MigrantsTell Your True Tale

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By Celia Viramontes

________

The roll call of names flowed from the merchant’s lips as Antonia and the girls rushed to the village store where women and children gathered for news from El Norte.

Inside, the village’s unofficial postman drew envelopes from a pouch. He’d carried these miles from the nearest town, where mail arrived almost daily, postmarked with the names of far-away places: Arkansas, Texas, and California. Always so many from California. He waved white envelopes in the air, calling out names.

When Antonia heard hers, she nudged through the crowd, past the outstretched arms, and reached for the letter.

She hadn’t heard her husband’s voice in more than a year, since he’d left to labor in San Buenaventura, California, a place of good fortune, as its name in Spanish denoted. She and the children longed to hear his footsteps approach the bend in the dirt road near their adobe home and his voice sing, “¡Ya regresé, familia!”—“I’ve returned, family!” The words carried a melody as nostalgic as a Pedro Infante ranchera they’d heard streaming from the rare battery-powered radio inside a villager’s home.

***

“¡Números!” the foreman announced at dawn, rattling off numbers near the orange groves of Ventura. Don Luis listened, ready to answer as if it were his name. More than a year into his bracero work stint, he longed for the sounds of home: crickets singing in a village lit by a full moon’s glow and family calling out “¡Papá!” upon his return.

“Forty-four!”

Don Luis slung the canvas sack around his shoulder. The foreman directed him to the orchard, where a crew of braceros gathered.

They propped 14- and 18-foot ladders against the trees. Don Luis dashed up the trees. He grabbed the fruit with one hand and clipped with the other. He climbed, clipped and dropped the fruit into the sack. On the way down, he poured in the oranges into a crate. He’d scrambled up and down like this for days in hopes of a hefty check.

At sundown the ladders came down and foremen counted the boxes. Workers climbed into trucks and headed back to camp.

In the evening, the men retired to their barracks and rows of cots lining a large hall. The scents of lemon, orange and sweat hung in the air. Don Luis lay on his cot. The men spoke in hushed tones.

The lights went out; the voices trailed off. In a corner, a ranchera sung by Las Hermanas Padilla, a duet, streamed from the speakers of a radio perched on a wooden crate, the song of a dove, a palomita mensajera, sending a message of love across the distance. Don Luis closed his eyes, a pile of letters by his cot. He’d answered each one, tucked a money order inside. “I’ll be home soon,” he’d written in the last one.

Days later, the foreman issued paychecks. Don Luis took his. One hundred dollars and over 500 boxes appeared next to his pick number. But nearly $25 had been deducted for board and meals: oatmeal and fruit, white bread bologna sandwiches, taquitos, spaghetti, beans and the occasional meat. He pocketed the check and ventured into town one last time.

On the main drag, he and his fellow braceros entered a store to cash their checks and make purchases. Some rushed to the men’s department for Stetson hats, watches and boots. Others scoured the women’s section for nylon stockings, cosmetics and jewelry.

He watched as the men flocked to aisles nearby. He followed them, passing phonographs, typewriters, treadle sewing machines. He stopped and stared at a boxy device on display.

He marveled at the brown leather handle, wooden paneling and shiny dials.

“¿Cuánto?” he asked the clerk for the price.

“Cincuenta.”

He fished for the check in his pocket to cash it and pay the $50.

He remembered his first shopping trip in Utah as a war-time bracero working on the railroad tracks. In town, nylons, sugar and new radios were scarce because of the war. English voices blared from shopkeepers’ radios, delivering news of the war along with the latest Andrews Sisters songs. But back in camp, he and his fellow braceros reveled in the sounds of home they heard in the double Rs that rolled from their tongues and the Mexican songs they’d discovered on a radio.

“I’ll take it,” Don Luis said to the clerk, after confirming that it was battery-powered. He carried it back to camp.

That night, he packed cloth, girls’ dresses, pants and shirts into cardboard boxes. He nestled the radio between the garments and closed the flaps, tying them down with twine. But the radio swayed and tumbled, so he unpacked it. He wrapped thick towels over it, placing it inside his suitcase instead.

The next day, workers filed into a single line outside camp, their numbers checked off a list by a labor contractor. They loaded cardboard boxes and green metal suitcases atop buses and boarded for the trip south.

Don Luis slumped into a seat beside a buddy, who told him his plans to set up a sewing shop for his family and fill it with customers from the village, the mother who needed to mend her children’s pants, the girls eager to see the new patterns and colors of cloth from El Norte, to be fitted around their waists.

