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Anecdotes Commentary

An Early Menudo Treat at Strawberry

PHOTO: Strawberry Lodge, about half an hour west of Lake Tahoe (in northern California).

 

It was a weekend trip to a large mountain cabin at Strawberry, a point on the map on the east side of Kyburz, on California’s highway 50, less than an hour away from Lake Tahoe. Most of us in the Chavez clan signed up for the trip. Some of us came along for the hiking and to do family things. A few had the intention of making a trek to the casinos on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe.

Granddaughter Elisa, our mother Lydia, and granddaughter Connie, at our mother’s home in Stockton, California.

Our mother came along too. The lure of the Nevada casinos was too much. She loved pulling the handles on the one-armed-bandits, always hoping to beat the house. Sometimes she did. She also came for the family fun and to breathe the mountain air. And to cook. She loved to cook.

She brought along a large pot, beef tripe, and all the ingredients to make and serve “menudo.” No one paid much attention to the trappings she had brought with her until our first night at the cabin. Sometime before midnight, our mother cleaned up the tripe, threw it in the pot, added a few spices, and began to slow cook the concoction.

As the night progressed and the menudo began to release a pungent stench that permeated every nook and cranny of the cabin, many of us complained, including me. It was a strong smell. Every hour or so, though, our mother would get up and stir the pot. During her last foray, she added hominy to the soup. Don’t know when, but before the morning sunrays lighted up the cabin, the menudo was done.

DIDN”T MIND HAVING FUN. Our mother with grandson Al, in a store in Old Sacramento, California, sometime in the late nineteen eighties.

By the time we got up, our mother had already set up the large kitchen table. There was a pile of bowls on it. There was also a pile of large spoons and all the trimmings required to go with that feast. Warm corn tortillas, chiltepines, oregano, diced onions, and slices of lime. She had also brewed a large pot of coffee. No one complained about the smell, then. It was a great breakfast.

That’s how our mother was. She loved to cook for all of us, and to make us happy in her own way. She also loved seeing us together, enjoying life and sharing with each other our joy. During special occasions, we all trekked to her house and played and celebrated at her place. We ate her food and the one prepared sometimes by other members of our clan and had fun there. We yelled and caroused and did more yelling and in between that fun filled time we ate and ate again. Our mother, even after turning eighty and becoming the target of the slings and arrows flung by old age, she tried her best to keep tasty treats awaiting our visits. She did a good job doing what she loved.

We also trekked to our mom’s house at other times. It was good being with her. The food was good too. For those of us that loved that Mexican staple called menudo, no restaurant in the world will ever match the taste, the look and the trimmings of her version of the centuries old delicacy she served us. She stored the previously cooked menudo in small plastic containers in a freezer in her backyard. Our job was to retrieve a container or two from that hiding place and bring it or them to her kitchen. She would then take over and heat up the concoction, add hominy and lots of love to it. She would then cut up limes, cilantro and green onions and place them on a plate. On different containers she would bring us oregano and hot sauce. The red stuff, like the one she learned to prepare in her native state of Michoacán. By the way, we weren’t allowed to help her prepare the meal. That was her duty, she often repeated it. Our job was to eat it, enjoy it and have fun at her place.

We did. Over and over again.

NOTE: Our mother, Lydia García de Chávez, passed away nine years ago, on Valentine’s Day 2008. She was eighty-one years old at the time. I write this anecdote to celebrate her life and to tell the world about her and her cooking. She was good. Really good. A strict, but loving mom who kept us on track and taught us the great value of getting an education. She pushed us, loved us and kept us together. We got a great start in life because of her doings. As I mentioned before, she was good. And still is.

 

Categories
Commentary Tales

The Tireless Honeybees from Mexicali

IMAGES of the bees drawn by a young artist from Hungary, Rebeka Schoffer, for this blog. Art property of Pedro Chávez.

 

During the very, very early 1940s, a group of bugs (dragonflies, cicadas, and butterflies) came to Mexicali to invite that valley’s honeybee swarms to come and help pollinate the farm fields across the border. Their own bees had been recruited to go fight the Big Bug War, across the big pond, and for a while now most of that farmland had been without the services of those flying insects whose expertise was needed to spread around the pollen. The Mexicali honeybees had been known to work hard and for long hours, just like all the other bees in Mexico.

The Mexicali bees declined the offer from the American bugs. They said that they were happy spreading pollen in their own valley’s cotton fields.

“But that work doesn’t last very long,” the bugs from the north replied. “Once the cotton blooms, you have no work left to do.”

In a way, the bugs from the American side (Imperial Valley) were incorrect. The bees had plenty chores to do throughout the year in that area on the Mexican side. After the work ended in the cotton fields, the bees continued their pollinating activities on fig and pomegranate trees, on grape vines and “nopaleras” (gatherings of cactuses) that grew everywhere.bee-2

On the other hand, the bugs were also somewhat correct. The fertile valley on the American side was flush with all types of crops. Besides a few cotton fields, in that land were cultivated carrots, tomatoes, oranges, wheat, barley, lettuce, and many, many other farm products. It had year-round work.

