One Family, Two Homelands: Chapter 4, Only the Dead Return

By Macarena Hernandez, The San Antonio Express-News

My mother often threatened to disappear – either back to the rancho or on the day of the Rapture.

She reminded us of her plans especially on those long, tired days when nobody seemed to appreciate that she washed and cooked for a family of 10.

“The day will come when I will leave this place. One day you won’t find me,” she told us in her melodramatic Mexican telenovela tone. “Then you will realize how much you need me.”

My parents always spoke of one day going back to Mexico, where they imagined a much simpler life.

They planned to grow old by the arroyo that slices through the 45 acres my parents bought near La Ceja in 1974, their first big purchase.

My mother would raise chickens, goats and maybe even a couple of pigs. My father would plant his sorghum, melons and calabazitas and roam his own fields, the ones he ignored all the years he worked someone else’s.

There were others who also planned to return. My parents’ compadres, Hermelinda and Eugenio Trevino, were the only ones who actually left La Joya for La Ceja, but after a handful of years, they changed their minds and came back. No one has moved back since.

Only the dead or deported return.

Life in that corner of Nuevo Leon hasn’t been the same since the 1970s, when young families who couldn’t find work finally left.

A few families moved to nearby towns in Tamaulipas, like Ochoa and Comales, and some relocated farther south to Monterrey. Most went north to Texas where they settled in towns along the border – Weslaco, Edinburg, McAllen, Rio Grande City and Roma among others.

The largest concentration – los Hernandez, los Trevino, los Salinas, los Reyna – ended up in La Joya, just three miles north of the Rio Grande. Brothers and sisters, nephews and aunts bought property next to one another, separated only by a chain-link fence or a dirt callejon, an alley. Your best friends were your cousins.

By the time I was born in 1974, my parents and siblings were renting their first American home, a $15-a-month cardboard shack on 11th Street in La Joya. By then, my parents had been legal residents for several years.

Two years later, my parents bought a lot on the corner of Sixth and Leo J. Leo Avenue, named after the small town’s largest character, a staunch Democrat, de hueso colorado. The mayor was the patriarch of the Leo clan, which has intermittently run the town of 2,500 since 1961.

Most of the residents already there were Mexican Americans, lifelong Tejanos, who, as they say, never crossed the border – the border crossed them.

Recent arrivals were easy to spot. Our houses were always locked up for the summer while we lived on the road, chasing harvests from state to state. As early as late March, a caravan of cars carrying people from the same ranchos crossed state lines, day and night, on their way to labor camps and sagging barracks in Colorado, California, West Texas, Florida and South Carolina.

In Shafter, Calif., outside Bakersfield, we lived in a labor camp with about 100 houses, where everyone was either related or conocidos, family friends. At night, after their showers, people gathered on the front steps of their houses or sat on the tailgates of their pickups in the backyard. Swapping stories for hours – as they had always done back in Mexico – they sharpened their hoes, filled their coolers with water and ice and loaded the trucks. Back then, my mother says, women weren’t afraid of hard work, they were tough. Aguantaban mucho.

When there was no more work, we would move north. In Parlier, we picked grapes and laid them, still on their vines, on large pieces of butcher paper on the sand. A few weeks later, after the grapes were dry, we turned them over to make sure they became raisins.

It was in California that I first learned of Cesar Chavez, who fought for migrant workers’ rights. But my parents never thought of joining the picket lines; they had too many children to feed.

We hoed cotton fields throughout West Texas. The days were long and the surcos, rows, eternal. I hated working in the fields. I often begged my father to let me sleep underneath the cotton plants or in our van, especially after the lunch break, when the sun burned hottest. I could sleep anywhere I found enough shade for my face. I took frequent water breaks, always trailing behind everyone. Most days, my mother worked behind me, cleaning up after my half-hearted efforts.

In Colorado we lived outside Commerce City, in tired wooden barracks. Through the kitchen’s tiny, single window we could see the parsley fields we picked and the rumbling Santa Fe train.

“One of these days I will disappear. I will jump on one of those trains and you will never see me again,” my mother would tell us. “I will go somewhere where no one will know my name.”

My family picked cucumbers and tomatoes in South Carolina, in a segregated labor camp in the middle of what I remember as a fairytale-like forest with tall, old pine trees.

During the day, Mexicans and blacks worked together. At night, we returned to our own side, opposite the communal bathroom and shower. The only time we crossed that invisible boundary was to retrieve a ball we had kicked too far.

After my older sister Veronica eloped, I was the one my father would load into the van and drive from farm to farm looking for work. Less than 4 feet tall and 9 years old at the time, I stood between my father and the rancher, translating for two grown men who could only smile politely at each other. I didn’t like to see my father, a proud and handsome man, beg with smiles.

In the fourth grade I was placed in a gifted and talented class in La Joya, where most of my classmates came from English-speaking homes. Their parents never missed a school function.

