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[dropcap1]W[/dropcap1]hen I was in the third grade, I was chosen to be the announcer at my school’s spring assembly, which meant I would go on stage and announce each class as they came up to perform. It was an honor for a student to be chosen by their teacher to represent the school in this way, and of course, the announcer was to dress in her best clothing.

I didn’t ask my grandmother, who was raising me, for a new outfit, because I figured we couldn’t afford it, but I told her that the teacher said I needed to look my best. I waited for her to say how she planned to make me look ‘my best,’ instead, the corners of her mouth turned downward, and after a few seconds, she said simply, “Okay.”

Over the next few days, I saw her working at the sewing machine that sat on our dining table. The spool of thread at the top of the machine bobbled rapidly, as her left hand guided a piece of tan material under the machine’s large needle, and her right hand rotated a wheel on the other end. The whirring of the machine’s foot pedal could be heard throughout the house. She was making a dress for me to wear at the assembly, but inwardly, I wanted a new one – not one that was homemade.

My grandmother lived two lives. There was her home life with us, where she cooked dinners of fried potatoes with onions in enormous cast iron skillets and baked biscuits from scratch, on which we’d pile her homemade peach preserves. There was also her work life away from home, where she wore a white uniform and worked in up-to-date kitchens, preparing dinners like roast duck with steamed asparagus.

Some evenings, after working a full day, she would return to her job to serve at dinner parties. She laughed about the time her curiosity about caviar got the best of her. She wanted to taste this delicacy, so when she had a moment alone in the kitchen, she piled a large amount on a cracker and put the whole thing in her mouth. She quickly realized she didn’t like the oily taste at all and turned to the sink and spit it out. “If they knew I had spit that expensive stuff in the sink, I don’t know what they would have done,” she said.

As a “domestic” for two families, my grandmother not only prepared dinners for these families, but she also cleaned their homes, did their laundry and watched their children. At home, she didn’t do much of the housekeeping, nor did she prepare dinners that were anything like those she cooked at work. Being a domestic was the only job my grandmother had while raising my sister, my two brothers and me. My father didn’t always live with us, but he helped out by giving her money toward the rent and taking care of our school needs. The everyday feeding, clothing, and raising, in general, was done by my grandmother. She was the drill sergeant who made sure the girls dusted, washed the dishes and ran the vacuum cleaner, while the boys had trash duty, cut the grass and hedges and shoveled snow from our sidewalks and steps.

During the summers, she would enlist all of us to help with larger projects around the house. She would put on a pair of jeans, which she normally didn’t wear, pull her hair back into a ponytail, and work along side us, as we washed walls or painted rooms. Strands of her thin, silky hair would inevitably break free and become plastered to her perspiring forehead. I guess the fact that we lived with her didn’t allow my grandmother the luxury of smothering us with pampering.

“I’ve worked hard all my life,” she would say, and she didn’t expect any of us to be lazy or unproductive either.

But the laundry was a task that my grandmother did not assign to any of her grandchildren. In our basement was a tall wringer washer that clanked loudly and literally inched itself around the room as it spurted soapy water on the floor. When it finished a load of clothes, my grandmother, who at 5’2” was just a little taller than the washer’s round tub, would crank the handle at the top of the machine and it would slowly squeeze the water from the clothes, piece by piece. She would fill a wicker basket with the wet clothes and hang them on a clothesline in our backyard. Sometimes, she would hang laundry out in the cold Ohio winters, but if the air was too frigid, she hung laundry from clotheslines strung from pipes in our basement.

When she had only a few pieces of clothing to wash, she would place a washboard in a large metal tub and scrub the clothes by hand. Although, she did the family laundry weekly, it was pretty much an all-day job for her on Saturdays. After hours of wringing load after load of clothes, she would recline on the couch in front of the television and talk about how much easier it was to do laundry on her job, because there were modern washers and dryers in those homes. Whenever she needed the convenience of an automatic washer and dryer, such as when it was time to wash our bed quilts or throw rugs and such, we piled loads of our laundry in the back of the car and go to a laundromat – still pretty much an all-day job.

