Book: Resilience - The Life of a Mexican American. Novel based on a true life story. Names changed to protect participants. Introduction & 18 Chapters. I´ve posted first nine chapters. Interested in reader feedback. If interested, please read and provide me contructive feedback via comments. For additional chapters and poems, email (comments emailed to me, not posted so as not to influence future readers)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Chapter 1: First Memories & the American Dream

I remember being three years old. It was my first memory. I was sitting on the steps of a big building, a church I think. Someone was carrying me. It was my sister Gloria who was 10 years old.

When I was little, someone always carried me around on their hip. They carried me because I was the cute, little, baby girl. I loved to laugh and be spoiled.

I was the seventh child in a family of ten. We had five boys and five girls, an even match. At the time of my first memory, it was 1953. My two youngest sisters weren’t born yet, so at the time, we were a family of eight.

We lived in a small town in Michigan called St. Johns. It was a quiet, peaceful place. We were one of the few Mexican-American families that lived in town all year round.

Dad had a good job in an auto factory. Most of the Mexican and Mexican American families were migrant laborers and only came to the state in the summertime.

From the stories I heard, Dad and his family came to Michigan as migrants too. When his parents, brothers and sisters moved back to Texas, he decided to keep his family in Michigan. He had a good paying job at the factory and he thought his children would have a better chance of attaining the American Dream.

I guess we did pretty well in Michigan, especially compared to our relatives in Texas. We lived in a big house. Fruit trees and beautiful flowers decorated our big yard. We had plenty to eat.

Dad’s family in Texas wasn’t so fortunate. They didn’t have very much money. Many of them still traveled the country to work various migrant jobs. In the winter, they all headed back to San Antonio to count their family profits.

Even though our family was better off financially in Michigan, Dad´s work was back breaking and Mom missed her parents and siblings.

Mom and Dad were willing to sacrifice their own comfort to enable their children to succeed.

Mom was born in Pearsall, TX in August, 1915. Times were different then. The American Dream was not attainable to all people.

She was the eldest child born to her parents, Mingo and Petra. They had three more children, two girls and a boy.

Mom´s family was very, very poor.

Try as he might, Mingo could not get steady work. He found occasional work as a migrant farm worker. For a few years, he laid rails for the railroad. This work took him away from his family for months at a time.

Petra was quiet and demure, but when Mingo was away, she found the will and the way to help her family survive. She often took in laundry and sewing just to put food on the table.

Petra taught her children to believe in God. Every Sunday, regardless of where they lived, they attended Mass. In the evenings they often read the bible to each other.

Petra and her children lived with family and relatives throughout the state and they rarely had a home of their own. When in Austin, they lived with relatives in the shadow of the Capital. On several occasions, they lived with Mingo´s mother, Grandita.

When living with relatives, they often lived in backyards. They slept on dirt floors or on panels of wood. They had no indoor kitchen or bathroom. Petra cooked outside in the yard on a wood fire.

When mom was 14, they moved to San Antonio. Petra found a job working in a sewing factory. Soon, the factory needed more help and she brought mom into the factory to work with her.

Nights and weekends, Petra took in laundry and ironing. She worked from morning until night, every day. Mom helped her mother by delivering the laundry when it was ready.

In those early years, mom dreamed of her future. She knew she would marry the man of her dreams. She knew she would raise children who would be successful in America.

After Dad started working at the factory, he laid down an edict. No one could speak Spanish in our house. I often heard the story that Ramon and Christina, my oldest brother and sister, flunked first grade because they couldn’t speak English. Dad said that was not going to happen again.

All of his children were going to speak English at home and none of us would have an accent. Having an accent meant you would never be successful in America. We were all going to graduate from high school and have successful careers. We would never speak Spanish at home, only English.

English came easily for all of us children and soon we were speaking English with a Michigan accent. It wasn´t so easy for Mom. As always, she sacrificed and did her best.

When she spoke English, her accent was thick and she stumbled over her words. Often, she spoke Spanglish, a mixture of Spanish and English. It was funny. I always understood every word Mom spoke, regardless of English, Spanish or Spanglish.

Mom was very dedicated to our family. Her first rule was teaching us to love God. Mom read the bible every day. Every morning she taught us to greet each other by saying, “Buenos días los de Dios.” Every evening, we said good night to each other by saying, “Hasta mañana!” and she always responded, “Si Dios quiere”.

Every Sunday our family woke up early and went to Sunday Mass. We all paraded into church in our Sunday best. Just as her mother taught her, she taught us.

Often we went to a Cathedral church in Lansing. The ceiling was filled with beautiful painted murals similar to the Sistene Chapel. In the very center of the domed, vaulted ceiling was a giant eye. Mom always told us it was God´s eye watching us. I often perched my neck up and stared at it. I imagined mighty God, bending over above the church and peering his eye through the hole at the top of the dome looking down on us. We always felt so much love and peace surrounding us in church.

Every Sunday after church, all the girls gathered in the kitchen and we made a huge family brunch. Sunday dinners included fried chicken, potatoes, gravy and a vegetable. Since we had so many children, we each had a special piece of chicken reserved for us. My designated piece was the wing.

