MexicoStorytellingTell Your True Tale

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By Sylvia Castañeda

________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________

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

I wore a pink satin dress with a bow that tied in the back. My dad wore a white short-sleeved button down shirt. His mother taught him to always wear a collared shirt when going out in public. It was 1989. It must have been summer. I sat on my dad’s left arm. It was easy to carry a four-year old who weighed so little. With his right arm, he waved at someone just out of the frame. He wore a look of pleasant surprise; I had just kissed him goodbye on the cheeks.

“Even back then you knew more than your age,” he told me one day at lunch. He’s 78 now and living in affordable senior housing in Chinatown. He lost his sight 13 years ago, but the image of this picture is seared into his memory. I look at this photograph as an adult and wonder what made my dad say goodbye to his whole life that day at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

“I am going to America,” he said in the van ride to the airport.

“Is it far?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Are you coming back?”

“No. But you’re going to come with me.”

“Today?”

“No.”

When I turned six in 1991, I saw my dad again at the Los Angeles airport. I helped my mom push two carts worth of luggage up the carpeted ramp to the arrival gates at Tom Bradley International Terminal. Two years had taken a lifetime’s toll on his face.

“Life is a slippery thing,” he said at lunch. “It takes all the courage you have just to keep living.”

My ears hurt from 16 hours of cabin pressure. We squeezed seven across in the middle aisle on a Boeing 747. It was dark outside our aircraft for a long time while it tumbled up along the eastern rim of Asia, up to the tip of the Soviet Union, across the Pacific to Alaska, and following the coastline down through Canada. A flight attendant let me lay on the floor near the bathroom in the back of the plane because I was so nauseous. My mom sat on the floor next to me and rubbed my head.

“I don’t want to be here,” I cried. “I want to go home.”

When there was daylight again outside the airplane window, I saw little patches of land down below grow to a full-sized city. Life awaited.

“You have arrived in Los Angeles, California. The local time is…” a female voice said over the intercom in Mandarin Chinese. It was hard to hear over the loud cheers.

“Why are they so happy?” I asked my mom.

“Because we’re in America now.”

She asked the other people who got off the plane with her what the signs read and was met with confused stares. A young man in front of us with thick-rimmed glasses pulled out a pocket dictionary and flipped through the pages.

“Hang onto my pant leg,” she said as we squeezed through the stream of passengers. “Don’t get lost. I can’t speak the language.”

The population in China in 1991 was 1.2 billion. In the United States, it was 253 million. Being just one of many, by comparison, was much better here in the U.S. More land for everyone. More food. Life mattered here; in China, we were just a number on a graph. The U.S. was the land of the free. The land of the Self. Here, we manifest our own destinies.

“Where do we line up? What kind of identification do they need?” a woman behind us asked nervously, as we and dozens of others walked into the terminal.

They were people with college degrees, crushed by the Cultural Revolution, disheartened by a lack of choice, who would rather be motel workers in the U.S. than starve back in China. There were hundreds of them with luggage as big as ours inside that fluorescently-lit brown interior. Our whole lives fit into five black zip-up bags as big as I. My dad mailed letters to us with instructions on how to write our new identities in English:

W.X. Huang

116 E. 23rd St.

Los Angeles, CA 90011

“There are standards in America. Try not to stand out too much. They don’t like foreigners,” my dad’s letter read. “Remember to respect them.”

We waited for hours. The brown wood-paneled walls accentuated the terminal’s lack of windows and airflow. The young man with the dictionary slumped over his pile of luggage in front of us. There was only a little chatter here and there. I tried sitting on the floor, but my mom abruptly pulled me back up.

“Stand up,” she said firmly. “Don’t embarrass us. We’re in someone else’s country.”

I tried to imagine what it would be like to sit on top of one of those big bags in front of us. How nice it would have felt to take a nap.

Before we had left Shanghai our relatives helped us pick out our best clothes to wear just for this moment of entry. “You have to look like you have money,” my uncle said at dinner the night before we were scheduled to leave China. “Otherwise they’ll turn you away.”

“They would do that?” my aunt, sitting beside us, asked.

“Yes. You have to make them believe that you’re only visiting.”

But we weren’t only visiting. Even a six year-old could tell from the five big bags that took weeks to pack. We were planning to stay whether they wanted us or not.

China was a place of perpetuated separation between the rich and the poor, the light- and the dark-skinned, the urbane and the provincial. There are 56 ethnic groups in the country but only one, the Han Chinese, made laws. In China, you got one shot at taking an entrance exam for college. There were no community colleges, no transfer opportunities, no mobility. People in rural towns stayed dumb and poor. Destiny predetermined.

