MigrantsTell Your True Tale

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
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.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Home Page SliderTrue TalesTYTT Export

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Milovan Pompa

[dropcap1]T[/dropcap1]he game had no meaning. We were playing Santa Clara University. But we’d already lost two of a crucial three-game series to them. Had we won those games, we’d have gone to the playoffs by being co-champs in one-half of the season. We still had to play the third game, but we were done.

I got the start that Friday against Santa Clara University and on the drive to our field I was thinking of something to tell the team so we’d at least show up and not get slaughtered. The team wanted to get the game over with quick cause there was beer to drink.

I walked into the coach’s office. My god-mother had called me, I told him. Fresno State’s number one pitcher was academically ineligible and the team was going to forfeit all their games in the second half. We, the San Jose State Spartans, were back in it. The college season is has two halves, with a champion of each half. We could be Champs of the first half of the season now, and we’d be in the playoffs if we beat Santa Clara — as both of us had tied for second place in the first half of the season.

“One sec, I’ll get Bennett (the Fresno state coach) on the phone,” my coach, Gene Menges, said.

My heart dropped.

“Damn, no answer! Are you sure about this?”

“I just talked to her. She was so excited to know we could be going to the playoffs.”

I told the coaches that she was a Fresno State Booster (she wasn’t) and had come to see me pitch when I beat them that year (she didn’t).

“We got to get to the field and tell the team,” he said.

Santa Clara was one of our hated rivals and this year was one of the worst for rag-talk between the teams.

The coach announced to the team what I had told then. They couldn’t believe it, nor could some of the fans and parents.

With new energy, to the mound I went.

Santa Clara was tough that year. They had a good team: Big Jim Sunberg from Texas and Donny Davenport, whose dad was a coach with the San Francisco Giants and a supporting cast of tough players.

I came from Los Angeles two years before with the attitude of teaching the Bay Area kids a thing or two about baseball. So when Santa Clara started to rag-talk me while I was pitching, they were only cutting their own throats.

It was a close game. I had a one-hit shutout for seven innings. Then someone on their team said something about my grandmother. When I heard that, BAM! High and tight right on the outer bicep of one of their best players. The benches cleared but calm was restored when the umpire told everyone that he would call the game unless we got back in the dugouts.

They tied the game in the 8th inning on an unearned run. In the bottom of the 8th inning we scored again and took the lead, 2-1.

In the ninth, I got the first out but the second hitter singled and stole second base. One of their best hitters was up. He had hit me hard earlier.

The count was two and two. It had been a little windy that night, though not anything to notice. I start to deliver my pitch. The wind picked up and a dust-devil funnel cloud about two feet tall suddenly spun right on home plate.

I was releasing the ball and the batter, eyes squinting, threw his hand up and jumped out of the batter’s box.

“Time out! Time out!”

The umpire didn’t move as my pitch sailed over the plate.

“STRIKE THREEEE!”

The stadium exploded. The other team was yelling and screaming, jumping up and down, running onto the field. Their coach raced to the umpire.

“He couldn’t have hit that pitch!”

The batter was on fire.

“I called time out ! I couldn’t see!”

The umpire looked at everyone and walked out to the infield, raised his hands and held his mask over his head. The crowd quieted.

“It was an Act of God. He’s out!”

Santa Clara exploded again. The ump had none of it.

“Play ball!”

I got the next hitter to fly out for the third out and when the catch was made I walked over to the foul line by their dugout, peered in and pointed my finger at them.

“I don’t hear anything about my mom now.”

They promised to beat me down when they got me alone.

“Yeah, right,” I said.

I walked over to my dugout hearing their coach telling them to sit down and be quiet, that I had beaten them fair and square.

That night the game was on Spartan radio, KSJS. As I was putting my gear in my bag, the announcer asked me if I’d do an interview.

I went up to the announcers booth atop the stadium behind home plate. I gave the play-by-play of the last inning. After about ten minutes the interview ended.

