Me and younger brother and sister (Chapter 3).
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 email@example.com (comments emailed to me, not posted so as not to influence future readers)
- INTRODUCTION:A Mexican American Family
- Chapter 1: First Memories & the American Dream
- Chapter 2: A “Messykin” in School
- Chapter 3: A Large Family
- Chapter 4: Work Ethic
- Chapter 5: Migrant Labor Camp
- Chapter 6: Teenage Responsibilities
- Chapter 7: Dad´s Coaching
- Chapter 8: Junior High
- Chapter 9: High School
- Chapter 10: First Job, First Apartment
- Chapter 11: A California Swan
- Chapter 12: A Greek god
- Chapter 13: True Blue Dreams
- Chapter 14: “That Girl” is Born
- Chapter 15: The Marquis de Sade times Two
- Chapter 16: Shadows and Redemption
- Chapter 17: Finding an Island
- Chapter 18: Resilience
- Epilogue of Poems
- Family Pictures
- ▼ 09 (21)
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Friday, September 7, 2007
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
I continued to take college prep courses through high school. Little by little, I started speaking up in class. I began taking choir and language courses.
I knew my choir teacher, Miss Keeler.
Back in fifth grade, she was the traveling music teacher who taught music classes at various elementary schools in the city. She remembered me as a happy kid in fifth grade who sang with bravura, but out of tune.
I wasn’t the same happy little girl anymore though. I was this overweight, unpopular Mexican-American kid who didn’t have many friends.
Miss Keeler tried to help me but it was hard for her. The other kids teased me and tended to single me out.
Miss Keeler decided to get all the kids in choir involved in the school musical, South Pacific. I think she chose it because she wanted me to play Bloody Mary. I had the build, unfortunately I didn’t have the guts or the voice at the time. Someone else earned the part, but I was a member of the chorus.
It was the sixties and there was lots of focus on civil rights. When we did South Pacific, Miss Keeler asked us to pay special attention to the words of one song, “You´ve Got to be Carefully Taught.”
Some of the lyrics caught my attention:
You've got to be taught to be afraidOf people whose eyes are oddly made,And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,You've got to be carefully taught.You've got to be taught before it's too late,Before you are six or seven or eight,To hate all the people your relatives hate,You've got to be carefully taught!
Miss Keeler said the words were just as relevant today as they were when they were written.
The next year, when we did the play “Oklahoma,” she cast our star African American quarterback as Judd. During opening night, the first time he walked on to the stage, the entire student body and all of their parents let out a loud gasp.
Ms. Keeler was ahead of her time and she was not afraid to take risks.
During rehearsals, she often spoke of the importance of the civil rights movement. The world had to change. Every person should be treated as equals, regardless of race, color or national origin. We all looked up to Miss Keeler and she helped open the minds of several people in class.
I also had another excellent teacher, Mrs. Oliver. She remembered me from my first Junior High school. She was my Russian teacher in High School. In Junior High she was my social studies teacher. Mrs. Oliver took her students on school trips and helped us pretend we actually lived in Russia.
I started making a few friends because of these two teachers.
My best friend was Barb Jent, an African American girl. I had a few other friends too like Carmen Lopez and Lupe Nunez, both Mexican Americans. Carmen was Celia´s second cousin and Lupe was a girl from the neighborhood. There were so few Mexican Americans in school then.
Carmen and Lupe were both sweet, but they tried so hard to be liked. When I walked down the hall with them, they said hi to everyone that passed by. Most times, no one responded back. I asked Carmen why she did that. She just shrugged. I knew she just wanted everyone to be her friend.
I was still teased and sometimes the teasing got to me. Most times I just tried to be invisible so I could make it to graduation.
Once, in choir, Miss Keeler formed groups of four, soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
I was the last alto and no one picked me. Two white jocks were the only ones available who hadn’t become part of a foursome. They sat by themselves so I sat next to them.
As soon as I sat down, they got up and moved away from me.
Miss Keeler looked on at what was happening. I think it made her mad. She said, “I can’t believe how mean you guys are. I heard from some of my other music groups that you teased the unpopular kids, but I didn’t get it until today.”
Miss Keeler had been fat when I knew her years before. Even though she had slimmed down and was now popular, I think she related to what was happening to me.
The problem was her pointing this out only made matters worse.
During class, after she made this statement, you could hear a pin drop. But after class, everyone started staring and pointing their fingers at me.
“Oh no! It’s going to happen to me again,” I thought. “They’re going to single me out and pick on me!”
I was right.
I walked by one of the guys who was a friend of the guy that moved away from me. He was a jock too. “There she is!” he yelled as he punched me in the arm when I walked past. “Look at her! I wouldn’t sit by her either!”
Why was this happening?
I slunk off to my next class. Miserable.
It took weeks for the kids to get over this. Miss Keeler didn’t bring it up again. The kids didn’t mention it in class. No one spoke to me.
My best friend in high school was Barb Jent. She was a tall, beautiful, African American girl with a gorgeous alto voice. Barb was pretty popular.
Barb and I were in choir and in gym class together. I liked hanging around Barb. I didn’t think about my unpopularity when I was with her.
There were things I enjoyed in High School. I liked the singing part of choir and I liked Barb and Miss Keeler. I liked Russian class and Miss Oliver. I liked my advanced classes. I liked Carmen and Lupe.
In eleventh and twelfth grades, Miss Keeler formed the Quaker Singers. This was a group of the best singers in choir and she picked both Barb and me to be in the group.
This was a good change for me. I learned to start singing out and the kids in our group became close. We all went to special engagements and outings together so we became good friends. School was looking up.
Dad wasn´t too happy about my joining the group. He was so protective. He was a bit skeptical about the group events I had to attend on nights and weekends. Nevertheless, with the help of Mom, he allowed me to stay in the group.
Barb and I became very close those years. We were in the same Choir class, Quaker Singer class and Gym class. We ate lunch together. We went to Quaker Singer engagements together after school. We talked and shared our dreams for the future with each other.
I shared my dream of becoming “That Girl.” She didn’t laugh at me. She felt the same way I did.
Neither of our families had money. Her family was even poorer than mine, if that were possible. Barb was cool though. I never saw anyone tease her like they did me.
Barb said Martin Luther King helped make things better for blacks.
People could no longer publicly discriminate against minorities, although there was lots of it in private. I knew what she meant.
We often talked about the Civil Rights Movement and how important it was for people to support the movement. Life wasn’t always fair to minorities. Martin Luther King was her hero and soon, he became mine.
I started watching the news with Dad again, especially when Walter Cronkite talked about Martin Luther King or Civil Rights. Dad said Negroes were treated more unfairly than Mexican-Americans. We talked about slavery and all the mistreatment they received.
Dad said God knows we are all equal and we should all treat each other the same. I was glad Dad felt the same way I did.
Dad´s best friend at work was Will Porter. He was black. He worked in the paint shop in the factory, just like Dad. Will was one of the few friends from work Dad brought home with him.
Sometimes they sat and talked about work, other times about life. My best memories of Will was when he talked to Dad about cooking.
My Dad rarely cooked, but when he did, he made it an event. Sometimes he would take every left-over in the refrigerator and put it in a pot. He called it “Mingongay”. It was horrible.
We didn´t ask for Dad´s cooking very often.
Will, however, was an excellent cook. Sometimes he brought over his home cooking.
My favorites were his cornbread dressing and his peach dumplings. We were glad he gave Mom the recipes. We didn´t want to know what they would taste like if Dad cooked them. Mom used these two recipes every Thanksgiving for the rest of her life.
Back at school, Miss Oliver took us on a number of field trips. We even went horse-back riding together. What a blast. I still remember the songs we learned in Russian, but not much more.
Late in the eleventh grade, the Quaker Singers had an engagement at a Country Club. Miss Keeler asked us to dress in spring colored evening gowns.
I, of course, had nothing to wear. I went to Mom and explained what I needed.
The funniest thing happened. I think Mom was proud of me for being a member of the Quaker Singers. When I went to her with my request for a dress, she was surprised, but pleased. She promised to talk to Dad. She said not to worry. She’d help me get the gown.
Dad didn’t like the idea of me getting a gown for this singing group. He still wasn’t thrilled about me being a member of the group either.
Mom convinced him, however, that she would find me a good dress for a good price, so he finally relented and said I could get a dress.
He said, “Ok, but try to keep it to about five or ten dollars.” Even I knew this was an unreasonable sum for a dress.
Mom decided to take me to a dress store instead of the usual discount department store. In the dress shop, she steered me to the gowns. I looked at the price tags and it was just impossible.
Finally, Mom said, “Quit looking at the price tag. Just look for the dress.”
Ok, I decided. I found a pretty yellow dress. Mom agreed. The dress had been in a smaller size than I expected. I lost a few pounds that year.
Mom and I decided I looked good in the dress. We looked at the price tag. “$23.95” it said.
Mom said, “Let’s just get it.” Hesitantly, I nodded.
We got home and the first thing my father asked was, “How much?”
She gave him the sales slip and he blew a gasket.
“We don’t have this kind of money to spend on a dress!” he yelled. “Take it back.”Mom refused.
I wore the beautiful yellow dress to the singing engagement and I decided my dress looked just as good as the other girls’ dresses.
Over the next several months, I must have heard about that price tag every day. Over and over $23.95, $23.95.
Dad, the Dad that had always been so supportive of my hard work, had turned against me with one dress. Nothing I could do would please him or change his mind. I couldn’t understand it.
That summer I decided one thing. I would not spend any money my entire senior year. I knew that school pictures, rings, gowns and many more expenses were coming up. I decided I wouldn’t get anything.
Mom tried to change my mind. “What do you care if he yells at you? Do it anyway. Be like your sisters. Let him yell at you. It doesn’t matter. Just have a good time in high school.”
I shook my head. I was stubborn. I was not going to have him yell at me for spending money.
Dad and I didn’t like each other very well my senior year. When I think back about it, I think his goals were to have us graduate from high school and stay out of trouble. So far, all six older children achieved these goals and I was so close. He was afraid my being in the group and spending money would somehow corrupt me, or at least take me out of his control.
Dad was glad I wasn’t spending any money my senior year though. He often commented on it. Mom just shook her head.
In addition to High School, I taught Catechism at our church on Saturdays. They needed someone to teach the 2nd and 3rd grade children religion classes.
I volunteered and was selected to teach. I was provided the curriculum and some brief training, then started teaching.
While I enjoyed teaching and the students were receptive to my teaching style, I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher the rest of my life.
My dream job was to become a career woman, just like Marlo Thomas on “That Girl.” I didn´t want to be an actress, but I loved the thought of having my own career and living in my own apartment.
During senior year, we constantly prepared for SATs. We took sample tests every month. I always did well on them. I carried A’s in my music and Russian classes, but my other grades remained C’s. I could not get motivated in those other classes.
My high school counselor wasn’t pleased. He said, “Dee. Your grades are not good enough to get you a scholarship in a University. Do your parents have any money to help you with college?”
He already knew the answer. I just looked down.
He continued, “You have to decide what you want to do in life.”
I didn’t know how to answer him. I didn’t know what I wanted to do tomorrow much less what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
He put his hand on my shoulder, “Maybe you should have taken vocational classes. You have to decide for yourself what you want to do. I suggest that once you graduate, you go to the Community College. Look at the classes they have to offer. Then make your decision.”
I nodded and left his office.
The year I graduated, nineteen sixty eight, was quite an eventful year. Everyone was talking about the Vietnam War. Students were protesting.