Due to the nagging and persistent insistence from the bugs from the north, the bees from Mexicali eventually agreed to help them pollinate their fields. A few days later, in early spring, thousands and thousands of bees, accompanied by their appropriate queens, left their hives behind and flew north. At one point, as they continued their aerial exodus, the massive amount of bee swarms darkened the sky over the then meager border fence.

Once at their destination, the bees went right to work. They carried pollen from here, from there and tirelessly took it to other plants all over that land. A few days after their arrival, the fields in that valley regained their color and by the beginning of summer, the fruit grown on that earth showed the results of the hard work done by the Mexicali bees. The watermelons were huge and so was the grapefruit. The cantaloupes were also big and juicy; the alfalfa fields were green and full of life. The entire Imperial Valley had regained its past glory.

Two, perhaps three years later, the American bees returned from the Big Bug War and wanted back their jobs. The bugs in charge of the Imperial Valley fields told them that there was enough work for everyone and that they could toil right along the Mexicali bees. The American honeybees, however, did not want to share the work with their counterparts from the south and accused them of stealing their source of employment.

“Besides, they’re illegal,” the American bees complained. “They’re from Mexico and must be sent back to their country.”

Because their complaints fell on deaf ears with the bugs in charge, the bees from the north went to court and demanded that the Mexicali honeybees be sent home. The bugs in charge counter suited, claiming that the American bees were not as good as the ones from Mexico when it came to the task of pollinating.

“Our fields and our harvests are so much better now that the Mexicali honeybees have been doing the spreading of the pollen,” the bugs in charge told the court.

Tired of the war of words and of so much ill will, the Mexican bees told the bugs in charge that all the members of all the swarms that had come from Mexicali had agreed to go back home.

“We don’t want to stay where we’re not wanted,” they said.

bee-3The bugs in charge tried to convince them to stay, but to no avail and soon thereafter, in the same manner that they traveled on the day they came to the north, hundreds of swarms darkened the sky again as they flew south. Once back home, the Mexican honeybees noticed that the Mexicali Valley desperately needed their help, their pollinating expertise.

Although a few swarms had stayed behind to care for those fields, it was too much work for them and had therefore been unable to spread pollen in the entire valley. The workload had also grown. Just like in the north, the region to the south had decided to diversify its crops. It grew melons now and all kinds of citric fruit trees: oranges, grapefruits, and lemons. Instead of mostly cotton plants, the valley was now peppered with fields of wheat, barley, alfalfa, and corn.

Regardless of the heavy workload, the Mexicali honeybees welcomed it and were happy to be back home. They felt good. They belonged there, they said. They were also appreciated at their land.

A few years later, some bugs in charge from the north returned to Mexicali to again invite and try to persuade those bees to help pollinate the Imperial Valley fields. They claimed that it was too much work for the bees from the north and after the Big Bug War, most of those bees had become lazy and unwilling to work long hours.

“We need you,” one dragonfly said. “We won’t allow our bees to get in the way and we will care for you and protect you.”bee-1

“No, thank you,” replied the bee in charge of speaking for the Mexicali honeybees. “Besides, why would we want to return to the north? So we can be insulted again and be called this and that and be told that we’re not the same as the other bees from that place?”

Although the dragonfly and other bugs from the north insisted on convincing the Mexican bees to return to Imperial Valley, those bees were set on their decision, which meant that they would forever stay in that valley to the south. They continued to toil there and with their help that land grew greener and with the passing of time that valley in Mexicali became filled with imposing, formidable and luscious vegetation.

As it is often said at the end of a tale in Spanish: “Colorín, colorado, este cuento se ha acabado.” (End of story).

 

Categories
Commentary Opinion

Lessons from Our Children

IMAGE: César Chávez, in the center, during a march in the summer of 1981, protesting the use of certain pesticides in the agricultural fields. The march began in French Camp and ended in Stockton, California’s McKinley Park. Photo by Pedro Chávez.

 

NOTE: I wrote this commentary in April 2006, right after hundreds of thousands of students throughout many cities in the nation walked out of classrooms to protest the language in a congressional bill meant to address immigration reform. This piece was at that time published in Enlace, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Spanish and English weekly. This is a slightly edited version of that article.

 

    *  *  *

We’ve opened our eyes, César. Our kids opened them for us. It’s amazing! It almost seems as if they had actually listened to your advice.

Remember? During the marches, when you used to tell us to stick together and peacefully go to the rancher’s office to ask for a raise and for better working conditions? And to go into his office and sit on the floor until he agreed to talk to us and discuss our grievances? And that if we were thrown out of his place, to peacefully return as a group and to again try to talk to the rancher? As many times as necessary until he agreed to listen to us?

