One Family, Two Homelands: Chapter 1, Last Ride Home

By Macarena Hernandez, The San Antonio Express-News

We knew death roamed near. We expected it to take my grandfather first. He’s the one with cancer. But then my grandmother began to murmur the names of her dead.

Months later, my uelito Jose Maria, wearing his tanned felt cowboy hat and his khaki pants, sits in an empty chapel a few pews from my grandmother’s casket, waiting for the permit to take my uelita Cecilia’s body back to Mexico. His impatience at the delay is visible in his bullet-scarred face.

Outside, the U.S. flag flutters in the almost-vacant parking lot where a gleaming white SUV hearse waits to transport our dead and dying back home. In our rancho in La Ceja, more than 200 friends and relatives wait for Uelita Cecilia’s arrival.

Only the driver and my grandfather ride with my grandmother on her final journey home. The hearse slows down in La Joya, my childhood home, before driving past the old Banworth packing plant on the hilltop in La Havana, where many of my relatives once chopped and packed onions, cauliflower and broccoli.

The six cars trailing behind finally catch up as the hearse slowly drives past Sullivan, then miles and miles of green and brown hills with thick patches of brushland, where Starr County begins and Hidalgo ends.

It rolls past the tiny old town of La Grulla and then 10 miles to Rio Grande City, where at the second light across from the H-E-B, it turns south to cross the Rio Grande – the river that divides this world from the other.

TWO WORLDS IN ONE

Nostalgic Mexicans are like monarch butterflies, always remembering home. Millions of us arrive and millions are deported. Millions more of us – Americanos of Mexican descent – now make Latinos the largest and fastest-growing minority group in this country. We came to the United States searching for a better life, and now America can hardly live without us.

We once lived mostly in the Southwest in states such as Texas and California. Now we are everywhere – in New York City, in Midwestern states, in small towns, the South and the suburbs.

Some of us assimilate and leave behind our ancestral places, our customs, our Spanish. Others of us leave nothing behind. We hold on to our Mexico lindo because we are either too nostalgic to forget or we know no other way to live.

My family is like millions of Mexican families, still attached to Mexico but living in the United States, in a world that doesn’t completely accept them and one they don’t care to completely accept, even as their children eagerly embrace it. This story of the great Mexican migration has been told many times, often in newspaper stories reduced to statistics and census numbers. But the real stories are not told in numbers. They are told one family at a time.

At 17, I became the first from either side of my extended family to pursue a college degree, the first woman to leave her home unmarried. But no matter how far I went, I always came back to the Rio Grande Valley, to the belly button of the Americas, where people like me, children of Mexican immigrants, bridge two worlds divided by a river of politics.

Our two homelands are separated by the Rio Grande, known to Mexicans as the Rio Bravo, where many have lost their lives and many more have found new ones. I became a journalist to tell cuentos, hoping that one day I would write my family story, why we left, how we came.

This is our story.

My uelita Cecilia’s death is the beginning of the end. This story follows the tattered life of the oldest remaining member of our Reyna clan, my uelito Jose Maria. He still feels fuerte, strong, even though he has lived the miseries of a Pedro Infante character, enduring the death of his firstborn, the lifelong illnesses that haunted his wife and the looming demise of his rancho, La Ceja. Because places, like people, die, too.

THE JOURNEY HOME

No one remembers exactly when Uelita Cecilia left La Ceja for the United States. It happened gradually, as her visits to South Texas grew from days to weeks to months, until the last six years of her life, when she completely abandoned her house. The pothole-battered dirt roads on the way to La Ceja made the ride unbearable to her brittle bones, her body so fragile that any sudden movements pushed her ribs up against her insides, causing her physical pain.

“Pray for a peaceful death,” I tell her one day, when she’s feeling too weak to open her eyes. “You can let go of this world now. I know you’re tired. I’ll just ask Diosito to answer your prayers and give you whatever you ask for. But you have to promise me when you reach heaven you will be my angelito. Will you be my guardian angel?”

