CaliforniaFeature Section 1Home Page SliderLos Angeles

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
By Cristian Vasquez

____

We had a clear shot on the 110 South after Downtown L.A.

At the Century Boulevard exit, Dad’s white Chevy Cavalier station wagon idled at the red light when the song playing on K-LOVE was interrupted by Pepe Barreto’s voice:

“Breaking news: the four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of police brutality against Rodney King have been found not guilty.”

As dad turned east to make our way home, Uncle Heli, who hadn’t said a word from the passenger seat during the ride home from work, blurted out “No way! That’s bull.”

Dad, not one to trust authority figures, took a drag of his Marlboro red and shook his head.

“We’re screwed.”

* * *

Uncle Heli is the third-youngest in a family with 13 siblings and was one of two who finished high school back home in Michoacán, Mexico. My dad, Rafael, is the oldest male in the family. When my dad was 15, Grandpa fell ill. So my dad made his way to America.

For a few years, half of Dad’s income was wired home to his parents and siblings. My parents met at a soccer league trophy ceremony that each was pressured into attending. They were both immigrants from Michoacán, Mom from the state capital of Morelia and dad from a small town named Pajacuaran. It didn’t take long for Mom to ditch her senior year in high school and leave behind her sheltered life in Culver City.

She was the youngest daughter and overprotected. My great grandmother raised my mom and her siblings in Michoacán while my grandmother made her way in the United States. My great grandmother was rigid. On the rare occasion that it was allowed, socializing with boys outside of school required chaperones.

At the dance where she met Dad, mom and her youngest brother were shadowing my aunt and her boyfriend, making sure they behaved. Mom left the safety of Culver City to bunker down with Dad in South-Central Los Angeles. It was 1980 and they lived on 49th Street and Compton Avenue, one of three Mexican families in an African-American neighborhood. I was born there. We lived there until 1984: just the three of us.

I was in first grade the first time I met an uncle from Dad’s side of the family. I came home from school one day and there was a guy sitting on the couch.

“That’s my brother Juan. He’s your uncle. Shake his hand.”

After that, my dad’s family began making its way north. It became normal to come home from school and find a new uncle, cousin or family friend on the couch. Eventually that two-bedroom apartment became overcrowded: My mom, dad, newborn-brother Jorge and I crammed into the master bedroom. The bed took up the southeast corner of the room, leaving just enough space for the door to open on the west wall. At the foot of the bed, cornered on the northern wall, was a dresser where the television sat. Sleeping in the living room were four of my uncles and three of their friends. In the back of the apartment, next to the bathroom, was a small room where my uncle and his friend, who shared a car and worked the same 2 a.m. schedule in Downtown Los Angeles’ produce district, decided to make their room.

The landlord took care of this overcrowding with an eviction notice. After three relocations in less than two years, Mom found a two-bedroom house in Watts. The house was on the back end of the property and included a garage but shared a yard with the front unit. Rent was $750 a month and the owner didn’t care that 15 people crammed into their property.

In 1992 Watts was a mixture of African-American and Mexican families, each group representing half the population. Our family lived next to an apartment building on the corner of Lou Dillon Avenue and 105th Street. Toward 103rd Street were the projects, but in between, the street was sprinkled with black and brown families of all ages. The language barrier kept my parents from being closer to the older African-American neighbors, but there was a mutual respect and a genuine liking in their interactions. The same goodwill didn’t exist between each group’s youth. Alliances to control turf, drugs and money were defined by race and geography, and disagreements were solved with violence. So when I was on vacation from school, Dad refused to leave me home alone; at 11 years old, it was time I learned what it was like to work for a living and he took me to his construction job.

* * *

Our drive home from the freeway usually took 10 minutes, but that afternoon the streets overflowed with angry people armed with rocks, bottles and milk crates. The red light at Main Street and Century Boulevard was the first to trap us. The mob hurled bottles, rocks and any heavy object at our car. An uncoordinated “No justice, no peace!” chant pierced our closed windows. Dad and Uncle Heli looked in every direction, scanning for anyone trying to approach the car. A rioter tried opening the door to the car in front of us.

“Lock your doors. Cristian, get us the hammers,” Dad barked, with a cigarette pinched between his lips.

I jumped off my seat, crawled over the back seat, flipped over Dad’s tool bucket and pulled out two hammers. Dad took the wooden-handled one while Uncle Heli took the metal-neck concrete hammer with the blue grip. I moved from the window seat to the middle and snapped on my seatbelt.

Dad raced through the intersection when the light turned; bottles smashed at the station wagon’s side panels, rocks skipped across the hood of our car and kicks and punches landed from every direction.

We caught another red light at Century and Avalon Boulevard. An RTD bus was stopped to our right next to the curb. Nobody was getting off and no one was attempting to board. An angry mob unleashed its rage on the bus. A handful of teenagers beat the bus windows and headlights with sticks. The bus pressed forward, and the teens gave chase, swinging their frustration at it. With the bus out of reach, the mob turned its anger on us and, as we sped off, it punched, kicked and launched debris at us.

“How’s Andrea getting home?” asked my uncle.

“Have to go get her. She took the bus today.”

Panic set in. Mom wasn’t home and Dad had to go back out.

Central Avenue and Century gave us a green light. Dad turned right, drove one block down to 103rd Street and turned east. No lights for a while and the streets were clear. Another green light took us across Compton Avenue, past the Food4Less shopping center, over the Blue Line tracks and into clear streets. Lou Dillon Avenue was only blocks away; we were almost home. Wilmington Avenue was another green light, but traffic was stopped by a sea of angry people. Fists and spit landed on the windshield as Dad inched the car through the mob, forcing it back onto the sidewalk from where they hammered it with more rocks, trashcans and tires.

Dad slammed the brakes. “Shit.” He cut right through an alley that came out on 105th Street: clear, not a soul in sight. He went east a few blocks and made a left into the dirt alley behind our house. I opened the door to get the gate; it was always my job to open the gate.

“NO! Don’t open the door.”

There was fear in Dad’s eyes. We ran into the house. Dad rushed into the bedroom, where my 4-year-old brother Jorge was watching “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” In the living room, three uncles and two cousins hung on the television’s every word.

“Protesters are gathering at different points in the city after the Rodney King verdict,” a woman said. It was happening along Florence Avenue, down Manchester Avenue and all the way down Imperial Highway.

“Nobody leaves the house,” Dad yelled, tucking something into the back of his pants. “Carlos, come with me to get Andrea.” He pulled me away from the television. “Don’t go anywhere unless your uncles say so. Understand?”

I wanted to go with him but just said, “Okay.”

“Not guilty?” Uncle Carlos said. “I expect this in Mexico but not in the United States. Governments are trash everywhere.”

Uncle Carlos and Dad left. We were hungry but there wasn’t any food and nobody was going to disobey my dad, so we watched the news and waited. The mobs became more destructive and the violence began to spread. Rioters destroyed storefronts and looted businesses; when the stores had nothing left to take, the hordes began targeting people. Pedestrians were beaten; drivers were dragged out of their cars and kicked on the ground even after being knocked unconscious. The phone rang.

“He’s on his way. He left a little while ago with Carlos,” cousin Jose said.

“I want to talk to her.” The phone still to his ear, Jose brushed me off.

“He’s okay. Don’t worry. Be safe. Bye. Your mom said don’t worry.”

Nobody was trying to stop the violence; the fires raged, the looting grew and the beatings continued.

“Where are the cops?” Uncle Heli blurted as he took a drag from his cigarette. “Haven’t seen one damn patrol car.”

The television cut to an aerial shot. A big rig pulled up to the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. A group of four men approached the rig, opened the door and dragged out a man. His hair flailed as he was kicked, punched, dragged on the asphalt and beaten some more. The driver crawled, inch by inch, back to his rig when, from the right side of the screen, a rioter in a white T-shirt and a baseball cap rushed in and hurled a rock to the side of the man’s head, then celebrated his feat. The driver stopped moving.

“Animals.”

Uncle Heli was watching from the doorframe of the kitchen. The living room was filled with cigarette smoke. He walked to the front door, looking back and forth between the street and the alley. Nobody in sight. Uncle Heli made his way to the front house. Our neighbors were also locked inside, watching Univision.

“They’ll watch the front and we’ll watch the alley,” he told us.

From the alley we heard two voices: “Hey, amigo!”

It was the neighborhood twins. They were drug addicts who fed their addiction by selling stolen items. We never knew their names; everyone just called them the twins and, despite the language barrier, these two African-American men befriended my uncles. One of the twins had a birthmark on his left cheek, right below his eye, making it easy to tell them apart. For drug addicts, they were pretty well kept and had a change of clothing every day.

“Can we have a cigarette?”

“Wait here,” said Uncle Heli as he walked toward the back gate. He lit their cigarettes, and after brief exchange he walked back to the porch. Cousin Jose was standing behind me.

“What they want?” Jose asked.

“They asked if we wanted beer. That they would bring us some and we just pay them later,” Uncle Heli replied.

“Where’s he getting beer from?” I asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll see.” He took a seat on the top step of the porch.

It was getting dark when the back gate rattled again. Dad and Mom hurried inside.

“It’s a mess out there. Lock the doors.” Mom was panicked. Uncle Carlos ran to the garage and grabbed a machete.

“They’re burning stores, beating people. You’re not going to school tomorrow,” Mom said in a broken voice. “What if they start coming into houses. Should we leave?”

“Where? We have to stand watch,” Dad said. “We didn’t see one fuckin’ cop. Everyone takes a two-hour shift by the doors and windows, and then we switch. If anyone pokes their head in, smash it.”

We took two sledgehammers, an ax, the two hammers and a steel rod from the station wagon. From the garage my cousin brought a monkey wrench the length of a baseball bat. As everyone scavenged for tools to use as weapons, I noticed flames in the dark sky. To the west, on 105th and Hickory was the liquor store my cousin worked at on weekends. The owners, Middle Easterners, would let me hang. If I swept or took out trash, I’d get a bag of Cheetos Puffs or a Springfield soda. Any other day we could see the store from our porch; all we saw that night were flames.

Looking north, across the street from the Jordan Downs Housing Projects, was another liquor store. The Korean owner saw my dad enough to extend him a line of credit on smokes and beer; the owner would let me have one item of my choosing. He always told Dad I wasn’t his kid; “He has Korean eyes. You not Korean” and would let out a boisterous laugh. That liquor store, too, was engulfed in flames.

“Get inside!” Mom said. She dragged me to the house.

“If there aren’t any police, what’s going to happen?”

“For tonight, we’ll stay here. We’ll figure something else tomorrow,” Mom said as she locked me in the room.

From the window I could see the flames that destroyed the nice Korean man’s store. In the distance came shouting and random gunshots. From behind me, Mom’s voice told me not to worry. We sat and leaned against the headboard of her bed, Dad settled at the foot of window. We watched television. The panic faded to uneasiness once the grownups took a position defending the house. I’d seen my uncles fight before, so I felt reassured.

“I want to watch the movie,” Jorge whined. His 4-year-old brain was scared but bored with the news.

“Yes. Both of you stay in here and watch the movie.” She fed the VHS to the VCR and walked out of the room. I followed.

The cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the living room as everyone was glued to the television. Usually our refrigerator was empty and when we got home everyone would pitch in for a food run. Curled up next to Mom, I whispered that I was hungry. She got up, told me to go to the room with Jorge and wait.

Jorge was stuck on his movie. Mom walked in, took her purse out of the closet and pulled out two Nabisco Swiss cookie packs.

“There’s no milk but have this. Eat them in here; if I see either of you outside with these, I’m spanking both of you.”