Hard work was something my grandmother had done since she was a little girl. She was one of 21 children born to a father who was a former slave and a mother who was Chickasaw Indian and Black. Her formal education ended in the 4th grade, because she was needed in the fields to help feed their growing family. Her father owned land in Tennessee, where he raised pigs, chickens, and horses, in addition to growing vegetables and fruit trees. So, my grandmother learned at an early age how to plant and harvest crops, as well as how to kill and prepare chickens, rabbits and hogs. Anything that had to be baked – pies, cakes, bread, biscuits – she always made from scratch. She said that by the time she was ten years old, she was as good as her mother in the kitchen. She didn’t, however, teach my sister or me how to cook or bake.

“Don’t mess up my kitchen,” she would say to us, as she shooed us away with a dishtowel.

Even during holiday seasons, when there were big meals to prepare, she assigned us only marginal kitchen duty, such as buttering pans – never actually cooking a dish. She didn’t give us a reason, but I wonder now if she just didn’t want my sister and me to “have to” cook, as she did.

She was only 11 years old when she married. She would say that her parents let her get married because that meant there would be one less mouth to feed. She married a 17-year-old farmer, and went from working in her father’s fields to helping her husband live off the land. After their first son was born, they moved to Cairo, Illinois, because she said, “the South was too segregated” and “there was nothing” in their small town of Selmer, Tennessee. My father, and two more boys were born in Illinois, but they lost one son to whooping cough at the age of two. Their marriage unraveled, and she took the boys and returned to Tennessee in the late 1920s. Her widowed mother had remarried, and my grandmother and her children moved in with her new stepfather and new siblings.

By 1931, she was living in Toledo, Ohio in what she called a “common-law marriage.” She and Thomas had met in Tennessee and relocated to Toledo, where he had family. He was long gone before I was born in the 1950s, but my grandmother always referred to him as a good man, who was good to her children. This was a difficult period for our country, and even in an industrial city like Toledo, the Great Depression forced a lot of people out of work.

President Roosevelt had started a New Deal program known as the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and my grandmother was able to get a position as a seamstress. She made clothing that was distributed by the government to needy families. When World War II broke out, they also made clothing for the troops. She didn’t know how to operate a sewing machine prior to working for the WPA, and she had never hand sewn anything fancier than basic pants, shirts and dresses. So, even though she earned less than $500 a year, the WPA was the first place she was given the opportunity to learn a trade.

In the mid-1950s, my parents were divorcing, and my mother would lose her four children. My grandmother became our legal guardian. At almost 50 years of age, she agreed to raise a one-year-old, a four-year-old, a five-year-old and a seven-year-old.

“They were going to send you kids to the Miami Children’s Home if I hadn’t taken you,” she said.

While I have no memories of my mother abusing us, I do remember how my grandmother sacrificed so that my siblings and I had what we needed. Her electric sewing machine sat at the helm of our table ready to mend a ripped pair of pants or hem a skirt. It was a portable, black machine with ‘Singer’ in gold lettering across its sides, and although it sat inside a suitcase-like carrier, it was rarely moved from the dining table.

Except for the new clothes my father purchased at the beginning of every school year, our clothes came from thrift stores or were from the homes where my grandmother worked. For me, this clothing became “third-hand,” because the dresses, blouses and coats were given to my sister first; after she had worn them for a year or two, I would get them. While I didn’t exactly look like a little rag-a-muffin growing up, I didn’t think my clothes were as pretty as those I saw on little girls in the catalogs that lay on our coffee table.

So, when my grandmother called me in to try on the dress she made for my school assembly, I fidgeted as she maneuvered it over my head. Once the dress was on, I stood stiffly, barely looking down at it.

“It’s gonna be alright,” she said. “I have a few more ideas that’ll make it pretty.”

The next day, unlike the hand-me-downs that were loose-fitting and threadbare from wear, the dress fit like it was made just for me. The bodice of the dress fit snugly and the hemline, which stopped a couple of inches above my knees, flowed with pleats that stood out with the help of a tulle underskirt. My grandmother had made a belt of brown velvet that tied in a big bow at the back, and she had sewn two matching velvet ribbons for my hair.

