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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MigrantsTell Your True Tale

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By Celia Viramontes

________

The roll call of names flowed from the merchant’s lips as Antonia and the girls rushed to the village store where women and children gathered for news from El Norte.

Inside, the village’s unofficial postman drew envelopes from a pouch. He’d carried these miles from the nearest town, where mail arrived almost daily, postmarked with the names of far-away places: Arkansas, Texas, and California. Always so many from California. He waved white envelopes in the air, calling out names.

When Antonia heard hers, she nudged through the crowd, past the outstretched arms, and reached for the letter.

She hadn’t heard her husband’s voice in more than a year, since he’d left to labor in San Buenaventura, California, a place of good fortune, as its name in Spanish denoted. She and the children longed to hear his footsteps approach the bend in the dirt road near their adobe home and his voice sing, “¡Ya regresé, familia!”—“I’ve returned, family!” The words carried a melody as nostalgic as a Pedro Infante ranchera they’d heard streaming from the rare battery-powered radio inside a villager’s home.

***

“¡Números!” the foreman announced at dawn, rattling off numbers near the orange groves of Ventura. Don Luis listened, ready to answer as if it were his name. More than a year into his bracero work stint, he longed for the sounds of home: crickets singing in a village lit by a full moon’s glow and family calling out “¡Papá!” upon his return.

“Forty-four!”

Don Luis slung the canvas sack around his shoulder. The foreman directed him to the orchard, where a crew of braceros gathered.

They propped 14- and 18-foot ladders against the trees. Don Luis dashed up the trees. He grabbed the fruit with one hand and clipped with the other. He climbed, clipped and dropped the fruit into the sack. On the way down, he poured in the oranges into a crate. He’d scrambled up and down like this for days in hopes of a hefty check.

At sundown the ladders came down and foremen counted the boxes. Workers climbed into trucks and headed back to camp.

In the evening, the men retired to their barracks and rows of cots lining a large hall. The scents of lemon, orange and sweat hung in the air. Don Luis lay on his cot. The men spoke in hushed tones.

The lights went out; the voices trailed off. In a corner, a ranchera sung by Las Hermanas Padilla, a duet, streamed from the speakers of a radio perched on a wooden crate, the song of a dove, a palomita mensajera, sending a message of love across the distance. Don Luis closed his eyes, a pile of letters by his cot. He’d answered each one, tucked a money order inside. “I’ll be home soon,” he’d written in the last one.

Days later, the foreman issued paychecks. Don Luis took his. One hundred dollars and over 500 boxes appeared next to his pick number. But nearly $25 had been deducted for board and meals: oatmeal and fruit, white bread bologna sandwiches, taquitos, spaghetti, beans and the occasional meat. He pocketed the check and ventured into town one last time.

On the main drag, he and his fellow braceros entered a store to cash their checks and make purchases. Some rushed to the men’s department for Stetson hats, watches and boots. Others scoured the women’s section for nylon stockings, cosmetics and jewelry.

He watched as the men flocked to aisles nearby. He followed them, passing phonographs, typewriters, treadle sewing machines. He stopped and stared at a boxy device on display.

He marveled at the brown leather handle, wooden paneling and shiny dials.

“¿Cuánto?” he asked the clerk for the price.

“Cincuenta.”

He fished for the check in his pocket to cash it and pay the $50.

He remembered his first shopping trip in Utah as a war-time bracero working on the railroad tracks. In town, nylons, sugar and new radios were scarce because of the war. English voices blared from shopkeepers’ radios, delivering news of the war along with the latest Andrews Sisters songs. But back in camp, he and his fellow braceros reveled in the sounds of home they heard in the double Rs that rolled from their tongues and the Mexican songs they’d discovered on a radio.

“I’ll take it,” Don Luis said to the clerk, after confirming that it was battery-powered. He carried it back to camp.

That night, he packed cloth, girls’ dresses, pants and shirts into cardboard boxes. He nestled the radio between the garments and closed the flaps, tying them down with twine. But the radio swayed and tumbled, so he unpacked it. He wrapped thick towels over it, placing it inside his suitcase instead.

The next day, workers filed into a single line outside camp, their numbers checked off a list by a labor contractor. They loaded cardboard boxes and green metal suitcases atop buses and boarded for the trip south.

