One Family, Two Homelands: Chapter 3, Big City Girl

By Macarena Hernandez, The San Antonio Express-News

My mother has her mother’s small and delicate nose. And she has her father’s sagging eyelids and his strong and stubborn ways.

She is the one who tells Uelito Jose Maria susverdades, the truths our family has always preferred to ignore. Still, after my grandmother dies, he comes to live with her.

“If you don’t want me here I can go back to the rancho,” Uelito Jose Maria says usually after my mother has reminded him that she is no longer a little girl, he can’t tell her what to do.

My grandfather is a picabuche, poking at my mother until she snaps.

“You should be grateful you had all those children in Mexico,” she tells him in a voice armed with confidence, knowing my grandfather is another man, one who now admits his faults. “If you had had them in the United States, you would still be working to pay child support.”

My grandfather says my mother’s caracter fuerte, strong character, comes from his mother, Uelita Lola. One look at a pregnant woman’s belly and Uelita Lola, a midwife since she was 13, could tell whether she was carrying a boy or a girl. She was hardly ever wrong.

“My mother said your mother would be a man because of how she was sitting in the womb. She was upright,” my grandfather tells me proudly. “Your mother wasn’t a man but she worked like one. She’s fierce, she’s a workhorse. You can’t pick on her because she defends herself.”

Four months before my mother was born, Uelita Cecilia’s world dissolved into darkness: se oscurecio.

In the spring of 1940, a violent thunderstorm pummeled northern Nuevo Leon. My grandmother Cecilia and her sister-in-law, Juanita Alaniz, were caught in the winds of a tornado as the two walked home.

They had spent the morning in La Lajilla, where they had gone to send a letter to my grandfather, who was in jail. It was a stupid thing, my grandfather says, to shoot at a passing car from the brush one afternoon as he and a friend hunted for quail to sell. They were arrested soon after and were kept locked up even though my grandfather and his friend denied it.

Uelita Cecilia and her sister-in-law were halfway through the two-hour walk and still a ways from home when the storm caught them.

“It was horrible,” recalls the now 85-year-old Juanita. “You could see the big cloud chasing after us. We were soaked and we lost our shoes as we ran, trying to get away. We had to stop at someone’s house so they could help us pluck the (mesquite and cactus) thorns from our feet and legs.”

My grandmother believed the shocking fright, susto, if not prayed away, would later revisit in the form of sickness. Soon after the storm, my grandmother began experiencing sharp punsadas, pulsations, behind her eyes. Within a few months, she was blind. My grandmother was still blind when my mother was born in the fall of 1941.

No one remembers how long she remained blind, only that a healer from La Ceja helped cure her blindness. Still, for the rest of her life, my grandmother would blame that tornado for all her physical troubles.

EL RIO BRAVO

Six months before Uelita Cecilia dies, weeks before her last winter, my mother and I take her back to Mexico. My grandmother hasn’t been home in several months, but she has been begging her daughters to take her back. She doesn’t want to die without seeing her rancho again. The doctor advises against travel and my mother doubts her bladder is equipped for the journey. They compromise. My grandmother will wear a dreadful diaper.

La Ceja is the only place Uelita Cecilia feels at home. In her own house, my grandmother no longer feels like an arrimada, a burden. From her kitchen table, where she used to eat alone, my grandmother directs us to dust the three bedrooms, sweep and mop the cement floors, and to make sure my grandfather has clean clothes: khaki pants, white muscle shirts, boxers, and blue and red paisley handkerchiefs.

My grandfather knows her death is hovering close. We know he knows by the quiver of his voice whenever he talks about Uelita Cecilia, su viejita. We wonder if Uelito Jose Maria feels guilty for the hard life he gave her.

She has already begun calling out to her dead: her firstborn Abel, her mother Goyita, her sister Juanita who died decades ago, and for her father Plutarco, who died when she was only 2, before she was old enough to memorize his face.

My grandmother made my mother promise not to bury her in the United States, away from her rancho, away from Abel.

“Even if you die in the middle of the night,” my mother reassured her, “I will wrap you up in a blanket and put you in the truck and find someone to drive us back. We’ll just pretend you’re asleep when we cross the river.”

As we cross the Rio Grande, my mother looks out the window at the water. The river has always scared my mother, always reminding her of the two times she crossed it, first as a child, then while she carried one in her womb 15 years later.

She was 11 when she first saw the Rio Bravo in 1952. She waded across, the low water swallowing her small frame as the rocks dug into her tender, naked feet. This was the first time she made her trek north, to el otro lado, where she imagined a life so different from the one she knew – big fancy houses and all the honey and white bread she could eat.

