Albert Franco recalls his late mother like any son might.
He says she was a wonderful cook, housewife, grandmother, and mother.
But at Bea Kozera's funeral, in a Fresno cemetery in late August, Franco described what made his mother's personal story extraordinary.
“Some of you are aware of my mom’s notoriety,” Albert Franco said. “She was a famous person, which we never knew - never knew, for about 60 years almost.”
Kozera’s fame stemmed from her brief relationship with Kerouac. They met on a bus from Bakersfield to Los Angeles in October 1947, and returned together to Selma to work in the fields. She was known as Bea Franco as the time.
I had bought my ticket and was waiting for the LA bus when all of a sudden I saw the cutest little Mexican girl in slacks come cutting across my sight.
Kerouac chronicled their affair in his short story, ‘The Mexican Girl,’ which was first printed in the Paris Review in 1955, and led to the publication of ‘On the Road’ in 1957. This is an excerpt from the book.
“A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world. The announcer called the LA bus. I picked up my bag and got on, and who should be sitting there alone but the Mexican girl.”
The romance between Sal and Terry - that's the character that Bea Franco inspired - is a popular section of 'On The Road' because it has all the elements of a great love story, says Jerry Cimino, who runs The Beat Museum in San Francisco.
“You know, you have this Caucasian boy from the Northeast, traveling California, and he meets this Mexican girl, and instantly their eyes lock, and they’re from different cultures, of course, different worlds, and they’re suspicious of each other,” Cimino says. “But they allow their desire to take over, and they do have a very brief and intense love affair, and it lasts about two weeks.”
To Kerouac scholars like Cimino, ‘the Mexican girl’ was a critical – but elusive – character.
“Bea Franco, or Terry, ‘the Mexican girl,’ is a central character because of the powerful nature of their brief encounter, but I think everyone had always assumed that she was lost or dead,” he says.
But that wasn’t the case at all.
Author Tim Z. Hernandez, who’s from the Central Valley, was working on a novel about the ‘Mexican girl,’ and spent three years tracking her down.
When he finally found her in Central Fresno, she was 90, and still remembered that time in her life. She had no idea that Kerouac had become a famous writer. Her family had no idea of her role in his career.
It’s hard to say who was more shocked – her family, or scholars like Cimino.
“When we got word a couple years ago that Tim had found her and interviewed her at the age of 90, it blew us all away,” Cimino recalls.
And Hernandez was surprised that he was the first person to find the real ‘Mexican girl’ and her family.
“I asked them if anyone has ever been there before, talking with them about this,” Hernandez says. “They said, ‘no one, you’re the first person to ever knock on our door.’ That was the most surprising thing to me – that she had this existence in the literary world that her own family, and herself, she wasn’t aware of either.”
Through photos, letters and in-depth conversations, Hernandez confirmed that Bea was the ‘Mexican girl.’ Then he set out to retell Kerouac’s story from her perspective.
“I knew all about him, enough to say, ‘now it’s time for me to turn my attention and focus on Bea Franco herself,’" Hernandez says. "So I started to ask her, ‘tell me about your life, where were you were born...' That’s when she started to shine really, and tell me about her own life.”
His book ‘Manana Means Heaven,’ was released in August. He says it’s grounded in history. It includes – word for word – four letters from Bea to Jack. It’s fictional in places where Bea’s memory failed - and Hernandez had to fill in the gaps.
“Like I told Bea Franco herself during one of our interviews, ‘there are over 22 books out in the world right now, Bea, that have your name, and your family’s story in it,’” Hernandez says. “Those are all called non-fiction. My book is considered fiction, but yet it is closer to your true life that anything else out there.”
Bea Kozera held a copy of the book in August. She died a week later at age 92. At her funeral, Hernandez recalled her last letter to Kerouac.
“Her last thing she signed off on is, ‘I remain, as ever, Bea’" Hernandez said. "And I think that’s the note I’ll leave it with.”
The release of ‘Manana Means Heaven’ will be celebrated Friday evening at the Fresno Art Museum.