I sat on my parent’s bed. From the bottom bunk to my right Jorge mouthed the lines to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Outside, the flames destroying the liquor store on 103rd Street lit the sky. I wondered if the nice Korean owner was watching his store burn.

I awoke to a dark room and Dad by the window. I couldn’t see any more flames and it was finally silent: no outside noise, no news updates and no adult voices.

“Dad.”

“Go to sleep.”

“Can I watch TV?”

“No. The electricity went out. Just go back to sleep.”

“Why is the electricity out? Did you forget to pay the bill?”

He chuckled cigarette smoke from his nose. “No, son. These assholes made the whole street black out. Nobody has electricity. Don’t worry. Sleep.”

The next morning Mom and Dad had to go to work in the morning, but they weren’t leaving us home. As we piled into the station wagon, Dad checked in with the neighbors in the front house; none of them was leaving. They would guard the front and my uncles the back.

The sky was lit but the sun still hid in the horizon. The chop of helicopters cut through the quiet morning. The Chevy bounced through the dirt alley, on to 103rd Street, west to Avalon Boulevard and then north. Avalon is a wide corridor connecting Downtown L.A. to South-Central. That morning Avalon was littered with broken glass, trash and charred vehicles on their sides blocking the road; burning businesses and smoldered buildings lined the street. Dad snaked through the debris.

We sat in silence, moving past the ashes, as KLOVE chattered in the background.

________
Cristian Vasquez was born in Los Angeles in 1981 and was raised in a Mexican-immigrant family. He grew up in South-Central and Watts until his parents settled in Inglewood in 1993. During the last eight years, Cristian has been a reporter for community newspapers in Inglewood, Hawthorne, and Torrance. Contact him at cristian.vasquez81@gmail.com.

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Celia Viramontes

Don Luis shivered in line at the snowy desert camp near Utah’s Great Salt Lake that winter of 1945. The icy wind pierced his thin shirt and pants, chilling his skin. Trains carrying war supplies rumbled throughout the railroad yard. Traqueros, track workers, hauled picks, poles, and shovels. He had never labored on the railroad, but he’d learn, earn money and return home at war’s end.

At the front of the line, officials distributed thick coats. Don Luis presented his contract to an official. Purchases would be deducted from his paycheck, the official informed him. Don Luis grabbed a long sheep skin coat. He stroked the warm lining, draped it over his shoulders, and headed towards the railroad tracks.

Two foremen and an interpreter gathered a crew of thirty men. Don Luis huddled with his paisanos, buddies from his village in Mexico. They donned work gloves the foreman furnished them. They were to remove old tracks and install new ones. The transport of soldiers and food depended on the maintenance of the rails, the interpreter explained. They were a vital part of the war effort.

It was the rallying cry Don Luis had heard back home: braceros – strong arms – needed in the United States.

At the start of the war, his brother had labored as a bracero via the Mexican Emergency Farm Labor program. There’s much work here picking beets and tomatoes, his brother wrote in letters from California. So Don Luis enlisted too and traveled to a recruitment center near his village, leaving behind his wife and two young children.

At the contracting center in Querétaro, railroad representatives waited while U.S health officials probed his eyes, ears, hands and arms. He’d signed and received an identification card – Railroad Track Labor Only inscribed at the top. He clutched the documents in his hands and followed the hundreds of braceros boarding the Mexican Railways for the trip north.

Now, weeks later, he lugged rail equipment to repair the tracks that crisscrossed the Utah desert by Lakeside, near Salt Lake City. He and the crew cleared the tracks of debris and shoveled gravel. They ripped up the worn tracks, lifted the corroded railroad ties with tongs and dug out ballasts. He was careful to not puncture his hands, but by mid-day, the gloves were riddled with holes. He slipped on new ones, and ripped them again.

At sundown, Don Luis and the men hauled shovels over their shoulders and trekked back to camp for a meal at the mess hall. Tomorrow, they’d put in another 12-hour day.

In time, Don Luis’ crew grew to include a tall, white fellow – though not American – who assisted in laying the tracks, and an American electrician who spoke no Spanish. They resorted to hand signals, pointing to the tongs, wrenches, and jacks as Don Luis and his buddies set new railroad ties, driving down spikes with a sledgehammer. The electrician drilled holes through rails. Don Luis inserted and fastened bolts. He and the crew replaced ballasts.

At sunset, Don Luis removed his perforated gloves and headed back to camp. Oil dripped onto his shirt and pants. It ran through his fingers, thick like the honey forming inside a honeycomb back in his village. He relished licking the sweet, sticky food off his fingers. Now, in this war-time bracero camp, there were few sweets, for sugar was rationed.

He removed his pants and headed to the washer. He opened the spigot, splashed hot water onto the greased pants and poured soap. Then picked up a wooden stick and stirred. But the stubborn grease and grime remained, so he wore them a second, third, and fourth time.

After two weeks, his paycheck came with deductions for the sheep skin coat and his room and board. But he’d earned enough to buy new clothes. The rest he’d send home.

On Sunday, he and fellow braceros rested on their cots, wondering what lay beyond the desert tracks.

The train will take you into town, the foreman explained, handing Don Luis and his buddies a pass and small railroad company buttons. Don Luis pinned it on his shirt pocket and boarded the train.

It rumbled across a trestle bridge near the Great Salt Lake. El Lago Salado. Don Luis marveled at the briny water with no outlet – so unlike the creeks back home that flowed into a gushing river.

The train pulled into the Ogden depot. Women, men, and children streamed in and out of the station. Troops in town exited train cars. The sounds of English reverberated throughout.

He and his buddies walked into town. At a men’s store, shirts, pants, and overalls hung on racks and storefront windows. Don Luis patted the coins and the check inside his greased pocket and entered. He grabbed a shirt and a smooth pair of pants.

“Cuánto, Señor?” he asked the salesperson. But the man stared in silence. Then finally spoke in the same hurried English sounds that filled the train depot.

Don Luis pointed to the merchandise, placing several coins on the counter. The man took them. Don Luis carried his new purchases back to camp that day, unsure of their cost.

That evening he lay on his cot. Inside the room, a radio played country music. Braceros scanned the dial until the familiar sounds of a ranchera streamed from the speakers. Don Luis reminisced. How was the baby? And when the oldest asked, “Where is my Papá?” he contemplated his wife’s reply:

“Tu Papá está en Estados Unidos. No tarda en regresar.” “Your father is in the United States. He won’t be long in returning home.”

But braceros murmured late at night. Some fellow villagers, ill or injured, hadn’t returned after a stint on other U.S railroads. Wives and mothers had implored officials in both countries, eager to learn the fate that had awaited their husbands and sons in El Norte.

Still, Don Luis and his buddies toiled where Chinese and Irish laborers once had. Nearly a century ago, they had leveled roadbeds and blasted mountainsides in the Sierra Nevada and helped build the U.S transcontinental railroad where the Central and Union Pacific connected east to west.

When the roaring trains had quieted, Don Luis gathered pen and paper. Dear family, he began. I am well, and working on the railroad. How is everyone? Please write me. He remembered to write Section 97, his worksite, on the mailing envelope.

Winter gave way to spring, followed by summer. Don Luis worked, ventured into town on Sundays, and sent money home.

One day, the foreman approached him. He’d been re-assigned to other duties.

In subsequent days, Don Luis positioned himself miles away from the crew, as instructed. In the distance, his section gang crouched near the tracks, their bodies on the line, grease flowing like honey and spilling onto their overalls and pants. He visualized his paisanos, the American foreman and the interpreter, the towering white fellow and electrician who communicated in hand signals – all together now, arms and hands setting down rails and ties.

The earth rumbled beneath his feet. He recalled the foreman’s directive.

He readied the small device filled with detonating powder – a torpedo, the foreman had called it. He bent towards the tracks and strapped it to the top of the rail. Up ahead, the train lurched. Its wheels clattered near the flagging zone, then spun over the torpedo, emitting a loud bang. The driver slowed the train, circumventing the track workers. Don Luis sighed.

He stationed himself at the zone each day, flagging oncoming trains, his distant gaze fixed on his section gang.

One August day, the foreman gathered the men. Don Luis watched his lips move with excitement. An interpreter stood by.

Muchachos,” he began, “the war has ended.”

On his next visit to Ogden, he witnessed trains roar into the depot with returning soldiers, a family awaiting each of them. Some exited on crutches. A child rushed to a man’s embrace; a woman caressed his face.

Outside, U.S flags waved from business rooftops. Men and women tucked newspapers into their forearms – Peace and Victory splashed across headlines. He needed no translation for these and other words he’d acquired: check, depot, torpedo, letter, tracks, home.

The war was over. So was his work contract. Amid the swaying flags and victory chants, he reveled in a quiet joy that soon he’d be home.

But the rolling stock and railroad equipment would come slowly. In Idaho and California, beet workers and other agricultural braceros needed transport too. Repatriation would begin with them.

Autumn turned to winter. Don Luis arose at dawn, labored on the tracks and retired to camp at dusk. On Sundays, he ventured into town. Victory celebrations had come and gone. Fathers now strolled down sidewalks with their children.

But at night, by the dim light inside a bracero camp, he’d still write, “Dear family,” to begin each letter.

Then the chilly air abated. Spring was on its way.

In the distance, a whistle blew. A train rumbled into camp, its wheels clanking against new tracks.

Don Luis looked out on the railroad yard. Gone was the snow that had greeted him more than a year before. The children must be grown, he reckoned. The baby was now walking alongside his brother. He’d look for tracks of their small feet on the dirt road leading to their adobe home.

He unpinned the railroad company button on his shirt, packed his sheep skin coat and pants. Maybe this train would deliver him home.

___

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 struggles.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Jian Huang

A white bandage covered my dad’s eyes as we sat in the ophthalmologist’s office.

“Your father is legally blind, Miss Huang. We need some more tests, but it looks like he had a seizure in his sleep that caused the loss of eyesight.”

I was 18 years old and just a few weeks out of high school graduation when I heard these words.

There were questions: “Did you notice anything different about him these past few days? How long has he been complaining about nausea? When did it start?”

“What did he say?” my dad asked me in our native Shanghainese, a dialect of Chinese.

He only ever spoke enough English to get by at his motel job, but never had the opportunity to learn more. My mother on the other hand didn’t speak any, so by default I was the family’s representative. I struggled with how to translate the word “seizure.” I translated the diagnosis as a malfunction of the brain. The word “lost” I translated into “disappeared” so to clear up any ambiguities about recovery. My dad, who was 65 then, seemed to understand. He turned his head away from me after hearing these words. My mom, who was mostly deaf, didn’t bother to ask me to repeat into her ear what I had just said; she guessed from the looks on our faces.

“Can you bring him back in September?” the doctor asked. “I’d like to see if we can schedule to remove the cataract from his eyes. Maybe it’ll help.”

“I’m supposed to go to college in Northern California,” I said to no one in particular.

Zeus punished the Titans when they rebelled against the Olympians by striking out their eyes. Oedipus, having recognized his own failure as king, blinded himself. At 18, I had understood the world through stories like these. I would talk about them with my dad after getting home from school and he would explain what he could to me. When I had questions, it was my dad who most likely had the answers. He liked to remind me that he went to college in China before the Cultural Revolution and read western literature. But this time he had no answers – my dad was at a loss. Was this punishment? Who for? Why now?

Like the families I grew up with in South Los Angeles, we didn’t have medical coverage, nor did we understand anything about the medical system in the United States. Health care, it seemed to us new immigrants, was only accessible to people who were in better financial situations. For us, health care often came from the medicine section at the local farmacia, or at Thrifty’s drugstores, or from packages sent by relatives from home countries like Mexico and Guatemala or, in our case, China. My neighbor Omar suggested that I go across the street to the abandoned warehouse where a group of Pentecostals set up shop on weekend evenings.

“My mom said you can ask for a blessing and sometimes they’ll even give you money for medicines.”

No one in my neighborhood had computers or an Internet connection. Illness was an invisible thing that no one talked about. What is preventative care when it took so much energy just to survive? All I knew from my parents and from what I saw on television was that health care was expensive. It was finally my mom who jotted down a phone number to a free family clinic in Chinatown from a co-worker’s neighbor.

In the weeks before my dad lost his sight, I had graduated from Venice High School. He beamed when he saw me in my blue cap and gown. “It doesn’t matter that I work 24-hour shifts in a motel,” he said, “my reward is seeing you go to college. You’ll have money, and money will give you freedom. Money will elevate you to a different class.”

That summer in 2003 I did a lot of driving in my dad’s gray ‘95 Ford Escort. He was so proud of that car. It had taken him seven years to save up for a down payment. It didn’t overheat and leave us stranded on the freeway like his last car, an ‘83 hatchback Chevrolet, had. We drove to the doctor’s office, to referrals, to get medication, to the Chinatown Service Center for help with Medicare enrollment, and to the Social Security office on Adams and Hoover. We drove to the Hawaii Motel on La Brea and Venice where we collected his final paycheck, his hot water thermos and his box of tea.

“Fifteen years of work and I only had two things,” my dad said, as we drove back home from the motel. “I should be the one taking care of you.”

My mom started taking on more work at the garment factory where she worked in Lincoln Heights. When she needed help trucking large bags of clothes home, I picked up where my dad left off. I suddenly became the only one who drove in the family, the one who spoke the most English, the one who had all five senses working properly. She worked on anything her employers were willing to allocate to her. This included things that were difficult to make, like shirt collars or really slippery fabric.

“Five cents a piece. If I sew this order of 2,000, I can make $100,” she said.

That kind of work usually took about a week to complete. Some nights she worked very late. Her Juki sewing machine vibrated throughout the house and kept everyone up. Our living room lights dimmed a little each time she started work.

“What are we going to do without you?” my mom would ask at dinner. She can’t hear, so she mostly spoke out loud to herself.

There are three kinds of tears that the human eye produces: basal tears, which lubricate our eyes; reflex tears, which are reactions to external irritations like dust particles; and psychic tears, which result from strong emotions. Psychic tears have a different chemical make-up from the first two. They have higher levels of a protein-based hormone called Leu-enkephalin, a natural painkiller that we produce when parts of our bodies hurt. I learned that tears could still form in the human eye even when there is no sight. I also learned that psychic tears were best done in private, like in a dark room, or hunched over a sewing machine, or in the car while it is parked in the garage where no one can see.

In the months that followed his diagnosis, my dad spent a lot of time sitting alone in his bedroom. Light made him nauseous. Talking made him nauseous. Car rides made him nauseous. Sometimes I would find him just sitting there listening to his CDs; sometimes he would try to play his guitar in the one-foot wide makeshift studio between his bed and the wall. “I’m sorry I threw up again,” he would say.

“Your father was a great classical guitar player,” my mom told me. “Your grandma loved to hear him play.” His collection was filled with all sorts of jazz, concertos, and big band orchestras from the 1950s.

“Did we get anything in the mail today?” my dad asked me after I got home each day from my shift at Starbucks. We’d sit together by his bedside as I went through the various letters from Social Security and Medicare about his retirement, his upcoming appointments, and requests for our bills to determine low-income status. Feeling his way to the bathroom became increasingly hard for him, so he kept an empty plastic milk jug nearby with the tops cut off. I would empty it and rinse it for him.

“Dear Miss Huang, we’re writing to remind you to respond to your college admissions package,” the letter read “This is urgent.”

Working at the local Starbucks near USC on Hoover and Jefferson, I would bring back leftover coffee and pastries for my parents when the store closed at one a.m. I knew my dad would be up waiting for me. Sometimes we would sit at the pullout butcher block in the kitchen and eat the reheated bounty together.

“I first tasted a butter croissant with your grandma when I was a kid,” he reminisced. “American cafés were in vogue then in Shanghai. Your grandma taught me to always put on my double-breasted jacket when we ate at western cafés. She was very worldly and genteel that way.”

I asked our store manager, Sal, for more shifts. Some days I worked the closing shift to one a.m.; on others I worked the opening shifts that started at four a.m. Working gave me a reason to leave home. What can I get for you today? Would you like whipped cream on your macchiato? Can I wipe your table for you? No, I am fine, thank you for asking.

When I had free time, I would go to the Glendale Galleria and try to apply for more jobs. “We’re not looking for anyone who needs this job to make rent,” Amber, the store manager at Abercrombie & Fitch, told me as she eyed my old blue jeans and milk-stained black tennis shoes from Payless. “This is a job for you to have fun and like make a little extra cash for new clothes before school starts.”

“What do your parents do?” my co-worker Michael asked me one day while we made lattes at the espresso machines.

“Oh, my dad’s retired and my mom works in fashion.”

I learned that from kids like Lorena or Isela who, like me, took the bus for two hours every day in high school to go to a school in a better neighborhood. Unemployed was “stay-at-home,” liquor store owner was “entrepreneur,” restaurant bus boy was “work in culinary arts,” and so on.

“That’s cool. My dad’s thinking about retiring, too. He’s a colonel and we live in Palos Verdes. But both me and my sister are living near campus now because of school. I’m in the Architecture School. She’s a Pi Beta Phi. What are you studying?”

“Double tall nonfat sugar-free vanilla latte for Katie!”

On the U.S. Citizenship Naturalization Test, a frequently asked interview question is, “Why do you want to become a naturalized citizen?” An acceptable answer is “freedom” or “mobility.”

Between ten p.m. and four a.m. were the universal Hours of Self-Pity. There was a strong correspondence between a physical and personal darkness that happened each night. Working the closing shift or the dawn shift took up an otherwise empty space that was all too easy to fill with regrets, what-if’s, and why-not-me’s. Questions that did nobody any good.

Letters that summer came and went. Dear Mr. Huang, we are writing to explain your diagnosis…Your Social Security benefits will begin on… Your medication summary for the month of July…

Dear Miss Huang, this is your final notice to respond to admissions at the University of….

Sometimes the landlord’s son Omar would come sit with me late at night on our stoop. Mostly I sat out there to feed the one or two feral cats that visited.

“Your dad okay? I’m sorry. Eh, my dad wants to know if you’re gonna need to move your rent date to later in the month. And my mom wants to know if you’re gonna sell your dad’s car cuz my brother Alvaro might wanna drive it. He’s 15 now and he’s gonna drive it to my dad’s store to work.”

That summer I listened to a lot of old songs because it was what we had at home. My Dad said old songs reminded him of Shanghai. On those nights, it was just Sinatra and me. “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart … .”

The letters from school came less and less frequently. Eventually they stopped coming altogether. Instead, they were replaced by more letters from the Social Security office. We got at least two letters a week addressed to my dad about his disability and retirement, all of which were in English.

“It’s still very cloudy and dark,” my dad told his doctor in September after his operation.

“There’s not much more we can do for him,” the eye doctor told me privately as my mom escorted my dad out of the office. “We’ll need him back over the next few months for more checkups. We have your number. Will you be around for a while?”

“Yes. I’m not going anywhere.”

I opened the passenger side door for my dad and sat him down slowly. I asked him if he was comfortable, then I asked him to raise his arms so I could help buckle his seat belt. On the way home he said, “I know what you’re doing. I can still see.”

____


Jian Huang
was born in Shanghai, China and grew up in South Los Angeles. She has worked in the arts and for local nonprofits. Her interests include watching old Hollywood movies and writing about social justice issues that deal with class barriers, the American Dream, and finding a place of belonging. She is a 2016 PEN USA Emerging Voices fellow.

 

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Sylvia Castañeda

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n the 1920’s, Luz Solís was living in San Diego with her husband and their two young children.

Luz was raised in Tijuana and had crossed the U.S. – Mexico border daily to attend grade school in San Ysidro.
Her husband, Lupe Tirado, was from Sinaloa; a man with limited education and a strong temperament who worked as a cement finisher. Luz was 16 years old when she married him in Tijuana and, as crossing the border was much easier then, they went to live in San Diego. They lived in a rented modest house downtown on Columbia Street near West Market Street.

She and her sister, Antonia, were born to Ygnacio Solís & María Cañez, a customs agent at the Tijuana checkpoint and his wife. After she married, Luz frequently visited her parents and sister in Tijuana. When her father died, Luz’s mother and sister moved to Santa Paula, California, north of Los Angeles, where relatives lived. Not long after that, Luz’s mother passed away. Antonia remained in Santa Paula under the care of relatives, the GutiTia Luz 1942_Snapseedérrez family, until she married. Luz came up often.

One day, Luz returned from a trip to Santa Paula to find her home on Columbia Street empty. Her family had vanished. Her husband was gone. Their children – their son Leocadio and daughter Ascención – were nowhere to be found.

Frantic, Luz went door to door, inquiring with neighbors. She spent days searching. A neighbor informed her that Lupe had fled to his native Mazatlán, Sinaloa. She went there. Back then, it was a trip that took many days. But in Mazatlán she found nothing.

Luz returned to San Diego, destroyed. She continued searching. Yet, unable to afford the rent on her own, she had no other alternative but to find shelter with the Gutiérrez family in Santa Paula. When she gathered enough strength to make it on her own, she moved to Tijuana. For years, she frequently crossed the border into San Diego to search for her children Leocadio and Ascención without success.

By 1930, Luz was living in Tijuana, and remarried to Carlos Savín, a commercial fisherman who followed the fishing routes along Baja California. They divided their time between homes in La Paz and Tijuana, depending on the fishing season. Often, over the years, they crossed into San Diego to visit Luz’s family. When they did, Luz always returned to the house on Columbia Street where she last held her children.

In time, neighbors moved away and the neighborhood was one she no longer recognized. She carried her children’s disappearance like a cross, longing more than anything to find her children. But with every passing year, the longing formed a deep abyss of sorrow.

Luz and Carlos never had children of their own. But the children of Carlos’ brother came to live with them and Luz raised her nieces – Dora and Margarita – and they loved her as their mother.

Every month for as long as she lived, Luz wrote letters to her sister, Antonia, who was by then living in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. In those letters she wrote of the daily events in her life as well as the agony caused by the absence of her children.

In 1986, Luz’s letters became sparse; months went by without any news from her. One day, the letters ceased. Concerned about Luz, Antonia sent a letter to the corner house on Calle Revolución and Sonora, in La Paz, inquiring about her sister. She received no response. Antonia never again heard from her sister.

The memory of Leocadio and Ascención vanished with Luz.

Antonia was my grandmother. I heard the story of my Grand Aunt Luz when I was 9 years old.

It was 1978. I was at my Tía Lupe’s house on Atlas Street in El Sereno, in the living room, cross-sitting on the patterned burgundy carpet. Outside, leaves fell on the low stone wall that surrounded the front porch. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass played in the background. My mother sat at the dining-room table while Tía Lupe sewed a flowered skirt for me, to be used during Folklorico Dance practice and they laughed as they told what they remembered of the letters their mother, Antonia, received from her sister Luz in Baja California.

Every time a letter arrived, they said, Antonia would sit them around the small coal-burning stove, which simultaneously heated the cast- iron clothes iron and cooked the beans in the earthenware pot as she read the news from the family that lived so far away. Every detail of the letters were animated by Antonia’s tone and pitch, except when the news was sad; then her voice became somber and sometimes she didn’t read aloud what was written.

As the memories of the letters unfolded, the boisterous laughs of my mother and her sister grew quiet and still, Herb Alpert became faint and they told the story of Luz and her children. I never forgot that story.