Uelito Jose Maria and his children – Abel, 16; Lupe, 14, who was always so sickly; my mother; and Jose, 8 – crossed the river at Los Ebanos, where they waitedfor my grandfather’s brother-in-law, Juanita’s husband, to pick them up. They would spend the night in their house in Edinburg, two hours from their final destination, the King Ranch. The ranch, the largest in the state, is a legend among Mexican workers who still tell stories about picking cotton there. Uelita Cecilia had stayed behind in La Ceja with half the family: 12-year-old Ofilia, 6-year-old Ernesto, and Cleto, just a few days old.

My tia Juanita took in all the members of the family: pregnant women, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters. Juanita and her sisters, Rosario and Jacinta, left La Ceja soon after they married, as soon as they could. Their children, unlike my mother, learned to speak English, and the distance between them and their rancho grew. Before long, they stopped coming to La Ceja.

Uelito Jose Maria vowed to never leave, even when everyone else left.

“A los gringos, ni los huesos,” he would say. To the gringos, not even my bones.

Juanita, who had witnessed the tornado with my grandmother, was the first Reyna from our rancho to leave. She would always live in Edinburg, not far from the cabbage, onion and carrot fields she used to pick with her children. Until recently, Juanita competed in and won senior citizen centers’ beauty pageants, where she took turns dancing with different partners. It took open-heart surgery five years ago to make her retire her beloved high heels.

My mother has always adored her tia Juanita for taking her and her family in during their first days in the United States. Years later, when we would visit Tia Juanita, my father would slip her a $20 bill, still grateful for her generosity toward my mother.

My mother first picked algodon, cotton, in northern Mexico, in the labores of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. The work on the outskirts of Matamoros, Doctor Coss and Camargo lured entire families from the ranchos, where home was a small patch of dirt under tin roofs surrounded by algodon. Women arrived with their tiliches, belongings, including their molinos and metates to grind corn for tortillas.

But at the King Ranch, my grandfather and the other wifeless men with children cooked the pinto beans and atole that they carried with them to the fields. At night, my grandfather fed his kids before putting them to sleep.

From inside the tent, as my mother rested her head on a pillow she had stuffed with cotton she had picked, she could hear wild turkeys calling and the songs of the chicharras. She could hear families in tents around hers, platicando, chatting, and teenage boys calling each other by women’s names. Oye, Florindaaa! Like a far-away dream, my mother could hear men yelling and laughing, playing poker while they smoked and drank. She imagined her father there.

My mother remembers seeing my father working alongside his brother Rafael. My father was 16 and didn’t notice my mother, who was five years younger.

There were mothers with children and motherless children. The women bathed and washed clothes in a brook near the encampment.

“Era muchisisima gente,” my mother says. “Too many people and tents everywhere.”

My mother and her aunts would watch the white women walk past them, unaware of the Mexicans who blended into the cotton fields. “My tia Ramona had never seen Americanas,” recalls my mother, laughing. “They were wearing shorts. Tia Ramona was shocked. She said, ‘Why aren’t they wearing any clothes?'”

My mother and her brother Abel were my grandfather’s two strongest manos, hands that tore swiftly through surcos of cotton even when the dry buds tore into their fingertips. My mother came to the United States sin papeles twice and was deported once.

“I remember the day the migra came,” my mother says. “It was a Monday. We had just bought groceries the day before. All the tents were stocked with food. They arrested all the families except for one. That family didn’t have papeles either, but they spoke English. They deported us through Matamoros and we spent the night sleeping outside by a chicken coop.”

All those who had children were deported through Matamoros, across from Brownsville, which was a shorter trip back to La Ceja. My grandfather and others, including those who had hastily borrowed children from sympathetic Mexicans to present as their own before la migra, were gathered into trucks that dropped them off in Brownsville, by the international bridge, then were watched as they walked back to Mexico.

The teenage boys and men without children were transported in truckloads to Eagle Pass, across from Piedras Negras, Coahuila. After my father was deported, he spent a few days in Piedras Negras, washing dishes at a restaurant to pay for his trip back to his rancho.

BIG CITY DREAMS

When my own mother dies we will bury her back in Mexico, near La Ceja, the place she was so eager to leave when she was a young girl.

She wanted to live in la ciudad, where girls wore red lipstick and their skin looked like porcelana, porcelain. Soft heels. Long nails. Silky hair. There would be jobs, electricity and el cine, where she could watch Pedro Infante movies.

“Yo queria ser alguien,” my mother says. “I wanted to be someone.”

There were some 30 students at her school in La Ceja, where Uelita Cecilia’s brother taught grades 1 through 5. My mother was better with numbers than with words. As the chorus of children chanted the multiplication tables – cuatro por cuatro, 16; cuatro por cinco, 20, cuatro por seis, 24 – my mother yelled the loudest until her raspy voice was the only sound she could hear.

And when her teacher, her tio Chonito, read to the students, my mother didn’t always listen to what he was saying. It was how he said it that mattered. He spoke like an educated man, tan bonito.

