MexicoStorytellingTell Your True Tale

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By Sylvia Castañeda

________

Facing the box camera, Antonia sat motionless alongside the man, 10 years her senior, whom she’d promised to obey and to hold from that day forward. She was relieved that the Ventura County Clerk did not question her stated age of 18, two years older than she was. If he had, what would she have done?

When Antonia’s father, a customs agent at the Tijuana–San Ysidro border, died in 1920, she and her mother moved to Santa Paula, an agricultural town 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles, to live with her cousin’s family, the Gutierrezes. Within months of their arrival, her mother, too, became ill and died.

The Gutierrezes, a family with eight children, lived in a small wooden white house. They always treated Antonia with kindness and included her as part of the family. They did not tire of her memories of life in Tijuana in which she and her sister spent days at the piano while singing a tune and memorizing and writing couplets, looking forward to entertaining the guests who often visited her home. Yet she knew she was an extra mouth to be fed.

After the flash had popped and the photographer had captured the staged moment, he signaled for the couple to stand. Antonia straightened out her wedding gown and walked toward the exit.

Outside, her cousin waited. Antonia embraced her with all her might before her cousin gave her a blessing with the sign of the cross. Francisco took Antonia by the arm and walked her home.

Their daughter was born 14 months later. Francisco, a laborer at a packing house, decided it was best for Antonia and their newborn to live with his parents in El Sauz de los Marquez in Jalisco, Mexico. It was a ranch with parcels of land mainly owned by two families, the Marquezes and the del Muros. Once they crossed the border on foot, they boarded the train bound to the western central states of Mexico. He would accompany them and see them through but would return to the U.S. soon.

Back in California, Antonia had found it difficult moving down the street from the Gutierrezes into a home that would never be her own, filled with strangers who felt equally awkward welcoming her as a sister-in-law. Although she had chores and a child to tend to, she had the security of knowing that her cousins were within walking distance and that her sister was a train ride away in San Diego, where she lived with her husband and toddler. The ride from Santa Paula to her husband’s family’s ranch in Mexico was long, and every kilometer that passed marked the painful separation from her kin. When would she enjoy their company again?

Months passed. Francisco returned to California, traveling back and forth for the next three years. Continuous re-entry into the U.S. was within his reach: He was literate, in good health and carried more than the $8 head tax fee he was expected to pay at the U.S. border.

Years before, prior to the Mexican Revolution, Francisco’s family ranch was declining financially because of the policies of Mexican president Porfirio Diaz, which did not favor communal farming or a local subsistence economy. A drought affected what few crops they could grow, and the Spanish flu was wiping out their workers. Many men, including Francisco, made the trek north to seek work in the United States. Soon, Francisco found a job in Missouri as a telephone repairman. His sister and her family were working the crop circuit in California, which prompted him to move in with them and seek work there too. All the while, he continued making the trek to and from Mexico.

Antonia obeyed her mother-in-law’s orders and was treated no different than the servants. She awoke at 4 in the morning to milk the cows and gather the corn to husk, soak in lime and grind for tortillas. Francisco’s mother’s commands perplexed her. Antonia was unfamiliar with the terms she used to refer to the ranch tools, sheds and measurements. One servant girl noticed her hesitation, waited until her mother in-law’s footsteps could no longer be heard and explained step by step what she was to do.

Everything seemed so foreign. Often, she cried in silence. Her sisters-in-law would catch sight of her tears and sing Canción Mixteca, a folk song that depicts the painful longing for home, tearing at her heart even more. Long gone were the days when she’d play the piano and recite poetry for her parents.

One day, Antonia noticed her mother-in-law becoming impatient as she waited hours for a local woman to arrive to administer a daily dose of medication. She had sent one of the farmhands to find her, to no avail. Antonia gathered her nerve and offered to give her the shot. She had never handled a syringe before much less injected anyone, but she had observed with keen interest how the veterinarian sterilized the metal syringe and inoculated the cattle. Her mother-in-law questioned her experience, but Antonia reassured her. Although reluctant, her mother-in-law accepted. From that moment, Antonia’s steady hand was the only one her mother-in-law allowed to give her the daily shot.

Antonia hardly knew Francisco. Still, he returned often enough to leave her with a child each time. Three more children were born within a nine-year period. Her second child died at the age of 2, two months before her third was born. After the birth of her fourth child, her mother-in-law spoke sternly to Francisco about his responsibility to his wife and children. His place was with them. If he decided to leave, again, he’d have to take his family along.

Francisco remained in Mexico. He was appointed to a teaching position at a federal primary school in Tlaltenango, about a two-hour drive north from El Sauz. He moved his family to a rented house on the main street into town. The neighbors welcomed them. Antonia, at 26, was now the matriarch in her home, away from the farm labor that pained her hands, back and feet. She would concern herself only with making a home for her family. Within weeks of their arrival, though, Francisco did not return home for a day or two. Gradually, his absences increased from days to weeks to months, prompting the school director to fire him. Francisco was sighted in the cantinas or sleeping on the benches of the main square. Often, he would skip town.

Antonia had to find work to support her family. Soon, she was sewing aprons at home for the town merchant. This money she earned kept a roof over their head and frijoles on the stove.

It was rumored that Francisco would offer his wife to men in the cantinas for money or drink. He was shunned.

Antonia befriended many town folk, but two neighbors in particular became her confidants, the spinster and the tailor. Aware of her story, they shielded her from cruel tongues and Francisco’s desperate pleas for money. They were well-positioned socially and they told others about Antonia’s abilities. In time, folks from neighboring ranches and towns sought her for her steady injection hands and to translate the U.S. labor contracts they were about to sign.

As the local men left for the U.S., contracted by the bracero program, some did not return. Antonia wrote letters to the U.S. government on behalf of their families inquiring of their whereabouts. Many went unanswered. The workers who did return were owed back wages that had been withheld from their checks by their employers, with the promise that they would receive these funds when they fulfilled their contracts and returned to Mexico. Antonia combed through their pay stubs and contracts and transcribed their testimonies to build a case for them in writing. These claims fell on deaf government ears.

Antonia never returned to the United States. The spinster and the tailor introduced her to a mutual friend, a merchant with political aspirations who had lost his wife while giving birth to their first child. His son did not survive beyond six months.

Antonia and Benigno had five daughters, and four made it to adulthood. My mother was their youngest child. Antonia lived the rest of her years in Tlaltenango. Throughout her life, she remained connected to her sister and the Gutierrezes through letters and photographs.

Though she never played the piano again, she wrote and recited poetry as if her life depended on it.

________

Sylvia Castañeda is a Chicana from Boyle Heights. She is an elementary school teacher. Her interests include genealogy, family history, photography, social justice issues and dancing to cumbias and sones jarochos. She lives in the San Gabriel Valley with her husband, two children and three dogs. Contact her at sylviacastaneda35@gmail.com.
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MexicoStorytellingTrue Tales

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By Celia Viramontes

________

Don Luis tucked his work contract into a small bag and boarded a bus at the U.S-Mexico border near Texas. It would be a long trip to Nebraska – a place closer to the Canadian border, a rancher’s representative warned the men on board. But to Don Luis, distance didn’t matter. Work meant dollars. Dollars meant a letter and gifts to send home. So he slumped in his seat as the bus rumbled north.

They traversed state lines, stopped at roadside barracks overnight. The men opened their daily brown sack lunches. Don Luis pulled out a cold bologna sandwich with yellow sliced cheese. The pink meat slithered in his mouth. He bit into the dry cheese, so unlike the Mexican queso fresco that wet his tongue and dissolved easily. But it satiated him until they arrived at the camp and the mess hall for a hot meal.

Like the one he had enjoyed upon his arrival in Salt Lake City, Utah that bracero hands pic2_Snapseedsnowy winter of 1945. At sunrise, he and the men had lined up at the mess hall for eggs, oatmeal, and an apple before heading to the railroad tracks. They were war-time braceros then, contracted Mexican workers brought to the U.S.

The war had long ended, but the work contracts continued for men with brazos, strong arms, and hands to harvest the fields. At the bracero processing center, they’d spread their hands on a table as officials probed for calluses and pointed towards departing buses.

At week’s end, the bus was chugging across Nebraska. It skidded off the road into a small ranch dotted with shacks. Don Luis grabbed his small bag and stepped off. A cold gust wind slapped his face and howled in his ears. The rancher’s overseer led Don Luis and three braceros to a ramshackle house. He opened the door to a room, cold and bare, except for a small stove, matches, cooking utensils, and a row of cots draped with blankets and pillows. They’d be going into town to buy groceries, he explained. “Bring your bracero papers,” he added.

