One Family, Two Homelands: Chapter 2, Pretty Pistols

By Macarena Hernandez, The San Antonio Express-News

They used to call my grandfather el rey sin corona – the king without a crown.

At 89, Jose Maria Reyna still walks with his shoulders erect, his chest open with pride, his head cocked back and cowboy hat tilted to the right. He wears his felt Stetson to the cancer clinic in the United States and his worn-out straw sombrero when he’s on his rancho in Mexico.

Until recently, there was always a .22 or .38-caliber handgun strapped to his waist. Pistolas lindas, he calls them. Pretty pistols.

“I never liked carrying it on the outside and I always had a license to carry it,” my grandfather says. “But I carried it tucked in my belt sticking out just enough so it could show its cachas,” its face.

My grandfather talks lovingly of his pistolas as if they were women: For most of his life he has had at least two of each.

Around the humble, but sprawling ranchos of the municipality of Doctor Coss, in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon – La Ceja, Serafin, Altamira and La Reforma – everyone called my grandfather by his nickname, Chema. Until two years ago, he was a volunteer police officer, patrolling these four ranching communities – a job he held for more than 40 years.

At one point, my grandfather was also the school’s treasurer, provided security at weddings and counseled couples in troubled marriages.

My mother says my grandmother’s comadre first suggested the king-without-a-crown title. But my grandfather tells me it was his friend Raul Moreno, whom he calls Raul pelon, Baldy Raul, who first crowned him el rey sin corona.

My grandfather, his friend observed, traveled with an entourage, usually local politicos from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who were on the campaign trail. My mother has always told my grandfather he sold his loyalty to the PRI for cheap: empty promises, cheap quilts and pantry food.

Much has changed since. After 70 years, the PRI no longer rules Mexico. And now, the king, my grandfather is dying.

“I dream of my viejita almost every night. She wants to take me,” my grandfather says. “I’m already looking at my grave, waiting to be buried. I wish I could be born again so that I can see more, but that’s impossible. I don’t have much time left.”

My grandfather’s world is nearly gone, pushed out by the faster-paced one just across the Rio Grande. Gone are the nights when he roamed the ranchos, first on foot and later in his Ford pickup, with his right hand firm on the stick shift.

Still visible on my grandfather’s face, his sun-weathered skin the color of dried mud, is a bullet nick above his high left cheekbone from a Saturday night shootout in 1948, when he was 33.

The argument started during a dance in the school’s courtyard, where every 10th of May children used to pledge their devotion to their madrecitas, reciting tributes that left their mothers openly crying and sobbing, lagrimeando y llorando a grito abierto.

Most of the people who had been dancing that night had already gone home when Rosalio Salinas fired the first shot, my grandfather begins to tell me one afternoon as we head over to a nearby Red Lobster after his weekly chemotherapy session in McAllen.

“How much does a fish plate cost here?” my grandfather asks just before walking in. I wave off his worry and tell him to come right in.

Settled at a dimly lit table, my grandfather continues his story of that night, a night that inspired the blind musician David Leal, from nearby Santa Rosalia, Tamaulipas, to write a corrido, a ballad called “Jose Maria y Rosalio.”

My grandfather calls Rosalio by his nickname Chalio.

“Apasiguate Chalio, ya te dije,” he recalls telling him several times after Chalio broke two beer bottles he had refused to pay for. “Settle down, Chalio. I’ve warned you.”

Chalio fired a shot.

The lamps around the dance floor had already been turned off when my grandfather ran for cover behind the nearest mesquite tree. Uelito Jose Maria loaded his beat-up and unreliable .765-caliber pistol and fired back eight bullets. Three hit Chalio, one piercing the brim of his tan cowboy hat, another grazing his rib cage, and the other striking near his crotch, my grandfather notes with a grin.

He spent the next 15 days in a jail cell while Chalio recuperated at a nearby clinic. “We fixed things and stayed friends,” my grandfather says. “But I never really trusted him after that. If he could have, he would have shot me in the back, a traicion.”

He pushes away his salad and chugs the ranch dressing right from its little paper cup.

THE FIRST, THE FAVORITE

My grandfather brought his 20-year-old bride Cecilia Salinas to the family rancho in La Ceja, in 1935. The ranching community was then home to a handful of other families, all relatives, mostly Reynas and a few Gonzalezes.

There was only one little hut, nesting in the middle of the monte, surrounded by mesquite trees, chile piquin, cacti and medicinal plants that could cure colic, colds and even, some claimed, broken hearts. By the time I was born, there were three cinderblock houses on the property.

My great-grandmother Lola’s house, the tiniest of the three, sat next to the corrals her grandson Abel had helped build when he was a young boy. My grandfather’s hired help – poor, young families from other Mexican states – have occupied Uelita Lola’s house since her death in 1987.

My grandmother Cecilia gave birth to Abel in 1936, the year that marked the beginning of the most elegiacally romantic period in Mexican cinema, la epoca de oro, the Golden Era.