Years later, when I was in my twenties – seventy years after the disappearance of Leocadio and Ascención – I began to search for them.

My quest began with a leather-bound photo album, carefully arranged throughout the years by my Abuelita Antonia. This collection of photographs captured moments in time described in the letters. Every year, in the winter recess, when I visited my Abuelita in Zacatecas, I immersed myself in the stories the pictures conveyed. I linked the people in the photos to the names and the events in the letters. I connected myself to these memories left behind in the photographs. Two photos were absent from the collection and deserved a place alongside the others.

My father and sister humored my persistence in searching for documents that would serve as clues to the whereabouts of Luz’s missing children. But they could not understand why. My mother, in her heart, longed to locate them but didn’t think the pursuit would be fruitful. My cousins thought I was mad. Let the past be, they would say. Why disturb what was to be? Why does it matter, it happened so long ago? Who is Luz? Let the story that faded into the walls remain there, to protect those who lived and suffered.

I obtained Leocadio and Ascención’s birth certificates registered in San Diego, then, I located a 1920 Census record. It listed a Guadalupe Tirado as a head of household; it listed Lucy as his wife and Oscar as their one year old son. They were renting a house on Market Street in San Diego. However, I was perplexed by the recorded name for their son: Oscar. His age was accurate. Could this be Luz’s family?

I came across several border-crossing records for Luz Solís and Guadalupe Tirado and a U.S. World War I Draft Registration Card for Guadalupe. The border crossing records and the draft registration document identified Luz Solís as Guadalupe Tirado’s wife. I revisited the 1920 Census record to check the address and matched a border crossing recorded about the same year. The Tirado family in the 1920 Census had to be Luz’s family. But was Luz’s son named Leocadio? Was “Oscar” his first name and Leocadio his middle name? I grew more obsessed with the search.

In the 1930 Census, I found a Guadalupe Tirado, who was married to another woman named Felicitas. They lived on 13th Street in San Diego. Their two oldest children were the same age as Leocadio and Ascención would have been, but their names were Eugenio and Maria. In the 1940 Census, Guadalupe and Felicitas Tirado lived on Pickwick Street in San Diego. The two oldest children’s names were now Eugene & Mary.

I searched the name Eugene Tirado on the internet and was linked to the Korean War Casualties website. My heart immediately sank. I clicked on the link. “Eugene L. Tirado, born on 1918, killed in Action 26 Mar 1951, Sergeant First Class, Army” appeared on the computer screen. My eyes focused on his middle initial. This had to be Leocadio.

I sought his military records. The Report of Internment for Eugene L. Tirado identified his birthdate. It matched Leocadio’s: Dec 9, 1918. The typed record also had a bonus; in blue lead, the letters “e” and “o” were added by hand to the “L.” I thought of Luz and my eyes flooded with tears.

Through it all, for 20 years, I kept on, convinced I could find these children. I searched census indexes at the local Family Search Library, requested mail-ordered photocopies of birth records from the San Diego County Registrar and census records from the National Archives, visited the Los Angeles Public Library Genealogy Department, maneuvered through microfiche, microfilm, record books, and scoured the sources of data brought on by the dawning of the internet. It led, in the end, to the realization that one of her children was killed at war years before I was born.

In August 2010, I posted a snippet of Luz’s story on Ancestry.com and I also left a note on a message board of a person who had Eugene Leo Tirado on a family tree. Six months later, I received an email from a woman named Frances.

Frances was 68 and she was the daughter, she said, of Eugene Tirado.

She was living in Connecticut, where she raised her family and had resided for over 20 years. Frances said she was born in San Diego and had grown up there, too, until she left for college. After graduating, she married and cared for her two children. Her former husband’s job promotions moved her family to the East Coast, where she found work as an administrative clerk. Frances also had an interest in family history – particularly the family of her birth mother, who had died when Frances was so young and whom she therefore knew little about. She had been researching and developing her family tree for two years by then.

Frances had never heard of Luz Solis.

Her father Eugene and Aunt Mary had grown up in San Diego, she said. The homes their father rented before he purchased a lot on Pickwick Street were just blocks from the one where they last lived with their mother, Luz.

Eugene married a woman who gave birth to Frances and two siblings. The woman died giving birth to their third child, who also died. Frances was only 11 months old at the time of her mother and sister’s deaths. Eight months after, Eugene enlisted in the army; left his two children in the care of his parents, Lupe and Felicitas.

Felicitas was a gentle, pious soul and loved them as if they were her own. Lupe isolated himself in his room after work to escape the noise the grandchildren would create. In 1946, Eugene re-married in Alabama, where he was stationed, and a son was born the following year. He re-enlisted in the Army in 1950 and was a member of the 187th Airborne Infantry Regimental Combat Team when he was killed in action in Korea.

His sister Mary, meanwhile, married a career Air Force officer. They had two children. Lupe sent Frances to live under Mary’s guardianship about the time Eugene re-enlisted.

Soon Frances and I were e-mailing each other daily. She told me about her father, Eugene; he was the life of every party and always wore a smile. He loved Frances and her brother and was always good to them. We exchanged pictures. Eugene did have a beautiful smile just like my mom and her sisters. Mary was the spitting image of Luz.

Frances scarcely knew her Aunt Mary when she was sent to live with her. Mary doted on her two children, as any mother would, but resented having to look after a third child – a child not her own.

Frances had always been told that Luz, her grandmother, had abandoned the family for another man. Frances was shocked to learn this was not true, and upset that her grandfather had put Luz through such misery. But she said it explained a lot.

Throughout her life, Mary always felt cast aside, abandoned by her mother. Before she married, as the only daughter, Mary was given the charge of her four younger step-brothers along with household chores. Once married, she seldom visited her family, though they lived in the same city.

Mary passed away on January 18, 2010 in Escondido, having lived her entire life twisted by a lie her father told. She and her brother, Eugene, are buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Lupe Tirado was a handsome and responsible man. He worked hard all of his life to provide food and shelter for his family; but he was violent. Everyone feared him. His grandchildren had to be careful not to touch anything when they visited his home. Lupe was short-tempered with his sons if they did not respond to his first call. He was proud of whisking Felicitas away on a horse, in Tijuana, to care for his two little children.

Lupe never mentioned Luz’s name, nor spoke of his past. I suppose we will never know why he abandoned Luz. Years later, Felicitas and Lupe divorced. Lupe married a third woman – a marriage that also ended in divorce.

Frances and I continue to communicate through e-mail, Facebook and an occasional call. She is my mother’s age – now 73; born the same month. My mother and Frances resemble each other at this age: straight, short dark hair with whisks of grey and smiles that light up a room.

The day I received the first e-mail from Frances, I phoned my mother. There was a moment of silence on her end.

My mother grew up without any cousins. She only speaks Spanish and Frances speaks English only. Frances’ daughter and I serve as their interpreters while on phone calls and translators of letters. Google Translate has also played a part, though the translations are imprecise and puzzle my mother.

I now have photographs of Leocadio and Ascención.

“Sylvia,” Frances said, “you have come into my life bringing Luz.”

About a month after our first email encounter, I had a dream that Luz was a fairy trapped in a glass jar. She was screaming asking for her release but she was inaudible. Frances and I worked in unison to release her and when we did, she flew away.

___

IMG_5371Sylvia 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.

 

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Home Page SliderTrue TalesTYTT Export

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Michel Stone

I’d known Angel a few weeks when he told me about his being sealed by blowtorch in the underbelly of a truck.  His words flowed fast, like the cork had blown on something bottled inside him, and the telling and my interest gave him great satisfaction.

We were tagging elms with yellow plastic tape in the tree nursery where we worked.  “You cannot imagine,” he said. He had an easy, boyish smile, almost devilish, but his eyes revealed a perpetual weariness.

“Tell me,” I said, stretching out an eight-inch piece of tape and snipping it from the roll.

“We lay like this.” He stood rigid, his arms pinned to his sides.  “Is very close, you know? With the shoes of the other mens is rubbing my head here and here,” he said, tapping his ears.

“How many of you?”

His sudden, wide smile puzzled me.

“Is ten of us.  This space is very, very small.” He stepped to a nearby elm and bent a thin branch for me to secure the length of tape.

We had to tag the best looking elms for a landscaper who’d pick up the trees the following day.  Angel could tell the caliper of a tree with a glance.  We’d walk down the field, he’d select the trees, and we’d tag them.

I didn’t want to be nosy, and I figured he’d be guarded about telling me much more, but  I was wrong.

“I try not to move in this truck, is so tight like… how you say… the little fishes in the can?”

“Sardines?” I say, tying a strip of tape to the limb.

Si, is like the sardines.  And the coyote – he is the man I pay the moneys to bring me in these truck – he close the hole in the truck with the… how you say… the fire, you know?”

“Blow torch?”

Si.  Is very dark in this place.  Is very long time in this place.”

“How long did it take you to cross?”

“Oh, is many hours!”

“Pretty scary, I bet.” I said, as we made our way down the row, eyeing trees to select.

“I think I will die on this trip.  I could no tell is day or the night, is Mexico or el norte outside this space.”

“Did you and the others talk?”

“No, not so much because we is scared of the coyote in the outside, if he hear us or if the border patrol hear us.  We not talking in there.  But then one man he get very crazy in the head,” Angel says, his perpetual smile lost now.  “Is very bad.”

“Crazy in the head?” I said.

Si, is true.  He say crazy things.  He screaming and he wanting his mama, but is no space in there and is no mama, either.  I want to hit him in the face!  You see, is no because I am a bad guy, but this man, he could get us caught, you know?”

“Did you hit him?”

“No.  Is impossible. The… how you say… the top?  Is right here, is very near to my nose.  Is no able to move to hit this man.”

I shook my head, unsure what to say, thinking about my story, my life, and how simple and unencumbered my existence would seem if he were to ask me to tell my personal narrative.

(Michel Stone’s first novel, The Iguana Tree, is just out now on Hub City Press, about a Mexican couple’s trip into the United States, ending in South Carolina. It has been called a “compassionate yet unsentimental story [recalling] the works of John Steinbeck.” …    Read an excerpt here.)

“Then the mens, they have to piss, right?  And what can they do but they have to go.  So these mens pisses, and one man he… how you say?”  Angel shoves a dirty finger into the back of his throat.

“Vomit? Throw up?” I said.

Si, he vomit and smelling very, very bad in this truck.”

As we made our way across the field, tagging the last couple of trees, I wondered what I’d do in the situation Angel just described.

I said, “Did you pray?”  I fold my hands in prayer and briefly close my eyes to illustrate my question.

“Oh, si!  I says to God, ‘Please! Please! Please!’  And the other mens I can hear them talk to God and to the Virgin, they say like me, “Please, please!”

I tried to picture Angel prone, scared, and lying in human waste among his fellow travelers with barely a few inches between their faces and the top of their hidden, sealed compartment. I imagined the unbearable stench.

(View a trailer to The Iguana Tree)

Suddenly I am thankful Angel is a thin man.  How could he have fit into the space otherwise?  Maybe a plump, well-fed fellow wouldn’t have had Angel’s motivation to leave Mexico in such a way, under the protection of a coyote, in search of something better.

“But you made it across,” I said, smiling at him.

Si,” he said, his mischievous grin contradicting the horrendous tale he’d just shared, the truth about his deliverance to el norte in the dark belly of that truck.

“When was this?” I said.

“This was in five months ago.  In Marzo.  You know Marzo?”

“March,” I said.

“Si.  In March I come here.  Soon is my wife coming and my boy.”  His face darkened when he said this, and for a moment I suspected I’d misunderstood, imagining he’d be thrilled to be reunited with his family.

“Where are they now?” I said.

“In my country, in my town, Cortazar.”