Don Luis slumped into a seat beside a buddy, who told him his plans to set up a sewing shop for his family and fill it with customers from the village, the mother who needed to mend her children’s pants, the girls eager to see the new patterns and colors of cloth from El Norte, to be fitted around their waists.

“And what are you taking?” he asked.

Don Luis described the light-brown exterior, wooden cabinet and shiny dials of his prized possession.

“¡Qué chulada!” his buddy exclaimed. It was a beauty, Don Luis agreed.

The bus rumbled past strawberry, orange and lemon fields. As it neared the U.S-Mexico border, the braceros guarded their goods with a watchful eye. They got off, as boxes, knapsacks and suitcases were unloaded from the bus.

Don Luis and the men knew the routine. Stories abounded of the watch or hat that enticed a border guard. Some carried extra cash just in case, though the goods they carried were free of tariffs. Yet they clung to the cash in their pockets to pay for the additional bus or taxi fare home, the last leg of their journey.

Up ahead, a border guard inspected a bracero’s suitcase. Don Luis held his breath. Then he watched as a guard unknotted the twine on his cardboard box to sift through the pile of clothes.

“Muévanse” the guards said, prodding the men to move along.

Don Luis secured his cardboard box once again and took his belongings, the radio stored safely in his suitcase. He boarded the bus bound for Zacatecas.

It travelled for nearly a day, crossing one Mexican state after another. Braceros got off at each stop, including Don Luis’ buddy, who waved goodbye, hauling his sewing machine.

The bus finally slowed at a familiar spot. Don Luis gathered his boxes and suitcase and hailed the only taxi in town.

It weaved in and out of narrow paths and onto dirt roads leading to a remote village, its silence broken only by the “cri-cri-cri” of crickets singing in the countryside.

The driver braked. Don Luis unloaded the boxes and handed coins to the driver. He gripped the suitcase, leaving the boxes behind, to cross a drier than normal river bed. His shoes crunched on the dirt path. Around the bend, voices erupted near a pair of orange and lemon trees in the dirt courtyard.

“¡Papá!”

“Ya regresé, familia!”

His family huddled around him, the small glass bulb of a petroleum lamp lighting their faces.

The children trekked to the river to retrieve the boxes.

When he’d settled in, he opened the gifts. Swatches of cloth, clothes and a brown rectangular object spilled out.

His daughter traced with her finger the letters engraved on the radio: P-H-I-L-C-O. That night, the voices of Pedro Infante and Lola Beltrán flowed from the speakers, singing of love and loss.

At sunrise, Antonia and the girls patted tortillas as the radio blared songs and radio novelas. The radio followed them outdoors for “Tardes Rancheras,” a medley of afternoon tunes that reached the ears of neighboring villagers. They listened and lingered, wondering when their husbands, fathers or sons would return.

Don Luis plowed the fields with his yoke and oxen. The oldest children assisted with planting corn and beans despite the drought-plagued land. At the foot of a mesquite tree, he and Antonia collected top soil and walked back home. They poured the soft soil beside the orange and lemon trees and planted flowers. Rare raindrops trickled down a few days later.

But the call for brazos, arms, to work in El Norte continued to pour into the villages. It came in handbills posted in municipal offices, in newspapers, in chats among returning migrants. And in the announcements heard on new battery-powered radios.

After several months at home, Don Luis gathered a satchel with a change of clothes and walked out onto the dirt path, his name secured on his village’s bracero list.

“Adiós, Papá,” his children said, wrapping their arms around him.

Antonia gripped his arms, then let go.

The taxi rumbled on as he waved and waved, long after his family faded from sight.

He’d board a bus and train en route to the bracero recruitment center in northern Mexico, 800 miles away. He didn’t know where his work stint would take him or the pick number he’d be assigned, but he’d memorize it too, as sure as his name.

***

In a remote Mexican village, a child tugged at the hem of a mother’s dress, asking for a father’s whereabouts.

“He’s in the North. He won’t be long,” she’d reply, as the radio played songs of longing and a tune about a palomita mensajera, a dove carrying a message of love.

Far away, Don Luis lay on a cot at night as the voice of singer José Alfredo Jiménez wafted through speakers from inside a California bracero camp, accompanied by memories of raindrops on blooming chrysanthemums and women’s hands patting tortillas at dawn, singing alongside a radio.