On the day of the assembly, she parted my hair down the middle into two ponytails and tied them with the ribbons, then finished off my outfit with anklet socks and my patent-leather Easter shoes. As I twirled in front of the mirror, I saw a little girl dressed just as pretty as anyone posing in the Sears catalog. My grandmother leaned back in her chair and smiled.

That day, as I ascended the steps to the stage, I overheard the principal say to a teacher near her, “Isn’t she pretty?” I stood with pride at the microphone, staring out at the audience of students and teachers.

My grandmother, though, didn’t attend the assembly. She had to work.

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By C.J. Salgado

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1] was born in Los Angeles, California. My mother was not.

Fifteen hundred miles from Los Angeles, as a pajaro flies, about halfway between Quiroga and Zacapu along Federal Highway 15 in the Mexican state of Michoacán, is the small village of Caratacua. With a hundred residents, it is no more than a brief rest stop on any traveler’s journey.

There is not much to catch the eye of a passerby, except for, perhaps, the fields of wild, pink mirasol flowers. But to me it is a crib of history, the family ranch, on a gently sloping hill beneath an old Jacaranda tree where my grandmother and my mother were born.

My grandfather, Papá Chuché, and my grandmother, Mamá Lola, started a family on that ranch, known as “Xaratanga.” It was named for the Moon Goddess of the ancient Purhépecha people, who inhabit the region and sprung from her seeds. It is where my grandmother resides today at more than 100 years of age.

Papá Chuché, a distinguished-looking man, lived into his nineties. He had a wandering spirit, and made a lifetime of treks into the U.S. He first entered the country under the Bracero program, picking Washington watermelons and Calexico cotton, but eventually he traveled all over the border states.

With each trip north, he left behind a bigger family in Mexico. They didn’t want him to go. But they needed money and when the dollar beckoned, he went, like so many others. Each time he came home our grandmother would exclaim with joy – her pajaro, like a hardy bird on a north-and-south flyaway, had returned to her again.

My mother is the oldest of nine surviving children of Mamá Lola. A sister, Delia, died at one year old from complications of dehydration, but really from the lack of medical care then in rural Mexico.

From Xaratanga my mother watched her father go. She felt deeply attached to Papá Chuché, loved him dearly, and suffered from his departures, if only to herself. Why he left them for months at a time, she did not understand. Yet she clung to the vision of seeing him return once more from each trip, bearing gifts. When he came, she would rush into his strong arms.CJ Salgado story photo

As a child in Xaratanga, feminine clothing caught her eye: garbs of cinnabar, flowery frills, and tender textures. But she would never ask for them. How could she? On the ranch, life was hard; fashion was an unspoken aspiration. Still, Papá Chuché managed to come home from his trips with at least one new dress, a shiny piece of jewelry, or a roll of fabric to set free her imagination.

Each gift, like the red dress he brought her once, was special and made her happy. She reveled in the intricacies and colors of the cloth he carried back for his little girl. That ritual came to be consolation for her father’s recurring abandonments, and part of the fascination with the country that lured him from her.

She still spontaneously mutters, “Cómo recuerdo un vestido rojo de pana que me trajo mi papá!”

There was one gift he brought at times, however, that was never for her: big, odd-looking suitcases. Those went to her mother and with her they remained at the ranch to this day, along with a special sewing machine.

For four years, when she was older, my mother went to the neighboring town of Pátzcuaro to study dressmaking, and learned complex embroideries, “canastillas de bebé” for newborns, and myriad other ways to turn fabric to fashion.

Yet as her father, a veritable charro, mounted his horse and rode away to El Norte again and again, his absence dug a hole deeper than any well outside the village.

Some of his children cried. Some drank. As the eldest child, and a girl, my mother could do neither. Instead, she sang. My mother loved music. When her feelings were strong, her singing was stronger. To this day, the words of the singer Cuco Sánchez fill her home: “Anoche estuve llorando, horas enteras, pensando en ti… Después me quedé dormido y en ese sueño logré tenerte en mis brazos… ”

Other times her grief found comfort in her mother’s cooking. Capirotada de pan Comanjo, torejas con dulce, and sopa de habas frescas.