I shared a double desk with another Mexican American girl who lived on my block. I hardly knew her. Her father was a teacher and her mother a school administrator. They lived in the only brick house in the neighborhood, and the only one with air conditioning. Her father jogged around our block every afternoon. The other men, including my father, wondered why anyone would want to sweat on purpose.

Once, my deskmate pointed to a large bug crawling on the desk. “Ugh,” she said, laughing and pointing at me, “That bug fell out of her hair!”

I knew the bug was too big to be a piojo, a louse. But I cried anyway.

In middle school, I began to wonder where I belonged. At school I spent my days in English, returning to my Spanish after the last bell rang: What am I? Mexican? American? Both? Neither?

In Mexico, I am a pocha, an agringada, Americanized and less Mexicana. I’m from el otro lado, from the United States, where women are arrastradas, lazy, and where you won’t find one that still makes tortillas every day, if they make them at all. In the United States, I’m a hyphenated American, an arrimada, someone who doesn’t always belong, even though I was born north of the Rio Grande, in Roma, Texas.

Only in La Ceja did I feel like I belonged.

GENERATIONAL CONFLICT

Between harvests, my father followed construction sites from state to state, while my mother stayed behind in La Joya with us. My father constructed buildings and paved parking lots throughout Texas, Florida and Mississippi. He supervised construction crews of mostly relatives, including his sons, his cousins and their sons. He was thrifty and never drove past plastic bags littered along the highway shoulders or a good deal at the flea market.

He came home whenever he could and brought his daughters piggy banks, fat with spare change. My three sisters would hang adoringly like leaves from his limbs.

My father was a strict man, especially when it came to his daughters. He and I argued about everything from Mexican politics to the length of my skirts. I was in high school the first time I remember my father asking me for my opinion. I don’t remember what my father asked, only that he asked me. We were driving along a highway overpass in Mission that looks toward Foy’s supermarket and the old M. Rivas grocery store, where I got lost when I was 5.

The only argument I vividly remember took place one night in the late spring of my senior year in high school. I was 17. I had been accepted to Baylor University and needed to attend orientation.

“Why are you going so far to find a husband?” my father asked when I told him I wanted to go to college in Waco, seven hours north of our hometown. He then gave me the same advice he gave my sisters: get a carrerita, a vocational career, something short and inexpensive.

“I am going to go to college,” I told him defiantly, pointing my finger at him. “And I am going to graduate, and when I’m 24 years old and still single, I don’t want you asking me why I’m not married.”

I had planned my escape since middle school, when I had written notes to myself, which included reminders to stay away from boys and move away to college. Stored in my brown vinyl box, the only place in my house that felt like my own, I kept the simple instructions secreted away.

I longed to experience the world and dreamed of moving away as far as I could. I was luckier than my brothers and sisters who spent their high school summers working the fields. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, my family stopped migrating. My brothers had found work in construction and my two older sisters had graduated with vocational careers in medicine.

Before I left for college in the summer of 1992, my grandmother, Uelita Cecilia, gave me her blessing and her advice: to take care of the one thing Mexican mothers and men most highly value, a woman’s virtue, her virginity.

“Cuidate ese pedacito,” she said, smiling. “Vale oro molido.” Guard that little piece of you. It’s worth gold.

On that summer day in June, as my parents drove me north to Waco, I cried until we reached Falfurrias an hour later. I knew my father wanted the best for me; we just had a different idea of what that should be.

My father spent my first year of college sentido, hurt that I had left without his approval. When I called and he answered, he kept the conversation short, quickly handing the phone to my mother. Years later, after his death, my mother told me she had persuaded him to set me free.

My three sisters left my parents’ home when they got married – at 17, 18 and 22 – the only way a woman in my family was allowed to leave. When my sisters got married, my father gave each one $1,000.

It’s not that my father was eager to marry us off, it’s just that he thought it was inevitable. Once wed, we were harina de otro costal, flour from another sack.

My brothers, on the other hand, led lives without boundaries. They smoked cigarettes, drank beer and stole kisses from their girlfriends in the backyard. My father spent a lifetime teaching them how to put a roof over their heads, literally, and encouraged them to buy lots to build their families a home.

When we share an honest platica, usually talking for hours late at night, my mother tells me she never thought she’d grow old alone. I know she still prays for a fourth son-in-law.

Men are machistas, I tell her, especially Mexicanos and Mexican Americans, whom I love but I think have a hard time loving women like me.

“They slowly lose their machismo, hija,” she says. “Your father was very machista and little by little he lost it. They begin to understand that in this day and age, and life in the United States, it’s different. They begin to understand that a marriage is made along the way. That’s when your love is really tested.”

DEATH AND MORE DEATH

Mexicans are obsessed with death.