________
Celia Viramontes was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California, the youngest daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her public policy research on immigration and education has been published in numerous academic journals and books. Through writing, she delves into the untold stories of immigrant communities, their aspirations and their struggles. Contact her at oclaa@yahoo.com.
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CaliforniaFeature Section 2StorytellingTell Your True Tale

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By Monique Quintero

________

It is 3 a.m. and I am lying on a cot in the bathroom of my grandmother’s hospital room, listening to other family members snoring away.

Angie has been unresponsive for a few days, and my family is keeping vigil. I know her end is near, but I can feel her presence, still hanging in.

She has had health issues most of her adult life and suffered a major stroke a few years ago. Unable to care for herself, she has been in a 24-hour skilled nursing facility. It has devastated me to see her—one of the most vibrant women in my life—unable to move or speak.

During a recent trip to Europe, in every church I entered, I lit a candle for Angie and prayed to God to give her peace.

Now I slowly get up, trying not to make any noise. I make my way around the other cots, step over an uncle. I sit at the edge of the hospital bed. I lean in, practically lie down right next to Angie. I kiss her cheek and take in her smell. I lay my head on her shoulder.

I can see her old heart-surgery scar, peaking out the top of her hospital gown. I was about 3 years old when she had that surgery. Holding my parents’ hands, walking down the L.A. County Hospital ward past the long line of beds, we found her sitting up, her chest stitched, looking worn but determined. She smiled big upon seeing us and patted her hand on the bed for me to come sit by her.

As Angie’s first grandchild, I grew up calling her Mom (my own mother was Momma). That’s how I heard my Dad address her, but she was adamant that she was never to be called Grandma. Other grandchildren would later transform her into Mom Angie, and then she became just Angie.

* * *

She was born to Maria Bracamontes and Primitivo Carrillo on Oct. 1, 1924, in Dawson, N.M., a coal-mining town. Her sister Carmen arrived a few years later. Her father had a previous wife who passed away, so Angie had half-sisters in Chicago and Mexico. After he died of pneumonia, her mother took in boarders to help supplement her income and later married one of them, Jesús Hernandez. They had two more children. As the oldest child and not his actual daughter, Angie was often the target of her stepfather’s bad moods, but she did not fight back; she suffered through it rather than have him take it out on her mother and sister.

After the family relocated to East Los Angeles, Angie met and married my grandfather, Joe E. Quintero. It was a toxic marriage; she was physically and mentally abused. He eventually left her and started another family. She persevered and raised her four children as a single mother. Some say it was her determination and survival instinct that bonded her to her children and grandchildren. However for me, my connection to Angie was more than that; it was something magical.

I must have been about 2 years old when my parents and I stayed overnight at my maternal grandparents’ house. It was early morning, my parents were still asleep, but I was awake in my playpen. I looked up to see Angie standing in the hallway. As I called out to her, she turned and walked away. I managed to climb out of the playpen, but by the time I reached the living room, there was no sign of Angie. I later told my mother what had happened, to try to figure out how Angie had disappeared so quickly, but she just shook her head and told me, “You must have dreamt it.”

When I recalled the incident as an adult, I could still feel the pain from hoisting myself over the side of the playpen. I mentioned it to Angie. She smiled and explained that when I was little, she was not able to see me as much as she had wanted. My mother, being a new parent, preferred to be at her own mother’s house. My vision that morning must have been one of the times that Angie was thinking about me.

And yet there was a period when she chose not to see me. When she discovered that my Dad had begun to communicate with his estranged father, she showed up at our house one evening, shouting that my Dad was being disloyal. My siblings and I were sent to our bedrooms, but I crept down the hallway. I peeked out and caught her eye as she announced that she was disowning us. I saw a slight hesitation but she looked at my Dad again, yelled some more, turned and stormed out the front door, slamming it behind her. It was about a year before we were allowed at family get-togethers. I cannot think of any other time that she was not a part of my life.

Angie had a love and respect for Mother Nature. She was a curandera (medicine woman). She knew of plants and herbs and their medicinal qualities. Her yard was filled with aloe vera, lavender, rosemary and sage.

I contracted scarlet fever when I was about 6 years old. I was seen by my pediatrician, but the high fever persisted. Angie was called. In my haze, I remember her praying and laying her hands over me. I can still smell the incense and the burning herbs. She sang in a whisper, yet she loudly ordered the illness to leave my body. Soon after that, the fever broke.

One of her favorite plants was the snake plant; its long leaves grow straight up and ended in a sharp point. She believed that growing it brought good luck. It is also difficult to kill. Angie would break up a plant with her bare hands, re-pot the pieces in coffee cans and then give those away to family and friends while praising the benefits. I later discovered that it is a treasured plant in Chinese folklore.

Angie taught me both practical and spiritual life lessons. After I earned my undergraduate degree, I took on night-time internships in Hollywood and could then drive Angie to errands and doctors’ appointments during the day. She taught me her shortcuts and the ins and outs of getting around Los Angeles. I also learned about the “Parking Angel.” Whenever we were on our way to a high-traffic location, Angie would pray and ask an angel to go on ahead of us and secure our parking space. By the time we arrived at our destination, a parking spot was always open.

Angie continued her curanderismo (healing) for family and friends, combining indigenous and Catholic rituals. She blessed houses. She also performed limpias (spiritual cleansings); she would take a whole egg, start at the top of a person’s head, not touch the body, but swipe circularly, always moving downward. Negative energy was pulled from the body and trapped in the egg. While doing this, she would proclaim, “I pray against the root of the cause of this condition, and I say to it: Leave now in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!”

Angie always ended by shaking her hands away from her body. “The most important thing,” she told me, “is to never forget to throw off the bad energy after you finish a limpia. You do not want that negativity hanging on to you.”

Angie also channeled a Mexican Indian spirit; she would meditate until she was in a state in which she allowed her body be taken over by her “spirit guide.” His name was Piel Rojo, literally translated as “red skin” but intended as “man of the earth color/man of the earth.” Through this process, Piel Rojo passed on knowledge to Angie, for her to gain insight to help herself and others.

One summer when we were in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Angie hired a driver to take us north into the state of Nayarit. The road was bumpy as we travelled through heavy jungle. Eventually we arrived at a small, lone house. We were greeted by a young girl and led into a sparsely furnished bedroom. We sat down on one of the twin beds. On top of the chest of drawers was a familiar display: a cross, statues of various saints, a rosary and several lit candles. The scent of incense lingered in the air. I was exhausted from the rough trip and humidity, but Angie was alert and ready.

In walked an older woman; she and Angie greeted each other warmly. Angie introduced me as her granddaughter. The woman prayed over us, blessed us and then did our readings.

Te toca ahora (It’s your turn now),” she said to Angie when she finished.

Angie closed her eyes, took in deep breaths, blew them out. She stood up, pounded her fists to her chest and stomped in place.

iYo soy Piel Rojo! (I am Piel Rojo!)” came a deep baritone voice.

Piel Rojo then spoke about the strength achieved when a family works together. He threw his arms into the air and called upon my ancestors to help guide my family and me, to lead us to harmony and success. I was advised to form a family business.

I felt the presence of unseen others in the room. A few burning candles went out.

Piel Rojo closed his eyes, again took in deep breaths, blew them out. There was no movement, just silence. Then Angie opened her eyes and smiled.

* * *

I believe that Angie knew she was not well. A few months before her stroke, I was late in picking her up for an outing. My morning schedule had been disrupted; I was stressed and not very talkative as I got her settled in my car and we took off.

“I want you to know I appreciate everything that we have done together,” she said, breaking the silence.

Angie spoke of all the times we had spent together, and said that she would never forget when I had taken her to the Indian pow wow or to see Los Lobos perform. I felt immediate guilt for being so stressed out and in a hurry. I swallowed the lump in my throat, took a deep breath, blew out all the negative energy, decided to let it all go and enjoy the rest of the day with her.

And now I know I need to help Angie on to her next journey.

I sense that Angie is hanging back because she is worried about us, her family.

In my head, I call out to my great grandparents, Maria and Primitivo, and to Piel Rojo; I ask them all to guide Angie to her next destination.

I whisper in her ear, “It’s OK. We will all be OK. You can let go.”

I lay with her for a while longer, until I feel that her spirit has moved on.

________

Monique Quintero grew up in Whittier. A graduate of UC Irvine with a B.A. in Critical Film Studies, she has worked over 20 years in various areas of the entertainment industry. Since 2013 she has been dealing with a brain tumor and kidney cancer; she found that the writing process not only inspires creativity, it is also therapeutic and healing.
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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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