By then, the stadium was empty. In the dugout, I found my gear bag and stuff lying on the floor.

“Thanks, guys!” I yelled to a ghostly empty dugout.

I grabbed my stuff and came out of the dugout and back through the field access gate to leave the stadium. As I exited the field, the entire Santa Clara team began filing out from under the stadium to the visitor parking lot. I stopped between the field and the service gate and slowly took a step back.

There I was. Just me and them, face to face.

“Well, well, well, lookie here? All by yourself, Two-Nine?” (My number)” said their big catcher, Jim Sunberg.

“You’re dead, you punk ass!” yelled another player.

By this time the entire team had come out from under the stadium. I was standing at the field access gate, a double-gate, but only one side was swung open. Realizing I was alone, they started to come around me. But the gate didn’t allow all of them them to get in at one time.

I told them that I didn’t give a shit who they were and that there was no way in hell that I was going to allow candy-ass boys to come into my stadium and talk shit about my mom and grandmother.

They started to come at me.

“Oh, what a fair fight?! You can’t beat me on the field so ALL OF YOU have to come at me? Really? You must think I’m as stupid as you look. Want to make it fair? Line up!”

They all looked at each other and then at me.

“Are you serious?” said one.

“Get in line! I’ll kick your asses one by one here, too!”

So they got in line. Sunberg started to pull a bat out of his bag. I told him that he’d better not miss cause I was going to wrap the bat around his arm and break it in three places.

I reached into my bag and put my cleat knife in my glove. As they yelled at him to kill me and as he started to take his first step towards me, the Santa Clara coaches and the umpires came walking out of the tunnel.

“What the hell!” yelled their head coach, who walked over, looking at his catcher and his team in line.

He looked at me.

“You?!!”

“Get in line, coach!” I said. “I’ll kick your ass after I kick this big asshole’s first!”

He saw his team has formed a single-file line. He turned to me.

“What the hell did you say?”

“I said, `Get in line, coach, and after I break this guy’s arm, I’ll kick your ass next!”

He slowly looked at his players lined up then at his catcher holding a bat.

“Yeah coach, can you believe it?” said one player. “He told us to make the fight fair to line-up and he’d kick all our asses one-by-one!”

The coach looked at me. I was in my fighting stance.

“Give me that bat and go get in line,” he said to the catcher.

“Relax, son,” he said to me.

His team began to protest. He cut them off.

“So all of you come out of the tunnel and see him by himself. You attempt to fight him and he tells you all to line-up to make it fair and you all do it?”

Again, one players chirped, “Yeah, coach. Can you believe it?”

The coach looked at me and then at his team.

“I think that if I encountered ONE MAN who told TWENTY-FIVE men to get in line to get their asses kicked that I think I’d run! ARE YOU ALL THAT STUPID? He beat you on the field and thank God I got here in time to prevent him from beating you physically!

He looked at me.

“Son, what’s your name?” He stuck his hand out to shake hands. I didn’t.

“Son,“ he said, “you pitched a helluva game. I wish I had nine players like you.”

He looked at his team.

“Stand aside and let this man walk by. If I hear one word about him while he’s walking by or when we get to the van, none of you will play tomorrow. I might even bring up the JV instead.”

I headed to the dorms. When I got there everyone was showered and shaved and drinking beer celebrating our win without me.

“Where you been?”

“Shit,” I said, and told them what happened.

They all looked at each other, then at me, then burst into laughter.

“It’s true.” I said

We partied most of the night and I wondered what happened to Santa Clara the next day. But that’s a whole nuther story.

___

*Milovan Pompa was raised in Claremont, CA, where he graduated from high school, played baseball and was influenced by Rod Serling. In 1981, pitching for San Jose State University, he led the nation in shutouts, and his league in ERA and hit batters. He was a recipient of a National Academic Athletic Award for also maintaining a 3.92 GPA. He has moved back to his hometown, where he now works and raises a family, plays bass and writes stories about his life. This is his first for Tell Your True Tale.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail