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.