“Your angelito,” she says, barely pronouncing the words as she smiles and touches my cheek.

Now I want to make her laugh.

“Well, since you are going to see God,” I tell her, “tell him to send me a good man who’s not jealous, who will wash his own underwear and who will let me be me.”

“Un milagro,” she says, laughing. I’m asking for a miracle.

My grandmother spent the last few months of her life in the back corner room of my mother’s house, asleep. At night she was awake, fearing death would snatch her while everyone else slept. She longed for her house and for her camita de palo, the twin-sized wooden bed where she had spent most of her nights, where she had given birth to nine of her 10 children and where her firstborn, Abel, was laid the night he was murdered.

Too weak to use her walker, she spent her evenings sitting in the living room, watching telenovelas and asking her great-grandchildren for kisses on the cheek.

Two months before she died, my grandmother met her first great-great-grandchild, Michelle, born in Starr County. My grandmother had 45 grandchildren and 66 great-grandchildren, some of whom called her Uelita Chiquita because osteoporosis had shrunk her 5-foot-5 frame to about 4 feet.

Only a few of them came to visit during those last months.

Near the end, after her stroke, my grandmother hardly spoke. She mumbled most of the time, and if the listener wasn’t patient, she’d give up trying to communicate altogether.

Her eyes looked distant, like she was already gone. By then her children had forgotten the sound of her voice.

The day before my grandmother died, the day before she ended up in the hospital, my mother and my tio Cleto purchased a $3,500 funeral package to be used by whoever died first – my grandfather or my grandmother. The funeral package included the cost of the casket, the rental fee for the funeral home chapel and $350 to transport the body back to Mexico.

Her body would remain in Penitas, Texas, for one night of viewing by relatives who couldn’t make it across the border, and then it would be taken by hearse on the 72-mile journey to La Ceja.

Uelita Cecilia spent the last hours of her life in the intensive care unit of a McAllen hospital. She died in April on a late Saturday afternoon, with only a daughter-in-law by her bedside as she called out my mother’s name, Elva.

My grandmother was only four months from her 90th birthday when she died during a spring that already promised more rain than usual. One that reminded my mother of beautiful childhood days when there was plenty to harvest – calabazitas, beans and corn – and when the presas were always full of water. A spring that resurrected memories of generous skies, healthy, fat cattle and chewing on sugar cane.

No one plants sugar cane anymore.

The night before we took her back to Mexico, my mother’s pastor, el hermano Lupito Gonzalez, a handsome chaparrito who fixes cars on weekdays and delivers Sunday sermons with a passion twice his size, told the mourners at the funeral home about the times my grandmother visited his church. She found comfort in the word of God, he said, smiling. She had already given her heart to Jesus.

“Gloria a Dios, hermanos,” he said. “La hermana Cecilia is in heaven right now, esta en el cielo.”

My grandmother loved God, but she did not like going to church. Unlike my mother, she preferred to pray in her room, alone. She loved to sing, mostly Mexican lullabies and songs to the Virgen de Guadalupe, even though she had reluctantly become a Protestant after some of her born-again Christian children insisted. Praying to saints is idolatria, they told her, a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Before long, all her santos – including la Virgen de Guadalupe in the tired wood frame – were gone from her house.

At the service, Armando Flores and his wife Criselda, la Chacha, sing about crossing rugged valleys on your way to heaven, about mansions of light and streets made of gold, about finding peace. Chacha has known my family most of her life. Chacha’s father and my grandfather were the poker kings of the rancho, both cheaters who never cheated each other.

The next day, the freshly washed hearse with clear, spotless windows crosses the Rio Grande, driving away from a lost and unimaginable future and into the fading but alluring past. The caravan drives farther south along the San Juan River and into the noisy, hot streets of Camargo, where it passes my mother’s favorite tortilla shop, Tortilleria Cuauhtemoc, named for the last emperor of the Aztecs.