The rancher’s overseer drove them into town. At a small store stocked with cans and bottles labeled in English, they reached for familiar items – rice, beans, and eggs. At the counter, they drew their bracero papers. The grocer scrutinized the documents, jotted down numbers, and bagged their groceries. No money changed hands.

That evening, Don Luis and the men huddled near the warm stove. One paisano boiled beans in a pot, while Don Luis stirred rice. The warm meal filled their stomachs.

That night, Don Luis rested on the cot as the wind wailed.

He awoke at 4:00 a.m., lit the stove and cracked eggs over a frying pan. After breakfast, he and the men headed out the door. The rancher’s overseer handed each of them a small handled tool, curved at the top. Don Luis turned the object around in his hand. He’d harvested crops in the Mexican countryside all his life, but never used such an instrument.

The beet and asparagus fields stretched out across the land. “Work those acres,” the overseer said, pointing to a marked section. They were to treat the crops gently to minimize damage. The short-handled hoe, el cortito, would come in handy.

Don Luis bent his knees, arched his back, and angled the hoe carefully to the ground. He removed weeds, cleared the soil, and circled the fields, row by row. He topped beets and thinned asparagus, until the sky turned gray. A frosty wind pelted his back. At day’s end, he and the men struggled to straighten. They moaned back to camp and their beds that night.

As they labored for days and weeks, Don Luis and the men awaited their check. But it never came. He and his buddies hankered to leave. They fished into their pockets for bus fare, but nothing turned up.

Here, things had been different from the start. They had been contracted by the rancher, not the U.S. government, as they had during the war. Here, there was no mess hall or foreman. Perhaps pay would come later.

So Don Luis and his buddies rose at 4:00 a.m., hoe in hand. Don Luis stooped to the ground, his chin nearly touching the soil. The asparagus grew several inches overnight. He sliced it and gathered the fistful of green spears that fell to the ground.

One afternoon, a dark cloud circled overhead. The men hobbled back to camp, chased by a whirl of wind. Dust clouds ripped through the ranch, then streaks of lightning and thunder. Inside, Don Luis looked out a window. In the distance, sheds that were tethered with wire swayed in the wind and were nearly yanked off the ground.

That night, thunder and rain shook the floor and cots. Don Luis tossed in bed. His waist and back ached. He longed to write a letter to his wife, as he’d done in Utah. He’d begin with: Aquí mando dinero para la familia. Here is some money for our family. But the pay hadn’t come.

His mind drifted home to scant food on the table, and la aguanieve, sleet, that would drop on the village. And to the warm coats the family would go without. He shuddered.

Weeks passed. Be careful to not damage the crops, the overseer reminded them. On weekends, they bought groceries in town, presented their bracero papers. No cash changed hands.

On a cold and blustery day, the rancher’s overseer stormed into the bracero camp. “Get your stuff together,” he said. In two days, he’d be here early in the morning to pick them up and take them back to the office, where braceros were dropped off.

At sunrise on the third day, the man arrived. “Let’s go. Get on the truck.” Don Luis looked at the cots, the stove, and empty floor. There were no green metal suitcases to pack, or cardboard boxes to fill with gifts. Just the clothes on their backs, the same bags they’d carried on the bus. A searing pain shot through his back and waist as he walked out.

They hopped onto the truck. Tires kicked up dirt and dust. Don Luis stared at the cultivated fields, the ramshackle house sitting empty on a Nebraska prairie: property of a rancher whose face he never saw.

The truck pulled into town. Don Luis and the men climbed out.

Oye, quién nos va pagar?” Hey, who’s going to pay us? Don Luis asked.

“In there,” the overseer said, pointing to the office. “You’ll arrange for pay there.” He sped off in his truck.

Don Luis and the men walked into the office, scanning the desk for signs of a check issued in their names.

“We’re leaving to Mexico,” Don Luis said to an official. He looked squarely into his eyes. “We worked months and received no pay,” he said.

“Where did you work?”

They described the ranch, the beet and asparagus fields.

“Who brought you?”

They described the rancher’s overseer.

At the desk, the official scribbled on paper.

“And our pay?” a fellow bracero protested. The official asked for their names but offered no explanation or pay.

Don Luis and the men looked out at buses stationed outside, braceros lined up for boarding. And in the other direction, at the Nebraska town filled with strangers, save for the grocer who knew them only by their numbers. Here, they knew no one.