The lines of black-haired people in front of us snaked across the terminal. Every few minutes more Chinese nationals piled on behind us from other arriving flights. Blond-haired people went into a separate line next to us that was much shorter. There were booths at the head of the line with uniformed officers hunched over a desk, examining paperwork and looking through bags. One blonde woman waved to me and smiled. She probably knew she was going home. In our line, no one smiled.

“Mom, can we go there?” I pointed as I tugged at her leg.

“That line isn’t for you,” dictionary man said. “That’s for Americans. You’re not American.”

At the front of the line, I couldn’t tell who I was supposed to smile at, so I smiled at everyone who didn’t look like us. My mom pulled out pieces of papers from her red leather bag. Red was the color of good luck.

This moment would be only the beginning of many instances where my mom would utilize her newfound communication skill: body language. The lady officer pointed at my mom’s purse and held up some papers as example. Getting what was being asked, she pulled out all the documentation she had and laid them out for the lady officer to choose. Two male officers opened our bags, occasionally bringing things up for a sniff.

“Why do the foreigners have such big noses?” I asked my mom while in line.

“Because the air quality in America is better.”

They opened our packages of teas, our menthol ointments and our dried fish snacks. I pulled open my pink plastic backpack to show them my package of crackers. They chuckled. Then I lifted my heels to flash my best six year-old smile at the lady officer over the counter. I made sure she saw me because she smiled back.

A couple stamps stamped. “Now we can go find your dad,” my mom said to me with relief.

Memories of my dad were faint. I remembered him running after me on a set of stairs at the park. I remembered him laughing as he fed me noodles with a spoon. I vaguely remembered a man who I had kissed goodbye two years earlier at the airport.

I thought that reunion would solve whatever problems we had before. Each time my mom showed me one of his letters she would say, “We’ll see your dad soon.” Often, he would send me doodles he made during down time at his motel job in Inglewood. Sometimes he would send a photo of him in front of the Federal immigration building in Downtown, or at the pier in Redondo Beach, or holding the box of Andes mint chocolates that came with the letter.

“For little Jian,” they always read.

I didn’t recognize the man who came to pick us up at the airport. He appeared as suddenly as the downtown L.A. skyline while we flew through smog.

“This is your father,” my mom introduced him. I hid behind her leg.

She grabbed my hand and placed it in his hand. They didn’t feel like my dad’s. They were thicker, darker skinned and much more calloused than I recalled. His face was fatter. His eyes were puffy. His head had more gray hairs.

“What happened in those two years?” I asked my dad over lunch in Chinatown.

“Life slipped away from me.”

Two years had erased the vitality in his face. The man I remembered had never heard a woman scream while getting raped at a motel, hadn’t heard of gang wars, or drug addiction, or seen a human body twitch after getting stun-gunned. He hadn’t seen black people, or brown people, and only theorized that we all bled bright red inside.

“We wear our lives on our faces,” my dad said.

Later, on those days when I helped him at a motel near MacArthur Park, we would play games and tried to guess whether someone checking in was a good person or a bad person. He would teach me how to punch someone in the face, a skill that would later come in handy at John Adams Middle School.

“Protect yourself. The world is an unforgiving place.”

But I didn’t know any of these things the day this man picked me up at the airport. I still understood the United States through Shirley Temple movies dubbed in Mandarin.

My mom and I had cheered along with everyone else on the aircraft because, finally, we were here in the land of the free. Everything would be okay. I would see my dad again – the same man I had kissed goodbye in the photograph.

____

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.
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By Maria Fernandez

Aureliano Valdovinos is walking under the October moonlight. The dirt road is full of shadows, but he is not afraid. He can feel his gun at his waist, moving with him. He’s been walking for more than one hour. Once he gets to the crossroad, he will catch a bus to Sahuayo; a second bus drops him off in San Pedro Caro, Michoacan, where he is now living. With each step he takes, he is leaving his old village, Jaripo, and his girlfriend of several years, Esther.  The cluster of adobe huts, illuminated only by petroleum lamps, gets smaller by the minute.

Men have been leaving Jaripo for years. This small village in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, along with many other villages across the country, sends its working age men to the United States, to work legally as manual laborers under the Bracero program, an agreement the two countries entered in 1942. Thousands have left with contracts, for months at the time. They return home for some weeks, just to depart again with a new contract. Yet, poverty is not the reason Aureliano is walking away from the place where he was born.