Spanning two decades, it launched the careers of some of Mexico’s biggest movie stars. There was Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, Tin Tan and Resortes, Dolores del Rio, and you can’t forget, La Dona – Maria Felix – who died two years ago on her 88th birthday, although she claimed she was much younger. She had many lovers and her share of husbands.

“I cannot complain about men,” the actress once told a reporter. “I have had tons of them and they have treated me fabulously well. But sometimes, I had to hurt them to keep them from subjugating me.”

My grandmother was no Maria Felix. Uelita Cecilia was the devoted wife of a man not so devoted.

“‘You’re better off crying as a poor woman than a lonely one,'” my grandmother said her mother told her. “My mother never advised me to leave my husband because only she knew how much she had suffered when my father died. She would ask me, ‘Well, has he ever failed to provide food on the table?’ Pues que no. ‘Then you have no right to leave him.'”

Despite the rumors that got back to her, my grandmother never considered leaving my grandfather. She loved him. She would never leave him. Nunca.

“He says he can have 40 or 50 (women), but I am his preferida,” his favorite, my grandmother said. “I’m content with that because he has never left me. Con eso me conformo. They tell me that it’s really my fault because I never left him. But I want to see my children together, united, until the day God decides to take me. Even though I suffered and continue to suffer, I have managed to keep my children together.”

That same year Abel was born, the nearby town of Comales sprang to life when construction began for the largest reservoir in the state of Tamaulipas, the Presa Marte R. Gomez. Thousands of men from all over the country, including my father’s father and others from the ranchos, dug out the dam.

Comales soon became a thriving town with 24-hour pool halls where men drank Carta Blancas after work and where the rich enjoyed the luxuries of a theater and a hospital. Carloads of construction material arrived daily at the railroad station, and before long the northern part of town was dotted with tipo Americano homes, expensive American-style homes where my father’s mother, Uelita Ricarda, washed and ironed other people’s clothes.

By the time the reservoir was completed nearly 10 years later, my grandmother Cecilia had given birth to five more children: two more boys and three girls, including my mother. She had also buried her first, Juanita, who was only a month away from her first birthday when she came down with an uncontrollable fever.

With a growing family, my grandfather came to Texas to pick cotton for $3 a day, six days a week. He hated stuffing sacks of cotton and quickly learned that hiding a few heavy mesquite trunks in the bottom of each costal could cut his workload in half.

What my grandfather loved of the early 1950s was the nightlife, the tiny rooms, swirling cigarette smoke and Mexican men – braceros – who came to work because the United States had asked them to, begged them, really. My grandfather learned that lucky poker streaks had nothing to do with suerte and everything to do with skillful manipulation – sanded-down edges and needle-size punctures located on different corners of his cards, easily identifiable through the back.

With minor alterations to his deck – and a sidekick pretending to be a cautious relative with no desire to gamble – my grandfather found an easier way to make money to send home. Uelito Jose Maria brought back to the Nuevo Leon ranchos the skills he learned from a first-class cheater from Monterrey, also a bracero working in the Texas towns of Pecos and Edinburg.

Like so many teenage boys, my tio Abel first left the ranchos with his father to work as a bracero, and later in construction in Dallas and Chicago. It was during one of his trips to the States that he brought my grandmother a black Singer sewing machine. During many of my childhood visits to Mexico, I watched my grandmother happily using it in the spare bedroom, where we grandchildren slept. The sewing machine faced a window overlooking the orange groves Abel planted the day he would be murdered.

My tio Abel, whom I love through borrowed memories, reminds me of Pedro Infante, the incomparable leading man of the Mexican silver screen’s Golden Era, whose characters were always the underdog and whom everyone fell in love with, including my mother and me. The actor died in a plane crash in 1957, although like Elvis there are sightings of him to this day. He was beautiful and so was my uncle, a sharp dresser and one of the first men from that corner of Nuevo Leon to drive a car through the ranchos.

Abel was elegant, not like the other men from the ranchos. He had a penchant for crisp white guayaberas that he wore with khaki pants. His shoes were always polished and scuff-free.

My grandmother had nine other children, but Abel would always be her consentido – her favorite, her protector. As a young boy, he promised her that someday he would build a house next to hers so he could always look after her.

On the last Saturday night of 1963, my uncle met his media naranja, his perfect match, Margarita Garcia, a city girl whose fair skin and soft hair made even his younger sisters envious, celosas.

Shortly after they fell in love, Margarita, an orphan, came to live with a relative in nearby Altamira, where she waited for her wedding day. Their favorite song was “Mis Brazos te Esperan,” my arms wait for you.

Married within a year, my tio Abel built Margarita a cinderblock house next to his mother’s, the third and last house built on our family land.

“Back then it was beautiful, but there was also a lot of shootings at dances. It was very common,” my tia Maria Elizondo, my mother’s first cousin, tells me. “Men used pistolas often. You couldn’t go to a dance without hearing that fulano o mangano (so-and-so) had been shot at.”