“If you don’t bury me en el rancho I will come back after I die and pull your feet in the middle of the night,” my mother told us. She would remind us to take her back to Mexico, especially around the first two days of November, when we celebrate Dia de los Muertos.

On the Day of the Dead, the cemetery in the rancho fills with people, most of whom haven’t visited all year.

The first time I discussed death with my mother I was 5 and my pet chicken had just died. My mother was raising a dozen of them in our La Joya back yard, which was infested with fire ants.

I found my black hen lying flat and stiff underneath my mother’s washing machine outside our house, not long after she had sprinkled ant poison that resembled chicken feed. I cried for days.

My mother reassured me that my nameless chicken was in heaven. But I kept crying.

“Por favor, Macarena!” she told me. “Please leave those tears for the day I die. When I die there will be no tears left for me.”

Every year around Day of the Dead, my parents also visited my brother Ramiro’s gravesite at La Piedad cemetery in McAllen. They would tie a small bouquet of plastic flowers to the green metal nameplate marking his grave.

They never bought him a marble headstone because they didn’t intend for him to stay there.

Ramiro, my mother’s seventh child, arrived in early November 1971 while my father was working back in Mexico and my mother was at a relative’s house in McAllen. My tio Baldo and tia Queta rushed her to a Mission clinic when her contractions came. When the clinic staff turned her away, her relatives drove her to Starr County, 35 miles west of Mission.

They went in search of a midwife, who wasn’t home. They drove back to Mission and found another midwife who sent my mother to the hospital after she began bleeding. My mother used Ramiro’s first baby outfit – the yellow one she planned to take him home from the hospital in – to stop the blood from spilling onto the seats of the car. He drowned in her blood just before he was delivered. My mother was in the hospital when my father and his brother Rafael buried my brother at La Piedad cemetery, a narrow strip of graves now squeezed between the city airport and a row of warehouses.

“When I die,” my mother would tell us, “I want you to take his huecitos (little bones) and bury them with me in Mexico. I don’t want his gravesite to be forgotten.”

In Mexico, my mother has always said, they respect the dead. Aqui, no. Here, they don’t.

For La Ceja, Altamira, Serafin and La Reforma, the cemetery is the meeting point, the one place where at least once a year, on Dia de los Muertos, those who left come home to reunite with those still here. We forget our ranchos are dying. There, as a family, we reconnect with our dead.

The marble gets polished and the photographs encased in glass are dusted. That is the only time the grass is trimmed and the weeds are yanked. The handful of people who still live here collect donaciones, paid mostly in dollars. One year, they paid for an outhouse.

When my mother was a teenager, the biggest dances of the year were held at the school during Day of the Dead. Young couples danced as Los Hermanos Flores from Altamira played their huapangos and rancheras, while the mothers sold carne guisada plates.

By the 1980s, those lively dances had faded into memory, as old and unfamiliar as the painted portraits of long-dead relatives that hung in my grandmother’s house. No one gets married there anymore and there are hardly any children.

It was the drought that followed Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 that finally killed the ranchos, my grandfather says.

The drought lasted more than a decade, forcing many to abandon their fields. It wiped out the agricultural industry, dominated by a few families that every year shipped out tons of watermelon, canteloupe, sorghum and corn to nearby Monterrey and as far south as Guadalajara and Mexico City.

Some had no choice but to sell their cattle and land. In Comales, fishermen’s wives made pilgrimages to the reservoir, where they begged God to open the skies.

By then, only my grandfather and grandmother were left on our family rancho. The rancho’s cemetery is the only gathering place left.

We know my father wanted to be buried there, close to his mother and grandmother, but unlike my mother, he didn’t plan his funeral, only prayed for a quick death.

“The day I die, these kids are going to do whatever they want,” he would say. “I won’t know the difference. I’ll be dead.”

One Tuesday night in August 1998, as he drove home from my brother’s house where he had just dropped off a grandson’s carseat, an 18-wheeler smashed into my father’s car on the corner of Esperanza Street. He died instantly.

My father and I were just starting to understand each other. Just three months earlier, he had watched me accept my master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley, just north of where my family once picked grapes.

My siblings were torn between burying him in Mexico or in the United States, where all of us live.

In the end, we buried him in Mexico, a few feet from his parents’ graves and his beloved grandmother Manuela, and next to his younger brother Enrique, who also died in a car accident nine years earlier. The Hernandezes, like their rancho, El Puente, have had short and sad lives, I tell my mother.

The small ranching community where my father’s family first settled died decades before anyone in La Ceja could ever imagine their rancho suffering the same fate. All that is left of my father’s childhood home, where his parents raised eight children, are the hollow walls of crumbling cinderblock.

Not long after my father died, my mother abandoned her dream of a rancho life by the arroyo. These days, she just asks that we bury her next to him, by the main gate of the Sara Flores Cemetery, the ranchos’ constant reminder of the cycle of life.

Copyright 2004 San Antonio Express-News