One Family, Two Homelands: Chapter 5, Everything Changes

By Macarena Hernandez, The San Antonio Express-News

I go to La Ceja to remember what I don’t want to forget. My grandfather goes to La Ceja to forget what he doesn’t want to remember. In La Ceja he is still el rey, the king, though almost everyone else has left for the United States.

Alli sus chicharrones todavia truenan: There, his pork rinds still crackle.

“En el otro lado (In the United States) all you do is watch television,” my grandfather says. “Just sitting in front of a television in an air-conditioned room. You go from your bed to the living room to the kitchen to the bathroom. Eso no es vida.”

That’s not living.

He spends most of his time with my mother, but my grandfather still feels like a canica en bandeja, a marble in a tray, rolling from side to side. Though he became an American citizen in 1999, and all but one of his children now live north of the Rio Grande, for my abuelo, home is still Mexico.

His son, Cleto, drives him south across the Rio Grande, back to his rancho, where my grandfather stays for a week at a time or until the next doctor’s appointment or chemotherapy treatment. His children used to ask him to stay and rest, but my grandfather wouldn’t listen. Es cabezudo, my mother says. Hardheaded.

In La Ceja my grandfather forgets that he’s dying, just like his dreams forget my grandmother is dead. In his suenos, his parents, Uelita Lola and Uelito Cleto, still live in the house closest to the fields and the two man-made ponds, las presas. Abel, his oldest son, who has been dead for nearly 40 years, is still alive, and Uelita Cecilia’s curls are still long and black.

“I told her, ‘You know I don’t like to make trips at the last minute,'” my grandfather says, recounting what he told my grandmother in one of his dreams. “One of her comadres was with her and they wanted to go to La Lajilla.”

His dreams are stuck – atascados – in time. His children are always young when he sleeps.

“Ay uelito,” I tell him. “Even in your dreams you’re giving orders. Ya dejela descansar.” Let her rest in peace.

“‘Next time you want to go to La Lajilla,’ I told her, ‘tell me at least one day ahead of time,'” he continues in that yo mando tone my grandmother heard often. “‘I have work in the fields that needs to get done.'”

No more than 20 years ago, La Ceja called its children home on weekends, Christmas Eve, New Year’s and Easter.

As the visitors honked, announcing their arrival, Jose Maria never showed an ounce of eagerness. Instead, he stood on his porch, waiting for the Texas license plates to park and for the grandkids to run to him. He offered his cheek, but never kissed back.

“Ya llegaron,” he would say as we unloaded the H-E-B bags – foil and toilet paper, frozen chicken legs, D-sized batteries for flashlights and the radio, and his special treat, canned Ranch Style beans, my grandfather’s favorite. I usually brought copies of Vanidades for my grandmother’s lonely afternoons when my grandfather was out working his fields.

“Tomorrow morning, I want you kids to wake up early and clean the corrales,” my grandfather would tell us. “And when you’re done there, you can start with the chicken coops. Aqui no quiero gente arrastrada.” I don’t want any lazy people here.

In La Ceja, a person’s worth and strength are measured by how hard he works.

“Did you bring your huevitos?” he’d ask, pointing to the mesquite tree just outside the gate. Reynas are known for being huevudos, stubborn, willful. “If you did, I want you to go back there and hang those huevos up on that tree. And when you leave, make sure you take them with you. I don’t want you leaving them here.”

There were several rules to follow on his rancho: stay out of the way and listen to the women in the kitchen. And no English. Speaking English in front of the elders was falta de respeto. Disrespectful, as they often reminded us. Speak – in Spanish – but only when asked for your opinion.

Hanging from the porch ceiling, next to the rack where my grandmother dried her homemade cheese, was the chicote, my grandfather’s hand-braided whip, a reminder that old-school punishment was still practiced here. A few of his grandchildren were well acquainted with that chicote. Only once did he swing his whip at me, barely touching my ankles. I was speaking in English to my cousin Isabel, who spoke almost no Spanish.

As a teen, I spent most of my weekends in La Ceja, away from my crowded house in La Joya. My grandmother would let me sleep at least two hours later than she did in the mornings. Occasionally my grandfather would yell from the porch, reminding me I didn’t come to the rancho to sleep.

I spent those long days in her kitchen molding cheese with bottomless tuna cans. I swept the chicken coops and collected the eggs, which my grandmother inspected before placing in the refrigerator. My grandmother often saved the odd ones, those with an interesting color or weird shape.

She kept one egg for years inside a tin bucket that hung from the kitchen ceiling. It was a regular-size egg that had somehow ended up with what looked like pencil scribbles. If you looked closely, you could see a bearded man holding an ax.

My grandmother believed there were secrets and treasures buried in our land, which we shared with the spirits still shackled to this world by a loved one’s grief, unable to rest in peace. Not everyone saw them, but enough people did, including my grandmother. She often told me about the little boy who sat under kitchen tables shelling and eating peanuts.

At the rancho, my grandmother had only me to pay attention to and at night I didn’t have to share a bed. At home, I slept in a full-size bed with my three sisters. When my grandfather picked tender corn, she would make me my favorite meal: corn tamales with hot sweet tea made from orange leaves, from the trees her son Abel had planted.

The freeze in 1983 that wiped out most of the orange and grapefruit groves in the Rio Grande Valley also killed most of the orange trees in La Ceja. The few that survived died during the drought when my grandfather, having nothing else, watered them with salt water fetched from underground wells found with a dowsing rod.

After lunch, after my grandfather had had his piloncillo con queso, a brown sugar treat with cheese, he would retire to the bedroom with a door to the porch and stretch out his lambskins by the doorway.

While my grandmother slept on her wooden bed a few steps from the kitchen, her granddaughters would sometimes try on the wedding dress that for years hung in the ropero as if stubbornly waiting for its owner to come home. Until she died, my grandmother also waited for her dead son’s widow to return. My aunts warned us that it was bad luck to try on someone else’s wedding dress. I never tried it on.

I spent the hot afternoons on the rocking chair on the porch, pouring water on my legs and feet. I could hear dogs barking on a nearby rancho, the cowbells ringing from the corrales and the never-ending call of a hen nesting in the carport. In the distance, you could hear the folksy calls of the white-wing doves.

I’d splash water on my head. My grandfather would tell his grandchildren they only came to his rancho to waste his water. We were not allowed to swim in the presas, even though the cows spent hours cooling off there.

My grandfather told us he didn’t want to drink his grandchildrens’ urine. He was sure the drought would leave us no choice but to use the pond water. For drinking water, my grandfather collected rain in a built-in cistern by the room where he kept his mustache dye and where there were always two 5-gallon plastic cans waiting for bath water fetched from outside.

During the drought, my grandfather studied the skies day and night, searching for clouds carrying water and hoping the moon announced rain. Our people, my grandfather says, have always been guided by the moon, which each month told them how much rain to expect.

The granddaughters spent all day helping our grandmother, cleaning and cooking: breakfast, lunch, merienda and dinner. The grandsons spent the day working with my grandfather, carrying their BB guns. Armed and confident, they’d march into the kitchen and ask us girls for lunch or a glass of water.

At night, I watched my grandmother as she sat on her bed, her threadlike gray hair down to her shoulders after being pulled back in a bun all day. She rubbed her rosary beads as she whispered to God to look over her children in California, Houston, Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley. She prayed for her oldest daughter, Lupe, and her husband, who live in La Ceja, a couple of miles away.

When our grandparents had gone to bed, there was nothing to do except watch the grainy black and white television set airing Spanish-dubbed reruns of American exports – the Incredible Hulk, Fantasy Island and the Smurfs – as well as telenovelas and 24 Horas with Jacobo Zabludovsky, whom some have called Mexico’s Walter Cronkite.

On Saturday evenings after dinner and a shower, my grandfather would stand in front of the ropero’s mirror and inspect his freshly dyed mustache for hints of silver. He was decked out in his felt hat, the one he took out only on special occasions, and pressed khaki shirt over a white ribbed tank top, with khaki pants. I’d kneel by his feet and roll up his dark, thin dress socks, and pull on his nice pair of black botines. Then my grandfather would drive off in his Ford, leaving behind a trail of dust, and the scent of Palmolive and Old Spice.

As a young girl, I knew my grandfather had other women, but I knew better than to ask him questions. Months before my grandmother died, I met two of his daughters from two other women and found out I had at least 12 other cousins, some of them my age. As he had done for me, my grandfather had also promised them cabritos, goats, on their birthdays and a cow for their weddings.

FEELING HIS MORTALITY

Until recently, my grandfather never spoke of his funeral. My grandmother talked about hers until her death in April. She’d even entrusted us with a list of items she wanted to be buried with.

But for his funeral, all my grandfather asks for is compassion for his other children.

“You can’t take away their right to pour their fistful of dirt,” he says.

These days, he thinks a lot about life: how it’s changed, how it’s almost gone. It’s only when he walks around the rancho that my grandfather looks like a man who’s never set foot in a hospital and has made no plans to leave this world.

He started feeling old and tired after last year’s harvest, when a congested chest forced him across the border to a Mission hospital for three weeks. Then the doctors found cancer.

Since then, my grandfather has spent most of his time in Texas.

On Thursdays, after his chemo, I take him out to restaurants near the McAllen Oncology clinic off U.S. 83, across the street from el hospital blanco, as my family calls McAllen Medical Center. At that white, eight-story hospital, doctors last year tried to remove the cancer eating his left lung. He was a lifelong smoker who once tried to quit by chewing mint and cinnamon Chiclets. He hasn’t smoked a Raleigh since the surgery that June.

“That stuff they are injecting me with is making me stronger,” he tells everyone about his chemotherapy. “I hear it is good for the bones.”

The doctor has told me the chemotherapy will more than likely weaken his blood. Within a few weeks, his doctor orders iron injections twice a month.

My mother tells me to bring my grandfather straight home. But he wants to go for a ride, anywhere but back to the swinging patio chair outside my mother’s house in Palmview, where he spends his afternoons staring at the asphalt parking lot of my family’s Mexican restaurant, Las Canteras.

I long to show him fragments of this world – my world – so different from his.

One day we go to La Plaza Mall, a place my grandfather never cared to visit. The mall is one of the most profitable in the United States, a mecca for rich Mexican nationals and their kids, whom Mexican Americans refer to as fresas, strawberries: translation, rich snobs.

We stop to visit my cousin Isabel – Bella to her Gap co-workers – before heading over to Foley’s, where we ride the escalator to the men’s shoe section on the second floor. We are in search of comfortable leather loafers because my grandfather has never worn anything but boots.

“He could have died from susto (fright),” my mother tells me a few days later after my grandfather complains to her of the terrifying escalator experience. “Your grandfather has never been on one of those things and he is so sick and delicate. Ay, he could have fallen off. Those things scare even me. You know, the first time I got on one of those things I almost fainted.”

I had always thought of my grandfather as eternal. His mother, Uelita Lola, lived to be 96, although some of my relatives say she was more than 100.

She was an Indian brought from the edges of la Sierra Morena near Bustamante, Nuevo Leon. Vino a huevo, as they say in La Ceja, against her will, after Jose Gonzalez decided to make the 15-year-old his wife. My tio Cleto says Reyna women are chulas because of the Indian strain from Uelita Lola, la India: they have both straight and wavy raven hair; thick but well-defined black eyebrows; big deep dark eyes with naturally curled lashes and smooth, tawny skin. They defend themselves like roosters. Son gallonas.

Uelita Lola’s new husband, Jose Gonzalez, who was much older, only had enough time to drop her off with his sister Jacinta, in the little rascuache rancho of La Ceja. He was returning to fight in the Mexican Revolution, leaving his young wife alone after just a few days.

Jose returned years later, when almost everyone back home had given him up for dead. By then Lola had moved in with Anacleto, Jacinta’s son. The uncle told the nephew that a woman was not worth fighting over and the two became compadres when Jose baptized the couple’s first child, my grandfather.

Anacleto was a gentle soul, un alma justa. Uelita Lola was just the opposite. Lola delivered most of La Ceja’s children but was better known for having slapped her share of men.

“She was valiente,” my grandfather says with pride and reverence. “She was short-tempered, my mother. She stood her ground.”

“I am just like my mother and I am not saying I’m valiente,” he continues. “I’m short-tempered. Whoever does anything bad to me, let’s hope I never find him because I will make him pay.”

My grandfather still remembers the day Uelita Lola smacked a nearby ranchero, Florentino Gonzalez, with a pewter serving spoon after he beat his wife.

“Tronaba como fierro,” recalls my grandfather, then a boy. “It sounded like metal hitting metal every time she slapped his hand with the cucharon. I think his wife, se rajo con mama, she complained to her about her husband. That man wasn’t all there in the head. After she died he would pass by a barbed-wire fence, and say, ‘Hold on, prendita. Be careful not to get all tangled up in the wire. Let me hold the fence up for you.'”

In the eight days leading up to Uelita Lola’s death in 1987, dozens of relatives and friends gathered, keeping my great-grandmother company day and night. They took care of burial arrangements, kept her house clean and brought food. The men killed the cows and goats. The women chopped and cooked meat. The men took up spades and dug her grave. They sat by her bedside. Some urged her to drink water as they held a straw to her parched lips. I held her hand and asked her to squeeze it if she recognized my voice. She did.

In the background you could hear the sewing machine stitching together her last dress – pink chiffon with white trim that made her look less like Lola and more like a fairy godmother. I wondered if she could hear the sewing machine and if she knew they were sewing for her. We buried her next to her husband’s grave and near her grandson, Abel.

For some of her children, their connection to the land was also buried that day. They rarely came back. They began to forget.