Outside, buses started. It would get them halfway home, back to the border bracero processing center, where they could plead their case. They lined up for boarding.

Don Luis slumped into a seat, empty-handed, save for coarse skin jutting from his thumb and forefinger where he’d cradled the short-handled hoe. Go on, the inspector had said two months ago when he’d placed his hands, palms up, on the desk to reveal his calluses.

The bus sped off, past the office, the fields, the shacks that were nearly ripped off the land by the wind. Hours later, a brown sack lunch landed in his hands.

If the rains didn’t yield a bountiful crop back home, he’d return to El Norte, display his hands and wait for an official’s nod. And if the pay from Nebraska hadn’t arrived, he’d recoup it somehow.

____

 celia_600x400 (1)Celia Viramontes was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California, the youngest daughter of Mexican immigrant parents. Her public policy research on immigration and education has been published in numerous academic journals and books. Through writing, she delves into the often untold stories of immigrant communities, their aspirations and their struggles. This is her second TYTT story. Contact her at oclaa@yahoo.com.
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Feature Section 2Mexico

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By Jessica Gonzalez

________

It was the summer of 1963 and Mexicali was hot as hell. Back then, the streets were dirt roads; only main boulevards were paved. It was a hot, dusty hole of a city, but Dad had learned of the border town’s promise and had moved our family there from Guaymas, Sonora, when I was 4.

Dad never finished grade school. He started working after his father died to help support his mother and siblings. He shined shoes, had a newspaper route and later worked at a candy factory. As an adult he landed a job with a Mexican petroleum company. This would be his ticket to a better life. In Mexicali, he started his own business repairing gasoline pumps. He made frequent trips to Los Angeles to buy parts to resell in Mexicali. Eventually, he worked his way into real estate and bought the land where his shop sat. He became a businessman with an office and secretary, a younger Chinese-Mexican woman he would eventually leave my mother for.

My father left when I was 11 and by summer of 1963, his new family had grown to two girls and a boy in addition to us: Eva, 6; Raul, 9; David, 11; Sam, 15; and me, 16. He visited us weekly to drop money for groceries. But our relationship was strained by my parents’ divorce. I had a strong mind and a rebellious heart, and I resisted his authority. His new family seemed rich compared to how we lived. We resented him for that and much else. In hindsight, though the allowance he provided was modest, at least he didn’t completely abandon us. He could have disappeared, though I could not see that then.

So it was us: mom, the kids and me. As the oldest, I was in charge of the litter and had been for a long time. As far back as I can remember Mom suffered from migraines and often withdrew, spending entire afternoons and evenings lying alone in the dark. She had these episodes a few times a month, for two to three days at a time. I always thought then that mom was devastated by the loss of her husband. But I eventually came to wonder if perhaps her somber moods were part of the reason he left.

I started cooking when I was five. Often, Mom would be in her room while my brothers and I wreaked havoc in the living room, playing around.

“I’m hungry,” they’d start.

So into the kitchen I’d go, climb a chair and make them something to eat. I received frequent criticism from my brothers on my cooking and oddly shaped tortillas.

“They’re too thick.”

“These beans are dry.”

That’s how I learned to cook. Some nights as I prepared for bed I’d hear Raul sobbing. I would find him in his room, books spread out on the bed. He’d confess he had not done his homework—this he worried about at 11 p.m. Still, I always had patience for him and helped him get it done.

I had a boyfriend that summer, Jose, a friend from school. He was a few years older than I; he’d already graduated from the business prep school Dad made me attend. Dad would not allow me to go to a normal high school. He wanted me to study accounting and help him with the business, another point of contention between us. Dad would not have approved of Jose or anyone else for that matter, but he was not involved enough in my personal life to accidentally find out. Secretly, I felt empowered at 16 to take control of a part of my life, to live in one small space for myself. Jose was more than a boyfriend; he was freedom. Mom knew and supported me. On paper he looked great. He was handsome, worked at a bank, dressed well and had a nice car. He offered to take all of us out of the inferno to San Felipe for a weekend, along the coast of the Sea of Cortez. It was a bumpy ride along a narrow road but worth escaping the scalding desert heat. We arrived on a Friday night and slept on the beach. We had no tents, just sleeping bags on the sand, underneath the stars, lulled to sleep by the sweet music of the waves rolling in and out.