Afterwards, the girls stood up and cleared the table. We washed the dishes and cleaned up. The boys stayed with Dad and talked about their week.

On weekdays, Mom watched over us when Dad worked. Before she sent the kids off to school, she made homemade sweet bread and hot chocolate. Sometimes, she mixed in a stick of cinnamon. Her homemade food was always delicious.

Laundry and ironing were her biggest chores. Mom had an old wringer washer in the basement and it seemed like she was always doing laundry or ironing Dad´s shirts.

Just after my fourth birthday, we moved to San Antonio. Dad was laid off from his factory job and he thought he would be laid off for at least a year. We moved to Texas because Dad was going to open up a gas station with his brother.

Mom was ecstatic. She missed her mother, father and siblings.

I liked San Antonio. All my cousins lived there. Dad’s mother lived in a huge house. I liked staying there. I had so many cousins. We played from morning until night. We always stayed at grandma’s house or one of my cousin’s houses when we first moved to San Antonio.

The only thing I didn’t like about San Antonio was the fact I couldn’t speak Spanish very well and everyone else spoke Spanish. I was teased mercilessly about this.

Like I said, Dad wouldn’t let us speak Spanish at home. It wasn’t until we moved to San Antonio that I realized he only instituted this policy recently. All of my brothers and sisters spoke Spanish, everyone except me, the baby girl of our clan. My baby brother Rick was only one year old at the time, so he had an excuse. I didn’t. I was a four year old Mexican-American girl and I couldn’t speak Spanish.

All my cousins made fun of me for not being able to speak Spanish. “You coconut!” they laughed. They said I was brown on the outside and white on the inside.

“Te crees mucho!” they said. “You think highly of yourself!” I hated that expression. When I tried to speak Spanish, they laughed even harder. They said I had an American accent. What was the use? No matter what I did, they teased me. So I stuck to speaking English, just like Dad said we should.

I still liked San Antonio and my cousins. My uncle had a candy factory and his homemade candy was delicious. When we stayed with his family, we ate homemade candy, fresh from the candy pot. Leche Quemada was my favorite. It was a caramel, toffee blend made with rich evaporated milk.

Another good thing about San Antonio was the music. It seemed like music was always in the air. Morning, noon or night, it made no difference. We listened to Mexican albums playing on the turntable. I loved the romantic ballads or the songs sung in deep base dedicated to “mama.” Men sang along, tears flowing, thinking of their own mothers.

When the polkas or cumbias played, young men or old grabbed the nearest female and swung her around the room. With or without a partner, I swung my hips around the room in time to the beat, beat, beat of the music. Mmmmm, there was nothing like it.

My father loved his gas station in San Antonio. Sometimes I spent afternoons sitting and helping him wash the windows of the cars he was pumping full of gas. Mostly, I sat by his side, swigging ice cold cokes in tiny, ten ounce bottles that he kept in an ice cooler in the station.

Everyone looked up to Dad. He was so tall and handsome. Everyone said he looked like Clark Gable. I noticed the females coming around to get gas. They preferred Dad waiting on them. Dad was so smooth and such a charmer. He smiled and raised his Clark Gable eyebrow. The ladies, young and old, were very attracted to him.

I thought this was funny because it was so obvious he and Mom were still very much in love.

Dad and Mom met in 1937, during the Depression. They were both in their early twenties. Dad worked in a furniture store. Petra put some furniture on lay away and sent mom into the store each week to make the payments.

On one trip, mom felt someone´s eyes on her as she walked across to the payment desk. She saw an incredibly handsome young man push aside the desk clerk. It was his eyes that clung to her every step as she crossed the room.

He asked her quietly yet huskily, "How may I help you?"

She was shy and nervous, but pleased by his attention. She responded, "I am making a payment for my mother." She looked away quickly. She was afraid to look into his blue-green eyes, afraid she would drown in their intensity.

He said, "I can help you with your payment."

She placed each dollar of payment, neatly stacking each one in a small pile in front of him. He counted with her as she counted. He gently grazed her hand as he accepted the payment. "Thank you for the payment. Please wait while I draw up your receipt."

While he was writing out the receipt, he commented on the weather. He wrote out the payment slip slowly and methodically, taking extra time to cross his t´s and dot his i´s. He asked her how her day was going and if she had a busy day.

Mom meekly responded with one word answers, quickly diverting her eyes as he tried to hold hers.

Finally, he finished making out the receipt and gently handed it to her as he again grazed her hand. This time they both felt the sharp spark of electricity and she jumped slightly by the mutual reaction. She softly thanked him.

As she turned to leave, he said, "Wait." She turned back to face him.

"Miss, excuse me for my boldness.. but I would like to see you again."

She softly responded, "I will be back next week." She ran through the door and left the store.