On the inner walls of the school, her tio Chonito sketched the faces of Mexico’s presidents. El Indio Benito Juarez, who’s been called the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico, was my mother’s favorite. She memorized fragments of Juarez’s speeches and years later she would recite them to her children as if quoting the Bible.

While her younger brother Ernesto begged his father to let him quit school to build up his own goat pen, my mother re-enrolled in fifth grade. She wanted to be a nurse or a seamstress.

She dreamed of trips to Monterrey, the big city where girls from the rancho hardly ever went to study and only got to visit if their husbands could afford to take them there on their honeymoons. The trip was more of a reward for the virtuous women who left their childhood homes dressed in white and with their parents’ blessing.

My mother begged my grandfather to let her move away. Le rogo. But my grandfather refused. He heard city girls were loose.

“Apa used to say that a woman’s job was in the kitchen. Only men could study,” my mother says, her voice trembling with anger. “A woman had no business studying. He told me, ‘I already gave you girls enough education to defend yourselves and write your names.'”

“Every time I think about it I feel all this rage. But I tell myself I shouldn’t be angry. Your grandfather is an old man and his time is short.”

My mother finally left the ranchos when she was 17. She ended up in Pena Blanca, a dusty stop south on Carretera 33, the road to Monterrey. A distant relative hired her to keep the house clean, starch and iron shirts.

A couple of years later she returned to the rancho. She met my father when she was 20. A few months into their relationship, my father gave my mother her first pair of stockings and a thin, gauzy red panoleta, a scarf with a smooth, expensive feel. She knew it had to be from the United States.

My parents saw each other only at the rare dance that my mother was allowed to attend. Back then, most fathers did not allow their daughters to speak with their dance partners, much less dance two songs in a row. As they danced, my parents would secretly slip each other love letters.

My mother describes her dancing days with such gusto that you would never think she was such a devout Christian. I once asked her, if she had to, who would she pick, God or my father? God, she said without hesitation. She was insulted I even asked.

My father, Gumaro, who grew up in El Puente, a nearby rancho, was handsome and maduro. Era flaco, a slender man with a thin mustache and those ojos borrados, that earned him the nickname, el gato, the cat. Green eyes que alborotaban, that captivated – a gift from his Spanish blood, my father would often say.He was trabajador, hardworking, and really that was all that mattered.

My father’s hands felt like sandpaper. When he would pat our heads, our hair would get caught in the dried cuts on his manitas. My cousin Eloy, my father’s brother’s son and an electrician in Austin, has my father’s hands. He was an extra, a Mexican soldier, on the set of the most recent remake of “The Alamo.” There is a close-up in the movie of his worn hands loading a cannon.

My grandfather rejected all of my mother’s suitors. One was too stingy. Another was a womanizer by association (the man’s relatives were all mujeriegos, my grandfather insisted).

“Apa couldn’t see his own tail, which was longer than a freight train,” my mother says, referring to my abuelo’s own hotel heart. “He found flaws in everyone else, but there was no one who pointed to his flaws. That’s why they called him the king without the crown.”

When my father asked for my mother’s hand in marriage, my grandfather asked him to wait one year, as was customary.

So one Saturday night in March 1961, as los Hermanos Flores played at a dance held on the school grounds, my mother ran off with my father.

“Your father didn’t want to wait. He wanted it fast and so did I,” my mother says. “I wanted another life.”

Not long after they walked into the darkness, the gossipy whispers began: Elva, la de Jose Maria, y Gumaro eloped. And before the dance was over, los Hermanos Flores played “Gavilan Pollero,” the song they played every time someone eloped from a dance.

Gavilan, Gavilan

Te llevaste a la polla que mas quiero.

Si tu vuelves mi polla para aca

Yo te doy todito el gallinero.

Sparrow Hawk, Sparrow Hawk

You took the young hen I most loved.

If you bring back my young hen

I’ll give you my entire chicken coop.

By then, there was hardly any work left on the ranchos. So my parents spent their honeymoon months picking corn in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, before heading to Reynosa to take care of a chicken farm, just two months before my oldest brother was born.

By the time my mother gave birth to her second child in 1964, she was back in El Puente with her in-laws and my father was working in Dallas.

By the 1960s, most of my mother’s generation began looking north and pregnant women were coming to the United States, where they hoped to give birth to their American babies. A baby born on U.S. soil would be a citizen even if the parents had crossed the Rio Grande sin papeles.

One month after my mother buried her brother Abel in 1966, she left for the United States for the second time in her life. Eight months pregnant, she arrived in Edinburg to stay with her tia Juanita again, who took her in for a month while my father was back on the rancho cutting fence posts to pay for the birth of their third baby. In Edinburg, my mother spent her days sewing baby clothes, waiting for my oldest sister, la first Americana, to arrive.

Copyright 2004 San Antonio Express-News