It was August 15, the day of the Virgin Mary.  Just after 6:00 pm. People were gathered at church for a rosary in honor of the Virgin. The sweet smell of flowers, and candles burning, mixed with the murmur of prayer. At the altar, a statue of Virgin Mary, dressed in a blue and white outfit, stared at devotees with an almost human expression of kindness and compassion.

Nobody knows why Moices Salceda pointed his gun at Rafael that afternoon. Rafael was sitting on some steps leading to the plaza. Later, they said Moices threaten to kill Rafael for no reason, other than feeling like bullying someone he knew unarmed. The two had never had any problems before. Antonio, Aureliano’s younger brother, happened to be standing nearby. He saw Moices pointing his gun at Rafael, a close relative, and ran to find a gun for himself, snatching it from one of his uncles. Antonio came back yelling for Moices to leave Rafael alone, and to come resolve whatever the problem was, now that he too was armed.

The two men ended up face to face. It all happened fast. Antonio fired first. One bullet hit Moices in the head. Moices lay dead on the street; 18-year-old Antonio was in shock. Revenge was law in town; it wouldn’t be long before armed men from the Salceda’s family stormed the plaza. Aureliano heard the commotion from inside the church. When he realized Antonio was involved, he rushed to his brother, who was still unable to move.

“Let’s go!”

Aureliano kept repeating.

“We have to go!”

Antonio started to move. He slowly bent over to pick up his hat and then took off running across people’s backyards.

Nobody else died that day in Jaripo. The gun battle that followed between the the Salcedas and the Valdovinos left only one wounded man on the Valdovinos’s side; but nothing was ever the same. Most of the Valdovinos clan had to move to another town. Aureliano’s family home and his father’s land had to be sold. Aureliano missed his friends, and working on his father’s fields, but more than anything he missed Esther.

Esther was a pretty, quiet girl, with long, dark, wavy hair and dreamy eyes. They met in elementary school, and remained friends until he asked her to be his girlfriend in their early teens. That’s why now, after the troubles, he kept coming back every week or two. He would only see Esther for half an hour or one hour each time. She pleaded for him to stop visiting. A few years had passed since Moices was killed. Nobody had bothered Aureliano during his visits, but is was impossible to say it would never happen. His gun was always ready; Esther was always on edge.

Esther’s family liked Aureliano. Her mother made tortillas for his mother for a small fee. They noticed the handsome, hard-working young man early on, and welcomed the relationship once they learned about it. The couple had talked marriage but nothing was decided, until one day Esther accepted Aureliano’s proposal in a letter. Aureliano paid for the wedding with money he earned as a bracero, pruning beets in Idaho, harvesting peas in Minnesota and corncob in Delaware. The newlyweds settled in San Pedro Caro. He was 24-years-old, Esther was two years younger.

For the next several years they were often away from each other. Esther, like many other Mexican women at the time, was giving birth and raising kids almost on her own. Aureliano always sent money home when he was away, working in the United States. He enjoyed bringing back gifts for the kids when he returned. But he always left again, sometimes with contracts, sometimes working independently. Esther would find out she was pregnant and write to her husband with the news. In spite of the money coming reliably in Aureliano’s letters, it was tough being a single mother to seven children. The day little Carlos died of stomach flu, which often killed poor babies. Aureliano was working in the United States. He didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to his son.

Every day, at exactly 12:00 pm, the women in the neighborhood took out their chairs and sat in front of their houses to wait for the mailman. Sometimes he passed by a house without stopping. They picked up their chairs and went back inside, hopeful that tomorrow would be different. Sometimes letters came with no money orders. The husband or the son would explain that frost had made it difficult to harvest the tomatoes or the asparagus. They had to wait. Yet the mail remained the most expected time of the day.

San Pedro Caro was a town of fisherman, farmers and migrant workers. By the beginning of the sixties running water was a privilege for few. Women and girls washed clothes by hand at the public “lavaderos,” or even at the edge of a canal, also popular with boys for swimming. Neighbors with wells in their backyards, opened their houses for the community. They endured the constant coming and going of people carrying buckets of water. Nobody had to pay, only patiently wait for their turn and follow the rules, like using only the rope and bucket already at the well to get the water out.

At night, and regardless of her complaints about the lack of help to buy new batteries, Maria Gil would take her radio out and put it where all could hear the soap opera. Women and kids alike surrounded the neighborhood’s only radio.

Esther was not very sociable, but it was difficult not to become part of the communal routines. People shared more than radios and water, and more than the sounds of kids playing on the streets; they shared the absences of loved ones, and the hope and loneliness that came with it. They shared the hardships for the lack of social services and the heartache of seeing babies die. But most also shared a dream, the dream of one day setting foot in “El Norte,” joining their husbands, fathers and sons.