By then, the ranchos were overcrowded with teenage girls and young married couples. Every year, along the road that led to the school, families gathered to watch men race horses and fight roosters. The men competed in el palo encebado, struggling to climb the highest on poles slathered with lard.

There were ranchos of all sizes – 10 acres to 2,000 – most producing just enough food to feed their families.

Hundreds of people gathered at the only school in the vicinity, Escuela Anacleto Reyna, named after my great-grandfather Cleto, who donated the land. My grandparents also named one of their children Anacleto, “Cleto,” after him.

“If there was a dance in one of the ranchos, you usually heard guys saying, ‘We’re waiting for the girls from La Ceja,'” my mother’s younger brother Cleto recalls. “‘If las huercas from La Ceja don’t come, we already know this dance ain’t going to be good.’ There were just so many girls in the rancho.”

A MISUNDERSTANDING

Word of the dance in nearby Monte Cristo spread quickly through the ranchos one Saturday in November 1966, and by the afternoon my grandfather had decided he would go. He’d already invited Abel, who had spent that day planting orange trees by the side of his house. His pregnant wife asked him to stay home.

My grandmother recalled, “He came over and gave me a hug and I told him, ‘Aren’t you going to have dinner, hijito?’ He said, ‘No, mama, I’ll eat when I come back.'”

Tio Abel drove my grandfather to the Cantus’ family rancho in his maroon 1957 Chevrolet, the one he bought in the States with his construction paychecks. They hadn’t been there long when an argument broke out and my grandfather turned his flashlight on the crowd swarming around a compadre and two drunks who refused to pay for their beers. Tio Abel paid for their Carta Blancas.

It was all a misunderstanding, my tio Cleto, the family historian, now says. They thought my grandfather had pulled out his gun. Not long after the argument, Delfino “El Nene” Cantu and his brother Placido, from nearby Santa Fe, confronted my grandfather.

“Come on, you pulled out the gun on my brother,” El Nene Cantu told my grandfather as he pointed his gun at him. “Come on, pull yours out.”

“I didn’t pull out my gun,” my grandfather told them in a stern voice, before reminding them that they were his friend’s children. “And I’m not accustomed to pulling it out just to pull it out.”

They put down their guns, but my grandfather knew they still held on to their anger. He warned Abel, who was headed to the makeshift bar under the mesquite tree, “Hijo, be very careful.”

As soon as my uncle reached the bar, a group of about eight men gathered around him. My grandfather heard the firing of more than one gun. The women yelled and men ran to the monte for refuge. The only man still standing was Abel, who managed to fire his gun twice before collapsing. My grandfather shot three bullets, aiming at the two brothers. One fled into the screaming crowd and the other ran into the monte, hiding behind the mesquite trees.

My tio Abel breathed heavily, trying to speak, but only blood flowed from his mouth. People loaded him into the back seat of a car where my grandfather cradled his son’s head in his arms.

“When they came to give me the news, I see your grandfather completely covered in blood. He told me mi’jo was wounded,” recalled my grandmother, crying like she usually did when she thought of her dead son. “But it was a lie, he was already dead inside the car. Mi’jo was already dead.”

Abel died in his father’s arms just before they crossed el arroyo Brazil on their way to the nearest hospital, a 45-minute drive to China, Nuevo Leon. The bullet, shot at close range, had nearly broken his right arm before piercing his lungs and heart.

“Apa’s clothes were covered in blood and he didn’t want to take them off,” recalled my tio Erasmo, the family’s youngest son, who was 8 at the time. “He walked around with the bloody shirt until the next afternoon.”

My mother, seven months pregnant with my oldest sister, arrived with my father not long after her 30-year-old brother’s lifeless body had been placed on the bare wooden planks of my grandmother’s bed, while they nailed together his coffin. His blood dripped and settled into a thick puddle on the cement floor. His ears had already turned purple.

Years later, after my mother had raised eight children and welcomed 17 grandchildren, she would recall that night, when sadness arrived at her childhood home and never left. Hovering over her family, it watched through the years as my grandmother’s body and will to live withered, and it fueled my grandfather’s obsession with revenge.

At the Reynas’ rancho, where Uelita Lola midwifed almost all of her eight children’s children, my tio Abel’s house was the first to grow quiet. His house was unlocked only on weekends or holidays when my tio Cleto’s family came to visit.

Abel died before most of his nieces and nephews were born, but everyone knew of him, even those who were born decades after the day he was buried, the day my grandfather planted two pine trees by his gravesite. Only one pine tree survived and today, anyone driving toward the cemetery can see the slim, pointy green top from afar.

My uncle’s sad story became Reyna family lore passed down from one generation to the next. But my grandfather hardly ever talks about that night.

Soon after her husband’s death, Margarita miscarried their baby and left, leaving behind her house and furniture, their bed, her wedding dress.

Copyright 2004 San Antonio Express-News