My older brother Steven was in Vietnam. My parents were worried. When Steven wrote home, he said most of the soldiers were upset with President Johnson and they were against the War.
We listened to Walter Cronkite and the reports about the War were disastrous. How did our country get in such a mess? Peace must be the answer. I found myself siding with the Peace activists.
Barb and I sometimes joined other students in protesting the war. I didn´t think of myself as one of the activists. It was more about Barb and I agreeing with our teachers and other kids our age and carrying signs asking for Peace.
In the spring, Martin Luther King was murdered. This was a shock to me and all the students. Barb was particularly upset.
We sat together after school talking about what happened. Barb was crying. I put my arm around her shoulder and tried to console her. We were both worried. Who was going to lead the charge for Civil Rights now? Our champion was dead.
Bobby Kennedy came to town the next month. I asked Gloria to take me to go see him. We waited at the airport and stood with the rest of the crowd for hours waiting for him.
When he finally arrived, the crowd pushed and shoved us like sardines.
I lost sight of Gloria. The crowd started moving me forward, shoving me towards Bobby´s path as he was walking towards the terminal.
All of a sudden, Bobby´s back was directly in front of me. We were still packed like sardines and the crowd was moving us forward. Bobby and I were moving with the crowd´s momentum and he was just inches in front of me. He was so close, I could touch him, so I did. I reached up and touched his shoulder, just to see if he was real.
Bobby looked back at me, startled. I pulled my hand back and just looked at him as the massive crowd moved us along.
I couldn’t believe I was actually within inches of him.
Suddenly he disappeared into the terminal. It was so odd that we moved along with the crowd as we did. Then I was mashed by the crowd against the glass doors.
I became a little nervous and said out loud, “Stop! You are squashing me.” My face was mashed against the glass doors.
It might have been dangerous had the security not pushed everyone back. I was relieved, but I was still in awe over what just happened.
When I found Gloria later, we both were amazed that I was so close and that he wasn´t better protected from the crowd.
A month or so later, we were in the high school auditorium when they announced Bobby was dead. People were shouting “No!” Everyone was crying. They let us out of school early.
I ran into my friend Lupe on the way out of school. She was crying almost hysterically.
I said, “Lupe, what’s wrong?” She said someone told her, “Your people killed Bobby.”
The early news reports said the shooter was Mexican and some of the kids were blaming us for what happened. I gave her a quick hug and said they didn’t know what they were talking about. My words didn’t help. She was still very upset.
Mom was watching TV when I arrived home.
Our family stayed glued to the set and watched the reports of the shooting. Walter Cronkite gave us all the latest reports.
Bobby was dead.
Sirhan Sirhan shot him.
Another hero died. I wondered who would win the election. My heart wasn´t in it anymore.
Barb and I continued to be best friends at school our senior year. Occasionally we went to the movies together. It was fun going with her instead of babysitting my brother and sisters.
We saw the movie Camelot that year. I loved the movie. It was so romantic. We both loved the songs, “If Ever I Would Leave You” was our favorite. We loved Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and especially the handsome Franco Nero.
I wondered what it would be like to fall in love. I knew if I ever fell in love, I wanted it to be magical, just like in Camelot. I knew I would not meet my Lancelot in high school. Dad would not allow me to date. Maybe someday, I thought.
Even though I didn’t spend much money, my senior year was tolerable.
I graduated but it wasn´t the big event I thought it would be. Dad had to work that day and Mom wasn´t feeling well and stayed home.
I ended up going to the graduation ceremony by myself, alone.
I grabbed my gown and ran the two miles to the school auditorium so I wouldn’t be late. I had tears streaming down my cheeks, but didn´t know why I was crying. I had to brush them away right before I walked into the auditorium.
I arrived just in time. I graduated.
There were the jocks and the preps. The preps were popular, mostly all white and had money. Some of my friends in the advanced classes in elementary school became preps. They slowly stopped talking to me.
I didn’t fit in anymore.
I was still in advanced classes, but it just didn't seem to matter to them.
What did matter was the fact that I didn’t fit in.
I was Mexican-American. I was poor and I wore second hand clothes.
Mom frequently shopped at the Salvation Army. She used to call it “La Viejita.” That was because a “little old lady” was at the counter.
I didn’t feel different in my second hand clothes when I was in the advanced Elementary School classes. I sure felt different in Junior High.
In seventh grade, I ran into Celia again. Now, she was a Mexican bombshell. She was five foot six, about three inches taller than me at the time. She wore funky clothes. They were cool. Somehow, she managed to make her second hand clothes look cool.
I knew her family from church. They were in the same shape financially as we were.
It was kind of funny. I had mostly all advanced classes in Junior High and I wasn’t having any fun in them. I was the goody-goody smart Mexican nerd with second hand clothes. Nobody talked to me.
My only fun class was my one non-advanced class. It was science class. Celia was in that class with me.
Since we knew each other, we sat in the back row together. She used to like to boss me around, “Come on. Let’s sit in the back row.” I always followed along.
Two cute Mexican-American guys, Rick and Ralph, sat right in front of us. They never would have sat by me, but they gravitated towards Celia. They sat by me by default. Celia always teased them. We had so much fun. We were always laughing.
Mr. Henson was the science teacher. He didn’t appreciate all of the fun the Mexican kids were having in the back of his class. Sometimes, to get our attention, he threw pieces of chalk or an eraser at us. One time, the chalk flew just centimeters from my nose.
One time, he hit Celia in the back with a towel. She reported him, but somehow she got into trouble. After that incident, she never came back to class.
My report card reflected Mr. Henson’s feelings towards us. I received an A or B in all of my other classes, the D he gave me stood out like a sore thumb.
I was glad that I only had Mr. Henson for one semester, but I was sad not to have any more classes with Celia.
In November, 1963, there was a grim announcement over the P.A. system at school. President Kennedy was shot. John F. Kennedy, my President, the only elected official I felt I personally knew, was shot.
Everyone was crying. I just felt numb. They let us out from school early that day.
As I was walking home, tears were streaming down my face. When I arrived home, Mom was in front of the TV. My sister in law, Ramon’s wife, was watching TV with her. They were both crying.
The President was dead. My President was dead. I started crying again too. Soon, all my brothers and sisters came into the room and watched TV with us and we all cried together. We stayed glued to the TV for days, through to the funeral.
Our trusted news man, Walter Cronkite, gave the reports.
When John-John kissed the casket, we all broke down in sobs.
When Oswald was shot, we stood in alarm. How could this be happening?
When it was over, we were still in shock.
Back at school, things started getting miserable. Mom said it wasn’t lady-like to play outside anymore and I was gaining weight.
I was a poor Mexican-American, wearing second hand clothes, missing a front tooth and I was getting fat. My smart friends didn’t want to be my friends anymore. My cool friend wasn´t in school anymore. My President was dead.
Right when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. We moved. Right in the middle of eighth grade, I had to change schools. I was devastated.
My current junior high, Orion, was a new school. Potter, my new junior high, was the oldest school in the city. It was also in the worst neighborhood in town. I walked into the dilapidated old school and immediately knew I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Since it was the middle of the school year, kids already formed their cliques. So now this poor, Mexican-American, second hand clothes wearing, missing toothed fat girl was going to a poor, dilapidated, gangbuster junior high school. Kids were teasing me and I just walked in.
My counselor took one look at me and said, “I see you were in advanced classes, but they are full here. I’m going to give you a break and get you in regular classes.”
Going into these classes was awful. The teachers treated me as if I didn’t know anything. The kids didn’t readily accept me. I clammed up.
It was funny. I had regular classes at Potter but I was getting worse grades here than in my advanced classes at Orion. The teachers expected me to do poorly and I lived down to their expectations.
It wasn’t a wonder that I started hanging out with the bad kids.
Lilly Cheyenne was one of the toughest kids on the next block. She had a terrible reputation. When we moved to our new neighborhood, Mom, who never went anywhere, heard about her. Lilly was already dating and everyone called her a loose girl or worse.
I didn’t know any of this when she asked me to walk to school with her one day. All I knew was that someone was being nice to me and wanted to be my friend. When Mom found out we were walking to school together she cornered me, “Don’t walk with her. She’s a bad girl.”
I figured I didn’t know the difference. She sometimes said I was bad too but I knew I was really good.
At first, Lilly was really sweet to me. Before long, she was asking me for things. First it was paper, then pencils, then lunch money.
Pretty soon I was buying all of her supplies and buying her cokes on the way home from school. She took all of my lunch money every day.
I didn’t think it was right, but I didn’t want to lose my only friend.
Lilly hung out with a rough crowd. Some of them teased me but Lilly made them stop. I figured she was my friend. I didn’t know that she laughed at me behind my back with them.
Once, Lilly’s boyfriend picked us up from school and drove us home. He dropped us off a block away so no one would see. Her boyfriend was a much older, white boy. He was at least 19 or 20. That was the first time I met Fred Morris. Years later, he married my sister Gloria.
For now though, I just thought he was Lilly’s much older boyfriend. He made me a little nervous. He had Elvis Presley blonde hair and he acted kind of sneaky. I just couldn’t put my finger on it. All I knew was he made me nervous. That was the only time I took a ride from a stranger.
Dad must have had some kind of radar. He came to pick me up from school that day. He rarely did that. I always walked the two miles home. Since I wasn’t there at my usual corner, he gave me the third degree when I arrived home. I made some excuse and weaseled out of it.
Mom said I was lying but nobody was listening. I snuck off to my room.
The next week, Lilly and I got into a big fight after school. Me, the quiet, studious kid, got into a fistfight after school for the first and only time in my life.
My relationship with Lilly was growing strained. She was taking all my money and her brother was starting to ask me for money too. I started thinking that her friends were dangerous.
Worst of all, Dad was starting to get suspicious about me.
The day started out quiet enough. I woke up early and met Lilly and we started walking to school. About halfway to school, she asked me for my lunch money again.
I had been building up my courage for this moment.
“No. I’m not lending you any more money.”“Why not? You know I’ll pay you back.”
“You’ve never paid me back. Now I don’t want it back. I just don’t want to lend you or your family any more money.”“My family! Don’t you talk about my family!” She started hitting me in the back.
I started to run ahead.
“She’s talking about me!” she screamed to her brother. Donald Cheyenne was the baddest guy in the neighborhood.
I started running faster.
They quickly caught up to me but by now, we were in school and they didn’t want to do anything in front of the teachers.
Later, she caught my eye in the hallway!
“You can’t be talking about my family, you bitch! You meet me at the front door after school. I’m gonna kick your ass!”
I was so miserable. What was I going to do?
At the end of the school day, I delayed as long as I could before heading out the front door. I walked out and a crowd had formed. Lilly and her friend Roberta were at the head of the crowd. They saw me.
“I’m gonna kick your ass, girl! That will teach you to ever talk about my family!”
I didn’t say a word. As I walked closer to the crowd, they made a path for me which led directly to Lilly. They formed a circle around us and Lilly started hitting me in the back of my neck, speaking her taunts as Roberta stood in front of me and blocked my path.
Whack! Whack! The slaps were getting harder. Finally Roberta grabbed my hair and pulled my head down. Lilly started pushing me. Everything was moving so fast. I started to put my hands up when two strong hands pushed their way through the crowd and pulled us apart.
The crowd faded back as the policeman quickly escorted us to the principle’s office. He had witnessed the entire scene.
Lilly was fighting him like a wildcat, so he held her by the scruff of her neck, like he was holding a cat. He guided me gently with a hand on my back.
“Why are you grabbing me like that and you ain’t doing nothin to her?” “Cause she ain’t fighting me,” he answered.