When Papá Chuché was home, the feasting was special. He was a hunter with a .22-caliber rifle who’d set off into the hills surrounding the ranch in search of game, her younger brothers tagging along. Hunting was not something a girl did – but she would wait for him at the edge of the ranch atop a stone fence. Then he’d faithfully reappear with the boys, an armadillo, taquache, or zorillo swinging in hand.

The glittering hills surrounding the ranch on a clear moonlit night beneath a blanket of stars made Xaratanga appear a magical place. Sometimes at night when her father was away in the North my mother’s grandmother, mother of Papá Chuché, would call her to the patio of the ranch house at bedtime. They would hook their arms together. The old lady would face El Norte, raise a hand and make the sign of the cross, blessing her son – “que Dios lo bendiga …”

There was plenty of work, but none that paid. Her chores were unending. Her arms ached. Even the name of the village – Caratacua – she despised. It was the word for a weed common to the area. The branches of the caratacua were bound and made into brooms for girls to use in their sweeping. She tired of the endless sweeping the rocks from around the ranch house.

Every Saturday, by 6 a.m., she’d pack a burro heavily with dirty laundry and trek several miles downhill to the local springs. On her hands and knees, she would find a suitable rock and scrub laundry against it for the rest of the day. She’d wash each piece and lay it out. By sunset, she’d fold each piece, now dry, and bundle it back onto the burro. The only thing that made her forget her aching arms were her legs as she made her way back up the hill.

My mother would help prepare and carry meals out to her brothers who were harvesting corn in the fields. Like her mother, she’d sling a big basket, a “chunde,” filled with tortillas, beans, nopales, and other favorites, onto her shoulder to take to the hungry boys who from age six learned to work the fields from dawn to sunset. After the meal, the chunde would be filled with the fresh corn. To this day, her love of Mexican corn on the cob, brushed with melted butter and sprinkled with chili powder, cotija cheese, and lime juice, remains.

Still the village could just as easily have been named “Piedras,” she thought. There were so many rocks. The fields were covered with rocks, on the surface and below ground. Some spots were so fertile that anything would grow. But in many places the rocks beneath would impede any root trying to take hold – the legacy of volcanic activity across the eons.

When my mother was a teenager, Petronila and Genaro, longtime neighbors from an adjacent ranch, left in search of work, never to return. So did others. The lifeblood of Xaratanga slowly bled out.

So, the stories her father told of life in the U.S. mesmerized her. She imagined riches for the taking. How wonderful must be this place, California, to prompt a man to leave his family, she thought. There, she was sure, she could buy herself a home in a big city, and a little green car to drive around in forever.

She let herself believe it was so. It was easy to do. Papá Chuché was such a positive man in a trying world, chronically genial.

“Solo los pendejos andan triste,” he would say. Only idiots go around sad.

She longed to find out for herself. She was the eldest child, a woman, and expected to work to help her mother to support her younger siblings. But she needed more than just being needed.

Then one day she remembered her vow and quietly left it all. She walked away in the early morning, aided in her escape only by a younger brother, who promised his silence out of deference to the sister who raised him.

My mother had kept in touch occasionally with a cousin, Victoria, who lived in California and who had once invited her to visit. She pawned her beloved Singer sewing machine and boarded a bus bound for Barstow, buoyed by the hope that her cousin would welcome her. She didn’t tell her cousin she was coming. She’d be there faster than any letter.

When she arrived, however, she learned Victoria had died a few months before of leukemia. My mother pondered her dilemma that first hot night in Barstow. She knew she could not stay now. There was no work in Barstow for her. Her cousin’s family let her stay for the night. But what then? Return to Xaratanga empty handed?

That night, as she fell asleep, she remembered her father telling her stories of a great garment industry in Los Angeles.

With her strong arms, she hugged herself, cuddled into her cousin’s sofa, and imagined the fashion that a dressmaker could create with all the cotton her father had picked.

____

C.J. Salgado grew up in East Los Angeles. An avid reader, his first job was working for a library. After serving in the military and going to college, he went on to pursue a professional career in radiation physics. His interest include blogging about issues and events affecting the local community; exploring new places near and afar; pondering novel ideas; and watching science fiction and action movies.
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