He said to his friend, the regular desk clerk, "I am going to marry that girl someday!" His friend looked at him, put his hands on his hips, shook his head and let out a loud laugh.
The next week, Mom and Dad mirrored the same activities. This time, however, when he asked to see her again, she mentioned, "My sisters and I will be going to the movies this Saturday evening."
"I will see you there," he responded.
That Friday evening, he waited in front of the theatre for an hour until she and her two sisters finally arrived. He paid for all of their tickets. They watched the movies together. They soon were meeting each week, always chaperoned by her two younger sisters. It didn´t matter. They both knew they were in love.
Dad was looking for an innocent bride to share his life with and he found her. It was obvious they were so in love throughout their long marriage.
At his gas station, Dad was a good businessman, but the same couldn’t be said for his brother. Try as he would, he was always in Dad’s shadow. Dad stood six foot tall, suave and debonair. Uncle Jose was shorter and not very confident in himself.

Dad was quick to spot the swindlers and send them on their way, but not my uncle. Sometimes I saw Dad shoo away the same men that hovered around Uncle Jose.

The gas station was just starting to make money when Dad was called back to his job in Michigan. He debated with himself on what he should do. The factory job paid very well, but his gas station was just starting to be successful. Could his brother make it on his own?

Before the war, Dad practically begged the man from the factory to hire him. He had a hernia from all of his laborious and sometimes treacherous migrant work. Dad had to get special documentation from his doctor assuring the factory that there wasn’t going to be a problem. He even promised to wear a truss, a heavy-duty man’s girdle. He finally convinced them and they hired Dad. He was happy. He knew this job would mean long term security for our family.

After thinking about it and talking it over with his brother, Dad decided to go back to his factory job in Michigan. Somehow he knew he could never make as much money for his family with the gas station as he would working in the factory. He just couldn´t jeopardize his children´s future by staying.

Dad´s brother assured him he could manage the gas station on his own. He even said he would buy Dad’s share if his job in Michigan became permanent. That cinched it for Dad.

Dad and Mom talked for hours about his return to Michigan. They decided Mom should stay in Texas for a few months while Dad saved enough money for a down payment on a house.

Mom had many of her mother´s characteristics. Mom assured Dad we would all be fine in San Antonio and he wouldn’t have to worry about us. We would be safe with family and then we would all head up to Michigan to join him.

Dad, hesitant, went back to his job in Michigan and left all of us in the secure hands of our relatives. He was certain everything would work out fine. He would get his old job back. Save a little money. Buy us a house. His brother would buy his share of the gas station. The family would all come back to Michigan. We would all be a family again, safe, successful and happy.

After Dad left us, our little family stayed with relative after relative until finally, we must have gotten on everyone’s nerves. Mom scraped her money together and found us a place of our own.

Mom talked to Dad on the phone each week. They waited until Sunday night, when the rates were lower and we gathered at my grandmother’s house. We all waited in line to hurry and say hello to Dad. He sounded so sad. Mom’s conversations with him were always in whispers.

As the weeks turned into months, Uncle Jose proved not to be a very good businessman. He lost the gas station. He fell under the spell of a couple of swindlers. They cheated him out of thousands of dollars. Then he had no money to pay any of the bills. The creditors were after him like vultures. Finally, he just had to close the doors to hide from them. With no money coming in, the creditors took all the assets. The gas station was lost.

Uncle Jose went to Mom and told her the sad, sad story. He came to our tiny apartment in tears. She felt sorry for him. She cried too.

Mom told Dad about the gas station mess. She made my uncle sound like a victim. I could hear Dad’s anger over the phone. He said his brother was a terrible businessman and it was his fault he lost the gas station.

“No, tata, it wasn’t his fault. It was the evil man’s fault,” Mom cried in Spanish.

Dad didn’t want to hear it. He wanted to talk to his brother. Dad was angry, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it. The business was lost and he was fifteen hundred miles away.

The next week, Dad sounded much better. He told Mom the lay off was over and his job was now permanent. He was doing well and saved some money. He was looking around for a house for us. He asked her to pack up the family and come back to Michigan and join him.

A few days later Mom kissed her mother good-bye and boarded a Greyhound bus to Michigan with all eight children.

I liked traveling by bus. I sat up front or in back or in the middle. It was fun. My sister Gloria didn’t think it was much fun. She threw up from the time we boarded the bus until we reached Michigan, which was three days later. I refused to sit by her. “Momma, I don’t want to sit by her. She’s gonna throw up again and it smells baaaad.!” I sat with my oldest sister Christina and we left Gloria to fend for herself. The boys left us alone the whole trip.

When we arrived in Michigan, Dad was there to meet us. We missed him so much we jumped all over him and smothered him with hugs and kisses.

Once we retrieved our luggage, we piled into his big Buick. We later named the car “the Buffalo.”

Dad took us to our new home. It was in Lansing, Michigan, the same town his factory was in. The house was an older one on a busy street. It was close to the Factory. Dad bragged he could walk to work in five minutes.

Once in the house, we started looking around all the rooms. There were two connected rooms upstairs. My sisters Christina and Gloria and I shared those rooms.

The four boys took the two connected rooms in the back of the house. My parents had the converted bedroom off the living room. My baby brother Rick´s crib was in their room.

We were in our own house as a family. We were so happy to be together at last.

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