Every time Aureliano returned home from the United States, he found work in the fields of well-to-do families in town. Even if he only had weeks to be with his family, he didn’t rest. One morning when on his way to work, while hauling farming equipment with his horse, tragedy struck. The horse got scared and threw him. The heavy piece of farming equipment trapped and crushed one of Aureliano’s arms when it fell on him. Some surgeries later he had improved but not totally recovered. For several years he was unable to return to work in the United States. He continued working on whatever jobs he was able to handle, but with more mouths to feed – now a total of 11 – for the first time since they got married, Esther and Aureliano’s family experienced hunger.

The economic situation was so bad that the oldest kids had to drop out of school to help. By the time Aureliano’s mobility and strength returned to his arm, some of the kids were young adults and teenagers. It was now their turn to look North. They left one by one, the way it always happens. At the beginning of the seventies, Aureliano made once again the trip to the United States to reunite with his sons, in Los Angeles, California, sending for Esther and the younger kids a couple of years later. The two oldest daughters had already married and stayed in Mexico.

For Esther “El Norte” was nothing like she had imagined. The two-bedroom apartment where she and her three kids landed, was infested with rats and roaches. The space was already home to Aureliano, three of their sons and two other male relatives; one son had already moved out and had a wife and a baby. The apartment complex was in the heart of East Side Clanton 14 St territory, one of the oldest gangs in Los Angeles. The two adult sons liked to party and were often out late at night. The teenager was ready to follow in their footsteps. Drive-by shootings and gang violence were frequent.

Esther had no friends to talk to. She had to clean and cook for ten people. She and her two girls often pushed a shopping cart full of dirty clothes to the laundromat. She always made sure to get the sand from the beach out of the seams and pockets of her son’s pants. She imagined the beach, and all the nice places in California she had been told about in stories. So far, she had not seen many.

During the week, with the kids at school and the man at work, in a dilapidated living room and surrounded by old furniture, she often buried her face in her hands and cried. Esther and Aureliano had grown distant from years of separation. Aureliano couldn’t understand why she was unhappy. It was true they didn’t have a car, they didn’t go places. It was ten people in a two-bedroom apartment. She was alone for long periods of time, unable to get around on her own, but was it really that bad? Why couldn’t she just be content?

As months and months passed, sadness and hopelessness took a hold of her middle age heart. She finally had enough, returning to Mexico with Aureliano, and their two younger daughters in the early eighties. Sadness went home with her. Depression never really left after those years.

Settled back in Mexico her daughters had what they needed, but when it came time for them to go away to college, Esther couldn’t let them go. Universities were several hours away, in Morelia and Guadalajara. It was better they returned to Los Angeles, there at least they had their brothers.

Luz Elena, the youngest daughter and the one that used to run to Esther with tissue for her to dry her tears, back when they lived near 14th Street, was the last one to leave the family home in Mexico, and move back to the United States. Once again, Esther found herself in an empty house. Aureliano always had an easier time adapting to the changes. In San Pedro, he enjoyed cock fights and sitting at the plaza with his friends. Esther walked to church and to the market alone most of the time.

Esther and Aureliano returned to the United States many times, they stayed with their son’s and daughters in the houses they purchased in the suburbs of Los Angeles: South Gate, Huntington Park, Downey. They welcomed many grandkids and then great-grandkids over the years. She told stories of how much she had worried and how difficult those first years in the United States had been. When shopping at the mall with Luz Elena, she picked nice shoes and nice clothes for herself. Don’t I deserve nice things, she would ask no one in particular. A picture from that time, of her, Aureliano and her two daughters, shows her standing in front of a water fountain at Macarthur Park in Los Angles, her lips tight and her eyes looking far into the distance.

Esther died in Downey, California at the age of 78.

Aureliano will soon turn 90. He remembers the beauty of her long hair and her blessings every time he started back down the dirt road, back in Jaripo, back when they were young.

____

Maria Fernandez, originally from Michoacan, Mexico, is a small-business owner and mother to an 8-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. She lives in West Covina, California and enjoys music and almost all kinds of documentaries. She is planning on attending business school and on continuing writing stories about her family and her community. Contact her at fabricfanclub@aol.com.

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By Jacqueline Gonzalez Reyes

The summer of 2009 I spent in Houston working with janitors as they fought to renew a union contract. IMG_6637 - Version 3

That July 4th, local pastors held a press conference supporting the janitors. Several union janitors were asked to attend.