“And what are you taking?” he asked.

Don Luis described the light-brown exterior, wooden cabinet and shiny dials of his prized possession.

“¡Qué chulada!” his buddy exclaimed. It was a beauty, Don Luis agreed.

The bus rumbled past strawberry, orange and lemon fields. As it neared the U.S-Mexico border, the braceros guarded their goods with a watchful eye. They got off, as boxes, knapsacks and suitcases were unloaded from the bus.

Don Luis and the men knew the routine. Stories abounded of the watch or hat that enticed a border guard. Some carried extra cash just in case, though the goods they carried were free of tariffs. Yet they clung to the cash in their pockets to pay for the additional bus or taxi fare home, the last leg of their journey.

Up ahead, a border guard inspected a bracero’s suitcase. Don Luis held his breath. Then he watched as a guard unknotted the twine on his cardboard box to sift through the pile of clothes.

“Muévanse” the guards said, prodding the men to move along.

Don Luis secured his cardboard box once again and took his belongings, the radio stored safely in his suitcase. He boarded the bus bound for Zacatecas.

It travelled for nearly a day, crossing one Mexican state after another. Braceros got off at each stop, including Don Luis’ buddy, who waved goodbye, hauling his sewing machine.

The bus finally slowed at a familiar spot. Don Luis gathered his boxes and suitcase and hailed the only taxi in town.

It weaved in and out of narrow paths and onto dirt roads leading to a remote village, its silence broken only by the “cri-cri-cri” of crickets singing in the countryside.

The driver braked. Don Luis unloaded the boxes and handed coins to the driver. He gripped the suitcase, leaving the boxes behind, to cross a drier than normal river bed. His shoes crunched on the dirt path. Around the bend, voices erupted near a pair of orange and lemon trees in the dirt courtyard.

“¡Papá!”

“Ya regresé, familia!”

His family huddled around him, the small glass bulb of a petroleum lamp lighting their faces.

The children trekked to the river to retrieve the boxes.

When he’d settled in, he opened the gifts. Swatches of cloth, clothes and a brown rectangular object spilled out.

His daughter traced with her finger the letters engraved on the radio: P-H-I-L-C-O. That night, the voices of Pedro Infante and Lola Beltrán flowed from the speakers, singing of love and loss.

At sunrise, Antonia and the girls patted tortillas as the radio blared songs and radio novelas. The radio followed them outdoors for “Tardes Rancheras,” a medley of afternoon tunes that reached the ears of neighboring villagers. They listened and lingered, wondering when their husbands, fathers or sons would return.

Don Luis plowed the fields with his yoke and oxen. The oldest children assisted with planting corn and beans despite the drought-plagued land. At the foot of a mesquite tree, he and Antonia collected top soil and walked back home. They poured the soft soil beside the orange and lemon trees and planted flowers. Rare raindrops trickled down a few days later.

But the call for brazos, arms, to work in El Norte continued to pour into the villages. It came in handbills posted in municipal offices, in newspapers, in chats among returning migrants. And in the announcements heard on new battery-powered radios.

After several months at home, Don Luis gathered a satchel with a change of clothes and walked out onto the dirt path, his name secured on his village’s bracero list.

“Adiós, Papá,” his children said, wrapping their arms around him.

Antonia gripped his arms, then let go.

The taxi rumbled on as he waved and waved, long after his family faded from sight.

He’d board a bus and train en route to the bracero recruitment center in northern Mexico, 800 miles away. He didn’t know where his work stint would take him or the pick number he’d be assigned, but he’d memorize it too, as sure as his name.

***

In a remote Mexican village, a child tugged at the hem of a mother’s dress, asking for a father’s whereabouts.

“He’s in the North. He won’t be long,” she’d reply, as the radio played songs of longing and a tune about a palomita mensajera, a dove carrying a message of love.

Far away, Don Luis lay on a cot at night as the voice of singer José Alfredo Jiménez wafted through speakers from inside a California bracero camp, accompanied by memories of raindrops on blooming chrysanthemums and women’s hands patting tortillas at dawn, singing alongside a radio.

________
Celia Viramontes was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California, the youngest daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her public policy research on immigration and education has been published in numerous academic journals and books. Through writing, she delves into the untold stories of immigrant communities, their aspirations and their struggles. Contact her at oclaa@yahoo.com.
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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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