My familiarity with Mexican geography was minimal.  “Is that near the sea, or near the border?”

“No, no, is no near the sea and this town is very far from the border.  Is in middle of my country,” he said.

Then I pictured his young wife – How old was Angel? 23? – traveling up through the center of her country with a small child in tow, trying to cross into America.

Perspiration dampened the front of Angel’s shirt in this muggy August South Carolina heat, and I wonder how insufferable a sealed undercarriage of a truck would be in Mexico or Texas this time of year.

I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand.  “Why’d you do it, Angel?  Why come here?”

“Is much better here, Michel.  The moneys I make here in one week?  You know in my country I make this moneys in many weeks. Is much better here.”

My relatives owned the farm where Angel and I worked, and I kept up with him through them for years after that summer.

His wife and son did make it to el norte that autumn, their journey across the border different but equally as harrowing as Angel’s.

Then one day I learned they were gone.  Disappeared.  Rumored to have returned to Mexico.  Some farm hands mumbled that Angel had begun drinking too much, had gotten in trouble with the law, and left before he got locked up.

Where is he now?  His wife?  Their child?  I often wonder.

____

Michel Stone is a writer living in Spartanburg, S.C. Her acclaimed first novel,  The Iguana Tree, is just out on Hub City Press, and available in hardback or Kindle. Contact her at www.michelstone.com.

 

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
By Olivia Segura

[dropcap1]T[/dropcap1]wo twenty-foot black barred gates stood corner-to- corner separating Miguel from the catcalls on his right where tattered men clawed at him.

To his left was a clean, orderly ward.

Miguel stood, distracted by the gates when suddenly he felt a yank on his blue silk tie.

“Give me your tie,” said an inmate on his right.

He pulled away quickly and the yelling escalated.attachment(1)

The guard looked him up and down. Miguel’s tie matched his eyes; he wore a tailored navy blue suit and stood six feet tall.

“Would you like a luxury cell or do you want to join them?” he said, pointing to the right.

“I’ll take the luxury cell.”

The guard smirked.

The left gate opened and with that the shouting from the right faded. The guard escorted him down the corridor. Miguel heard the far off strumming of a guitar from the galleys above. He was placed in a single cell on the ground floor. Meals would be served in the dining room. The cost for “luxury”: five hundred pesos a day. The guard gave him a voucher to sign.

It was 1953 and Miguel was 29 years old. He had been to Mexico City eleven years earlier, fleeing his village in Michoacán. When he was three, his father accidentally killed his mother while cleaning his shotgun. His father repented throughout his life praying endless hours on his knees while wearing a crown of thorns. However, he became distant and allowed his second wife to mistreat Miguel.

Miguel loved school. But at age seven, at the suggestion of his stepmother, he was made to work in the fields and support the new children that came. His father owned land, animals and bore the last name of the founders of the village. But Miguel lived like an indentured servant. His labor began before sunrise and ended after sunset. His clothes and shoes were worn and he was never given a peso or a sign of affection. At dinner he was not welcomed to the table, and he ate alone.

The years of neglect and frustration drove him to Mexico City in 1942. He heard that the United States needed workers, Braceros, to help the war effort. He arrived by train in white manta clothing, worn huaraches and held his sombrero in place with one hand on either side as he looked up at the skyscrapers. Miguel wanted to stay and explore the city but his only contact was Major Rubalcava, a man who had married a woman from his village. The Major managed the Rancho La Herradura, which belonged to Miguel Aleman, Mexico’s President.

The Major and his wife gave him a place to stay and a job on the ranch. But Miguel had left his village to become a Bracero and he kept this in mind as he tended the cows, irrigated the vast fields of alfalfa and exchanged glances with a shepherd’s daughter. He also thought about his mother. He would quietly hum a lullaby, his only memory of her. He would close his eyes as he sung but still he could not see her face.

A year later he left the ranch and set out for the Estadio Azteca where thousands of men were spread across acres of parkway waiting to be contracted as Braceros up north. Soldiers patrolled the area in jeeps as men gathered with their home statepaisanos. It was difficult to find a clean spot to rest. The unexpected number of people in the parkway destroyed the grass and trees and the smell of excrement permeated the air.

He camped out for nearly three weeks surviving on the small amount of money he had earned and the generosity of others. Finally, one day in early April, he made it to the front of the line.

“You’re young,” said the administrator.

Miguel was under the required age of 18.

“I’m 22,” he said.

He was first sent to Oregon and then to farms in California. His last assignment placed him in Fillmore, an hour from Los Angeles. He began taking the bus into the city on the weekends. He found a job at the Brown Derby, then at the Biltmore Hotel. He felt alive in Los Angeles and enjoyed the nightlife. He worked to dress sharp and dance to the big bands.

On July 4, 1948 he was deported to Cuidad Juarez. He spoke English now and landed a job as a floor manager at one of the best nightclubs in Juarez.

An acquaintance asked him to travel to Mexico City to help him register and sell the songs his brother had composed. Miguel resisted. But the man promised to pay the expenses. In Mexico City, Miguel took the man to “La W Radio” and several other places to pitch the songs. One day, while searching out leads, Miguel spotted several men with typewriters and makeshift desks near the Zocalo.

“Letters Written,” their sign read.

He had not seen his father for eleven years. He had a writer compose a letter to his father, telling him that he was in Mexico City at the Hotel Juarez.

Two weeks passed and none of the radio leads worked out. One afternoon two policemen appeared at his hotel door. The man who convinced him to go to Mexico City was now falsely accusing Miguel of fraud. The police put him in a detention cell.

Later, an attorney named Tostado appeared. He loaded men with minor charges into a van. They were being sent to prison, he said, but he would be able to save them for a fee of 800 pesos.

One by one, the men were driven to their homes where loved ones paid the fee. Miguel was the last man in the van. Miguel tried to convince him to let him go; he would pay him later, he lied, stating his father was wealthy Hacendado. Tostado let him make a phone call. He pretended to make the call and reported that as it was Sunday his father was at the track racing his prized horses and could not be reached. Tostado told the driver to head to the Palacio de Lecumberri.

Built in 1900, Palacio de Lecumberri was the “Black Palace,” a prison in the form of a castle, where corruption, murder and beatings were common. Tostado left Miguel with the guards.

Which is how he found himself that morning standing before two cellblocks, with a choice of which way to go – with the rabble in general population or with the upper classes.

For the next several days Miguel dined on steak and listened to the stories of imprisoned generals and bureaucrats who claimed they had been betrayed. Every day he saw bodies dragged from the general population ward. And every day he signed the 500 peso vouchers with no way to pay, fearing he would soon join them. At night alone in his cell he would recall his mother’s lullaby and fall asleep imagining how different his life would have been if she were still alive.

On his fifth day at Lecumberri, two prisoners came to his cell and took him to a room. They demanded payment for the days he’d been there. Miguel told them his father would come soon; everything would be taken care of. Had his father received the letter he sent? Even if he had, how would his father know that he was in Lecumberri? But he stuck to his story. The men yelled louder and grabbed him to throw him in the general population ward. There, he knew, he’d likely be killed as someone from the luxury ward who thought of himself as upper class.

At that moment, two soldiers with bayonets stormed in.

“Let him go!”

Miguel heard the prisoners pleading for his tie and jacket as the soldiers took him to the vast main hall. There stood his father with Major Rubalcava. Miguel was stunned. He reached out to shake hands with his father and the Major.

He began to tell the Major that he had been signing daily vouchers of $500 pesos.

“Don’t even think of paying those crooks.”

As they drove away from the Black Palace, Miguel asked his father how he found him. His father had received his letter and sought him out at the Hotel Juarez, where he learned of his arrest.

They returned to Michoacán. The only open seats on the bus where separated and they were not able to sit together. But, anyway, Miguel’s father was stoic and not inclined to conversation.

They arrived at the village; the smell of guavas filled the air. The same cobblestone streets passed the same multi-colored homes, with the same people sitting at their front doors.

His younger brothers and sisters were welcoming, but he felt the cold stare of his stepmother.

That night, Miguel awoke to his father praying over him. He lay there, pretending to sleep, as, for the first and last time, he saw his father’s tears.

He worked daily from sunrise to sunset. He socialized with the townspeople but he no longer spoke or thought like them. He’d been gone too long.

One day Miguel attempted to load a bushel of hay on the horse and missed. His father yelled at him, “You’re of no use! The calluses on your hands have disappeared. You’re no longer good for this work.”

Miguel kept silent and felt the distance between them.

Weeks passed and Miguel could not find himself in the village.

After a month, without saying a word, he left.

____

Olivia Segura was born in San Jose, California to immigrant parents from Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and lived, studied and worked in Mexico City for several years. She took the TYTT workshop to begin documenting her father’s life. This is her second TYTT workshop and story.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Manuel Chaidez

I also had a full set of hair except for the top part, so I was like a baby George Costanza. The first words my dad told me when he held me for the first time at arm’s length were, “You are a weird looking kid, you know that?” and this was how I looked until I was six. Those were the longest six years of my life. Stayed inside my house all day long and when I went to kindergarten I wore a cowboy hat to hide my tonsure.

Once my hairline problems were over, being around people was not as hard anymore. Until, that is, I went to middle school. One day I got into an argument with my stepmother. One of my chores was to clean the bathroom, and I did it as quickly and efficiently as possible. My stepmother was already having a bad day, but I didn’t realize it. So when she showed me how to clean properly it wasn’t a good idea to scream at her, “That is what I am doing, darn it,” because she slapped the cuteness off my face.

The next the day I went to school with the cuteness slapped off my face, and the only girl who had a crush on me in the whole school now was trying to avoid me. Being an awkward little kid who sat in the back of the class, my cuteness was the only thing this one girl noticed in me. My dad had taught me that there are no ugly women in the world but this girl was not my type. I even felt embarrassed that she announced her crush so publicly. Now she was the one embarrassed of me. This made the whole situation very awkward.

A pattern should be visible here: Life gives me lemons and while making lemonade I squirt myself in the eye. Instead of making the best of it I get obsessed with the whole situation and can’t think straight.

How I met my wife is no different. I went back to Mexico from Los Angeles for two weeks to visit my family. I called a girl I knew named Loren to see if she wanted to hang out. My future wife answered the phone. She was Loren’s cousin.

“Is this Loren?” I asked.

“No this is Angie,” my future wife said.

“Oh, um, Loren?”

“No. I said this is Angie.”

“Is Loren there?”

“Oh my God. Here you talk to him!” my future wife said.

Loren and I talked and made some plans for the four of us to do that day–meaning my cousin, my future wife, Loren, and me. My cousin and I ended up doing something else that day because my dad didn’t let me borrow his truck; I didn’t call them to cancel.

Sometime during that week I rode along with my dad to drop my cousin at his house. We parked in front of his house. Across the street was a small truck. In the truck were Loren and Loren’s boyfriend and my future wife. My cousin and I crossed the street to talk to them.

“How come you guys didn’t meet us at the McDonald’s the other day?!” Loren said.

“My uncle didn’t let Manny borrow the truck, so we were stuck at the house all day,” my cousin said.

“Haven’t you guys heard of buses?” my future wife said.

“We stood outside my house but we never saw one pass by,” I said.

“Of course you didn’t. You were supposed to walk to the bus stop. They don’t stop just anywhere,” my future wife said.

I didn’t say anything after that. I was trying to say something funny but I ended up sounding dumb. As if it wasn’t hard enough for me to meet new people, my exaggerating mind acted up.

The four of us made plans to go to the movies. My dad drove me there and on the ride to the movies all I thought about was that comment I made about the buses.

Our movie night was great except that I tried to erase my stupid comment from their minds and they kept bringing it back. We set up another date to hang out for the weekend. It kind of went the same. This time my dad did let me borrow his truck, so my cousin and I went to pick them up. We went out to eat and then we crashed a party. There, for the first time, my future wife and I were alone.