In the principal’s office, they sat us in chairs and I started to shake. She meowed and yowled and they told her to be quiet.
They asked me what happened and I quietly explained. I was shaking so hard that when the tears finally came down, they leaped from beneath my eyes onto the floor below.
They told me I made bad choices in friends and I should learn my lesson. They sent us both home, warning us they would be watching so we better not fight again. When we came out, the crowd had dispersed.
I was still in shock by the time I arrived home. My parents were waiting for me. I was almost an hour late.
In ragged sobs, I shared what happened. I told them the whole story, the money, the supplies, the fight, the policeman and the principal’s office, everything. The whole time, Dad just shook his head. Mom answered first.
“What do you expect? I told you she was a bad girl. That’s what you get. Now, maybe you’ll learn to listen to me and you’ll stay away from her.”
I started to cry and I begged, “I hate that school. I never wanted to leave my old school. I don’t want to go back!”
This time, Dad answered, “You have to go back. If you don’t go back, you’ll never go back and you’ll run away from every problem. You have to go back and face this. You will go back to school tomorrow.”
There it was. Another one of Dad’s lessons. When you get knocked down, you get back up. You never give up. I had no choice. I went back. He was right, of course.
The next day was horrible. Everyone knew what happened. Kids were writing each other notes about me. Me. The quiet kid in all her classes was one of the bad kids. She got in a fight. She made some slurs about Lilly’s family. She deserved what she got. She’s bad.
I think I was the most disrespected kid in the school for a while. But schools are like soap operas. Pretty soon, another story broke out in the school headlines and I was out of the limelight. I was still pretty unpopular and stayed a loner in that school.
Later the next year, Celia started dating my brother Raul. Celia was thirteen when she started dating. Now at fourteen, in my eyes, she was a woman. Even though I was the same age, I felt like a little girl.
Raul was back home from the Army. I was glad to have him home again. I always thought Raul was cool, and besides, he was always in a lot more trouble than the rest of us kids and that took the heat off of us.
When Raul came back home, he fell into his old routine, hanging out with his friends and having girls follow him everywhere.
I was kind of shocked to hear that he was dating Celia. I sort of introduced them, but not really.
A few weeks earlier, we all went to a Mexican Dance. I sat with Celia and a few other friends. I usually just watched other people dance, but my brother Raul came and asked me to dance. He asked me about Celia.
When I came back to my seat, Celia asked me about Raul. A little while later they were dancing. I didn´t think too much about it until a few weeks later when I found out they were dating.
I was surprised because I thought Celia was just a kid like me and I knew I was too young to date.
All of a sudden, my family was talking about driving down to Texas. Raul was going to marry Celia. I was shocked.
In Texas, Celia could marry Raul since they allowed a girl to marry at fourteen.
I felt as if we stole away in the night. Both Celia´s family and ours caravanned down to San Antonio and Raul and Celia were married.
When Raul and Celia set up house that summer, I thought it was fun to go to their apartment. It was a cute little place. It seemed almost miniature and it was like she was playing house.
They left each other silly notes. One time, there was a note on the door that said, “hetay eykay siay nderuay hetay atmay.” (The key is under the mat.) It had been a while since I read pig Latin!
Late in the school year, all the kids participated in math assessment. I scored well and I was eligible to take Algebra in ninth grade. My counselor called me in and asked me about my schedule for the next year. He recommended that I forget about Algebra and take vocational classes.
“After all, you’ll want to take classes that will meet your needs. You probably won’t go to college anyway. You’ll just get pregnant and get married. These vocational classes will help you get a job.”
I looked at him. Even my fourteen year old eyes could see he thought I was dumb and he had a very poor opinion of me and my future. At this low point in my life, in this horrible school, I knew I was the only one who was going to speak up for me.
“What did I score on the assessment?”
“What was the eligibility score?”
“Am I eligible to take college prep courses?”“Yes you are.”“Fine. I’m taking Algebra and I’m taking College Prep courses in ninth grade.”
“Ok. But they’re not going to help you.”
Ninth grade was a little better, but not much. The classes were better, for sure. Kids wanted to be in those classes. The teachers were interested in teaching. There was more of an expectation that you would learn in these classes. I studied and my grades improved. I started getting B’s again.
I was still very unpopular and had no friends, but at least my grades were better.
In ninth grade I didn’t care if I was popular. I wanted to learn and get on with it. I started getting heavier in ninth grade. I also had no clue about make-up or dress. My school pictures attest to this.
I grew up wearing second hand clothes, living in an old house and owning very few toys.
This was not unusual in my neighborhood. All of my relatives and most of the other Mexican-American families from our church were in the same financial boat we were in.
Most of us came from large families. Our hard working Dads worked multiple, low paying jobs with no chance of getting ahead. Our mothers did not work outside of the home and stayed home to raise their children. This was common.
Poverty, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. We had strong, close knit families. We had strong Christian values. We believed in hard work. We were rich in spirit and we were good people.
All of the Mexican American families in town went to the same Catholic Church. Dad and a few other families were instrumental in getting this church established.
When our family first arrived in town, we went to the Cathedral Catholic church. Dad was very involved with the church. He often did jobs for the priests. He painted buildings or rooms for them. He painted signs. He served as a handy-man. In return, we were allowed to attend Catholic school for reduced tuition.
Dad and other Mexican-American leaders asked the church for a Mass in Spanish. Many of the migrants, all citizens, could not speak English.
The church complied and said a Mass in Spanish. We had our own priest who energized the Spanish speaking community.
Soon these Masses were so crowded Dad and his friends petitioned to have their own church. The Monsignor agreed.
Within the next couple of years, Christo Rey church was established.
This was quite an accomplishment, especially back in the fifties and sixties when nothing came easy for any us.
There were several areas of town that were segregated. No Mexican-Americans were allowed to enter certain stores, restaurants, bathrooms or bars.
A famous story that many of the early Mexican families remember was about my father de-segregating the North End of town.
Dad was one of the first Mexican Americans in Lansing and one of the first men hired at his Auto Factory. He was six foot tall, intelligent, handsome and very engaging. He was allowed to enter the local pub across the street from the factory. Other Mexican Americans were not.
The bar owner was a county law official. He liked Dad and welcomed him into his place. They were both big, strong and liked to show off their strength in arm wrestling or other bar games.
Dad was close friends with many of the Mexican American men who also worked at the factory. They set up their own section of the AFL-CIO since they were not allowed to attend meetings with the overall union.
Dad said to the bar owner, “We have good times here. I want my friends to come in and join us.”
The bar owner responded, “I am sorry. Mexicans are not allowed.”
Dad reminded him he and the men were American of Mexican descent.
Dad challenged the owner to an arm wrestling match. If Dad won, his friends were allowed in. If the Bar Owner won, Dad would never ask him to invite his friends in again. The Bar Owner, being a competitive man and believing he was stronger, agreed.
Everyone in the bar knew about the bet. Many of the white patrons tried to discourage the owner from taking the bet, but the owner was too proud to back down on his word.
The two men sat at a table near the back of the bar and began the arm wrestling match. All eyes were watching, including those of Dad´s friends peering in through the windows.
The match was long and grueling. Both men were big. Both men had sweat pouring from their brow. Arms were tilting first one way, then the other. Finally the match was over. Dad won.
When Dad won, an air of stillness and quiet filled the bar while a distant wild cheer could be heard from outside the bar.
The owner stood up. Dad stood up.
They faced each other.
You could hear a pin drop.
Then the two men embraced and everyone let out a sigh of relief.
The owner said, “A deal´s a deal!”
Dad´s friends were allowed in.
Many of the white patrons were upset but went along with the bar owner.
Within a matter of months, with this location desegregated, all the other bars in North Town were desegregated as well.
Soon, all the shops and restaurants in the North End were desegregated too.
My oldest brother Ramon told us many of the old Mexican American men in town told him this story as if it was a famous fable and our Dad was a renowned hero. Ramon was very proud. So were we!
Dad never bragged about his accomplishments. Instead he continued to coach us. He was a strong supporter of our family and wanted each of us to be successful in life.
Dad often said, “If you want to be successful in this country, expect to work hard, maybe twice as hard as everyone else. Nothing will ever be handed to you.”
“America is a land of opportunity. Always know and understand you are Americans first.”
“However, in this country, Mexican Americans are not expected to succeed. We are expected to fill the low paying, back breaking jobs. That’s what I have done, but I want you to have a better life.”“If you want to do better in life, first you much speak English flawlessly. Next, you must complete your education.”
“Then, you must work hard all of your life. Don’t expect anything to be easy. Work for everything you achieve and learn to appreciate whatever you get.”
“You will be expected to follow the rules created here in this country. You will see so many people breaking the rules and nothing happens. All of our people, however, are expected to obey every single one of them. If we don’t, we pay a heavy price.”
“Success will take courage, my children, Courage! God gave you the ability, now it’s up to you to make it happen!”
Dad taught us these lessons. He often preached to us, on and on.
When I was a young girl, I didn’t understand everything he said. I didn’t begin to understand until I went to school. There, the lessons sunk in. There, the differences between the rich kids and the poor ones, the Mexican-Americans and the Whites were very obvious. It was expected that I was not intelligent and I would fail.
I surprised them.
All through school, I followed the rules. I worked hard and proved that I was capable. I had to work hard, sometimes twice as hard to be recognized and acknowledged for my work.
I didn’t have many friends, but the ones I had were very close. I had my friend Helen, in kindergarten. Even though she tried to rub my color off, she was a good friend and we played very well together.
In first grade, Celia, my future sister-in-law, was a good friend and role model. She taught me how important it was to believe in yourself. The rich kids teased her too, but she didn’t care. She stood proud.
I learned another important lesson in first grade. “Following the rules helps you reap rewards.”
The nuns were strict disciplinarians and they always stressed the importance of following the rules.
“Fold your hands.”
“Sit up straight.“
“Speak only when spoken to.”
“Do your homework and turn it in on time.”
“Study, study, study.”
“Know your lessons!”
You were rewarded for following the rules. If you did a good job, a gold star was placed on your forehead or you may receive a Holy Card of one of the patron saints. If you did a really good job, you might win a Holy Statue.
At first, I never won anything. I was so nervous about standing up in front of the kids and speaking or reading aloud. The first time I had to do it, I nervously stumbled over my words and stuttered.
The kids all laughed.
Some said, “She’s a stupid Mexican, what do you expect!”
The Sister, though strict, stopped the children from laughing at me.
Compassionately, she stood next to me, put her arm around my shoulder and said, “Someday, Dee is going to do so well you will ALL be proud of her!” The kids were skeptical, but I knew, inside, if I tried hard enough, I could do it!
The Sister kept calling on all of us and pretty soon, we all stopped being nervous. I liked winning gold stars and Holy Cards. The gold stars were placed on our forehead. I remember running home and saying, “Dad, Mom, I won a gold star today.” I beamed proudly as they hugged and congratulated me.
If I won a Holy Card I placed it gently in my pocket and proudly showed my parents after school. Then I gave it to my mother to place in her Bible as a bookmark.
I didn’t think I had a shot at winning a Holy Statue. I won stars for memorizing my prayers, having good posture or writing the correct math answers on the black board.
The big prize, the Holy Statue, came with winning the spelling bee.
The words in the spelling bee were pretty tough for a first grader. The sister selected colors as the category. She sat us in a circle in the room. The early words were easy, R-E-D, B-L-U-E. Kids were dropping out like flies as the words got harder. Y-E-L-L-O-W. It started getting tough.
