a lot about her life. (She worked for years as a waitress in Fresno's Chinatown and then for Greyhound.) But they ended up performing a sort of elaborate dance when it came to pinning down for sure, once and for all, whether she had been the Mexican girl.
"That was the hardest part of writing the book," he says. "I would ask her about Jack, and there was a coyness that happened the whole time — she would smile, sometimes offer a comment, and then say, 'I don't remember.' "
Some factors to consider: At 90, Bea could remember certain parts of her life very well, but others she was blurry on. (How much of that blurriness was intended Hernandez never knew for sure.)
And the "Mexican girl" was married at the time of her affair with Kerouac. Perhaps Bea was hesitant to confirm it because of the stigma. Even her children encouraged her to open up all the way, saying that they were all adults now and that what happened was long past — but Bea would only tease up to the moment of revelation.
Hernandez asked himself: How do I create a story with her never admitting it?
His solution: "I think the reader has to feel the same kind of ambiguity I was feeling," he says.
Hernandez estimates about 70% of the book is based on interviews and 30% is fiction. His book is classified as fiction.
"The irony is that there are 22 biographies on non-fiction shelves that talk about Bea Franco's story, but none of those biographies ever interviewed her," he says.
While Hernandez wrote the book with a touch of uncertainty, to reflect Bea's reticence on the issue, he — along with his agent and publisher, who demanded positive confirmation — is convinced he got the right "Terry."
The portrait that emerges of Bea in the book is one of a determined, hard-working, sensual woman who makes youthful choices. She walked out on her abusive husband for good reason, but she also left her children behind, temporarily. At times in her interviews with Hernandez, she would tell him: "I was stupid. I did stupid things."
Also captured is a full-flavored, evocative depiction of life in migrant labor camps of the time, with a bustling sense of community but also hard living conditions. ("Mothers were slapping work rags down on slabs of stone by the canal, or else in ratty wash basins, elbows up and down like jackhammers, scrubbing out two weeks' worth of sweat, pulp and mud.")
Most poignantly, Hernandez offers memory as a recurring theme in the book. Kerouac himself fictionalized portions of "On the Road." Everyone "edits" their lives.
"Memory belongs to the rememberer," Hernandez writes, which dovetails with Bea's own ambiguity when it came to her relationship with Kerouac.
Books take a long time to write, and when Hernandez got his first copies fresh from the printer last year, he immediately mailed one to Bea. Her family took a cellphone photo of her holding a copy.
That was just a few days before she died on Aug. 15, at age 92, in Lakewood, where she'd moved with her daughter because of declining health.
Hernandez remembers telling Bea for the first time that he'd like to write a book about her.
"Yeah," she replied, "I don't know why you would want to. My life isn't so special."
Ah, but it was.