The hearse speeds through the small fishing town of Comales where my father’s parents died, first his mother, then his father seven years later. The speed bumps at the entrance to the pueblito of Ochoa slow the hearse down as it drives past my father’s first cousin Lupita’s house, where I ate homemade dulce de leche, the milk candy she sold from her kitchen. They drive past the taco stand in Santa Rosalia where at night locals gather to eat and watch telenovelas, and past the last store before the rancho, one of the few tienditas that still sells the fresh cheese made nearby.

They stop at the checkpoint a few miles down the road, just before the Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon border. There, my grandfather points to the caravan and tells the customs officer of his dead wife. The Mexican bureaucrat waves half the cars through and sends the others back to the border where they could either get a temporary vehicle importation permit or go home.

At one time, most of the customs officers at the checkpoint were conocidos, family friends. They rarely inspected cars and there were no red lights prompting random searches. My father’s uncle, Tio Julio, used to work as a customs officer, and on our drives back from the rancho we would stop and drop off fresh eggs, tortillas and homemade cheese.

One day, the government fired all the locals and replaced them with men who came from other Mexican states. They looked more like soldiers than customs officers.

The caravan crossing the Tamaulipas state line into Nuevo Leon continues south on the paved road, turning right at el rancho La Bandera, which is a straight shot to La Ceja. The cars drive until the paved road ends and the dirt one begins as they speed past Serafin, where Pemex workers drilling for natural gas live at the Elizondos’ old house, abandoned 15 years ago when Lolo, the patriarch, died. The caravan takes a left just before the school, the only building for miles on that stretch of dirt road. Classes for the six students have been canceled because of my grandmother’s funeral.

The cars that the customs officer turned back arrive after my grandmother’s coffin is placed in the corner room of her house, which had been cleared of two full-size beds, one ropero, dresser, and the sewing machine that sat unused for decades. The latecomers had decided to test their luck and drive through back roads and across private ranchos at the risk of getting caught by customs officials.

Most of the mourners are outside, scattered throughout the Reyna family rancho, 70 acres of rural Mexico, home to my grandfather’s parents, Uelita Lola and Uelito Cleto, and his great-grandparents, Tatito Pancho and Nanita Manuela, among the first settlers at La Ceja, the eyebrow.

Some relatives had arrived the night before. My tio Cleto slaughtered a cow and my mother’s sisters helped chop it up for beef stew. They set up picnic tables in the carport where my grandfather parks his hand-painted, cobalt blue Ford truck and where my grandmother’s hens nested their young in empty Gamesa cardboard boxes.

The men drink Budweiser and Carta Blanca around their pickups and next to the chicken coops by the goat pen. The boys drink their beers and smoke their cigarettes away from the house.

It is the middle of a Monday afternoon, the hottest part of the day and around the time my grandparents Jose Maria and Cecilia used to take their afternoon naps. My grandfather still doesn’t want to think about burying my grandmother. My relatives worry that he will want to wait until Tuesday to bury his viejita, his wife of nearly 70 years. People have already missed a day of work, they say.

Life doesn’t stop when someone dies.

My grandfather tells me to tell my tias, who are asking, that we will bury Uelita Cecilia al ratito, in a little while. He wants to keep her body in La Ceja longer.

There haven’t been this many visitors to our rancho in nearly 20 years, since Uelita Lola, the matriarch of the Reyna clan, was buried. For eight days the rancho did not sleep. Relatives and friends watched and waited for death, staying by Uelita Lola’s bedside until her last breath.

Death always brings us together.

Today, women sit on chairs and rock on sillones lining the cold, sand-colored concrete walls of the house. The mourners crowd into every room, including the three bedrooms where they sit on beds or steady themselves up against walls. Some, including my mother’s youngest sister Lola, stay by the coffin most of the day. Lola, the youngest child, la coyotita, was born when my grandmother was 46. She was so tiny, my tia, that she fit in the palm of my grandfather’s hand.