Finally, I was one of the finalists. I gathered my courage and spelled, “O-R-A-N-G-E!”
I did it! I won the Spelling Bee and my prize was a statue of St. Therese.
What was really neat about it was that I set my mind to win. I studied and watched my teacher´s every move as she conducted the quiz.
I noticed she was following the colors in the order they were displayed across the front of the room. When it was your turn to spell, we had our backs to these words.
I counted off the colors and I knew when it came to my turn, I was going to have to spell one of two words, Purple or Orange. I concentrated my efforts on memorizing just those two words.
I made it! I won the Holy Statue of St. Therese! I received the prize!
Dad was right. It was important to follow the rules. The nuns taught us HOW to follow the rules. I learned that if I followed the rules, I had the ABILITY to compete with anyone. I COULD WIN!
I kept that statue of St. Therese for years.
In second grade, when I transferred to St. Mary’s school, I decided to stay on the winning teams.
I wanted to be in the highest reading group. The highest group had the same name as my old, middle group, the Marions. So, I didn’t really fib when I said I was in the Marion’s reading group.
In first grade, they automatically put me in the lowest reading group. Some kids were automatically put into the middle or the highest group. I had to struggle and study to move up to the middle group.
In my new school, I came right into the highest group. When I was in the highest reading group, the teacher and the kids treated me like I was smart. I didn’t have to take any grilling tests. From second grade on, I stayed in the highest reading groups. It was easy to keep up when they expected I would do well.
In third grade, I had a terrible experience. I was swinging between two chairs. Mom warned me, “Quit doing that. You’ll fall.”
She was right. I fell flat on my face. I was knocked out. Mom picked me up and sat me on her lap. My front tooth lay on the floor.
When Mom thought I was hurt, she cradled me close to make sure I was all right. When she saw I was ok, she cupped my face in her hands and said, “Never swing on two chairs like that again!”
I knew I should have stopped swinging. She was worried about me and she cared about me.
As far as my missing tooth was concerned, there was never any thought about taking me to a dentist. We were poor.
In fourth grade, my parents moved us to public school. They couldn’t afford the Catholic School tuition anymore, even at the reduced rates.
While I appreciated all I learned in Catholic School, I liked going to public school. Cedar Street School was only a block and a half from my house so I could walk to school instead of waiting for the bus. I also liked the fact that public school was about a year behind Catholic School.
I was being taught the same curriculum in fourth grade that we were taught in third grade. While I mentioned this to the teacher, she still thought I was some sort of a genius because I always had the right answers.
I met up with my Kindergarten friend Helen again. She didn’t seem to mind my front tooth being missing. I was teased horrendously at home. My brothers and sisters called me Ollie after a kid’s show about a one-tooth dragon.
Helen didn’t tease me. The other kids in school didn’t bother me too much either. I was marked as a very good student and I was often placed in the elite advanced group.
The advanced group sat in a special section of class. We were given special privileges. Often, we went on field trips and were allowed to come and go from the classroom for special assignments.
That year, we had a student teacher named Miss Jones. She took me under her wing and often told me how smart I was. She said I could do anything I set my mind to. I believed her.
Miss Jones stayed and provided me special coaching throughout the year. In April, the month Miss Jones left, the regular teacher, Miss Hertel, put on a play in Miss Jones’ honor.
Miss Hertel identified the cast and called us all up to the front of the room, one by one.
When she didn’t call my name, Helen said, “Something must be wrong. Why don’t you come up with me when I get called.”
I did just that.
I went up when Miss Hertel called Helen’s name as one of the townspeople. Finally, she called my name last and asked where I was.
“I’m up here,” Miss Hertel. “You called me earlier.”
“I did? Oh my mistake. I was going to have you be the announcer instead of one of the townspeople. I guess I’ll have to name someone else,” she smiled.
There wasn’t any use in arguing. It was my own fault for being impatient.
When Miss Hertel asked if anyone had a tea set they could bring in for the play. I raised my hand. Mom had given me a nice, silver tea set the previous Christmas. I brought in my tea set and since it was so pretty, it turned out to be the star of the play.
In fifth grade, I was placed in the advanced math class. Math was my favorite subject.
My teacher, Mr. Somes, took a special interest in me. He noticed that I had a severe lisp and when I laughed, I covered my mouth with my hand. He asked me to stay after school one day.
“Dee. I know about your teeth.”I quickly put my hand over my mouth and put my head down.
He came up to me and lifted my chin. “Don’t be shy or ashamed of your teeth,” he said gently. “It’s not your fault. I’ve talked to some people from the Crippled Children’s Fund. They’ve agreed to pay for your teeth. Is this ok with you?”
I thought about it for a quick second and quickly nodded my head. I wanted my teeth fixed.
I was very embarrassed by my teeth. He didn't know about the constant “Ollie” teasing I received at home. He didn’t know I spent many nights crying about my missing tooth. I didn’t think there was anything that could be done since we had no money.
Once, I was so desperate I even tried to put a piece of white metal in my open slot to cover up my missing tooth. This worked for a short while but I removed it when the metal made my gums bleed.
Mr. Somes asked me to have my parents call him. He said he would make the arrangements with them.
I ran home quickly that night and told my parents about the generous gift my teacher had secured for me.
Mom and Dad saw my happiness and I saw their reluctance.
Mr. Somes followed up with a phone call to Mom and Mom hesitantly agreed to take me to the dentist.
The next week, Mom took me to the described dentist.
The dentist examined me and said, “Her remaining teeth are very strong. I have two choices. I can pull out her other front tooth and put in a two teeth partial or, and here is what I’d rather do, I will put braces on her teeth as they are. She will have the braces on her teeth for one year. Then we will put in a false tooth. That way, all of her teeth will be straight and we’ll keep as many of her real teeth as possible.”
What he was asking had astounding consequences in my twelve year old mind. A year of braces with a split tooth equated to forever. A lifetime!
I asked, “I have to wear braces for a whole year with a missing tooth in between? You can’t fix them now?”
Mom told him we would think about it and call him back.
Mom gave Dad the news. He was still reluctant about the whole thing. “I know she wants to get her teeth fixed, but I don’t like taking a handout.”
Mom added, “She didn’t like the idea either.”
“You didn’t like the idea either?” he asked.
I shook my head. I could only think of all the taunts I’d get from the kids. A missing tooth and braces. What could be worse?
Dad looked relieved. He said to Mom, “You just call back the dentist and tell him we will save money to get her teeth fixed ourselves.”
I still had a great time in Mr. Somes class. All the kids in his advanced class felt privileged. Mr. Somes talked about politics often. We learned about the Nixon and Kennedy Presidential Campaign. Mr Somes didn’t tell us his preference of candidate. He let each of us decide who we thought was best based on the issues.
After reviewing the issues, the class was divided about 50 – 50. I decided I liked Senator Kennedy best. He was a man who was for the people.
I wrote Senator Kennedy a letter letting him know what we were doing in class. I also said I would vote for him if I were old enough.
A few weeks later, Mom said an envelope came for me. It was in a brown envelope about eight inches long and six inches wide. I never received mail for me before. Excitedly, I opened up the envelope. It contained a letter from Senator Kennedy thanking me for my letter and a signed, autographed picture of him.
I showed everyone in my family the letter and the picture. I also showed everyone at school my new prized possession.
When I brought the picture home, I proudly hung his picture up on the wall in my bedroom.
At this same time, Dad watched the news every night. He liked Walter Cronkite and told us he was an honest man.
Senator Kennedy came to Lansing that summer for his Presidential Campaign. I begged Gloria to take me downtown to the Capital to see him. Thousands of people had the same idea. We were all on the Capital lawn listening to his speech. We felt like we were watching history when he visited.
My parents said they were voting for Senator Kennedy for President. That November, we were so excited when Kennedy won. We all knew my father voted for him and we felt we had a personal stake in this election.
Mr. Somes was my teacher in both fifth and sixth grade, so we followed the campaign through the election with him. This made the whole event very relevant to all of his students.
In sixth grade, Mr. Somes, always so caring about all of his students, asked me why I didn’t have my teeth fixed the year before. I told him what happened. He just shook his head.
I still enjoyed his advanced class. He made learning fun and our group remained friends throughout the year.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
I had new responsibilities.
Previously I was her kitchen helper. When I was twelve, she put me in charge of meals for certain days of the week. I also took over responsibility of my younger sisters.
My two younger sisters Tina and Baby always hung out together as children. They were a one word name too, Tina-and-Baby.
Tina was a pretty baby. She had pretty brown hair and light, fair skin. Mom always dressed Tina up in pretty, frilly clothes.
Baby was Mom’s youngest. I think she was a surprise. Mom was 42 and going through the change. She went to the doctor because she thought she was having female troubles. Instead, she found out she was pregnant.
Tina loved Baby. She treated her like her own little baby doll. Baby’s real name was Angelina Elena, but Tina changed her name to Baby. Tina used to sing one of the popular songs on the radio that year and made it her own, “Angel, Baby. You’re mine forever. Angel, Baby. You are my Baby, Dear.” So the name stuck.
Mom treated both little girls very special. She also asked me to be responsible for them. Starting when I was eight years old, I made bottles for both of them and rocked them to sleep.
They both stopped their bottle the same year, Tina at five and Baby at three. Tina stopped because she didn’t like the teasing she received in Kindergarten.
In the sixties, Rick and I had to take Tina and Baby everywhere we went. Mom made it a rule. There were no kids my age that lived close to us. So there I was, a teenager, with three little kids trailing me around everywhere.
Tina and Baby learned to expect that I would take them everywhere. Sometimes it grated on my nerves, but it was hard to be angry at them.
Each night, they begged me to sing them the same song to help them fall asleep. I always gave in.
“Good Night My Love. Pleasant Dreams and Sleep tight my loves….” They quietly fell asleep and I tiptoed back to my room.
I loved my baby sisters even though I felt they were cramping my social life, I always felt it was my duty to protect them.
I started gaining weight the fall after my twelfth birthday. Mom laid down a new rule when I started my period. “You are a young lady now. You have to stop playing outside like a boy.”
I always had a voracious appetite. As a tomboy, I stayed slim because I was forever running and playing outside. Now, the pounds started to pack on because I was babysitting or staying inside doing housework or staying in my room.
Maybe it was a good thing I was getting heavy. Boys were starting to pay attention to me.
In the summer, Jamie gave me my first kiss. In the seventh grade, some boys started looking at me in school.
I felt a little insecure about boys. I never considered myself pretty. I was a tomboy.
When I started packing on the pounds, the boys stopped looking. In the 2nd half of seventh grade, one of my friends told me a boy liked me but he noticed I was getting chubby. She said if I wanted him to still like me, I needed to slim down again.
I didn’t know if I wanted boys to like me yet. I still felt like a little kid inside. Jamie’s kiss made me nervous.
I started reading books and watching TV. As a young girl, I thought it was safer getting lost in my fantasy world of books, movies and TV than meeting boys and falling in love. Besides, I knew Dad wouldn´t let me date.
We kept a huge, old dumpster in our backyard. This dumpster was given to Dad by the factory. Back in those days, you could burn your trash in town.
When Mom wanted a garden in our backyard, Dad cleared some big trees from the back area of the yard. He chopped the trees into short logs and piled them into tall stacks against our back fence.
On crisp, Indian summer nights, Dad burned the logs in the dumpster. All of us kids sat on a little hill near the dumpster taking in the sites, sounds and aroma of burning wood.
I loved the smell of burning logs. There was nothing like it.
To this day, every time I smell a burning log, I think of Dad chopping wood and those long hot summer nights burning the logs.
Sometimes, in front of the fire, we sat on logs, eating fresh watermelon. Dad and Mom had a special tradition whenever we ate watermelon. Dad split it in half and cut out the “heart” of the watermelon and handed it to Mom with the words, “My heart for my Queen.”
Mom always had a shy look when Dad did this. He either fed it to her or she would take it and eat it as they both stared into each others eyes.
When the dumpster became full, Dad hauled it to the city dump. Sometimes Dad brought the kids with him. We thought going to the dump was a special occasion. We kids searched the mountains of paper trash, searching for hidden gold mines.
Once, my uncle, who sometimes made the trip with us, found a box full of Christian books in very good condition. Another time, Dad found a wooden swing-set which he hauled home and set up in our backyard.
The only problem with the swing-set was some of the pieces were missing. It was a sturdy swing-set however in that it was made of heavy, wooden poles.
One day, Rick, Tina, Baby and I were playing on the swing-set.
All of a sudden, the legs of the swing-set started to split. Since many of the screws were missing, there wasn’t anything to hold it together when we all were on it.
The kids started screaming and moving in slow motion. They weren’t moving quickly enough as the legs of the swing-set started spreading farther and farther apart. The kids were going to be crushed.
I didn’t have an option. I had to stand beneath the center wooden pole and hold up the swing-set until they were all safe. By the time they reached safety, it was too late for me to get out from under.
I held up the swing-set as long as I could. Slowly, slowly it came down on top of me, first to shoulder level, then chest. Soon I was under it.
The heavy weight laid me flat on my back as a nail was scratching my belly.
I screamed to Rick, “Get help from inside.”
He jumped in leaps to the house and ran to get Steven and Mark.
When they came out, Steven and Mark started howling with laughter. “How the heck did you do that?”
Rick explained, “She saved us from getting smashed!”
Rick, my PR guy!
Steven and Mark picked up the swing-set enough so I could crawl out from under it.
When Dad came home and heard the story, he had the boys put the swing-set in the back of his truck and he took it back to the junkyard the next day.
Afterwards, the kids looked to me as their protector and I looked to them as children I should protect.
In the summer of 1960, Tina almost drowned. We were up in Cherry country. We were swimming in Lake Leelanau in the section reserved for us migrant workers.
Tina was only four years old. We were all swimming. Tina slipped underneath the water. I didn’t see her slip under.
I was swimming and I saw her laying flat on her back at the bottom of the Lake with her eyes wide open.
Seeing Tina laying on the bottom of the lake was startling. She looked so calm and peaceful lying there underneath the water. There were a few bubbles coming out her nose. I looked at her for a few seconds, picked her up and gently shook her awake out of her daze.
I asked her, “What happened? You were drowning!”
She looked back at me wide-eyed and shook her head as if nothing happened.
As she walked away, it suddenly hit me. Yes I moaned and groaned about having to take care of my baby sisters, but I knew that I loved them and all of my brothers and sisters.
My family was very important to me and I didn’t want to lose any of them. I knew that no matter what happened, they were my family.
We followed the caravan of cars up to Lake Leelanau, just north of Traverse City. There, we went to the home of a very nice fruit farmer. He housed us in clean garages and barns and paid us a fair wage. These were much better conditions than other migrant families had to endure at neighboring farms, but Dad knew the farmer and knew he was a fair and honest man.
My parents, especially Dad, were teaching all of us children that hard work and an education would enable us to achieve success in America. Dad loved our country and believed in the American Dream.
Dad knew first hand about hard work and sacrifice.
Dad was born in 1914. He was the oldest son of Alex and Marcella. He had six brothers and two sisters.
Dad´s grandfather owned a large ranch southeast of San Antonio. His family received a land grant in the 1800´s. Alex and his brothers worked with their father and crew on the ranch.
Their family was prosperous but Alex didn´t like ranch life so he moved to San Antonio where he met and married Marcella, another affluent citizen. Their family did well financially until the Great Depression. During the Depression, their family lost their ranch and went hopelessly in debt.
Dad was a brilliant student in school and competed in various competitions. He dreamed of being a successful businessman some day.
Dad was in ninth grade, competing in a state-wide Mathematics championship when his father pulled him out of school.
“You are too old to be in school,” his Dad said. “You have to work with us and help the family.”
Dad was disappointed about leaving school but knew he did not have a choice. He left school and joined his uncles and brothers in hiring out as manual laborers. They were in the midst of the Great Depression and this was the start of their twelve year journey as migrants.
From that point on, Grandpa’s family traveled the country looking for work, always returning to their San Antonio home every few months.
Several years later, on one of these trips home, Dad found a part time job in a Furniture store. He met and married Mom. She was readily welcomed into this family of migrants.
Mom was shy. Grandma took her under her wing. Marcella was a somewhat domineering mother-in-law, but Mom didn´t mind. Marcella gave Mom cooking and sewing lessons, even though Mom already knew both. Marcella just liked doing things her way so Mom went along.
Grandma taught the same lessons to the wives of her other sons as they brought their new wives into their traveling clan.
In the late 1930’s, Dad was hired by the State of Michigan Labor Program. This program was a precursor to the Bracero Program. He was responsible for transporting Migrant Workers from Texas to Michigan. Dad’s skills as an interpreter were in high demand. He was fluent in both Spanish and English. It was a good paying job with a significant amount of responsibility.
Dad grew lonely on his trips to Michigan. He had a good job and knew there were more jobs for people willing to work. He wanted his parents, brothers, sisters, brothers’ wives and Mom to move to Michigan with him. Women were not allowed on his truck, however. The trucks were reserved for Migrant men.
Dad went to his boss and begged, “I want to bring my family to Michigan. I have no money to move them. Will you help me? I will give you something in trade.”
His boss responded, “What are you giving me in trade.” He knew he owned next to nothing.
Dad responded, “I will give you my body.” Dad was willing to give himself up for Indentured Servitude for a set amount of time in order to repay the debt.
His boss stared at him.
Dad continued, “I will work for you and pay you back with my hard work. I will work tirelessly, day and night. Please. Help me bring my family to this land.”
His boss didn’t know what to say at first. He was a compassionate man, but he was also a businessman. He looked at Dad, this strong, hard working-man.
Slowly he nodded. “How much do you need?”
He loaned Dad $500 to bring his family to Michigan.
Dad moved Mom, his brothers and other family members to Michigan as Migrant Laborers. They all partnered in the back breaking work. Their jobs provided wages, a place to live and brought the family together.
Dad quickly repaid the loan. His boss liked Dad´s work ethic and made him foreman of the Migrant Workers. Dad also kept his interpreter job for the State.
Times were good at first. Dad worked side by side with his fellow foremen, all of them white. He was responsible for many acres of the Fruit Farm. There were meetings held each day to discuss the size of the harvest. His work ethic and knowledgeable expertise were valued during these meetings.
What was difficult for Dad to accept was the way he was treated after the meetings.
Dad was not allowed to eat with his co-workers. He was not allowed to use the same restroom facilities. Even though he was their equal in the meetings and an American citizen, he was still considered a Mexican by his co-workers and not their equal in the Farm owner’s house.
Dad was much too proud to be looked down upon. When meals arrived, he found an excuse to leave. If meetings were long and he needed to use the restroom, he held it until he was back in the fields again.
While Dad was feeling the injustices working with his fellow foremen, he was well received by the migrant workers. The migrant workers trusted and looked up to Dad. He was their advocate to the English-speaking Fruit Farmers. He negotiated finding them work with good pay and decent housing in Michigan.
Dad felt a strong loyalty to his fellow Mexican-American people in the camps. He felt responsible for protecting them. They were a quiet and humble people. Most could not speak English. Some people tried to take advantage of this.
There was a group of truckers that took advantage of one group of migrant families. Since the families could not speak English and were afraid to venture out alone, they hired the truckers to take them into town each week to go to church and to buy their weekly groceries.
This, in itself, was not a bad thing. What was wrong was the gouging rate the truckers charged them for the trip. Each week, the amount grew and grew. Soon, the migrant families were giving all of their weekly earnings, except for their grocery money, to the truckers.
When Dad learned of this, he was angry. He went to the church and explained what was happening to the priest. He asked for their help. Could they come out to the camps each week and hold Mass? Would they help the families purchase groceries? Would they help these people? The priests agreed. They made the arrangements.
The truckers were angry at Dad. They confronted him. They wanted to continue to exploit the workers and make money. They fought with Dad. The police came. They took them all to jail. After they heard all sides, they arrested the truckers and asked Dad if he wanted to press charges. Dad asked for a private conversation with the truckers. He said he would not file charges if they agreed to not take advantage of the migrant families again. The truckers agreed. Later, after they were released, they agreed to reasonable rates they would charge the families for rides.
Grandpa passed away the next year and Grandma and relatives moved back to San Antonio. Dad decided to keep his family in Michigan. He eventually found a job in an auto factory. Once he secured his job, he helped other migrant workers obtain jobs there as well.
Dad loved our country and was a proud American. He knew so much about hard work and sacrifice and wanted to instill his work ethic in each of us.
Dad was also a realist. He experienced the pangs of racism. He realized by sharing his own experiences he was teaching us to separate the frailty of our fellow man versus the opportunities we could attain in our great country if we applied our work ethic and education.
He often said, “In America, anyone with a good education who is willing to work hard and has the resilience to overcome obstacles can be successful.”
We took these lessons into the cherry fields and later, we took these same lessons into our adult lives.
In the cherry fields, entire families joined ranks, starting their work day at 6:00 am each Monday morning, ending their day at 6:00 pm and working half a day on Saturday.
We worked in the Traverse City area picking Cherries from June through the end of July.
The farm owners paid about fifty cents a lug. It took two full buckets of cherries to fill a lug. On a good day, a hard working adult could average 1 – 2 lugs an hour or about 12 – 16 lugs a day.
When my oldest brothers were around, they used to race to see who could pick the most cherries. I think the record was twenty-five lugs in one day.
By the end of the week, Mom had a tidy sum. She collected the lug vouchers twice a day from the owners who came around in their tractors to collect them.
We generally raked in about a hundred fifty dollars cash a week. Mom saved about fifty dollars for groceries, with a few extra dollars put away to give to Dad when he came up for a visit. The rest she handed out in allowances to all the kids. The money you received each week was based upon the amount you produced.
This taught us another good lesson about work. The harder you work the more you are paid.
Throughout the week, at the end of each day, we went to beautiful Lake Leelanau to swim. We went to the area of the lake reserved for all the migrant workers. There was a great sense of camaraderie at these camps. We were poor hard-working Mexican-Americans working and playing together.
There were so many kids in the camps that in the early evenings, after swimming, we gathered in the huge yard area near the barn and played games.
We played softball, volleyball, kickball and frozen tag. Sometimes we made up games. I remember sliding down this big hill on pieces of cardboard. It was similar to sledding with no snow. It was so much fun.
Sometimes, the farm owner´s daughter Janice joined us. She was my age and a tomboy just like me. I liked Janice. She was my friend. She was about my height and she was athletic, like me. We were as good as most of the boy players and we played most evenings.
Janice was always getting in trouble with her mom though. Her mother constantly yelled at her to come inside and quit being a tomboy.
We were never short of children even when Janice wasn´t there with us.
On Saturdays, we rushed home from work at noon to take a shower and clean up for our trip to the city. We had separate community shower houses, one for males and another for females.