That’s when I met Carmen Sanchez. I picked her up and drove her to the event. Carmen was our shortest member, in her sixties, direct, well groomed. She was from Chihuahua, Mexico. She was always at union events. She’d been a janitor for 12 years.

That afternoon, driving her home, my car got a flat tire. I called AAA, but it was clear that due to the holiday help would be a long time coming.

So it was that I found myself with Carmen Sanchez in the middle of downtown Houston on July 4th.

I thought I’d just get Carmen a cab and have her on her way home. But she refused.

“I don’t have anyone waiting for me at home,” she said.

That day, Houston dripped with humidity. She took out a jug of ground-oatmeal water.

“This water saves lives.”

I smiled and drank.

“Whenever it gets this unbearable, I go to my nearest department store and cool off,” she said. “We’re just blocks away from JC Penney. You want to go?”

Sure, I said. AAA was going to call when their truck was on its way.

We walked to Carmen’s JC Penney. The air conditioning hit us like an arctic blast.

We walked every aisle of that store. Carmen slowed when we came to the makeup. This lipstick is the best, she said. Ruby red. She wore it every day for work.

“In the office where I work, I figure I have thirty minutes where the executives and I exchange eyes. They get dressed up, so why shouldn’t I? If they take time to look good on the job, so do I.”

We walked through the shoes.

“I prefer copper brown shoes when I work,” she said. “That color best matches my work uniform.”

She wore a uniform every day. Shoes and makeup were all that were hers at work.

We passed the Bath and Body Works store and tested the seasonal lotions. Then we talked lady stuff – my favorite lipstick, her favorite recipes, and men she recommended I date.

“Why do you do this type of work?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you prefer to date and be a bit mischievous while you can?”

Before I could speak, she said, “No need to answer now –that’s your homework.”

She began to talk about her life.

When she was young, she had a daughter, then a son. She separated from an abusive husband.

To offer her children a future, she left them with her husband’s sister and took a train to the border and crossed into the United States using a phony ID. That was in 1978. She went first to Washington D.C., but with no Latinos in the capital, she didn’t feel comfortable. She moved to Houston.

Living on minimum wage jobs made it hard to ever get back home. But she wired money to her children in Chihuahua every week.

“One week the money would go to my kids’ necessities; the next week to save for the `coyote,’” who would someday take her children across to join her.

Then one day she called home and no one answered.

She called from different phones. Still no answer. She kept calling. She waited six months and went to Mexico. In her town, her mother told her that her kids now ran away from her when they saw her.

Carmen went to the house and knocked. No answer. She waited outside her children’s school – they were teenagers by now. They saw her and ran away. Carmen broke down crying. She stayed for a month and her children refused to see her. A neighbor sent her a message, No quieren saber nada de ti. No one wants to know anything about you. The coyote fund you were sending money to we used for a family emergency.

Carmen returned to Houston. That was in 1988 and she hadn’t seen or talked to her kids since then – except once. She continued to call the number she had for her children’s aunt. Then one day her daughter answered.

“It’s your mother,” Carmen said. There was no response. Silence.

“Okay, don’t say anything. Just give me a minute and don’t hang up. I just want you to know I love you and never stop loving you.”

A minute later the phone went dead.

Later, they changed their number. She kept calling her mother. Go to the house, Carmen pleaded, bring them cookies.

Tightened security on the border and low wages in Houston kept Carmen from ever traveling back to Mexico. She couldn’t attend her mother’s funeral in 1995 and still wasn’t over that.

But for 20 years, she never stopped wiring money to the same account for her children that she’d always used. Every month the bank told her that the money had been picked up.

She still sends the money, she told me, even though the kids are now adults and they haven’t spoken since they were in elementary school. An older aunt is the only family she has left in Chihuahua who still talks to her.

Perdi todo,” she said. “I lost everything and I don’t know why. My mom, my kids. I even didn’t take the opportunity to getIMG_0280 amnesty.”

In her neighborhood when amnesty for illegal immigrants came around, so did a lot of fraud, and people pretending to be attorneys. Money was tight, too, and she no longer trusted anyone.

“If I can’t trust my own family …” she said, her voice trailing off. “I’m in a foreign land. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

Night fell and by then we were sitting on a curb near the parking lot. The AAA guy had finally shown up. We spotted a hot dog vendor and treated ourselves to hot dogs and chips.

As the AAA guy worked, we ate and watched fireworks explode in the distance.

“Ahh, I liked that one, the three-colored firework!” Carmen said. “Now that was worth the wait.”

____

*Jacqueline Gonzalez Reyes was born and raised in Koreatown, Los Angeles. This story first appeared in Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles. Contact her at gonzalesreyesj@gmail.com.

 

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