“I think it’s dumb that the only time we get together is when we are going to enterrar a alguien (bury someone),” my tia Lola’s oldest son, Abram, 22, says as he sits by Tio Abel’s house where he and my younger cousins are drinking their beers. “I have a friend and they have family reunions and they even make shirts that say esta es la familia, so and so.”

My tio Nicho Salinas and his wife Dolores drove down from Dallas, where his mother, my grandfather’s sister, Rosario, has lived for more than 30 years. Her family used to visit the rancho more often, but that was before 1968, when Rosario’s son, Carlos, died a month after a cousin, my mother’s younger brother, accidentally shot him one alcohol-fueled night. Nicho, the oldest of her 10 living children, is the only one who still comes back, mostly for funerals and the occasional wedding. Carlos was buried back in the rancho, a few feet away from my mother’s brother, Abel.

The women, mostly the older ones, sit around the kitchen table, reminiscing, crying, and at times laughing.

My mother’s sisters and distant tias talk about their growing waist- lines, about death and its inability to discriminate, about my grandmother, who looks peaceful, like she’s sleeping. Soon the conversation shifts to marriage and my approaching 30th birthday – and still no husband, they lament.

“You don’t want to grow old alone,” one of them says. “You need to find a good man, un hombre bueno, to take care of you.”

“Don’t even get married,” another one says. “Ni pa’que te cases.”

My grandfather never asks me why I am not married and he is the only one who doesn’t seem to care. My mother has been praying for a good son-in-law for most of my life, and my tia Nelly even took me to a curandera to make sure my love life wasn’t cursed.

THE BURIAL/EL ENTIERRO

My grandmother had asked us to bury her with the blanket her mother gave her and what was left of my tio Abel’s belongings, including his wife’s wedding dress. Before we take her to the cemetery, we ask the guests, mostly distant relatives, to give us a few minutes. My aunts don’t want people gawking at us as we place the wedding dress inside the coffin, which my mother says will ignite rumors, gossip, chisme.

“Ay no, they might say it’s some kind of brujeria (witchcraft),” my mother says.

In my grandmother’s petaca, the old scruffy black trunk, we find more wedding mementos.

My cousin Isabel and I decide not to stuff her coffin with everything: the veil still attached to the peineta, the bouquet, the wedding scrapbook, and the two cojines that were once fluffy and white. My cousin takes the tattered, pointy white leather shoes worn on that Saturday night in 1964 when Abel married his girlfriend, Margarita Garcia.

But we can’t find the shirt he wore the night he was murdered, the one my grandmother kept in her trunk, still stained with his blood. One of her daughters says one of them washed it and threw it away years later. But no one is really sure what happened to Tio Abel’s shirt. Uelita Cecilia had wanted to save everything, including his belt and his comb, but her other boys didn’t own much, so she gave them his clothes, cowboy hat and boots. His brothers wore his clothes for years after his death.

Isabel plans to take the two deflated cushions with her back to Pharr. Although she knows some of my aunts may wonder why she, a divorcee – the first granddaughter to earn that distinction – would want to hold on to someone else’s wedding memories, but she wants a recuerdo, something, anything that will remind her of my grandmother.

My tia Juana Quintanilla, who couldn’t afford to come to the funeral from California, asked that we save her a pair of my grandmother’s thick support hose, which were always two shades darker than her caramel-colored legs.

“I want to wear them the day they bury me,” my tia Juanita told me over the phone. She also asked her sister Lola to videotape the burial for her, but her grief will be too much and Lola never takes the camcorder out of her car.

By my grandmother’s feet, I place the wedding dress, with its yellowing lace. Next to it, a dusty black plastic comb, a canvas belt attached to a dull and scratched metal buckle and, folded neatly, a long-sleeved cotton shirt.

My youngest sister, Nancy, helps me place the blanket stitched from faded cotton scraps under my grandmother’s head, just as she had asked.

“No se les vaya a olvidar,” she had told us. Don’t you all forget.