After we showered and dressed, we lined up in front of our mother with our hands out. She neatly laid our earned dollars in our palms. The big boys got the most, but there was always money for each of us.
At about two in the afternoon, we headed into Sutton’s Bay, a bigger town with a movie theater. Once there, we went to the drug store and drank sodas or we went directly to the movies.
Saturday nights there were often dances and music. Everyone joined in on the fun. The rhythmic sounds filled the air as we swayed and swirled to the Latin sounds. We played more than just Latin music though. We were also just like other kids in America, listening to Elvis, Johnny Mathis and all the Motown sounds from Detroit. “He’s So Fine” was one of my all time favorites.
Every other week, Dad drove up from Lansing and spent the weekend with us. It was a four hour drive, but it was worth it for him to see us.
On Sundays, we got up early, dressed up and went to church in Lake Leelanau. It was a pretty little church. They saved the 11:00 mass just for the migrant workers and said the Mass in Spanish.
Sometimes, various religious groups visited the camps to “save us.” It was kind of funny. Here we were, hard working, religious people trying to scrape a living together and these people were coming to save us.
Mom asked us kids to stay away from them since we were Catholic and they were not. Mom didn’t mind too much though. So we went with the workers, sang their songs, colored their coloring books and listened to them preach. They even brought us old clothes in boxes.
The clothes were the worst. They had little second hand sweaters and dresses in old fashioned styles. I grabbed a sweater but Mom made me take it back. I handed it back to the lady and just sort of shrugged. She looked like she felt sorry for me. She just didn’t get it.
Sure we shopped in the second hand stores for our clothes, but we picked what we wanted and paid for it with money we earned.
My parents were not big believers in handouts. The whole time Dad was laid off from the factory, he refused to take welfare. He said we should rather starve than take something for nothing.
“It will ruin you!” he said. “Never take anything you didn’t work for, otherwise you will get lazy and grow to depend on the handouts!”
The only time we received any kind of support was when my father was laid off in the early 60´s.
My mother would stretch a dollar as far as she could by cooking beans and rice at almost every meal. Mom also canned tomatoes and chili peppers. Her homemade salsa, beans rice and home made tortillas were delicious.
Even with all of her efforts, she sometimes had difficulty stretching her dollars. Once in a while she received “Kennedy Food” from her sister, Aunt Lucy.
Another time when Dad was laid off, Aunt Lucy´s husband was also out of work. She picked up “Kennedy Food” from the area food bank. She brought over canned meat, powdered eggs, powdered milk and box cheese so we would have enough to eat.
Mom tried to sneak this food into her menu and hide it from Dad, but this was hard to do since these foods were different than most of her cooking.
At first, Dad refused to eat any of it, but allowed us kids to eat it versus starving. Then Dad finally gave in. That is when he named it “Kennedy Food.” This was because Dad felt that he voted for a good man and this was like a payback for all the taxes we paid.
He made my mother promise not to take any more than we absolutely needed. She agreed.
Nineteen-sixty-two was our last year picking cherries. By that year, most of the older kids already moved out. Only Mark, me, Rick, Tina and Baby were left at home. With so few children, it wasn’t worth the trip. Picking cherries was only profitable if you did it in volume.
That last year up north was quite a summer. Two great things happened. I received my first kiss and I got boobs.
My first kiss was special to me.
That summer, I was 12 years old and I became a woman. I just started my period. I had no idea what was happening to me. My stomach started cramping and when I went to the bathroom, there were spots of blood on my underwear. I thought I was getting cursed or something.
My older cousin Maggie was there. “Oh Maggie. I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve got a stomachache and I’ve got blood in my underwear. What should I do?”She started laughing. “You stupid girl. Hasn’t your mother told you anything?”
“You’re turning into a woman.”
“You have eggs in your body and that’s why you’re getting blood down there. Your body is getting you ready to have babies someday.”“What? I don’t want to have babies. I’m just a little girl.”
She stood up next to me, nose to nose and said, “Look at you. You are tall as me and I’m sixteen years old. I’m a woman. See those little nubbies on your chest? Those are your boobs. Not much, it’s true. But they’re your boobs. You’re a woman, you baby. Grow up.”With that, she left me, exasperated.
I sat down. My head filled up with all the troubles in the world. Was God cursing me? Oh why was this happening to me? Why didn’t Mom tell me anything?
I went back to our family area and laid down on my bottom bunk bed.
“What’s the matter?” Mom said.
“Why didn’t you tell me about being a woman? Maggie told me everything and now I have blood.” I whined and whimpered and then laid back in bed.
Mom didn’t say a word, She handed me a box of napkins. Now why the heck did I want stupid napkins? When I opened the box, I understood why.
That summer, I started getting tingling feelings every time Jamie Casanova looked at me. He was my age. He and his family came to camp for years but I never noticed him paying any attention to me in previous summers.
This summer, every once in a while, when he was standing next to me, he made sure to touch my arm. When he did that, I got hot.
“Why was he doing that? Did he like me? Why?” I wondered.
I didn’t understand it because I always thought I was such a nerd.
I studied myself in the mirror a lot that summer. Hey. Maybe I wasn’t so bad if Jamie Casanova was looking at me.
One Saturday, all the girls were changing into their swimsuits in the community dressing area near the beach. You couldn’t be modest in that environment. If you wanted to get into your suit, you had to bare all in front of everybody.
The majority of girls were well endowed.
At 12, while I was taller than most of the other girls, I couldn’t say the same about my boobs.
“Hey! Watcha got there? No cheechones? Just little nubbies, hey girl?” They laughed.
I was so, so embarrassed. I pulled up my swimsuit straps and ran outside.
Outside the dressing area, I hid near the bushes and I said a prayer, “Oh please God, please. Let me have big boobies like the other girls. Please let them grow.”
Little did I know that God would more than answer my prayers. By the time I was eighteen, I wore a 36 D.
Jamie Casanova didn’t seem to mind that I just had little nubbies. He kept staring at me every day.
On our last day at camp, when everyone was packing into their cars to go home, I decided to run to the bathroom. Behind the huge, community lavatories stood Jamie C. He looked all nervous as he whispered, “Come here a minute.”
My pulse started racing and my forehead was hot. I tiptoed to where he stood. He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me towards him. His lips landed square on my top lip. I was so nervous and hot that I thought I was going to faint. I noticed that he was just starting to get a stubble on his cheeks and they scratched my cheek ever so faintly.
I heard my brother calling me, “Kiki…where are you? We gotta go.”
I pulled quickly away. In a throaty, husky voice that I didn’t recognize as my own I said, “I..I looo…”
“Kiki!!” Ricki screamed again.“I gotta go.” I pulled away quickly and left him standing there.
I turned and ran. My whole body was so hot I thought it would explode.
Ricki had been calling me and was standing on the other side of the lavatory. I grabbed him on my way past and headed towards the station wagon. Ricki climbed in the back window and I quickly followed. I laid down in the backseat and Mom asked, “Where were you and what took you so long?”
“Bathroom…” was all I could get out. My voice sounded strange and I thought, for sure, they could see Jamie’s kiss all over me.
On the four hour ride back, all I kept thinking was, “Can’t they see how different I am? I’m a woman now. I was kissed.” My whole body felt different after that. I really felt like a woman.
His third job was hauling sawdust for the factory. They paid him $20 - $40 a load. He drove his big red truck twenty miles to the saw-mill in St. Johns every other Saturday. Gas was thirty-seven cents a gallon, so it wasn’t too expensive to purchase the gas for his truck.
At the saw-mill, he took his big shovel and loaded the truck with sawdust. It must have taken a thousand shovelfuls to load that truck. Then he drove the twenty miles back to drop the load off to be shoveled across the oily shop floors.
While hauling sawdust was back breaking work, we kids thought it was fun. Sometimes Dad took the kids with him. I never really shoveled when I went, but I loved to climb the saw-dust Mountains and traipse down the hills making sure I made a few painless pratfalls on my way down.
Even with all of Dad’s jobs, he still had to figure out innovative ways to feed his ten children. He had friends who lived on a farm and from time to time, they gave him the fruit of their harvests. Sometimes, we received vegetables, sometimes milk and eggs. One time, they gave Dad a baby goat.
Dad’s idea was to bring the goat home, fatten him up over the next month and watch him grow. He figured a grown, fattened goat would provide us enough meat for a month. Boy, was he in for a surprise.
He brought the baby goat home and shared his plans with the entire family. As he laid out the details, the baby hopped and skipped and played with all of us kids.
At first, we played with him. Over the next few weeks, we grew to love Billy as a member of the family.
Since Dad worked so many jobs, he didn’t realize how close we grew to our Billy. After a month, our baby grew fat, we pampered him so well.
The last Saturday of the month, when all of my brothers and sisters and I were at the movies, Dad laid him to rest. Mom cooked him up nice and special into what she said was a delicious meat stew.
We arrived home and sat down at the dinner table. A few of the kids roamed by the kitchen and peeked into the stew pot to smell what was cooking.
A few of them became very quiet. As a matter of fact, the whole house was quiet.
As we sat at the dinner table, Mom spooned stew into our bowls but no one ate, except me. The stew was delicious. All watched as I gulped my second spoonful. I stopped.
“What’s the matter with everyone? Why aren’t you eating? Why are you looking at me?”
“Where’s Billy,” someone responded.
I looked at my spoonful. I knew at that moment I was chewing on Billy. I ran to the bathroom and spit out the meat.
Dad was disappointed that none of us ate the meat from our goat. He knew times were hard. He didn’t want to waste the meat however and he wound up giving all of it to his farmer friends.
The next time he brought potential meat home from the farm, he made sure to make it meat sooner so we wouldn’t make friends with the food.
It was tough keeping enough food on the table for a family of ten children so he continued to bring farm food home. Sometimes it was a brand new experience.
Once he brought home a truckload of chickens. He had us form a production line. He was at the head of the line and wrung the necks of the chickens.
Next, someone cut of the heads and feet. Next, the chickens were gutted. I was nervous about all of this but I was ok with my job. I was the chicken plucker.
With all the innovative ways we were obtaining food for our large family, Mom kept very busy with cooking, housework and caring for our family.
After Christina and Gloria moved out, I was next in line to receive Mom´s kitchen training. Mom taught me how to cook for a large family. Each dish was carefully prepared to feed as many people as possible at the lowest cost. All dishes were made from scratch, even the deserts. I baked beautiful deserts, cakes and pies that everyone said were delicious.
Mom taught me how to be a good cook, especially Mexican food. I learned how to make chili, although nowadays we call it salsa.
I learned to use the molcajete and tejolote when grinding cumin and garlic. This was key since these spices were added to almost every dish.
Mom took me to the grocery store to teach me what ingredients to buy for our meals. Key items were chili powder, garlic, cumin seed, baking powder, flour, lard, beans and rice. These were the staples.
I even cooked for my brothers and cleaned up after them without complaining too much.
While I learned to love to cook, I was still resistant to Mom´s “serve the man” philosophy.
Years later Mom said to me, “Mija, you were always so obstinate. You had all of these ideas and hopes and dreams in your head. You didn´t want to understand that women are not men. You can be a strong woman and still serve the man.” I hugged her afterwards even though I still didn´t agree with her.
After my cooking classes, I often helped my Dad. He was such a hard worker and he liked it when we helped him out.
At 14, when my brothers wouldn’t finish painting our house that Dad started painting, I finished painting it by myself.
My brothers said I was crazy.
It was a hot, lazy summer afternoon. Everyone else went off playing. Not me. I took out the paint cans, stood the ladder next to the house and painted the whole unfinished side of the house.