The next morning the sun glowed over us. The breeze was cool and I felt a great sense of relief. Mom and Eva and I cooked breakfast as Jose and my brothers dispersed. The teenagers, Sam and Jose, walked in one direction while the kids, Raul and David, scampered behind. They frolicked toward the beach, chasing one another about, buckets in hand. Because the tide was low, it was a great time to explore rocks and tide pools and hunt for baby octopuses. These we would season with lemon and chiles and grill to a crisp over an open fire.

As the morning progressed, the beach grew noisy with families. At some point that morning, news reached the camps of someone drowning. It didn’t strike us at the time that we should worry. We assumed the boys were together, watching over one another. But as the nervous chatter spread, we walked to the beach to see what was happening and found Sam and Jose. They were not with the boys. Panic set in. My eyes scanned the camp and the beach in search of my little brothers. They were nowhere around. A few hours passed and my brothers still had not appeared. By this time a search party had formed. Locals and visitors alike had heard the news and calls for help, “auxilio!” Finally, around 11a.m. a young couple out walking found David bobbing up and down in the water. They pulled him out, exhausted and nearly unconscious. Yet still, no news of Raul. We sat paralyzed, saying nothing, doing nothing, lost in time for hours. The carne asada we were preparing for lunch was left untouched and spoiled. We were numbed with fright.

Raul’s body was found by a group of men in the search party at 4 that afternoon. They loaded him into their fishing boat and returned him to land, where paramedics waited, his little body limp and lifeless. The boys had strayed from the tide pools, going farther out onto the endless shore. At low tide, the water can recede as much as 2 kilometers. As the tide swiftly returned, it caught them off guard and swept them in. Neither of them knew how to swim.

He was taken to the coroner’s office for examination. When that was done, his body, wrapped in a blanket, was carried to Jose’s Cadillac and gently loaded into the back seat. Sam, Mom and Eva traveled home by bus. Jose drove the rest of us back that evening. I rode up front with Jose, David in the back passenger seat, next to Raul.

Dad was waiting when we arrived and had already learned the news. He was furious. He unleashed his wrath on Mom and me, blaming us for Raul’s death, crying that it was my fault for taking us there. I cried and cried.

The day of the funeral I ironed Raul’s little suit, his Sunday best, remembering him with every stroke. The truth was I blamed myself too. I should have gone with them, watched over them. I would blame myself for a long time. Reason may try say it’s not your fault, and you may learn to deal with your grief and accept that you are not the cause but the pain and the memories never fade.

The funeral was held at Dad’s church. Though Dad was raised Christian, he never practiced or worshipped during my childhood; we were raised Catholic. However, now in this new life in which he reinvented himself, he had changed his ways and become a model Cristiano. My siblings went to his Christian church with him and the other family, half-brothers and half-sisters, on Sundays. But I refused to participate. I was bitter about his infidelity and that the fact that he left us. To me this was not an example of a good Christian and I found it all hypocritical. I could not appreciate that he was trying to be a better person. I only saw that his new family ate better, dressed better, had a nicer house and had a full-time father.

After the funeral, life resumed much like it had before. We went back to our lives. Dad went back to his bilateral family routine. It would be many years, until we were grown up, before we’d talk about that day again. My brother Sam named his second son Raul. Our kids would ask about his namesake. What was he like? How did he die? We always explained and shared funny stories about Raul. But we never spoke in detail about that day or the grief we lived.

Years later during a family reunion, when my father was in his twilight years, I found myself sitting alone with him on a park bench. He had summoned all seven of his children for a carne asada. It was an awkward gathering. We knew he sought to unite his children before he was gone, a comfort we indulged him in, though there would never be the kind of union he yearned for.

As we sat in the park in silence watching his grandchildren play, he suddenly turned to me and spoke of the mistakes he had made with us, with me. He told me he loved me and asked me for forgiveness.

“Abuelo!”

My five-year-old niece ran over and handed him a small bunch of white daisies she had picked from the lawn. She laughed and returned to play.

The afternoon sun streaked the sky with ribbons of pink and orange. I reached over and held his hand in both of mine.

________

Jessica Gonzalez is a native of Los Angeles. She received her B.A. in English from California State University, Los Angeles. She enjoys musing on the wonders and pains of life and writing about them. She has a passion for learning, the outdoors and yoga. Contact her at lotuspop@gmail.com.
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