A plastic H-E-B grocery bag at the foot of her coffin holds a few pairs of her cotton underwear.

The rest of her belongings will be given away: her ropita, clothes; the unopened boxes of diapers she refused to wear; and the black and white checkered hand purse that, like her, went hardly anywhere. Some of her children and grandchildren each take one of her batitas, housecoats made of cotton and flannel, the only kind of dress my grandmother ever wore.

Her sons and grandsons carry her silver-colored coffin and load it onto the bed of my grandfather’s pickup. A few of my cousins, a nephew and I ride in the back. Sobbing by the foot of the coffin is my cousin Miriam, a 21-year-old college senior in Denton who lived at the rancho until she turned 5 and her parents moved to the Rio Grande Valley.

My cousins and I haven’t been in the back of a pickup, driving through the ranchos, since we were kids and we hitchhiked to the Elizondo store in Serafin. At night, after dinner, we would ride in the back, on our way to my tia Lupe’s house where the adults drank coffee as they gathered on the porch, talking for hours with only the light of the moon and the stars. In the distance, you could hear the pack of coyotes wailing from the top of the small rolling hills.

But today we sit silently by the coffin as my grandfather shifts gears on our two-mile drive to the cemetery, where 38 years ago he buried his son and then his own father a year later.

My father buried his mother there in 1985. I buried my father there 13 years later, two weeks short of my 24th birthday.

We drive past acres of scrubland, the cacti crowned with yellow and red flowers. The rattlesnakes have already woken from their winter sleep.

At the Sara Flores cemetery, Armando, Chacha’s husband, offers a short sermon. And he cries like I’ve never seen a Mexican man cry before, his sermon choked with tears. I wonder if he cries for my grandmother or for his son who has been missing for more than 10 years. They say he was kidnapped. His body has never been found.

Afterward, my tio Erasmo, Miriam’s father and a construction worker who fantasizes about singing rancheras on stage, sings a song he wrote himself on the flight down from Chicago to Texas. My cousin Abram, a self-taught musician with an eye toward producing music, lets his accordion weep as Armando tries to follow along with his guitar.

Standing in front of the coffin, my grandfather cries openly for the first time his grandchildren can remember. He touches my grandmother’s face and then pats her head before kissing her forehead. The sun is setting and what is left of his thin white hair blows in the dry evening air.

From somewhere, I hear someone say my grandfather looks old, like he is withering.

Uelita Cecilia had wanted to be buried next to her oldest son, but there is only a small patch of dirt, barely enough space to fit one, and my grandfather has already told us he wants to be buried next to her.

So, instead her grave was dug by the tombstone of Ruben Trevino, my grandfather’s nephew and faithful deer hunting partner. He died in Rio Grande City in December 1998. His family buried him back here in Mexico, not far from where his father and mother, Albina, my grandfather’s sister, still live. One of his sons poured beer over his fresh gravesite as Ramon Ayala y Sus Bravos Del Norte blared from the speakers of a pickup, its doors swung open: no tears at the funeral, only guitars, the song says. He wanted to be buried with music.

We sing hymns in Spanish from Catholic, Baptist and Pentecostal services, just like my grandmother had wanted. I ask my mother’s friend, la hermana HerlindaGallo Lara, to sing until the last flower arrangement is placed on my grandmother’s grave. We sing the same cantos two and three times. Streets of gold. A mansion of light. No more pain.

Over our song, we hear the loud thuds of dirt hit the coffin and I hear my mother’s youngest sister, Tia Lola, sobbing. She can’t understand how this is the last time she’ll see my grandmother, her madrecita. She had been the keeper of my grandmother’s secrets.

When she got married and moved away to Houston in 1981, I became my grandmother’s reservoir.

My brothers, male cousins and uncles take turns shoveling dirt until there is no more tierra left to shovel. Even after everyone has left, my grandfather wants to stay.

He stands by her fresh grave. For the first time in his life, Uelito Jose Maria looks like a broken man.

Copyright 2004 San Antonio Express-News