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By Celia Viramontes

The flat-bed truck rumbled along the back roads of Ventura County, California. Don Luis crouched in a corner. His buddies’ elbows poked his ribs. It had been a long day, climbing ladders, filling sacks, emptying lemons into crates on the way down. But it beat picking beets in Nebraska. He’d returned home penniless after that stint, despite pleas to officials at the border bracero office to recoup his wages. At the cooperativa store in his Mexican village, he’d awaited a check in the mail that never came. Now, a year later, the memory of that fruitless trip to the Great Plains still stung like thorns tearing his skin as he picked lemons. But he’d get his pay, he thought, as he leaned against the truck’s side panel, while the engine hummed and he fell asleep.

Then a siren shook him from his slumber. Braceros scrambled, flailing their arms in the dark, canvas sacks still slung across their shoulders.

Don Luis sat upright. In the distance, the red lights atop a patrol car blinded him. Brakes screeched as the truck skidded off the road. A few feet away, a door slammed and footsteps crunched on gravel.

An object gleamed in the dark as a man approached the truck.

“All of you, get down,” he said, a badge affixed to his uniform. The foreman slammed the driver’s door and instructed the men, in Spanish, to climb out, then followed his crew.

Don Luis and the men flung canvas sacks off their backs and jumped out of the flatbed truck.

“Single file,” the police officer said.

Don Luis lined up, just as he did at the border bracero processing center where ranchers’ representatives gathered to select workers. He knew the routine. No shiny belt buckles, smooth hands, or back talk.

His neck stiffened and hands fidgeted. Was someone in trouble? As far as he knew, everyone had bracero papers. Or did they? In recent years, contracts had been harder to get.

The officer scanned the men’s arms.

“I need you,” he began, pointing to each of them. “There’s a fire raging over there.” He pointed to the hills.

Don Luis and the men broke away from the line. Fire trucks screeched as crews disembarked, hauling hoses, protective gear, and equipment.

Don Luis followed them into the desolate hillside. His feet and legs dragged, heavy from the day’s climbing. Drops of sweat ran down his forehead.

After nearly two hours, his legs began to buckle as he reached the hilltop. He looked up and saw firemen frantically extinguishing flames. Don Luis and his buddies hauled buckets, equipment, and hoses to them through the night.

As the sun peeked above the Ventura skyline, a sweet aroma cut through the haze. Workers set up a table, spreading it with bread and coffee. They sat there – braceros and firefighters together – atop the hillside, amid the embers. Don Luis poured a cup of coffee and bit into the bread. It filled his empty stomach.

Then he and his buddies followed the foreman for the downhill trek and drive back to the bracero camp, where lemons and oranges waited to be picked.

* *

About that time, the postman at the village cooperativa store announced: “A letter for Don Luis.” Antonia grasped the envelope addressed to her husband, then handed it to her father to read.

“From Nebraska,” he said, opening the envelope. A check spilled out.

It came just in time. Food was scarce at home. They went to town to cash it.

In town, the teller studied the check.

“And where is Don Luis?” he asked.

“In El Norte,” Antonia replied.

The teller shook his head, returning the check. “He must sign.”

Antonia and her father headed back to their village. She dictated a letter to her sister and inserted the check in an envelope addressed to Luis in California.

It would arrive in two weeks.

* *

Don Luis removed his canvas sack and followed his buddies back to the Oxnard bracero camp. At the entrance to the barracks, the mail carrier waved letters in the air. Braceros gathered around him, arms outstretched. Don Luis listened for his name.

When it came, he grabbed the envelope — a letter from home! – and unsealed it: a check for $100 from Nebraska. It was less than he’d expected. But it would put food on the table back home. He pocketed it and cleaned up for dinner at the mess hall. At night, he guarded it near his cot.

On Sunday, he presented the check to his foreman.

“It’s good,” the foreman said in Spanish, examining it. So Don Luis donned his best pants, straightened his shirt collar, and headed into the colonia, where – unlike in Nebraska and Utah – store clerks greeted him in Spanish.

He walked into a store displaying women’s and men’s clothes. He picked out a shirt and pants, then reached for the check inside his pocket.

“Please cash it,” he told the clerk.

“Sure,” the clerk replied. Don Luis signed, and walked out with his purchases.

The following day, he was back to climbing ladders and picking lemons. At sunset, he and the men mounted ladders back onto trucks, and stacked crates. On the way back to camp, he thought of the letter he’d write home.

But at the barracks’ entrance, he stopped. A badge sparkled on a man’s dark uniform.

“Hey, you,” he barked, in Spanish.

Don Luis’ neck stiffened. Was there a fire to put out? Or was someone in trouble? The police officer stared him down.

“Were you at a store? What did you get?”

Don Luis stood erect. But his hands fidgeted.

“A pair of pants and shirt,” he replied.

“You need to go back. And be sure to take the money and pick up your check. It’s no good.”

Don Luis washed. He grabbed the unworn pants and shirt and stuffed his pockets with change left over from his last paycheck. He headed into town.

At the store, he laid the clothes on the counter and paid for them with cash.

The clerk took the money and retrieved the check. “It’s no good,” he said, shaking his head.

“Why not?” Don Luis asked. “What’s wrong with it?”

The clerk shrugged his shoulders, but suspected it had expired.

Don Luis sighed, took it and folded it in his pocket and headed back to camp. The letter home would have to wait.

That night, he paced the barracks. He circled a trash bin near his cot, drew the check from his pocket, then stuffed it back in. He’d sleep on it. He hid it in a spot by his cot.

It stayed there for two days.

His mind raced. He recalled the sting that shot through his back in Nebraska’s beet fields.

One day, he approached the foreman. He spoke to him of Nebraska, the police officer standing at the barracks, the family back home, the check that was no good.

“Don’t fret,” the foreman said. He took the check, scrolled a white paper through a typewriter and tapped on the keys. Don Luis watched as he signed the letter with a flourish, folded, and sealed it alongside the check in an envelope.

Weeks passed as Don Luis labored in the orchards. Then one day, the postman arrived and another check from Nebraska fell into his hands.

That Sunday, he donned his new shirt and pants and went into town. He fingered the crisp check in his pocket.

At the store, the clerk greeted him. “You again?”

Don Luis placed the check on the counter and signed it with a flourish.

“How’d you do it?” the clerk asked, processing a money order for $100.

Don Luis grinned. Then he eyed the colorful cloth displayed on an adjacent counter. “Give me a swatch of cloth, for a woman this tall,” he said, pointing up to his chest.

The clerk rolled out the cloth, measured, cut and folded. Don Luis grabbed a pair of women’s nylon stockings. He remembered these had been rationed during the war.

He paid for his purchases and walked out, passing stores along the way. Then footsteps crunched on gravel nearby.

He glanced back at the shop he’d just passed. Voices in Spanish grew louder.

He watched as braceros exited the shop dangling shiny belt buckles and cowboy boots in their hands. Behind them, other braceros hauled Singer sewing machines atop their shoulders on their way back to camp.

Don Luis chuckled under his breath. He could hear them already – the machines whirring late at night, a seamstress in a Mexican village churning out dresses. He patted the money order in his pocket, and caressed the smooth cloth – a shade of green, the color of lemons ripening on thorny branches before the harvest.

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True Tales

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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
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