By Diana Marcum
12:12 PM EDT, August 24, 2013
Until three years ago, Bea Kozera, who died this month at age 92, did not know she played a role in American literature.
In 1947 she had an affair with a man she met on a Greyhound bus leaving Bakersfield. He was Jack Kerouac, who would go on to write "On the Road," a book that defined a generation rebelling against conformity. The Beat Generation would help fuel the social upheavals of the '60s. She was the real-life woman behind "Terry, the Mexican girl," a character in the novel and a pivotal part of his career.
Without their encounter, "On the Road" may not have been published. The book was rejected for six years until the Paris Review published the excerpt "The Mexican Girl" in 1955. Kozera, known then as Bea Franco, is mentioned by name more than 20 times in Kerouac biographies. For decades, many researchers looked for her to no avail.
Writer Tim Hernandez found her with the help of his mother, Lydia, a former farmworker who lives in the Central Valley.
When he first knocked on the door of her Fresno home in 2010, Kozera's daughter, Patricia Leonard, told him he must have the wrong house.
"My mother is an old woman who has lived here all her life. She doesn't know famous writers. She's not of that world," Hernandez said she told him.
He returned with copies of letters in Kozera's handwriting addressed from Bea Franco.
Kozera said she couldn't quite remember the name of her youthful fling — John? Jack? — and that she knew nothing abut a writer named Kerouac.
"But she had this glimmer in her eye. She was very coy about the whole thing," Hernandez said.
When he handed her a photo of Kerouac she turned her back to him and her family and said to herself, "He's good-looking isn't he?"
"On the Road" is most closely associated with San Francisco and Greenwich Village. It plays out against jazz clubs, poetry readings and drug use.
But for a few pages, Kerouac paints the Central Valley of the '50s — "sullen Oakies" reeling to the music of a cowboy band, an elderly black couple picking cotton, Mexican shantytowns and a young woman who fantasizes of moving to New York City with a man not of her world.
"It's the most heart-rending part of the book. For the first time there are consequences," said Gerald Nicosia, author of "Memory Babe, A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac." "Until then, he's just been traveling around getting high. It's a lark. But she has family connections. Connection to the land. If she doesn't work in the cotton fields, her children starve. It's real."
Hernandez said he sought out Kozera not only because of her tie to Kerouac, but because of her own life.
"The Central Valley is very working class. People tend to think their stories aren't worth telling. They're too busy just working and living to see their own epic struggles," he said. "But here's a woman whose story opens a book that changed American culture."
Beatrice Renteria was born in Los Angeles in 1920. She visited Mexico once on a family trip with her father, a field worker from Guanajuato. The family followed the crops from Los Angeles to the San Joaquin Valley.
She and her sister left home early to escape sexual abuse on the Central Valley rancheria, said Kozera's son, Albert Franco, 71, a retired truck driver living in Arizona.
She married Albert Franco Sr. and was the mother of two by the age of 23. After her husband abandoned the family, she left her children with their grandparents and waited tables and worked in the fields to send money home. She tried working in the banquet halls of Chicago, but was too small to lift the big, silver platters.
Franco said he remembers her arriving by Greyhound bus to visit and take her children out for milkshakes.
Always, people commented on her beauty. Especially her green eyes, described as blue by Kerouac.
She reunited the family in a housing project in Fresno, later moving to a house in a working-class neighborhood. She waited tables in the city's Chinatown and for years worked for Greyhound.
When Albert Franco was 11, his mother met LeRoy Kozera, who drilled water wells for farmers.
"I don't think she knew anyone like him even existed," he said. "He was a good man. A hard worker who treated her and us well. After she met him, she was very, very happy."
They were married until LeRoy Kozera's death in 2004.
Well into her 80s, Kozera continued to take bus trips. She said she liked to see the country and meet new people.
Because of her connection to Kerouac, her death from natural causes in Lakewood on Aug. 15 was international news. Hernandez's novel "Manana Means Heaven" based on her life will be released this month.
Franco said he still finds it hard to believe that the mother he knew as sweet and quiet was involved with the man known as King of the Beats.
"She wasn't wild-like. I'm sure she did her thing in her time. But she wasn't like his clan. Not by a long shot," he said.
Until his mother's past surfaced, Franco had never heard of Kerouac or "On the Road."
"I don't read much other than the sports page," he said. "But my mother did. She loved books."
After Kozera moved in with her daughter in Lakewood three months ago, Franco went through all the books in her Fresno home. There were many famous authors. He found nothing written by Kerouac.
Kozera is survived by her two children, seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
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