I know that you remember what you told us, César. That was the message that you repeated over and over again during all those marches that I walked with you in the Central Valley. I remember your words well.

And you know something? That’s in a way what our kids did recently when they walked out of their schools to tell a nation bent on calling us criminals that a proposed immigration reform act passed by Congress was wrong. They exercised their rights to peacefully assemble and petition the government, César. Amazing kids. Did you advise them from the ever after? Something tells me you did.

Do you remember, too, that story you used to tell us at the end of the marches about that young boy, a farm worker’s son, that was selling his just-days-old puppies outside a field somewhere along the San Joaquín Valley? That story about the power of knowledge and about a young child who knew how to negotiate and leverage the value of his product to get a better price for it? Remember?

I’m sure you do. You know, the story about that rancher, the one who stopped at the intersection just before his land where the young farm worker’s son had posted a sign announcing puppies for sale at one dollar each. You remember it, right?

I’ve never forgotten the story, César. It had a great message for me and I will never forget it. But, just in case you – and others – have forgotten it, here’s the ending, trying to quote the actual words you used, but warning you beforehand that there could be some inconsistencies in my choice of words. With the passing of time, my ability to remember your exact words is somewhat difficult.

“Two weeks after having seen the puppies for the first time,” you would tell us, “the rancher again stopped at the intersection and noticing that the boy still had three of the dogs for sale, he parked his truck, got out, and walked towards the area where the puppies were running around and playing with each other in a large cardboard box.”

Next to them, you would explain, there was a new sign announcing: “Choose your puppy. Only three left. $5 each.”

As the rancher noticed the new asking price, you would continue, he complained, questioning the new cost.

“Two weeks ago the puppies were only a dollar,” the rancher told the child. “Today you’re selling them for five. How can you justify such drastic rise in price?”

“It’s because the puppies already opened their eyes, sir,” the boy replied.

We’ve opened our eyes, too, César. Thanks to our children and to the things they did when they decided to en masse leave their classrooms to protest the things those congressmen and others are saying about us. They are calling us criminals, César. Just because we come here to work.

But, we’re not criminals. And just like our children did, we are going to follow your repeated advice. We’re going to march again and we’re going to walk through the streets of this nation to remind others that we have rights, too. Again, following your advice, we’re going to stick together and walk peacefully.

We’re also going to ask our children to go back to school. To get an education, so they may have the tools to succeed. And so their children and the children of their children may have a voice in government.

The fight is ours now, César. It belongs to the adults. But, we’re not going to let our kids down. We are going to fight for our rights and we’re going to demand respect from those in government. We won’t let them to call us criminals again. We will do it peacefully, just like you taught us, César.

Of course, we’re never going to forget that the student walkouts and the subsequent marches through our cities were the events that provided the needed sparks to light up the new phase of our struggle. The unfinished fight we had forgotten.

Our kids did it, César. Sí se pudo.

 

April 2006

 

Categories
Commentary Opinion

Friendship Park, but Only for Some

IMAGE: Old border fence at Border Field State Park, between San Diego and Tijuana, next to the Pacific Ocean. iStock photo.

 

NOTE: I wrote this (unpublished) column in 2009, just before Friendship Park was closed so a new border wall could be built. The park was reopened, but the sadness remains in this southwestern corner of the United States. A world divided by the whims of humans. The Mexican next door to the south, America to the north.

 

 

Mexico is on the other side. Through a chain link fence I can see its people, its buildings, its beach. I can smell the food waiting to be sold from hot grills, attended by men and women trying to fill the beachgoers’ needs for something to eat. A snack, a meal. Something to be shared with the rest of the group, with the family.

I can also hear the sounds of blissful music, played on loud speakers that contribute to the festive occasion. It is mostly Mexican, banda, rancheras, but spiked with vallenato and other tropical sounds. Uplifting notes and beats that sift through the fence, migrating north without a visa.

Not far from me, but on the Mexico side, the Playas de Tijuana bullring rises above a nearby lighthouse and a line that slices the land into separate political entities. America to the north, Mexico to the south.

A few steps from the bullring, towards the west, the land drops and turns into a strip of sand, repeatedly bathed by the Pacific Ocean waters. Today the waves are tame and soon turn into innocent foam as they timidly try to climb the steep earth at the bottom of Playas.

On my side of the fence, the place is called Border Field State Park – or Friendship Park as some of us call it. It has a border monument, number 258, which defines the boundary between Mexico and the United States. Surveyors from both countries, after the Mexican American War, were involved in drawing the original divider, a manmade line that tells us where one country begins and another one ends.

“How are you?” I asked the border patrolman inside his vehicle, perched on a cliff facing the ocean and the poles on the water that define the border.