By this time I had decided that I liked my future wife.

I remembered that she had asked a couple of times that she wanted to use the restroom. So we were standing on the curb outside the party and everybody had gone in ahead of us. All alone, and under the bright stars and the moonlight, the only thing that came to my mind was, “Didn’t you have to go to the restroom?”

Well after that, we dropped them off. My cousin and I went home, thinking how badly everything went. But to my surprise, the girls called the boys the next day. Loren, without saying hello, asked if I liked Angie. Well I did, so I said, very manly, “I do like her. Why? Does she?”

My wife and I talked for hours after that — with plenty of awkward silences, more than any normal person could handle.

But it was easier after that. I realized how wonderful it was getting out of my comfort zone those two days. Like swimming against the current—tough, but after a while it makes you stronger. Suddenly, I felt confident.

I called her at five in the morning the day I was leaving Mexico to return to Los Angeles. For some reason, my awkward mind didn’t bother me. It was like we already knew.

“Hey, so I’m leaving in a couple of hours,” I said. “Oh really, I didn’t know,” my future wife said.

“Yes, just calling to make sure you have your stuff ready because I am on my way to pick you up right now.”

She went along with it.

“I am on the curb all ready with my bags. You got my ticket? Don’t leave me behind, all riled up.”

“I’ll call you as soon as I land; it was very nice meeting you.”

“Likewise. Have a nice trip.”

Two years later, we were married.

____

 

Manuel Chaidez was born in Los Angeles and a year later he along with his family moved back to Mexico. Ten years later, his family returned to Los Angeles and he has lived there ever since. He attended Schurr High School and graduated from Westwood College. He works as a forklift driver.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Olivia Segura

[dropcap1]T[/dropcap1]he wooden mess hall was filled with the warm smells of coffee, eggs and bacon. Over 300 workers from Mexico filled up on breakfast for the long day of harvest. The bell rang. They grabbed their sack lunches and jumped onto trucks that took them to the almond and plum fields.

Miguel had arrived at the labor camp in May, a month prior to his 18th birthday. A year before, news filled his village in Mexico about the agreement between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mexican President Miguel Avila Camacho to bring Mexican workers north to rescue U.S. crops from spoiling during World War II.

With a handshake, Miguel pre-sold thirteen bushels of wheat for thirteen silver coins from his father’s farm and ran away from home. He got to Mexico City and camped out at the Estadio Azteca coliseum with thousands of men waiting to be selected to become Braceros, farm workers sent north to help save the crops and feed millions of U.S. soldiers. Weeks later, he was put on a train with hundreds of men headed north. They arrived in El Paso, Texas switched to U.S. trains escorted by the Air Force and continued to California.

He arrived in the town of Colusa in 1943. That year Mexico sent 64,000 men to help the United States. As newspapers in New York and Los Angeles ran headlines of the war — “Allies Reach Palermo” and “Germans Fight to Stave Off Doom” – out in Colusa the local papers reported daily on the Braceros’ progress:

“170 Mexicans Here by Friday” and “Mexican Labor Pours into Colusa, 650 in Sight.”

Colusa County built housing at the fairgrounds to welcome the men. With retired Army Captain Herbert in charge of the Growers Association Labor Camp, the men learned army protocol. Years later, Miguel would still make his bed military style and talk about how he and the other Braceros served as soldiers in the war effort.

The day Miguel received his first paycheck he walked out to the road. Within fifty feet of the camp’s gates a man stopped to pick him up. No bracero, he learned, ever spent much time walking on the main road without someone offering a lift. Miguel and the driver greeted each other. Neither spoke the other’s language, so they sat, smiled and nodded. The man dropped him off in town.

On Market Street, the local newspaper snapped photos of the Braceros. “These young and swarthy Mexican huskies have just been fitted at the J.C. Penney company store, healthy enthusiastic and ready to go,” read one caption.

Miguel walked into a store and with the help of gestures to a sales person he bought underwear, socks, shoes, a shirt, a hat and his first pair of Levis. He put the clothes on in the store. He smiled at his new look, gave the cashier five dollars and got change in return. He threw out his worn clothes and walked on to Market Street.

Miguel was full of hope and proud of his decision to leave home. But the work on the fields was rough.

In August, three months after their arrival, his group was sent to a field covered with trees bent under the weight of almonds begging to be picked. He and the others put their lunch sacks aside and placed large tarps under the trees. Miguel picked up a rubber sledgehammer and hit the tree trunk. Almonds stormed down like hail. Workers scooped them off the tarp and packed them into metal bins.

They moved row by row as the sun beat down.

The heat reached over 100 degrees when the whistle blew at noon. The men grabbed their lunch sacks and sought shade under the trees. Miguel pulled out an apple and admired it before taking a bite. He had never seen such a huge apple. Next he began to eat the sandwiches. They tasted odd, so he did not finish them. The break ended and the men returned to harvesting the burdened trees.

Two hours passed. As he worked the sun pierced his eyes and he began to feel light headed. Now cold sweat ran down his face. His stomach cramped and the ground beneath his feet turned rubbery. He looked out to the field. All over men held their stomachs. Others bent over vomiting and some sprawled on the ground.

The foreman ran back and forth yelling orders. Miguel was pushed into a truck full of sick, disoriented men. As they moved through the roads he fought the urge to vomit. Every bump and turn felt like a kick. He heard the blaring sirens and the roar of passing trucks. He tried desperately not to lose control.Image for Story

That day 105 braceros took violently ill in the fields and packed the two hospitals in Colusa County.

Men were treated on the floor of every corridor, x-ray room, waiting room, and ward of the rural hospitals. Only two doctors were on duty. The nurses, Red Cross and town volunteers joined to help the men. A handful of locals spoke Spanish and ran from patient to patient interpreting for the medical staff.

The sound of his thumping heart filled Miguel’s ears. He was able to walk and moved through this chaos. He did not understand. He left home, went hungry and homeless to get to the United States. When he registered in Mexico City he was told that he would be serving his patriotic duty saving crops to fight the enemies of the Americas. Now he and his compatriots were poisoned. He found an open door and ran.

Years later, he would not remember how he traveled miles to a nearby camp. But he found a shower and opened the cold valve. The water felt like a storm. He stood there washing the toxins from his body in a panic. The room grew dark as the sun went down. Still, he stayed in the shower, and went in and out of delirium for hours.

Then a voice.

“Son, are you okay?”

A grower took him back to the main labor camp. When they arrived Miguel saw men congregating in front of the mess hall as police and county officials investigated. Those in charge only spoke English.

The braceros understood very little. They talked among themselves trying to make sense of the situation. Some talked about deserting and going back to Mexico. Miguel learned one of the men from his home state had died. He heard of others near death.

Officers escorted Asian mess hall workers to waiting police cars. Rumors spread that the workers were Japanese and had intentionally poised the Mexicans to sabotage the War Food Program. Over a third of the men were in the hospital. Those at the camp refused to eat and did not sleep much that evening.

In the newspaper the next day, the headline “U.S. Forces Raid Japan” shared space with “105 Mexicans Victims Food Poisoned.”

This was Colusa’s first large emergency. State and federal representatives investigated the cause of the poisoning. The official statement was that the outbreak was due to excessive heat combined with a lack of refrigeration for the hundreds of lunches served.

The Mexican government sent a representative to address the fears of the Braceros and ease tensions between the growers and workers.

The California Department of Public Health recommended an immediate change in food distribution to laborers. No deaths were officially reported but Miguel never saw his paisano again and the Asian workers never returned.

In the days that followed, announcements in the papers urged the community to volunteer. The mass food poisoning had depleted the harvest crews. There was no time to lose. The plums were ripening fast and would spoil. The growers had been counting on the Mexicans to rescue the crops, but many of the workers were still recovering. Townspeople turned out to run the dehydrators and drying yards to produce prunes out of the fruit.

Captain Herbert assigned Miguel to the plum fields. Layers of scattered fruit and branches covered the fields. Strong winds had blown much of the fruit to the ground.

Still weak from the food poisoning, Miguel knelt slowly and began picking up each piece of fallen fruit and placing it gently in the bin. Into the night, he and the other able-bodied Mexicans harvested the fruit.

And so, with their work, as they’d promised, the braceros saved the crops in Colusa.

____

 

Olivia Segura was born in San Jose, California to immigrant parents from Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and lived, studied and worked in Mexico City for several years. She took the TYTT workshop to begin documenting her father’s life.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]t was a cold dark morning and somewhere out in the Sonoran desert the Tres Estrellas de Oro bus I had boarded hours earlier in Tijuana came to a halt, the motor switched off. It was 2:30 AM.

As the only gringa onboard, I had to exit the bus, alone, and go into an immigration office; a rickety wooden shack big enough to fit two desks and folding chairs. Inside the shack, two disheveled, yet intimidating Mexican immigration officers sat like vultures waiting for something to happen. I stumbled off the bus, my heart thumping. This is it, I thought; I’ve been caught.

It was 1968. I was 16 and running away from home. With suitcase, sewing machine and two guitars in tow, I was headed to Guadalajara to become a child bride. Back home in Studio City, my mom was realizing I was gone. I was the last of four siblings living at home; my rebellious nature was wearing her down.

That previous summer, she had sent me to study at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Guadalajara, where I met Oscar. Magic was in the air with muralists up on their scaffolding, sculptors welding abstract forms in the garden, and folklórico dancers kicking up dust in the central patio; the thought of returning to the San Fernando Valley – the place where I’d grown up – depressed me. I, a precocious and rebellious teen, was a misfit and needed room to breathe and grow. The linear grid of the San Fernando Valley stifled me; the orange groves turned into track homes felt sterile. My classmates at the time were heavily influenced by the drug scene and frequently dropped LSD before attending classes. I preferred boys. But sneaking out my bedroom window at night to meet up with friends, mostly guys, was no longer an option; I kept getting caught and grounded. Being a good little girl never came easy. The friction between my mom and me became unbearable.

Earlier that day, I barely passed the scrutiny of the American immigration officials. Their questions came at me like machine gunfire. How old was I? Why was I alone? Where was I going? Why Guadalajara? Who did I know there? Had I visited before? I bluffed my way through, using my sister’s name. She was twenty-five at the time. I had come across her birth certificate just before leaving Los Angeles and had brought it with me just in case. When the U.S. officials emptied the contents of my purse and came across a letter from Oscar addressed to me, it prompted them to question why I had two different first names. The thought of being caught and sent back made me sweat and shake. My voice quivered as I lied. But they let me through and I made my way across the border into Tijuana where Oscar was waiting for me.

At this point my mom hired a detective to look for me. He had been an L.A. cop, trained to find runaway kids. He failed to come up with any leads since I misled them by leaving clues on our phone bill so they’d think I went north instead of south. I also created a fake diary, purposefully left behind with notes about how much I desired to go up to San Francisco. It was the late 60s when the counterculture movement was in full swing. It never occurred to my mom or the detective that I’d do something as crazy as crossing the border illegally, risking so much just to go back to Mexico.

But my friend Kathy, who I’d met in Guadalajara, was still in L.A. visiting her mom, and she became an accomplice to my getaway. I was grateful she could translate the letters from Oscar; his English was worse than my flawed Spanish. So I communicated with my husband-to-be through an interpreter and thus we knew little about each other. We had no clue if we shared interests or basic values. There was very little time to become acquainted with each other’s quirks and habits. Nor was our nine-year age difference a consideration.

That day in mid-September, Kathy showed up as planned. She picked me up from North Hollywood High in her rickety VW bug, 15 minutes after my mom had dropped me off. It was meant to be my first day of high school. I never stepped foot on campus. From there she dropped me at the house of another friend, who drove me to the border two days later.

