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 Sylvia Castañeda

The men from Rancho Chacuiloca knocked on Susana’s door bearing the news of her husband, Santiago.

In an attempt to defend his friend from a grave accusation made by the Federales, he received a blow to the head with a .30-30 rifle.

It was the 13th of November, 1913, three years into the Mexican Revolution; Zacatecas had become the battlefield between the agraristas – land reformers who believed that the land belonged to those who labored it – and the 34-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. A bloody civil war would last seven more years.

At 26, Susana buried her husband and was left alone with her five children.

Weeks passed. One morning, Susana left her adobe one-room house to fetch water from a nearby well; she instructed her children to remain, under lock and key. Susana never returned. Doña Petra, Susana’s mother, received word that the soldiers had left the region, but had snatched her, taking her by the waist as she walked home and forcing her onto a horse.

Susana’s children were cared for by their grandmother, Doña Petra, until each of them was sent to live with different relatives.

Six years passed, Susana found her way back home with an infant in her arms but had left her soul behind.

Although Susana knew the whereabouts of her children, they remained with relatives as she attempted to start anew with the son that reminded her every day of her reluctant relationship with his father.

As she made her way through the streets of town making her daily food purchases from the vendors, voices rumored of her illegitimate son and how her charming beauty captured the men’s attention and menaced the women of the town. No one was willing to offer her work.

She found solace in memories. She summoned the nights when the neighboring ranchos and towns were never without fairs and fiestas. The wind and string ensembles lured the town folk to dance. Susana and Santiago were drawn by the music that called to them deep into their valley between el Teúl and Tepechitlán. As Susana wrapped her rebozos around her younger children much like the cornhusk around the tamales, she thought about the chotis she would dance with her husband up until the wee hours of the night. They left their children asleep – locked the door – and embraced each other as they walked toward the music.

About town, she offered her laundering services to families; many slammed the heavy wood door after cursing her to the devil. She was not deterred. A few households welcomed her services in exchange for tortillas and frijoles for the day and a few pesos.

Work became steady and made her days ordinary. As she carried her child on her back wrapped in a black and white cotton rebozo, she balanced a basket of laundry on her head and walked toward the river. She laid her son on a bed of broad, smooth leaves as she kneeled along the shore. Her curved back rocked back and forth as she pounded the smooth stone against the clothing extended atop a flat rock.

One day, a tall dark man followed her path to the river and admired her from afar, standing with his back to a tall tree. The sun was directly above when Susana finished folding the clothes that were spread on the bushes to dry. She wrapped her child on her back and balanced the basket of freshly laundered clothes on her head and headed into town.

He followed her until their steps paralleled each other and introduced himself as Santos. She hurried on, looking forward without a word, and gripped the basket rim more tightly. Susana had spied him once before along the river. Once they reached town, he bid her good-bye and disappeared into a dusty road. She was relieved that she had not responded to him.

As days went on, Santos continued, each time approaching one step closer to where she washed clothes. Each time he’d compliment her beauty or give her a wild flower. Months passed before she looked him in the eye and smiled and accepted his assistance with the basket. At the edge of town, they would part ways. She walked into town with a feeling of hope.

Torrential rains announced the end of the summer in 1920, making it difficult for Susana to do her work. She had back pain and nausea. Without work, she only had enough frijoles to feed her 15 month old son for the next couple of days and she desperately wanted to speak to Santos.

The next morning, at sunrise, Susana picked up the laundry from her patron’s house and made her way to the river with her toddler in tow and the basket on her head. Frequently, she paused to sniff a mint leaf to curb her nausea and give her back a rest, then went back to work looking out for Santos. As she set the clothes to dry on the shrubs, he appeared before her. Their eyes met.

In a whisper, she announced that she was with child. Santos embraced her. Then he rejected her.

“I cannot accept the responsibility of your carelessness. I am an honorable family man; a married man; the father of two.”

In the spring of 1921, another son, Pablo, was born.

* *

Tlaltenango, Zacatecas

Pablo was the last of her children to marry – three months after his 22nd birthday. He walked out of his sister Lola’s house where he and Susana had lived the last 10 years. Lola was Susana’s 2nd child. She was married, pregnant and rearing six children. She had buried two toddlers in recent years and was caring for her mother Susana who wanted nothing to do with an ordinary day.

Daily at dusk, an owl, perched on the avocado tree branch, guarded the entrance to her room accessible through the courtyard. Susana would shriek, “Here comes the old hag.” Its loud, sharp whistle made her uneasy; she pleaded with it to stop its laughter. With trepidation, her grandchildren entered her room to deliver her meals. Susana faced the wall with her arms extended; her long greying hair fell over her white cotton nightgown as she howled in a rage.

“Get out of here.”

Someone had put an evil spell on her, the family voices murmured.

Night fell. Susana paced the small room, stopping to fling the wooden chair. In a moment of calm, she’d stare out the window, gripping chunks of her hair and yanking it out as the owl remained perched on the avocado branch. Emilia, her 10-year-old granddaughter, was the only child that Susana would allow in; she stood by the door keeping Susana from being lured by the river spirits. The sleep spirit lulled Emilia to a slumber. Then the rooster crowed. Emilia startled, rose from the floor. Sunlight came through the doorway; the owl was gone and so was Susana.

The news of Susana’s disappearance spread quickly. Neighbors joined the family to search the Xaloco River nearby, up and down stream, until the owl was spotted on a mesquite. Huddled, rocking back and forth, Susana stood in a small, dark cave nearby glaring at the screeching owl.

Doña Lola- Emilia’s mom– gathered lanolin from lambs’ wool to cure the severed patches of scalp and the stomach sores her mother, Susana, developed. But she couldn’t rid her of the black lice that infested her body.

“The evil spell won’t go away.”

Susana’s body deteriorated. The priest was summoned to rid her of the evil within.

“There is no cure,” he told them.

She withered away in the spring of 1944. Doña Lola prayed the rosary over Susana’s body, supplicating the Virgencita.

* *

1966, Tlaltenango, Zacatecas

Twilight enveloped the valley. Doña Lola’s youngest daughter, now a teenager, walked past the locked and abandoned room toward the kitchen. While Carmen Alicia made tea, she wondered, as always, about the woman her siblings whispered about – the one who climbed walls like a spider; who was hexed with mal de ojo; the one under the owl’s watch.

Carmen Alicia made her way through the courtyard, carefully sipping her tea. The window to the room was now open and the light of a candle illuminated a shadow of an old woman sitting. She murmured undecipherable chants. Perhaps it was her mother praying. Then she heard coughing coming from another room. There, Carmen Alicia found her mother and asked if she had been praying in the bewitched room.

“No. It wasn’t me.”

An owl screeched in the distance.

“My mother’s spirit has returned.”

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