I was justly rewarded. When Dad came home, he said he was very proud of my work. I beamed. I was very proud that my work was well received by Dad.
The opportunities I had to show Dad my work ethic at home were few and far between since he was gone so often. Sometimes I motivated my little brother and sisters to help me clean our huge backyard.
The months after I painted the house, he sometimes brought work home for me and my little crew. Once, he brought home four chairs that were caked with various layers of paint. I remember the top coat was a putrid green.
Dad said, “Kiki, the lady wants these chairs repainted. First, you have to take off all the paint with this paint thinner. Next, you need to sand the chairs with this sandpaper. Then you repaint the chairs with varnish.”
He provided me all the tools I needed. So I asked him to get me up early the next day, right when he left for work. I started on the chairs right away.
First, I used the thinner to take off the paint. This wasn’t any easy chore. Layer after layer of paint had to be coddled off. I put the thinner on and I waited for the paint to start to bubble. I then took the putty knife and worked at it until I coached it off. It took hours to get that paint off.
I persuaded my brother Rick to help me. It was grueling work. Every once in a while, Mom looked out the back door just to see our progress.
I refused to fail. My fingers were raw, but the paint was finally off.
By now, it was 3:00. Dad would be home by six. Mom said we needed to hurry if we hoped to finish on time.
Next we sanded the chairs to prepare them for the staining. Sanding wasn’t easy and I didn’t think we sanded them well enough around the intricate wood moldings of the chair backs, but it was good enough. I then used an old towel to wipe down the chairs.
Next, I brought out the varnish and the special brushes Dad used for his most delicate jobs. These brushes were made of very fine animal hairs. He said I should use them for this job. The brushes kissed the varnish onto the chairs.
After the first chair was finished, I stepped back and looked at it. It looked good. Mom peeked out the door and gave us a quick smile and a nod.
Dad pulled up in his big old red truck just as I finished the last chair. The truck was rickety, but it was functional. He stepped down from his truck and walked over to where we were. He looked at the chairs, shiny and new looking, like fine antiques.
Dad whistled. “Beautiful! They are just beautiful!”
I was so proud I was just beaming.
Mom came outside and said, “They worked on them all day!” She was proud too.
Dad walked around those chairs, rubbing his chin, staring at them and Rick and me in admiration.
The next day, Dad packed the chairs onto his truck and gave them to the lady.
That evening, he came home beaming. He said he set the chairs down in the lady’s garage. She came out and looked at them. She started crying. He asked her what was wrong. She said her tears were tears of joy. The chairs looked just like they did when her husband bought them. Her husband had passed away and this was a very sentimental moment for her. The old lady came up to Dad and kissed him on the cheek.
“I was going to throw these chairs away,” she said, “and instead, you brought them back to me as beautiful as when they were new.”
When he told us, I was very, very proud. It didn’t matter that my hands were still hurting. What did matter was I learned something new that day.
I learned that no challenge was too difficult to overcome and I should never give up. If I worked hard enough almost anything was possible. I also learned that hard work would be recognized. I remember that day and I remember how it affected my life.
Early in life, he seemed to find refuge in hanging out with our cool brother Raul. They were both always in trouble. They either stayed out late at night or hung out with some of the bad boys around the neighborhood.
Dad lectured Mark often. He wanted him to avoid the same problems Raul had.
Raul always stuck up for Mark, but after Raul left, Mark learned to fend for himself.
Poor Mark. Not only was he Raul´s protégé, he was also overweight and had pimply skin.
Mark was the person in my family that christened me with my nickname “Kiki.”
Mark named me this when I was a baby. He said when he played with me while I was in my crib, I always kicked him. So, as a three year old boy he’d say, “kicky, kicky, kicky…”
Everyone started calling me Kiki.
Growing up, the nickname stuck. All my brothers and sisters called me Kiki until I left home.
I was a tomboy. I enjoyed playing outside, climbing trees and being adventurous. I liked being bossy and leading my kid brother and sisters and the kids in the neighborhood around.
My behaviors ran somewhat counter to Mom´s philosophy. Mom thought women should be subservient to men. Women should stay in the house, cook, clean and tend to housework.
My brothers and sisters often teased me, “Always with the boys!” I wanted to be a boy. Boys had the life. Boys were in charge. Boys had it made.
Mom coached me in Spanish, “You mustn’t always be outside with the boys. You must stay in the house. It is the woman’s role to serve men. You must cook and serve their meals. You must wait on them. They are different than women. Someday you will marry and you will serve your husband.”
These were the lessons she learned as a young woman and she tried to pass them on to me.
I didn’t often listen.
“No, mama! That’s not true nowadays! Women don’t have to serve men anymore.”
I just couldn’t abide by her coaching, even at seven.
Mom would shake her head and say, “Aayyy que mujer!”
Through these years, Mark became the Lord and Master over me and my little brother Rick. Without the technology we have today, it was easy for Mark to find ways to order us around. One of his favorite commands was having us adjust the TV antennae.
We had a black and white television with the antennae on top of our roof. When he changed the channel, my brother Rick and I were the designated antennae turners.
Often, my brother Mark commandeered Rick and I to climb up a wobbly ladder and get on the roof. Mark talked to someone else who was in the house who told him when the picture was just right and he passed the orders on to us. After a while, we didn’t need the inside person.
We could only get three TV channels with our antennae. We knew if you turned the antennae southeast, we could get channel 12 in Flint. If we turned it northeast, we could get channel 6 and east would bring in a clear picture for channel 10.
One day, when Mark was feeling particularly bossy, he directed Rick and me up the ladder. Then he took the ladder away.
“Ok, here’s what we are going to do. One of you has to jump off the roof onto this sofa.” He pointed at a rickety old sofa we put in the backyard, ready to go to the junkyard.
Rick and I started screaming. “No! We’ll get hurt! We can’t do that!”But no matter how much we pleaded, he wouldn’t budge. One of us had to jump.
Rick and I were both crying by now, tears running down our cheeks. Finally, Rick puffed up his puny little seven year old chest and said, “I’ll do it.”
I stood back, shivering, waiting for my poor little brother to jump off the roof and get smashed to pieces.
He took two steps back, took a deep breath, and made a perfect three point landing, bouncing softly in the middle of the fat cushions of that old couch. Then he gently hopped off, landing on his feet.
Mark and I just stood and stared with our mouths open.
Mark looked at our little brother with admiration, patted him on the back and said, “Ok. A deal’s a deal. Rick saved you, Kiki. You can climb down the ladder.” Rick was beaming. He knew he saved my life.
“No wait! If Rick can do it, I can do it, too” I figured, since Rick made it look so easy, it had to be a piece of cake.
“No, don’t! I saved you! You’ll kill yourself!” Rick screamed.
Mark shook his head saying, “Stupid girl! You asked for it!” He pulled back the ladder.
I took two steps back, just like Rick did. I flew from the roof, but I must have tried too hard. Instead of making that perfect three point landing, I clumsily bounced off the couch and slid square on my face. Ooh I was bruised and hurt.
Mark just stood back and laughed. “It’s your own darn fault! I told you I’d put the ladder back, but you just had to jump!”
While the house we lived in enabled us to have a place of our own, close to Dad’s work, with a huge backyard for us to play in, it had quite an interesting architectural style.
Our house was built in 1900. It was originally a small, one bedroom house. Over the years, however, room after room was added on.
Dad rebuilt and extended our kitchen. He added on an extra bedroom in the back. The upstairs had two large rooms which were added on last. There were no closets upstairs, so we built them in ourselves out of plywood. Dad was also a house painter and each room reflected overages from his latest jobs.
Though it was an unusual floor-plan, it was our home and we always had great family times.
One of our great family traditions was going to the movies on Saturdays. Every Saturday morning, all the kids stood in line, hands out, and palms up to receive movie money from Dad.
Our parents encouraged us to go to the movies on Saturday because Dad worked three jobs all week long and sometimes went out on Friday nights. He liked his quiet time on Saturday.
We had a set routine each week. Dad worked his jobs throughout the week. If he was going out, on Friday afternoon, Mom prepared his clothes for the evening. He came home from his second job and dressed. He left about 8:00 p.m. and went to the neighborhood pub.
Sometimes, at 3:00 a.m., Dad came home, feeling very merry. He woke us all up to give us giant, three quarter pound hamburgers from the Eat Shop. We loved when this happened.
On Saturdays, he gave us money to go to the movies.
The movies were glorious. I remember going to the Esquire Theater, an equivalent to the super-saver theaters you see today. In the late fifties, we paid fifteen cents a ticket. They showed triple feature horror flicks. We saw great movies like “The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman,” “The Tarantula,” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” all for only fifteen cents.
We kids left the house at 10:00 a.m. We walked three miles to downtown and first, walked around the Grants Department Store. After that, we walked to the movie theatre a block away. We left the theatre at 6:00 p.m. at night and arrived home by 7:00 p.m.
It was a beautiful thing for all of us. Our parents had peace and quiet all day and we kids escaped into the beautiful world of the movies.
I always sat right up front, the closer the better. I went inside the movie, sight and sound, and lived the experiences of the actors on the screen.
Our family enjoyed being together.
Every August, we loved going to the Ionia Free Fair. We thought it was the biggest and best fair in Michigan. We went every year. One year, we all piled out of our family station wagon. I was the last one out of the car.
In my excitement, I slammed the door shut on my thumb. Ouch. It hurt. I re-opened the heavy metal door and looked at my thumb. It started to turn a funny shade of purplish gray and I felt the blood pulsating in it.
Mom said, “What’s wrong?”
I answered, “Nothing.”
I knew if I said anything and my parent’s thought I was hurt, we would probably have to go home. We just arrived at the fair and I didn’t want to go home yet. Even though my thumb throbbed horribly for hours, I had a great time at the fair.
When we came home, my thumb started throbbing again. I ran cold, cold water over it, but it still hurt like crazy. I finally went to bed.
A couple of hours later, I woke up and started throwing up. Mom got up and took care of me, holding my tiny eight year old back as my body wretched.
Mom picked up my toweled hand and said, “What happened to your hand?” I stopped throwing up momentarily, and shrugged my shoulders as tears of pain ran down my cheeks.
Mom unrolled the towel from my hand. She saw my thumb, which was now red and purple with the thumb nail just hanging. She took me into her bedroom and showed Dad my hand.
They studied my thumb and me and said, “You shut your thumb in the car door, didn’t you?”
“When did you do it? When we got home?”
I said no. There was no use lying. I told them it happened before the fair. They hugged me and said, “You must really love the fair.”
After Ramon left for the army, Mom was often quiet. After caring for housework and cooking, she spent much of her time peacefully reading her bible.
Often, Mom allowed my brother Rick and me to play outside all day. We were adventurous and constantly explored the neighborhood.
Rick was a good kid and I liked him even though I had fun picking on him at times.
Rick was three years younger and precocious as heck. He was just like me. He liked to explore and discover new things. Everywhere I went, Rick was my tagalong. They used to call us Kiki-and-Ricki, just like it was one word.
Rick was a smart kid too. He often finished what I started. It was a good thing Rick and I hung out together. We always looked out for each other. We were like two adventurers out exploring the world.
As I said, our brother Mark was our Lord and Master. Another day, Mark went up on the roof. Rick and I spied he had something in his hand. We looked closer. It was a long mop handle. In our eyes, it looked like a spear. We didn’t like anything dangerous like a spear anywhere near Mark. We knew he was liable to do anything and that anything was bound to hurt us.