While some girls my age were preparing for their Sweet Sixteen parties in frilly dresses, I was planning an unlawful international border crossing.

For me, the experience standing in that ramshackle immigration hut was a turning point; a symbolic passage into maturity while still a child. I had fast forwarded into an uncertain future, assuming I’d be better off once I escaped the Valley and a home where I felt invisible. I replaced one challenging home life for another. I married an alcoholic Mexicano, who I later discovered was gallivanting around with other women as I grew plump.

Four months later, while in my third month of pregnancy, I called my mom to let her know where I was. With raised voice, but relieved I was alive, she asked, “How could you have done this to me. We thought you were dead. Where did I go wrong?” But she was a pragmatist, something I later came to admire, and asked me what I wanted to do.

“Get married to Oscar and have the baby,” I replied.

I needed her written permission to do so since I was a minor. She agreed, though she wanted more than anything for me to come home and put the baby up for adoption. On July 21, 1969, during my eighth month of pregnancy, Oscar and I were married. At that moment, Neil Armstrong was stepping foot on the moon; our guests had been watching the moon landing and arrived three hours late.

Later I learned the Catholic Archdiocese in Guadalajara had phoned the local Catholic Church in Studio City. They were able to locate my mom through my cousin, who had coincidentally celebrated her wedding there; they wanted to alert her that I was in Guadalajara. The preparation for my wedding in the Catholic church, required taking catechism classes with an American priest who taught theology assuming I was a university grad student, not a 16-year old high school drop out. I guess I blew my cover. They were double-checking to confirm the legitimacy of my written permission to marry.

So, there I stood before the Mexican immigration officials that next morning after crossing into Tijuana. I turned and looked back. People on the bus, including Oscar, were staring at me. When the officers mumbled “Tarjeta de turista,” even with my limited Spanish I understood. They pushed a pen toward me. I quickly forged my sister’s signature, my hand shaking uncontrollably. That signature – which looked more like chicken scratch – stayed imprinted on my psyche.   The fear of crossing borders haunted me; that shack in the middle of nowhere lingered for years, no matter where I travelled in the world, or which border I was crossing.

But the officers barely noticed, and could not have cared less. They just wanted to go home.

____

 Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek is a proud, native poblador descendent of the city of Los Angeles. She is a cultural anthropologist and has her own business conducting consumer research among mostly Latino immigrants and their second generation offspring. Passionate about writing her memoirs, she hopes to eventually publish these short stories in a book. She paints and plays Persian percussion when she isn’t writing.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By C.J. Salgado

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1] was born in Los Angeles, California. My mother was not.

Fifteen hundred miles from Los Angeles, as a pajaro flies, about halfway between Quiroga and Zacapu along Federal Highway 15 in the Mexican state of Michoacán, is the small village of Caratacua. With a hundred residents, it is no more than a brief rest stop on any traveler’s journey.

There is not much to catch the eye of a passerby, except for, perhaps, the fields of wild, pink mirasol flowers. But to me it is a crib of history, the family ranch, on a gently sloping hill beneath an old Jacaranda tree where my grandmother and my mother were born.

My grandfather, Papá Chuché, and my grandmother, Mamá Lola, started a family on that ranch, known as “Xaratanga.” It was named for the Moon Goddess of the ancient Purhépecha people, who inhabit the region and sprung from her seeds. It is where my grandmother resides today at more than 100 years of age.

Papá Chuché, a distinguished-looking man, lived into his nineties. He had a wandering spirit, and made a lifetime of treks into the U.S. He first entered the country under the Bracero program, picking Washington watermelons and Calexico cotton, but eventually he traveled all over the border states.

With each trip north, he left behind a bigger family in Mexico. They didn’t want him to go. But they needed money and when the dollar beckoned, he went, like so many others. Each time he came home our grandmother would exclaim with joy – her pajaro, like a hardy bird on a north-and-south flyaway, had returned to her again.

My mother is the oldest of nine surviving children of Mamá Lola. A sister, Delia, died at one year old from complications of dehydration, but really from the lack of medical care then in rural Mexico.

From Xaratanga my mother watched her father go. She felt deeply attached to Papá Chuché, loved him dearly, and suffered from his departures, if only to herself. Why he left them for months at a time, she did not understand. Yet she clung to the vision of seeing him return once more from each trip, bearing gifts. When he came, she would rush into his strong arms.CJ Salgado story photo

As a child in Xaratanga, feminine clothing caught her eye: garbs of cinnabar, flowery frills, and tender textures. But she would never ask for them. How could she? On the ranch, life was hard; fashion was an unspoken aspiration. Still, Papá Chuché managed to come home from his trips with at least one new dress, a shiny piece of jewelry, or a roll of fabric to set free her imagination.

Each gift, like the red dress he brought her once, was special and made her happy. She reveled in the intricacies and colors of the cloth he carried back for his little girl. That ritual came to be consolation for her father’s recurring abandonments, and part of the fascination with the country that lured him from her.

She still spontaneously mutters, “Cómo recuerdo un vestido rojo de pana que me trajo mi papá!”

There was one gift he brought at times, however, that was never for her: big, odd-looking suitcases. Those went to her mother and with her they remained at the ranch to this day, along with a special sewing machine.

For four years, when she was older, my mother went to the neighboring town of Pátzcuaro to study dressmaking, and learned complex embroideries, “canastillas de bebé” for newborns, and myriad other ways to turn fabric to fashion.

Yet as her father, a veritable charro, mounted his horse and rode away to El Norte again and again, his absence dug a hole deeper than any well outside the village.

Some of his children cried. Some drank. As the eldest child, and a girl, my mother could do neither. Instead, she sang. My mother loved music. When her feelings were strong, her singing was stronger. To this day, the words of the singer Cuco Sánchez fill her home: “Anoche estuve llorando, horas enteras, pensando en ti… Después me quedé dormido y en ese sueño logré tenerte en mis brazos… ”

Other times her grief found comfort in her mother’s cooking. Capirotada de pan Comanjo, torejas con dulce, and sopa de habas frescas.

When Papá Chuché was home, the feasting was special. He was a hunter with a .22-caliber rifle who’d set off into the hills surrounding the ranch in search of game, her younger brothers tagging along. Hunting was not something a girl did – but she would wait for him at the edge of the ranch atop a stone fence. Then he’d faithfully reappear with the boys, an armadillo, taquache, or zorillo swinging in hand.

The glittering hills surrounding the ranch on a clear moonlit night beneath a blanket of stars made Xaratanga appear a magical place. Sometimes at night when her father was away in the North my mother’s grandmother, mother of Papá Chuché, would call her to the patio of the ranch house at bedtime. They would hook their arms together. The old lady would face El Norte, raise a hand and make the sign of the cross, blessing her son – “que Dios lo bendiga …”

There was plenty of work, but none that paid. Her chores were unending. Her arms ached. Even the name of the village – Caratacua – she despised. It was the word for a weed common to the area. The branches of the caratacua were bound and made into brooms for girls to use in their sweeping. She tired of the endless sweeping the rocks from around the ranch house.

Every Saturday, by 6 a.m., she’d pack a burro heavily with dirty laundry and trek several miles downhill to the local springs. On her hands and knees, she would find a suitable rock and scrub laundry against it for the rest of the day. She’d wash each piece and lay it out. By sunset, she’d fold each piece, now dry, and bundle it back onto the burro. The only thing that made her forget her aching arms were her legs as she made her way back up the hill.

My mother would help prepare and carry meals out to her brothers who were harvesting corn in the fields. Like her mother, she’d sling a big basket, a “chunde,” filled with tortillas, beans, nopales, and other favorites, onto her shoulder to take to the hungry boys who from age six learned to work the fields from dawn to sunset. After the meal, the chunde would be filled with the fresh corn. To this day, her love of Mexican corn on the cob, brushed with melted butter and sprinkled with chili powder, cotija cheese, and lime juice, remains.

Still the village could just as easily have been named “Piedras,” she thought. There were so many rocks. The fields were covered with rocks, on the surface and below ground. Some spots were so fertile that anything would grow. But in many places the rocks beneath would impede any root trying to take hold – the legacy of volcanic activity across the eons.

When my mother was a teenager, Petronila and Genaro, longtime neighbors from an adjacent ranch, left in search of work, never to return. So did others. The lifeblood of Xaratanga slowly bled out.

So, the stories her father told of life in the U.S. mesmerized her. She imagined riches for the taking. How wonderful must be this place, California, to prompt a man to leave his family, she thought. There, she was sure, she could buy herself a home in a big city, and a little green car to drive around in forever.

She let herself believe it was so. It was easy to do. Papá Chuché was such a positive man in a trying world, chronically genial.

“Solo los pendejos andan triste,” he would say. Only idiots go around sad.

She longed to find out for herself. She was the eldest child, a woman, and expected to work to help her mother to support her younger siblings. But she needed more than just being needed.

Then one day she remembered her vow and quietly left it all. She walked away in the early morning, aided in her escape only by a younger brother, who promised his silence out of deference to the sister who raised him.

My mother had kept in touch occasionally with a cousin, Victoria, who lived in California and who had once invited her to visit. She pawned her beloved Singer sewing machine and boarded a bus bound for Barstow, buoyed by the hope that her cousin would welcome her. She didn’t tell her cousin she was coming. She’d be there faster than any letter.

When she arrived, however, she learned Victoria had died a few months before of leukemia. My mother pondered her dilemma that first hot night in Barstow. She knew she could not stay now. There was no work in Barstow for her. Her cousin’s family let her stay for the night. But what then? Return to Xaratanga empty handed?

That night, as she fell asleep, she remembered her father telling her stories of a great garment industry in Los Angeles.

With her strong arms, she hugged herself, cuddled into her cousin’s sofa, and imagined the fashion that a dressmaker could create with all the cotton her father had picked.

____

C.J. Salgado grew up in East Los Angeles. An avid reader, his first job was working for a library. After serving in the military and going to college, he went on to pursue a professional career in radiation physics. His interest include blogging about issues and events affecting the local community; exploring new places near and afar; pondering novel ideas; and watching science fiction and action movies.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

 By Olivia Segura

Working as a bracero in the farmlands of California, Miguel had heard about the city, its crowded streets, its restaurants and its nightclubs.

Nearly a year after arriving in the United States, he was transferred to an orange-packing facility in a rural town that was close enough to make a weekend trip. At the bus station, Dinah Shore’s “Hit the Road to Dreamland” played on the radio while he ate pancakes and eggs over easy. He boarded the bus and found a seat next to the window. On the drive he fell asleep. A fellow bracero nudged him several times to show him the ocean but Miguel just opened his eyes for a moment and fell back asleep. As the bus got close to downtown, he awoke, straightened up, and pasted his face to the window.

The bus snaked through Chavez Ravine as Miguel got his first glimpse of City Hall in the distance. The white stone tower was the tallest building in town. He leaned forward in his seat, willing the bus to move faster. As the bus rumbled down Main Street, he felt that his eyes were not big enough. Crowds of people marched along the sidewalks while trolleys, buses maneuvered the streets, and cars honked and revved their engines. Cafes buzzed, with well-dressed men and women discussing what seemed to be important business.

The bus pulled into the Greyhound station and Miguel made his way through the streets. Along Broadway Street, windows displayed fashions he had only seen in movies. He began to count the theaters and imagined all he might see at The Palace, The Orpheum and The Million Dollar.

After walking for some time he reached City Hall, the building he had seen from the bus. He walked up the stairs and saw men in suits rushing in and out of the glass doors. He saw, too, his own reflection – a farm boy in work clothes. He turned and headed down the stairs and found a hotel facing City Hall offering rooms for two dollars a night. He sat on the twin bed and re-counted the money saved from his work in the farmlands of California.