Two years later, only Uelito Jose Maria and Uelita Cecilia lived on the family ranch, and soon most of the grandkids stopped coming. The car engines roaring in the distance no longer stop at my grandfather’s house. They’re usually Pemex workers going somewhere else.

My grandfather doesn’t remember the first night he could no longer hear the guataso – the commotion – that told him there was life on the nearby ranchos. Back then the nights were long with no electricity to stretch out the day. From his front porch, he used to hear the laughter and shrieks of la ralea, the children from other ranchos.

His closest neighbor, Candelaria, who used to stop by in the afternoons, died not long after her children took her to nearby El Lobo. Manuel, my grandfather’s cousin whom Uelita Lola nursed because his mother couldn’t, is gone and so is the rusty bicycle that took him from rancho to rancho. There are no grandchildren stealing corn tortillas to tie to a rope to lure the crabs out from la presa.

Even the way we bury our dead has changed. Most of those buried in the rancho’s cemetery die in the United States, where the wake is held in an air-conditioned room. By 9 p.m. the doors are locked and the family is sent away. During the mourning period, women no longer wear black, and televisions and radios are no longer kept off.

Even those who knew Jose Maria before he began to feel old and tired left not too long ago, after their years had grown too heavy and the rain still refused to visit. His sister Albina and her husband still live in Serafin, only a couple of miles away.

His other sisters, Jacinta and Rosario, left more than half a century ago, shortly after their sister Juanita moved to Edinburg, back when hardly anyone left the ranchos. His only brother, Cleofas, and his wife Dora left the nearby rancho, Gracias a Dios, for Houston only a few months ago.

Their youngest son, el Papi, a 40-year-old curandero who never married, was left all alone on the desolate rancho. The faithful used to come to Gracias a Dios in search of prayer and concoctions to remove the pain rooted in their bodies and hearts. They seldom visit now and el Papi spends his days writing prayers in a spiral notebook and tending to his flock of sheep. My grandfather’s youngest sister, Jela, lives nearby and vows to never leave, even though her children left as soon as they could.

My grandparents’ house is usually locked now. The two dozen nameless skinny cats that are deliberately kept hungry so they’ll eat the rats, greet my grandfather at his door every time he visits. He still takes his afternoon naps by one of the front windows that faces the gate to his rancho.

Javier, who most of my family knows only as el ranchero, tends to the cows, goats, sheep, pigs, dogs, cats and the four chicken coops. There have been many rancheros in my lifetime, some staying as long as seven years and others leaving after two weeks. It’s my grandfather’s temper, my uncles say.

Nereida, Javier’s wife, dreams of coming to the United States, but her husband prefers to run somebody else’s rancho for $150 a month. He left San Luis Potosi for the United States the year before he arrived in La Ceja, and returned after nine months with enough cash in his pocket to build a small home.

He didn’t want to live in fear or like an unwanted guest, so he decided never to go north again.

NO SLOW DEATH

Jose Maria Reyna has never been afraid of death, only of dying slowly. He told my mother if he ever grew too old or sick to take care of himself, he would end his life rather than face the unfortunate fate of the old: living long enough to become a burden.

He knows sooner or later even your own children begin to resent you.

“I’ve already given myself to God,” my grandfather tells his sister Juanita one day as we sit in her front yard watching the cars drive by Sugar Road in Edinburg. “But I hope he sends death when I’m at the rancho, my rancho.”

“Porque en el rancho?” I ask, thinking he will tell me what I have heard him say often: I was born on the rancho, I will die on the rancho.

But what he says is, “I don’t want to give my children any more work.”

His sister Juanita tells him she has no plans to go back to Mexico. She has nothing left there.

“If I, who am from Mexico, don’t go back to see my father and mother’s gravesites, much less my children,” she tells my grandfather, who is sipping coffee and eating pan de semita, a sweet bread. “They’ll never go visit me, or bring me flowers.”

She’s already paid Palm Valley Memorial Gardens for her burial plot, just two miles from where we now sit.

“It is close by so I won’t burden my children,” she says before walking inside her house.

She walks to the corner room, to the ropero, where she keeps her handmade dresses, recuerdos from her dancing days at the senior citizen centers. They are under lock and key until she sells them. She has no plans to wear them again. She returns with a neatly folded shawl made of delicate black and gold thread.

It smells of her – musty perfume sprayed many Saturday nights ago.

“So you can remember me when I am no longer here,” she says, handing it to me.

“I want you to wear it when you bury me,” my grandfather tells me.

I wrap the rebozo around me. Stretched across my back, it reveals a glittering butterfly.

Copyright 2004 San Antonio Express-News