Rick and I were standing pretty close to the house when Mark said, “I’m going to throw this stick at you. You better start running.”
He didn’t have to tell us twice.
Rick and I started running as fast as we could. There we were, running side by side, as fast as we could. I looked over at Rick. He looked over at me. We were both petrified!
Mark cranked up his ole’ arm. The faster we ran from the house, the bigger the spear looked. I saw Mark throw the spear as hard as he could, without even looking. Rick and I ran faster and faster to make sure we were nowhere near that thing when it landed.
The trajectory of that spear couldn’t have been better if Mark had radar. I don’t know what the mathematical equation was for making a perfect hit under these conditions, but that spear nailed Rick square in the middle of the back of his head. It looked like a lightning bolt as it connected. It was insane, but Rick looked like he expected the spear to hit. He screamed out.
The mop handle kind of stuck there for a split second and Rick continued to run down the yard with a mop handle falling from his head. As it fell out, Rick was still running and screaming, but by now, drops of blood started spurting out of the back of his head.
No one could believe it. Mark stood there shocked. I stood there shocked. Rick was hysterical. He started screaming and crying and huge, gigantic tears just jumped from his eyes.
Mark and I gathered up Rick and took him inside to Mom.
Mom was livid. “Now what did you do!” Her accusation was to both Mark and me.
“Now Dad will never let you go to the drive-in tonight!” she screamed, as she was finding the gauze and the iodine. Mom always used iodine for cuts and scrapes. She said the pain you felt was a clear sign the germs were being killed.
When Mom said, “No drive-in,” Mark, Rick and I all looked at each other. This was more painful for us than a spear in the head. All of the kids in our family loved going to the movies. The drive-in was the best. You could sit outside and hang out with your friends. It was a blast. Now, with Rick hurt, our parents would never let us go.
When Mom left the room, Mark and I started begging Rick, “Please, please don’t say anything to Dad about what happened. Please don’t act hurt. Please! We gotta go to the drive-in! Please!!”
Rick was still in shock from the pain. The blood barely stopped spurting. He had a thick piece of gauze, dotted with iodine taped to the back of his head. He was dazed and faint, but he groggily agreed that he wouldn’t say anything.
When Mom came back into the room, Rick was the one who said, “Ma, I’m ok. I want to go to the drive-in too. Please don’t tell Dad.” He said this, mind you, with blood still oozing out of his wound and countless blood covered rags all around him.
Mom eyed us warily, like she knew we put Rick up to this. She put both hands on her hips and shook her head, “I don’t care. I won’t say anything. But if anything bad happens, it is all your fault!” She wagged her finger at all three of us.
Dad came home. Rick’s wound stopped bleeding and was now covered by a small, clean patch. Even so, he stood hidden behind us, groggy, but ready to go to the drive-in. Dad saw the small patch on Rick’s head. “Hey, what happened here?” “Oh nothing, Dad. It’s just a scratch,” Rick said.“You know how these traviosos are always hurting themselves.” Our mother unwittingly helped us. Dad ignored the wound.
We did get to go to the drive-in that night, although Rick slept through it.
Since we didn’t have video games, we spent most of our time playing outside. Rick and I explored the neighborhood.
There were some neighbor kids who lived behind us. Mom called them the pelones, or baldies, because they always wore their hair in a butch haircut. Calling them like you saw them was a cultural habit. Having a butch haircut in our neighborhood was usually a telltale sign.
The pelones lived with their mother above one of the old stores behind our house. She always worked and was rarely home so the boys often roamed the neighborhood. Rick and I were friendly with them because they were about Rick’s age and they tended to follow us around.
Elderly Anglo couples occupied both houses to our left. They didn’t have any young children. Occasionally, their grandkids visited. We let them hang around with us sometimes.
There were two houses on the right side of our house. Three doors down, there used to be a huge tenement house on the corner. It was full of really loud, rowdy country people. The house was torn down shortly after we moved in.
The house two doors down had people in it at first. After a couple of years, they moved and it turned into an abandoned house. Rick and I used to pretend this house was haunted. We often scared our gang of little kids with horror stories about that house.
I used to gather all the little children around and tell them scary ghost stories. One of their favorites was the story of Tina and Ann, two children who dared to enter the scary, abandoned house.
Eventually, that abandoned house was torn down too.
The house next door to us was always occupied with different renters. Dad knew the landlord and often kept him posted on the activities in that house. After one family moved out, the landlord called Dad over.
“Look at how they trashed this house.” The tenants left old furniture and mountains of trash in every room, even the basement. There were huge holes in the wall, stripped wallpaper and stained walls.
Dad looked around with him and shook his head. The landlord said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this house. It would be cheaper to give it away so I don’t have to pay for getting it back in shape.”Dad said, “Are you serious? I’d take it off your hands.”
He hedged, “No, no. But maybe, if you are interested, we could work something out.”
Dad came home all excited. “Mama. Mama. The man said we can buy the house next door for only $3,500.”
Even I knew that was an incredibly low price to pay for a house.
Dad looked at all of us and said, “I need your help. Help me clean it up and we will rent it and have more money.”
All of our eyes got big. We would own two houses on the street.
“Hey Dad, maybe we can call it Perez Street,” I said.
Everyone laughed. We all liked the idea of having a street named after us.
We all pitched in and tackled cleaning that house. It is astonishing what concentrated effort can accomplish.
We were in the middle of our work when the landlord walked in. Already he could see the amazing improvement.
“The house looks good, very good.”“We’re working very hard,” Dad said.
“I see you are.” He asked Dad to go outside.
I peered out the window and saw them talking. Dad looked very serious. He came back in the house and said, “He thinks we did such a good job on the house he wants to go back on the deal.”“No Dad, he can’t. We worked so hard and we had a deal!” I cried.
“You tell him that.” He looked down.
The man came in the house. He started telling us what a good job we did.
“Then why do you want to go back on the deal?” I asked.
He looked startled. He didn’t expect these words coming from an eight year old child.
“You made a deal with my Dad and we worked so very hard to fix this house.” I continued. I had tears in my eyes.
Dad, Mom, our whole family looked at the man with pleading eyes. I started to cry.
The man looked at us, one by one.
Finally, he put his hands on his hips and sighed, “I guess I can’t fight a whole family. You have a deal.” He shook Dad’s hand and they went outside to talk business.
Dad came back inside afterwards. We were all still hard at work. He stood over by me, where no one else could see. He winked.
When it rained, we had to figure out fun things to do inside our house. We spent most of the time in our dining room. We had an old, wooden table with a bench on one side and chairs all around the other sides. Our TV was on top of a tall cabinet in the corner. We kept it up that high so a head never got in anyone´s line of vision.
Sometimes we played card games and other times we played board games. Sometimes we lined up the chess or checkerboards. Other times, we played monopoly or Chinese checkers together.
One particular day, when our parents weren’t home, we all decided to draw. We sat around the table with paper and pencil in hand. Since I loved to pick on Rick, I decided to draw a picture of him.
I started out with a big round circle. Rick had horn-rimmed black glasses, like the kind Buddy Holly used to wear. They were easy to draw on this big, round circle. Next, I shaded in black hair and slashes for eyes, nose and mouth.
“What a work of art.” I held it up for everyone to see. Everybody laughed.
“It’s Rick! It looks just like Rick,” I roared.
Rick was mad. “No it doesn’t. You just drew a round circle and glasses! It doesn’t look like me!”
He proceeded to draw a picture of me, but obviously, it didn’t look anything like me. While I had made a perfect likeness of him!
“It’s Rick, It’s Rick!” I laughed. He got angrier and angrier. “Give me that picture!” he screamed.
“No! No!” I laughed.
He started chasing me but since I was taller and ran holding the picture high above his head, he couldn’t take it from me. Finally, I stood facing the wall, picture held high, just out of his reach, laughing, and saying “It’s Rick It’s Rick!”
Poor Rick. He just couldn’t take it. Since he couldn’t reach the picture, he did the next best thing to stop me from flaunting his picture. He grabbed me around my middle and tripped me. I looked very silly as I tumbled. Pretty soon, everyone was laughing, even Rick and I.
One thing about our household, the girls did all the housework and the boys only had to do the occasional chore. They expected to be served by the girls just like our mother coached.
One of my horrible household chores was to wash the dishes. With ten kids in our family, you are talking about a stack of dishes that was as tall as I was at ten years old. This doesn’t even include the pots and pans.
I hated washing dishes, particularly the pots and pans. We were poor and Mom didn’t believe in S.O.S. pads. She said they were a luxury only rich women could afford.
If you ever fried chicken with breading on it, you know the pans get caked with hard, stuck-on breading that is impossible to get off without a torch. I think one of the reasons I used to bite my nails was because they broke so easily from all the scrubbing I did.
With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why I would do anything to lighten my dish load. Hiding dishes became a special talent. Mom caught on quickly to this, so leaving the pans in the oven was much too obvious. I had to find more clever hiding places.
One afternoon, after I finished the dishes, my brother Steven, another lord and master over me, started picking on me. We were both sitting at the table.
First Steven threw a piece of paper at me. Now, I never liked getting picked on, so I felt it only fair to retaliate in kind. I threw a paper back at him.
Next, he threw a piece of cardboard at me. I picked up another piece of cardboard and threw it back at him. It was clear to me this game was starting to escalate.
Next, he looked around. This time, he found a bigger piece of cardboard and threw it with more force.
Now the stakes were getting higher. I spied an empty lightbulb carton, picked it up quickly and speared it at his head. “Kerplunk…crackle, break!” It went.
“Why would a carton sound like that?” I wondered.
Then I looked down on the floor at the pieces of a dirty dish that I forgot I hid in that carton a few days earlier.
Steven’s head had a big red mark on it. It was futile to run. I was much too close. I just took the pounding. I figured I deserved it.
I’m not the only girl in the family to get into these throwing games. My sister Gloria did it too. Gloria likes to tell stories like I do.
One day, she was telling a joke she heard. I think we all heard the joke five or six times before, but Gloria just liked telling it. Right when she was getting to the punch line, Steven blew her joke and said the punch line.
She promptly picked up a metal pitcher and threw it towards Steven´s head. Pow!!! Neither expected it would actually hit. They got into a pretty good fight after that.
My sister Gloria is six and a half years older than I am. Growing up, she used to like to show her power over me. She often had lists of chores for me to do.
To get my attention, she liked to tug on the longest lock of my hair. Other times, she took her sandal off and tossed it at me. Once when I was doing my best to ignore her, she threw a high-heel shoe at me. This shoe wasn’t just any shoe, it was a spiked high-heel shoe with a metal heel on it. She tossed it and somehow the metal heel stuck in my arm. Now, it looks like I have two vaccination shots.
Gloria didn’t always pick on me. Most of the time, she looked out for me.
One summer, we were swimming in a remote area of Lake Michigan. I came out of the water. I ran towards my brothers and sisters who were smoking on the beach. As I came closer, Gloria asked, “What´s on your leg?”
As I got closer, she screamed, ¨It’s a le-e-e-ech!”
I looked down at my leg and saw the leech. I was scared and became hysterical. I started to run!
As I ran passed her, Gloria screamed to my brothers, “Knock her down!”
My brothers knocked me down in the sand and held me down. Gloria asked someone to get her a cigarette and she plopped the lit end on top of that leech until it fell off my leg. All the while, I was kicking and screaming.
After she took it off, I looked down at the welt on my leg. I was so relieved the leech was gone.
After it was over, we all started laughing about it.
I looked at Gloria with admiration. In the end, she always looked out for me.