“I’m fine,” he said. His last name was Aguilar. It was embroidered on his nametag. He was born in Tijuana, I later found out, after chatting with him for a while.

“Do many people get across here,” I asked again.

“Not really, they’re not supposed to, but once in a while they do,” he replied. He also told me that on that day eight people were caught a few miles north, in Imperial Beach, who had crossed the border at the spot he was in charge of watching.

“I don’t know how they did it,” he continued, “but, it makes me look bad.”

While I talked to him, a woman with three children getting ready to go down the cliff and to the beach, asked him in Spanish if it was okay to walk down.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“Isn’t the beach water contaminated?” I asked him.

“It sure is,” he replied. “Especially when it rains and the Tijuana River drags bad waters into the ocean.”

As I was about to walk down the cliff too, the patrolman turned his head towards a poignant place on the fence. People on both sides were talking to each other across the wire divider. One man, a tall white man, was holding a baby in front of him as he quietly chatted with a woman on the Mexican side. She poked her fingers through the wire to caress the baby’s face. She was the baby’s mother, I found out later. It was an emotionally moving sight. Instead of walking down the cliff, I decided to walk towards the place where the people were gathered.

What seemed like a religious group was sitting on a circle next to the fence, singing quiet songs, led by a woman with a book in her hands. They were praying, I noticed. They wanted to stop the U.S. government from building a triple security wall that was to replace the current one. Part of the plan was to temporarily close the park.

As I surveyed the area, I noticed a man with a popsicle cart on the other side, not that far from me. I hadn’t had a Mexican style “paleta” in a long time, so I decided to find out if I could buy one from him.

“Sí,” the man said. I could buy it. Coconut was my favorite flavor. I was lucky; it was available.

“¿Cuántas quiere?” he asked (how many).

“Just one,” I said.

I wondered how he would hand me the popsicle across the small holes in the chain link fence, but before I could finish my thought he had already walked a couple of meters to his right where some links were missing and proceeded to push the popsicle across this supposedly impenetrable international wire divider.

“¿Cuánto te debo?” I asked him. I needed to pay him.

“Diez pesos,” he said. Roughly eighty cents at the going exchange rate.

“You sell a lot of paletas at this spot?” I asked the man. Only on weekends was his response. I also asked him if he had ever been in the United States and his reply was that he used to come across everyday to work as a gardener, using his local passport, but that in 2002, he wasn’t able to renew the passport after it had expired.

“The rules changed,” he said. “The U.S. customs people wanted to know where I worked in Tijuana and how much money I had in the bank,” he explained. “I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t work in Tijuana and I had no money in the bank.”

“You think you might come back some day?” I asked.

“Está canijo,” he said. It would be tough.

As I walked away from the area, I noticed a few families gathered around some of the stone picnic tables at the park. A man lighted up one of the public grills and pulled several steaks from an ice chest and threw them on a plate next to him. As he continued his chores, two small children ran to and from the area where he stood and the place where the land made a sudden drop onto the beach below.

I wondered why anyone would hold a picnic at this place, at such a barren patch of land next to a contaminated beach. And next to a heartbreaking scene of human suffering. Maybe it was the ocean view that attracted folks to the park. It probably was. There’s something about the sea and those illusory images that get lost far away in the horizon. There’s also the eternal cool breeze from the Pacific and its chilly waters, the ocean battered and cooled all year long by the Humboldt Current.

But if you were to ask me, it wasn’t my kind of park. To begin with, there were way too many border patrolmen lurking around. It felt like a war zone. Or a prison or a POW camp.

As my eyes surveyed the coastal rim that repeatedly caressed with its sea waters the dry reddish dirt at the beach, I saw patrolmen there. They were camping on the sand, along their parked vans. As my eyes turned east and to the south, more vans were perched on the red dirt hills next to the road that led to Playas on the Mexican side. Not far from that vantage point, and to the north, I noticed more than a dozen other vans, somewhat camouflaged, but not well hidden behind the chaparral, guarding the eastern perimeter of the park.

Less than one hundred and seventy years ago, people roamed freely at this place we now call Friendship Park. There was no border, no border patrol, no fence.

If we were to go back no more than four hundred years, this park was just plain old land next to the ocean. That belonged to everyone.

AUTHOR: Pedro Chávez

 

Categories
Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Six

PHOTO: Fig tree like the ones in Figarden, California, in 1962. Getty Images.

 
Working as a helper on a fig-picking tractor did a lot for me. More than anything, I felt good about getting a check each week. Every Saturday I would ask my father to take me to the small store in Figarden so I could cash it. I usually bought a soda and an apple turnover, sometimes other things. One had to buy something to get the check cashed. By the way, I really got to like those turnovers. They were tasty. I had seen them at the store the first time we went there to get food essentials on credit. I really wanted one then, but I knew I couldn’t have it. It’s weird. Sometimes you want something you can’t have.

The helper work gave me confidence. It was like a test, sort of like jumping off airplanes, like Billy did when he was in the Army. Not everyone could do it. I think my parents were proud of me, too. One evening, I overheard my mother telling someone else at the camp about my job and about how tough I was and that I hadn’t quit. It made me feel good. Besides, I really liked my job.

One day, though, I thought I was going to have to go back to picking figs by hand. It had been less than two weeks since I had started working on the tractor when Billy told me that we were going on strike. It surprised me. It had to do with demanding a raise for us two helpers, from one dollar to a dollar and a quarter an hour. The tractor operators were paid more than that and were fine with their pay, but both decided it was time to pay the helpers more money. My counterpart wanted it; he had been making only a dollar an hour for several years.

When the foreman, who was also the son of the grower, came by the orchard to check on us, he found us sitting down by the tractors. The operators told him about the work stoppage and the reason for it. They stated their demand for higher pay for us, the helpers. My English skills were very limited then; I just understood a few words. One word said by the foreman stuck in my head, though. He called us “bastards.” Once the son of the grower left, I asked Billy to translate the word for me. “You don’t want to know,” he said. I later learned what it meant.

We went back to work soon after the tractor drivers talked to the foreman. He agreed to talk to his dad and to be back later that day with a response regarding the raise. I felt good going back to work right away and liked the possibility of getting a raise. Close to quitting time, the foreman returned and told us that his father had agreed to raise the pay from a dollar to a dollar and five cents an hour. He added that if we didn’t like it, we could leave. We stayed. Just before leaving the orchard, the foreman called us bastards again.

That was a memorable summer. Besides learning about strikes, I also learned how to drive Billy’s car in the orchards’ dirt roads. Billy showed how to shift gears and how to apply the clutch. His car had a standard transmission. That’s what most cars had then; there were very few automatics. It was fun driving the car. One day, though, I hit a short pole that I hadn’t seen as I was backing up. I felt really bad. The pole made a big dent on the rear, left fender. Billy just laughed when he saw it and told me not to worry.

I also made some progress learning English, not from Billy and the other two workers, but from a big guy that used to come by to pick up the boxes we filled up with figs and other junk. He was young, around twenty years old. I exchanged a few words with him and found out that he was going to Fresno State College and that in the summer he worked for the grower. He didn’t know Spanish, but when he spoke to me in English he pronounced the words very slowly to help me understand them. I was surprised; I was able to comprehend most of those words. Maybe it was the way he said them or the way he tried to explain things with his hands. It’s amazing how we can communicate with others with the aid of body and facial expressions.

I don’t recall his name, but clearly remember the way he picked up a one-gallon jug of water with his forefinger and drank from it. He was big. He worked hard and fast too. He would pick up those heavy boxes like they were nothing. Sometimes he would pick up two at the time and hand them to the driver, who was on top of the truck stacking them.

It was truly a memorable summer.

Categories
Commentary Opinion

The Mexican Next Door

PHOTO: Farm workers picking peppers near Gilroy, California. Getty Images.

 

I am the Mexican next door. Next to your country, next to your home. To your office, your cubicle, your seat at school. Next to your parking space, your locker, your desk. The one that often speaks in Spanish and laughs loudly when needing to laugh and turns serious when it’s time to be serious.

I am the Mexican next door. Willing to work long hours in the fields, picking the fruit and vegetables that grow abundantly in the Southwest and other parts of this land: The United States of America, a beacon of freedom and a place blessed by the genius and purpose of its founders.

I am the Mexican next door. Working smartly to steal a living wage from a job that pays little, planting, growing and harvesting the crops we all need. Although you often tell me and others that you don’t want me here, I am, in a way, the one that makes the picking of crops happen and allows you to enjoy these treasures pulled from the bosom of our Earth for pennies on the dollar.

I do other work too, mostly menial, the tasks most Americans aren’t willing to do because they’re hard and shamelessly provide at best sordid wages. But, I’m not complaining, really. I am grateful for the work because I need it to support the family I left behind in Mexico. Things weren’t good there. Plain and simple.

I am the Mexican next door, at your favorite restaurant, busing tables, serving you, washing dishes, throwing out the garbage. Cooking. In many cities across this vast land. Washing your cars, cleaning your homes, mowing your lawns, maintaining your gardens. Helping you. Looking after your children. Feeding them, listening to them. Playing with them.

Like many men and women that have come to America before me, I hope that one day you will understand that I do not come to this land for a handout, but for an opportunity. I also hope that I am not treated as a lesser human being because I am not one. I come here to help you and to help myself and my family. I am an immigrant. Rising amongst the tempest tossed masses yearning to breathe free. I am the Mexican next door. Your neighbor, a human being like you. Your friend.

I hope that one day too you will understand that just like most other newcomers that have come here and have helped build this nation, I come here to do the same. I come to work, to thrive, and hopefully to continue to help shape the lofty future of America. And please understand that I will always be next to you: to your country, to your home, your workplace, and your future. I will always be there.

I am the Mexican next door.

 

Categories
Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Four

PHOTO: Fig tree with fruit. Getty Images.

 

It felt good having a place to stay and knowing that soon we were going to also have food to eat. We selected the house that was next to the entrance of the camp. They were all the same, though. It had an elevated large bedroom with a wooden floor and a small room with a dirt floor and open windows that served as a kitchen. It had a wood stove. There was a set of restrooms (for men and women) and showers in a small building in the center of the camp. They had running water. That was good, too. In Mexicali we had an outhouse and only cold water for the shower.

I don’t remember picking up figs and eating them that day, but we probably did. We were really hungry. Besides, there were lots of them all over the ground. Once settled in our new home, our dad and a couple of us went to the store. It was next to the railroad track, on Bullard Avenue, the same road that ran next to the camp. I remember it well. It was a narrow and straight road with miles and miles of fig trees planted on both sides.

The owner of the small store already knew about us. He told us what kind of stuff we could buy. We picked up a sack of flour, a large bag of pinto beans, potatoes, lard, eggs, butter, some meat, milk, and a few other things. The car still had fuel left, but our dad decided to top it off, just in case we needed it. Once back at the camp, our mother cooked beans, potatoes and meat and made a huge pile of tortillas. I think she used a long, empty glass bottle to roll the dough. Several of us helped.

We had an unforgettable meal that day. The food tasted great. Cooking on a wood stove in an open kitchen, among fig trees, gives food a peculiar flavor. Our mother prepared the beans the same way she had done it before in Mexico, but those beans had a particular scent to them. They were really good. The tortillas were good, too. I ate a lot of them. We all felt tired and full after the feast.

The week went by fast. We had a chance to explore the orchard and other areas close by. We ate a lot of figs and met others that arrived at the camp after we did. They were all Mexican. One family was from Brawley, in Imperial Valley; another one was from Coachella, but was made up of only the father and his four sons. The rest of that family stayed back home they said. Both groups had been coming to Figarden to pick figs for several seasons. At night they would get together and talk and play songs on their radios. I learned a lot about America from them.

On the first day of picking figs, the wife of the contractor joined us, working right along with us. She gave us tips on how to do the work efficiently. She was very nice and spoke some Spanish. She was about thirty, had blond hair and blue eyes. I was surprised to see someone like her involved in such hard work. Although we used ladders to reach the fruit in the trees, we spent part of the day bent down picking up the figs that had fallen on the ground.

I really liked the contractor’s wife; there was a welcoming quality to her. I asked her where she was from; I was curious. She said she was an “Arkie.” I didn’t know what that meant.

“From Arkansas,” she explained in Spanish.

Once we learned the ropes, she left us and wished us good luck. She was very nice. I will never forget her. I wish I could remember her name.

Categories
Commentary Stories

English Language Lessons at the Workplace

IMAGE: United Sheet Metal Company building near Charter Way in Stockton, California. Circa 1960s.

 

Once I got the basics at school, the best place for me to learn English was at the workplace. I had plenty language immersion there. I did it while picking almonds in Lodi, in northern California, and later at H.H. Robertson Company, in the Port of Stockton, in late summer of 1963. But I learned the most at United Sheet Metal Company, an industrial shop on Biegle Street, not far from Charter way in the south side of town.

It was total immersion, there’s no doubt. I was the only Mexican at the place. I really learned the language there. Didn’t have a choice, had to learn it to be able to talk to the other guys. They were playful, though, I remember well. They taught me a lot of words, like partridge, French hens, pear tree, and turtle dove. Didn’t know those were words in a song until much later. Funny guys. They were playful, all right.

I learned swear words too, mainly from a guy named Joe Sismanovich. He really liked to swear. He was born in Yugoslavia, but had been in California for a while. He lived in Stockton, not far from the sheet metal plant. Joe ran the machine that turned sheets of rolled metal into spiral pipes. Once he cut them into six-foot or longer pieces, I would load them onto a metal cart and take them to the yard. Before doing that, I had to place an empty cart next to the machine, take the load to the yard and hurry back. If I took too long, he would yell at me and swear.

I think he was still learning to run the machine and that’s why he had so many problems with it. I don’t think he was very patient either. He let thing get the best of him. When Joe wasn’t bothered by problems, he was a lot of fun. He taught me a few Slovenian words, but I no longer remember any of them. I think he also swore at me in that language, but if he did, it didn’t matter. Words don’t mean a thing if you don’t understand them.

Joe was a good guy; he was just temperamental. Maybe a lot of Yugoslavians are that way, you know, passionate, just like us Mexicans. When Joe wasn’t angry, he was a really nice. He laughed a lot. I remember his laugh well. He would open his mouth wide and his eyes would glitter and almost disappear. I would laugh too. I liked looking at him and seeing his huge grin and his baldhead.

It was good working there at the sheet metal plant. It was union work too and I made good money there, $3.25 an hour as a production worker. Journeymen made over five dollars an hour. That was a lot of money then. Every week, when I cashed my check at the Save-Mart grocery store on East Main in Stockton, near Okieville, someone there would always question whether the check was mine. They couldn’t believe that I made that much money.

The same thing happened when I filed my income taxes in early 1965. A lady at a Mexican pharmacy and tax service in Stockton’s skid row filed the return for me. She kept asking me: “Are you sure you made this much?” She thought the W-2 belonged to someone else. I had earned over six thousand dollars in 1964.

I was lucky; I made good money and learned English at the same time at United Sheet Metal. I also picked up a lot of words and phrases from the guys at the plant. Some good ones, some bad ones. One of the apprentices, Al Gard, was often yelling “Yabba dabba doo,” as he worked. That wasn’t a new phrase for me, since I had heard it many times before when I watched “The Flintstones” on TV. But it stuck with me forever and ever thanks to Al’s constant repetition of it.

I stayed with the company until I joined the Air Force in August of 1965. I had to volunteer in the armed forces. It was either the Air Force or get drafted by the Army to go fight in Vietnam.

I ran into Al Gard after I left the military, sometime in 1980. He owned an upscale hair salon in Stockton then. The first thing I said to him when I saw him was: “Yabba dabba doo.”

He laughed. I just had to say it. It was good seeing each other again.

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Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Three

PHOTO: Figs on a tree branch, similar to the ones we picked in Figarden, California. Getty Images.

 

It took about an hour to get to Delano after leaving Bakersfield. We were all hungry, but for some reason food no longer mattered much, especially for those of us that were older. We wanted to find work. The local farm employment office gave us the name and address of a Mexican labor contractor that needed grape pickers. It was the address of a house, we found out. He wasn’t there when we got to the place, but his wife was. She wasn’t very nice. She told our dad in Spanish that she didn’t know how to get hold of him and that our best bet would be to return later that day to try to find him.

We waited near a gas station, not far from the contractor’s place. We were there for a long time. We kept looking towards the house, hoping to see someone arrive, but no one did. Late in the day, our dad and I returned to the contractor’s place and were again met by his wife. She was still in a bad mood, I could tell. She also looked mean. She told us to return the following day, but our dad insisted on seeing him as soon as possible. He told her that we needed work. That didn’t seem to matter to her, but to get rid of us, gave us the address of the field where her husband had a crew picking grapes and told us to look for him there the following morning.

Our dad drove to the field. It was easy to find. He had looked up the address on a large map pasted on the inside wall of the gas station. We were all hungry. With the money we had, our parents bought a couple of cans of beans and bread at a grocery store next to the gas station. After parking by the grape field, our mom opened the cans of beans and spread the contents on slices of bread. Once we ate we went to sleep.

The contractor arrived early in the morning, before sunup. We were ready to go to work. I was with my father when he went to talk to the contractor. He told us that we needed to have scissors to be able to work. They were table grapes, he said, and required to be cut with scissors. He wasn’t nice either, just like his wife. Our dad tried to ask him if we could borrow them, but the man didn’t let him talk.

“No scissors, no work,” he said and turned around and left.

Our dad looked sad and dismayed. By the time we returned to the car, he looked pale. He got in the station wagon and told everyone about the scissors and that we would go north to Fresno to look for work. No one said anything. We had no food, no money, no work, and the car was running out of gas.

Before getting on highway ninety-nine towards Fresno, our dad stopped at a ranch. He knew ranches well; he had worked in many of them in Mexicali, in Imperial Valley and other parts of California. He pulled a couple of pipe wrenches that were lodged next to the spare tire, took them with him, and knocked on the front door of the house at the ranch. Soon thereafter a man came out. We couldn’t hear what our dad was saying, but after a while he handed the tools to the man at the door. He got back into the car and drove to a fuel pump next to a shed. The man walked there and filled the tank of our car with gas.

He then waved goodbye and said adiós (in Spanish) and smiled at us. He was tall and light skinned. It was quiet inside the car; no one said much. I felt good, though. It was a feeling of victory, exchanging the tools for fuel. I remember it clearly, as if it had just happened recently. I felt also a sense of relief. There was no doubt that we would soon find work. I think others in the car felt the same way.

We arrived at the Fresno farm employment office about two hours later. It was still early, way before noon. There were several postings on a board on one of the walls. People were needed for different types of work, but were for picking crops two or three weeks in the future. There was no current work listed. Once at one of the windows at the counter of the employment office, the clerk told us about a contractor that was looking for families to pick figs close to Herndon, but that the work wouldn’t start until a week later. He gave us a slip with the address of the camp and the name of the contractor. It was on Bullard Avenue, not far from Highway 99.

The contractor was waiting for us at the camp. He seemed happy to see us. There were a few sheds converted into houses there, six of them at the most, maybe eight. They had metal roofs, but were protected from the heat by the orchard. There were a lot of fig trees. No one was living there yet, but it didn’t look desolate; I don’t know why. We got out of the car and welcomed the shade and the breeze. There were figs on the ground that had fell from the trees. They looked good. We wondered whether we could pick them up and eat them. We were very hungry.

The contractor was slender and tall and had blue eyes. He was very nice to us all and talked to us in broken Spanish. Our father could speak English well and eventually they both conversed in that language. He told our dad that we could stay at the camp, but that work wouldn’t start until a week later.

Once our father told him that we were willing to wait, but that we had no money and hadn’t eaten much the last two days, the contractor told our dad that we could go to a small store in the center of Figarden and get some essential groceries and gas for the car to carry us over until we started working. He also mentioned that he would go by the store and set up credit for us.

We couldn’t believe it. A perfect stranger trusted us and made us feel welcome.

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Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Two

IMAGE: Oil pumps, similar to the ones we encountered in Oildale. Getty Images.

Once we had our permanent resident visas, our mother wanted to leave right away for the United States. Our father wanted to wait. It was in August, a time when he had plenty work. He thought it would be best to save some money before embarking on the trip north. Our mother felt differently and said that not much would be saved if we waited. She also felt that we would miss precious opportunities to pick fruit in northern California.

We ended up leaving right away. One morning, the eleven of us piled in the 1952 Ford station wagon with a few belongings and took off for the U.S. immigration office in Calexico. We only had twenty dollars with us, but we weren’t bothered by it. The plan was to find work quickly and make plenty money right away. Lots of work would be waiting for us, we thought.

Processing the paperwork took a couple of hours. It was getting late. I don’t know if it was preplanned, but we spent the night at the house of our father’s cousin and his family. They lived in Westmorland, a little over thirty miles north of the border. The following morning we took off for L.A. and beyond.

Most cars were pretty big then. Our station wagon was, anyway, but it wasn’t big enough for the nine of us kids, two adults, plus our personal belongings. We had to tie down our wares on top of the vehicle. Most of them were stored in boxes. Someplace close to Indio, part of the cargo got loose and soon flew out and landed all over the highway.

Our father stopped the car and got out to pick up the stuff. I got out too and helped. It was dangerous. There were blankets, sheets, clothing, and can’t remember what else, spread out on the asphalt and one side of the road. We picked up most of it. It was embarrassing. Once the cargo was again secured, we continued our journey.

Nothing much of significance took place on the trip after the cargo mishap near Indio, except, I must admit, I was a little scared riding in the car once we got on the freeway prior to Riverside. There were several lanes moving in the same direction and they were all moving fast. It was scary. The only nice thing worth enjoying on that crowded and surrealistic road was looking at the oranges hanging on the trees that lined the freeway. It was one orchard after another.

A few miles north of Los Angeles, we stopped at Canoga Park to look for work picking green onions. We knew of the place because a neighbor in Mexicali had worked there as a bracero (temporary worker) and had mentioned that he always made good money there. It was backbreaking work, though, he had warned us.

The owner of the farm was of Japanese descent. He gave us work and told us what to do and how much he would pay. I can’t remember if he paid by the bucket, by crate, or by weight, but the bottom line is that we didn’t earn much. We made a little over ten dollars for about two hours of work of all of us combined. It was hard. One had to bend down over and over again to pull the stems and the onions from the soil. It really got tough after a while. No one worked more than an hour except me. I was the oldest boy and I had my pride and didn’t want to quit. After a while, our dad went to the farmer and told him that we were done. He paid us and a few minutes later we were on our way to California’s central valley.

Our green onions picking experience taught us a couple of things. For one, we learned that farm work wasn’t easy. We also learned to appreciate any kind of work. Two days later, we were wishing we had it. Right after our failed try at picking onions and prior to going over the Grapevine and Tejon Pass, we stopped at a small grocery store and gas station in Castaic. We bought gas for the car and bread and cold cuts for us. The twenty dollars we had brought from Mexico were now gone and so was part of the ten dollars and cents we had earned in Canoga Park.

We had plenty opportunities to eat on the road. Every so many miles our dad had to stop to let the car cool off. It kept overheating. To make matters worse, one of the younger girls kept getting car sick and throwing up. It’s tough going over those mountains.

It was late by the time we got to Bakersfield, the next place where our dad wanted to look for work. We spent the night in the car, in Oildale, next to highway ninety-nine and several one-arm, hammer like oil pumps. It was difficult to go to sleep with all that noise and the creepy silhouettes made at night by those pumps in eternal motion. Early in the morning we drove to the farm employment office in Bakersfield. There was no picking work available, we were told, but were advised to try the next big town to the north: Delano.