He moved each bill from his hand onto the bed. He thought about the day he left his village in Mexico without saying goodbye to his father; the weeks he spent camping out at the Estadio Azteca with thousands of men in Mexico City waiting to be selected as a bracero; the day he first arrived by train in Colusa County to work the fields. Now, at nineteen and a year after entering the United States, he had finally arrived in Los Angeles, the city he had imagined.

Miguel hid most of the money in a sock and placed it in a jacket in the closet. He headed back to Broadway where he paid 35 cents for a full meal at a cafeteria called Clifton’s. He bought a navy blue suit, white shirt and tie at a shop nearby, and then headed to Plaza Olvera for a haircut and a shoeshine. There he asked the men at the barber shop where he could go to hear music. That night, he stood in front of the Paramount Ballroom in Boyle Heights.

The legendary club was built of brick in 1924, the year Miguel was born, and stood two stories tall near the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Mott Street. He looked up at the seven arched windows on the top floor that reflected moonlight and the shadows of people dancing. He walked through the large wooden door, climbed the stairs to the bar and ordered a coke.

Moving to the beat of the big band, he looked out on the dance floor below. A circle was forming around a short guy dancing the jitterbug. Women outnumbered men; the war was on and the men were away. Most of the men in the club were braceros like him who had come from Mexico to harvest crops. Too shy to dance, he watched from the bar all night until the place closed, and then returned to the hotel. He took the bus back to Fillmore on Sunday and told his buddies Roberto and Dionisio about his trip.

From then on, they would work in the fields all week, and go to the City for the weekend. They nicknamed Roberto City Hall because he was the tallest; Miguel was Huero because of his light complexion and blue-green eyes; Dionisio became Shorty.

In Los Angeles they met El Chiberico from Puerto Rico and Walla Walla, another bracero who had picked crops in Walla Walla, Washington and always talked about “Walla Walla this, Walla Walla that.” One night they also met Jorge, a local guy, who told them his mother had a garage for rent. The next week they abandoned their farm jobs and moved to the garage in East L.A.

On the way into the city, they passed the Hollywood Bowl and heard cheering and the drumming of Gene Krupa, the big band drummer who was later arrested for possession of marijuana. Miguel found a job as a busboy at the Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard through Jorge’s brother, who was a bartender there. The brother was a sharp dresser and gave Miguel rides to work in his Buick. Miguel’s friends found jobs, too. They worked all week to spend their money on dressing sharp and dancehalls.

Their first stop on Fridays was usually El Brasil where Miguelito Valdes sang “Babalu,” as the horn section wailed in the background and Valdes played the bongos. Next was La Bamba where Lalo Guerrero sang songs in Spanish and English. Guerrero asked Miguel one night why he was not off fighting in the war. He was from Mexico, Miguel said, and had come to the United States as a bracero to help the war effort working in the fields.

Miguel and his friends often ended the night watching a friend named Tony race his car against others on Broadway. Tony was a good-looking Mexican-American rebel with a notable limp. It was a crazy scene and police did not interfere, as the streets were free of traffic at 1 am.

Miguel switched jobs and worked at the Brown Derby restaurant. Then he worked room service at the Biltmore. One night, he got an order that the other room-service guys offered him money for. He declined their money and went himself. In the room was the world’s richest man, reclining in a chair while beautiful young women gave him a manicure, a pedicure, and a facial. Miguel wheeled in the order, arranged the food and was called over by the man’s assistant, who tipped him a dime.

“That is how the rich stay rich,” he thought. Downstairs, the workers wanted to know what happened; he told them.

On another delivery, a woman was getting out of the shower and asked him to pass her a towel. He was very shy about it, and got red faced when she called him a cutie. He passed her the towel and left quickly, but never forgot her.

Hotel work was more interesting than the fields. But he lived for the city’s nightlife. He saw Duke Ellington at the Million Dollar Theater. On the first note the crowd stood up cheered and never sat down again. At the Shrine Auditorium, he saw a battle of the bands between Benny Goodman and Harry James. He admired the Pachucas in sharp tailored dresses and dark lipstick but they wouldn’t dance with him because he was not a Pachuco. That didn’t matter. There were plenty of girls. One night after the Avalon closed Miguel walked out with seven girls and they went to eat tacos at a Mexican restaurant across the street from Chinatown.

Miguel learned English, mostly by watching films like “To Have and Have Not” with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. His English improved to the point where he translated for his buddies helping them get jobs, order food and anything else they needed. He picked his clothes carefully, striving to be the best dressed, and bought the best he could afford. A few times he was mistaken for a Hollywood actor.

Years before, as a teenager in the quiet hours of the morning while tending his crops, Miguel had imagined what life would be like beyond his village in Mexico. Now he was becoming an Angelino and he felt at home.

One spring morning in 1945 the streets awoke with people, cars, buses and trolleys. More than a year had passed since he had moved to the city. The war had ended weeks earlier and Miguel was walking downtown. He found himself in front of City Hall. The white stone gleamed. The tower of the building had impressed him since his first visit to Los Angeles. Now he again walked up the stairs to its entrance. Businessmen hurried in and out. He approached the glass doors and saw his reflection. He was a tall handsome man in a suit who had contributed to the war effort with his work in the fields. Yet he was no longer a farm boy.

He opened the door for the first time and walked inside.

____

Olivia Segura was born in San Jose, California to immigrant parents from Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and lived, studied and worked in Mexico City for several years. She took the TYTT workshop to begin documenting her father’s life.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
True Tales

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Celia Viramontes*

The train screeched to a halt in Empalme, Sonora. Don Luis adjusted his wide-brimmed sombrero over his head and clutched his small bag tightly to his chest. It carried the barest essentials: one change of clothes, including a thin shirt and a pair of pants for the journey that lay ahead.

outpics1He dipped his hand into a pocket and retrieved the identity documents he’d need to be contracted as a bracero. The men filed out of their seats, adjusting their norteño hats. Empalme represented one more stop along their journey –a junction, as its name in Spanish implies, a temporary way-station en route to El Norte.

Men sat cross-legged, others propped themselves against each other, their hats slumped over their faces, shielding them from the Sonoran heat. Lines of aspiring braceros snaked around the station. They shuffled their feet, kicking up dust, waiting for the bracero list from their home state regions to be called.

The loudspeakers above the station crackled for a few seconds. Braceros perked their ears, standing at attention. The contracting was finished for the day.

Don Luis, joined by two paisanos from his home village,dug his hand into a pocket. Against his coarse fingers, he felt the smooth round pesos inside the lining of his pants. His buddies did the same. Put together, this would buy them arroz y frijoles at the food stand.

¿Y ahora, qué?” And now, what? He turned to ask his buddies, as sunset neared. He wiped sweat off his forehead.

They joined the throngs of men leaving the station in search of shelter. Dust coated their shoes and sandals.

By evening, Don Luis and his paisanos walked the neighborhoods of Empalme. Men, women, and children spilled from their homes. They lounged in their front yards, scantily dressed in thin shorts and t-shirts.

Un peso,” a man in shorts said to them, as he walked across his small yard. “¿Cuántos?” he asked, leading them into his house. How many?

“Tres,” Don Luis was about to say. But by then, ten braceros gathered at the door. They each drew into their shirt pocket, pants, or bag. One peso per bracero. The man led them indoors, as Don Luis and his paisanos laid cardboard slats on the ground. For a peso each, he furnished them with a piece of floor. It beat sleeping on the hot Empalme roads, nakedly exposed to passers-by.

The men laid the cardboard in neat rows. Don Luis laid his back on the cardboard. Its hard edges rubbed his spine. He lay next to his buddy. He wanted nothing more than to sleep and dream. It must be two in the morning now. He licked beads of sweat off his lips, salty like the rest of his body.

Salty like the lake next to the railroad tracks that he remembered from his first stint as a bracero. Destination: Salt Lake City in Utah. Los Estados Unidos had asked for brazos, arms to be put to work in the fields and on the tracks during the war. Those first braceros had boarded the train flashing the “V” for victory sign. Some had returned in ’43 and ’44, wearing jeans and belt buckles, and their wallets a little fatter.

So he’d followed their lead and boarded a train in Mexico and a bus at the U.S-Mexico border bound for Utah. The bus made a final stop in Reno, Nevada, where he’d slept two nights in barracks before arriving at the snowy bracero camp. Don Luis and the men shivered in their thin shirts. To battle the cold, he purchased a sheep-skin coat that ran down the length of his pants. With it, he survived the cold blasts working on the railroad tracks.

Now, he yearned for even a driblet of that icy wind to extinguish the heat radiating from his body. It never came, and neither did the sleep.

At dawn, the men rose from their cardboard beds and headed to the contracting station. A swarm of braceros paced back and forth. They waited. And waited some more.

The hunger pangs were not long in coming. Don Luis dipped into his pant pocket.

Ni un cinco,” he said. Not a nickel.

They left the station and soon found themselves on a street on the outskirts of Empalme. A man summoned them over. He stood outside his yard pointing to trash cans on the side of his home, a water hose, and a littered sidewalk.

“Clean the debris and trash from the sidewalk. Use a water hose to wash it all out. Just be sure to not splatter too much mud.”

They worked through the hollow in their stomachs. When all was done, they had earned a few pesos each and a meal for the day.

That night, it was back to the cama de cartón. Don Luis rested his head and body, in search of sleep. But it wouldn’t come, just like the work contract that hadn’t come today.images

At dawn, a smaller number of braceros congregated outside the contracting station. Loudspeakers blared out names. For the unlucky, it was the call to surrender. Holding their small bags at their sides, braceros trudged back to the depot and a trip back to their village or some other place to try their luck.

Don Luis watched them go. They boarded just as they had arrived: with small bags tucked under their arms, sombreros atop their heads. But bowed lower this time.

Just then a fleet of buses circled the station and pulled into the depot. Brakes screeched. Doors opened wide. The men filed out of the bus, some carrying boxes.

Don Luis walked towards the bustling crowd. Suddenly, he spotted a familiar face. A voice drew near, as a hand, calloused just like his, reached for a handshake. It was a good friend. He carried bags.

“I’ve been all over,” he said.

The man began to rattle off all the places he’d been, all the things he’d seen. Don Luis stopped him short.

Mire, no me platique tanto. No hemos comido. Denos algo.” Look, don’t rattle off so much. We haven’t eaten. Give us something.

The paisano reached into his pocket, and dropped several pesos into Don Luis’ hands. He put his arm over his shoulder. Then he gathered his belongings and headed towards the buses departing south.

Don Luis took the money. The aroma of rice and beans from the food stand beckoned him. For the first time in a long time coins clinked in his pocket, weighing down his pants. The money carried them through another three days.

He and his buddies waited each day at the contracting station. The coins in his pockets dwindled. And then the loudspeakers crackled.

Ya salió la lista!” At last, the list of braceros.

Outside, Don Luis played with the few remaining coins in his pocket, turning them over and over in his fingers.

He hadn’t yet stepped inside the contracting station, but already, his mind was churning. If he was lucky enough to get a three-month contract, he’d walk into a money order station and send almost all his money home. With a six-month extension on that contract, he’d buy cloth for his wife and the girls to order tailor-made dresses. He’d get shirts and pants for the boys.

And if the dollars stretched far enough, he’d buy a battery-powered radio for his family. It would be one of the few in his village back home without electricity. He’d package it all with great care and tie it with twine inside a sturdy brown cardboard box.

___

Celia Viramontes was born and raised in Los Angeles. This story was taken from the book, Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles, which grew from writing workshops given by Sam Quinones at East Los Angeles Library. Contact her at oclaa@yahoo.com
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail