A Love Story

All this wedding activity stirred me up for a love story. I went back and pulled up a story I pieced together a few years ago from the fragment pieces of information that my apa and ama had shared through the years. One day as I was feeling muy romantica I asked my father “How did you meet my Ama?” He dropped this into my brain and heart:

En la Fiesta del Señor, le ofrecí una flor ye ella la acepto, y alli empezo” I melted with anxious desire to know more. When you offered that flower, who was she with? What’s La Fiesta Del Señor? What was she wearing? Y muchas mas preguntas, details that a girl needs to have. This story is grounded in facts but does have plenty of embellishments to tie it all in.  I can only imagine the hardship they experienced trying to make ends meet and the pain my ama suffered when dad came to America leaving her and the baby. I filled in the gaps to write their story.

Promesas

Maria ran inside breathless and Angel came zooming in behind her, bending down she lifted him up, Ugh! He was getting so big, nuzzling him, while she looked over at her husband’s picture on the small table she whispered “He’s coming home baby, Apa viene a casa.” She missed him so much, but Angel wasn’t affected by her news, he didn’t know the man in the picture. It was another reality that pointed to their “separate lives” marriage. She studied his handsome face and lean body, standing tall in his Levi Strauss  jeans and cowboy hat, looking tan Americano. It seemed like an eternity since he had left, worrying that he wouldn’t come back. She had spent too many days angry with her husband for leaving, but today, despite her fears, and his obvious change, she embraced the yearning she felt for him and allowed herself to remember how wonderful his full lips felt on her. She hugged her toddler tight, and whispered “you’re going to love your Apa” trying to stop the memory of the day he had left. 

***

“No llores”. He hated her tears.

 “Chuy, We talked about this. I need to feed my family and I need money to do that. I must go. En el otro lado, I’ll make lots of money and then come home quickly, before you know it!” 

 “Por favor no te vayas. Think of your hijo” Maria clung to him, hoping that duty to his son would keep him home with her.

“I’m not leaving you like that! Comprendeme, I need to go? My mother will help you with the baby” He pulled her close.

“You don’t have to leave Manuel, I will work”

 He stiffened at her words and pulled her away from him.

 “You work too hard, too long, too much. Look at you, you’re pale, you’re too thin, and the dark circles under your eyes accuse me. What kind of a man am I to allow this?

“Oh, I see.” She hugged herself trying to hide her unattractiveness from him.

“I should have left a long time ago, then I would already be back with plenty of dólares to sustain us. I’ll send money, I promise you will not have to work so hard.” 

“No Manuel, don’t leave. I promise to take better care of myself. You’ll have better eyes for me, please don’t leave. I don’t care if everyone else is living like this. I hate seeing families separate! Wives are forgotten while husbands go off to chase dolares  and who knows what else!”

“I’ll return quickly, te lo prometo” He reached for her but she turned and ran to the bathroom. His promise of a quick return pierced her while she vomited her breakfast and crumbled to the floor, holding her abdomen. Their family was growing and he was leaving. Receiving a letter meant his prolonged stay, yet not receiving a letter provoked such worry in her. What if he got ill? What if he decided not to come home?

***

Querida Chuy,

I hope you and Angel are well. I am now situated in a small room in Mexicali, Baja California, tomorrow I will look for more work on the other side, the gringos are always looking for strong help so it has been easy to get work and make money. There is plenty of work, I’ll be able to make a lot of money. Hace mucho calor! The heat is almost unbearable, pero me aguanto!  knowing that you and Angel need me I will endure this inferno. The money I’ve sent should cover all the household expenses for a while.  Como esta mi hijo? Tell him that I love him, saludos a tu familia. 

Que Dios te bendiga, te lo desea

Manuel

***

At first she had been too angry to tell him about the pregnancy. After the morning sickness had passed, she was well and so was their son. Life didn’t change much for Angel, he had quickly adopted her oldest brother; Chino as his dad and life was peachy for him. Gracias a Dios that she had him to fill her days. The baby safely grew in her womb and she yearned for her husband. She reminded herself often “He said he would come back” Maybe, telling him about the second baby would prompt him to return quickly and be with her when her time came. She wrote him a letter hoping it would arrive quickly, there wasn’t much time. 

 Her  heart was broken when she went into labor, she received a letter and more money to sustain them comfortably, but no mention of the baby. Alone she welcomed their second son and called him Arturo.

***

Eventually a letter did reach him in the Sierra Nevada mountains. His patron needed a sheep herder and he needed to keep working. A numbingly cold and lonely job, just him, the horse, Kazam the dog and the sheep in the cold outdoors. The patron had brought supplies and mail, he was ready for news from home. A letter from his wife and mother, good news he hoped. Que?! “Manuel estoy embarazada” Maria wrote that she was pregnant, But his mother had said in her letter “El niño y Chuy are just fine but come as soon as you’re able” Un hijo?! 

***

 “Apa, Apa” Angel clapped his chubby hands “Tío, mi apa!” Angels enthusiasm brought her back, “No, baby, your uncle is not your daddy. Your daddy is coming back from El Norte very soon, maybe today you’ll meet him again” she pressed on her breast as they filled with milk, “He’s coming back! And you and your baby brother will have apa home!” Angel laughed as she twirled him around, “Our family will be together again, everyone will see that we were not abandoned. She stopped abruptly in front of her broken mirror “Wow! I’ve changed so much too”  

She put her son down and touched her head, so much of her hair had fallen out during her pregnancy. Her body was still flabby from her labor and delivery. her skin pale from lack of sleep, she wondered what Manuel would think of her now. She pulled on her face, peering into the mirror piece “ aayy! que fea estoy. Ugly!” She accused the image just as Arturo wailed for his lunch, her hands flew to her breast, she winced at how hard they got if she waited too long to nurse the baby. She hesitated, looking again into her broken mirror, if Manuel walked in right now, he would notice her full rounded breast, maybe that wasn’t so bad. Beauty would have to wait again, her boys were hungry. The baby wailed demanding to be nursed and Angel pulled on her skirt, asking for a taco, he too was hungry. Manuel was coming soon and she had to do something about herself, she said to the mirror piece ”I’ll be back and maybe you’ll help me see the areas I can work on.” She ran to get a tortilla for Angel and then picked up her screaming baby. While the baby gurgled at her breast she sighed ready to end this separation and the anxiety it produced. 

She remembered her mother in-laws inability to understand her. It didn’t matter that young wives and their babies were being abandoned at epidemic proportions, while young husbands imagined streets paved with dolares. Did Manuels mother think her anxieties were unfounded? Dona Rosario was confident that her son would be loyal to his family and return as soon as he was able.  It was Marias job to care for the boys and make a nice home for them with his money. She hated when Maria wasted money, and the mirror had been a waste. 

 “Why do you need a mirror Maria? You need to be wise with the money my son sends you.” “Pero, Doña Rosario, how am I supposed to keep myself beautiful for your son if I can’t see what I look like? “No buts Maria, don’t waste money, you need to worry more about Angel and the baby that will be here soon” “No señora I need it so that if Manuel returns I will have maintained myself” She was careful all the way home, then Angel raced out to meet her and when the mirror slipped to the ground it broke in two pieces, with no time to regret it, she swooped her toddler up and took him inside so she could pick up her mirrors.

She looked into the mirror as she burped her baby, “Doña Rosario was right, Manuel is coming home and you, Mirror Mirror you really didn’t help, but you certainly taunted me every time you pointed out how unraveled I’ve been. She adjusted her dress and planted a kiss on Arturo’s cheek. 

She got busy with the meager meal, glad that soon they would eat more than frijoles,  she was tired of beans. She poured the last of the lard into the hot pan and waited for it to get hot then poured the beans into it. They sizzled then splattered, spitting on to her cheek, “Owww!” she hissed and turned to her mirror piece and it seemed to laugh at her with her red blotchy cheek.  She sighed and was glad when her toddler  took the plate of beans with such gusto, as if she had served him a steaming hot bowl of pozole, the hominy chicken soup was his favorite. She smiled and hoped that there would be enough tortillas to satisfy her growing boy. She knew Manuel had not left her to chase a dream, but to take care of them. When Manuel came they had too much business to attend to, her appearance shouldn’t matter now, but again she glanced in the mirror piece “Oh no! Now I’ll have a scar! She should get rid of that accusing glass! Tears of anxiety squeezed from her eyes as much as she was determined not to cry over such vanities. Worry marked her face as Angel ran to her and asked “Mama? Coco?” And reached up for her. “Si, Angel, just a little owie” she hugged him as a tear rolled down her face, Manuel was coming home, he promised.

Manuel walked in, quietly watching his wife and son. Angel looked up and snapped “NO! Swinging at the stranger as he clung to his mother. “Amor, que te pasa?” Maria looked up wondering what was wrong as her son’s anxiety accelerated “No, no!” Maria swung around and there stood her beautiful husband, he looked like a dark American under his cowboy hat, his blue jeans and boots.  She shrunk back anxious, noticing the American in him and his presence reminded her that she was quite undone. While Angel swung to protect his mother from the stranger she slowly took in how good he looked.  Manuel reached for the screaming toddler, murmuring his name. “Angel, Mi hijo” Angel screamed in terror “Amaaa!” Maria smiled, “Ya mi amor, ya. There There She said between tears, “Es tu papa” Manuel quickly closed the gap and embraced them both. There in his arms Maria let the tears of relief roll down her cheeks, slumping her shoulders, she allowed Manuel to take care of his family. 

It’s Almost Cinco De Mayo

A Cause to Celebrate 

In general los Mexicanos, y los Mexican Americans  are always down for  a good fiesta. We can lay out a beautiful scene and cook a delicious spread! Verdad? Con mi familia, we usually celebrated the main events like weddings, quinces, baptismals and Navidad and yes Accion de Gracias, can’t leave out Thanksgiving! After that, other federal or famous days went unnoticed with my familia, my apa  worked Monday- Saturday and sometimes on Sunday, all that to say that Cinco de Mayo did not stir up a fiesta around our house. Que si es un poco extraño, strange, because my apa loved to talk about the Mexican history, especially the Revolucion. You know, the Cinco de Mayo story is a great one and I think it should be a national holiday in Mexico, pero no lo es!

A Gringo Celebration?

Do you know why it’s such a happy occasion for us, the Americanos? Pues, I do now. Con mucha pena, as embarrassing as it is, I confess that I just barely uncovered a few of the details. Pero, con mucho gusto I pass along my few history findings on Cinco de Mayo in this short and sweet history lesson.

The Battle of Puebla that affected us

The Battle of Puebla is observed primarily in one city of Mexico called…. Puebla, where the pleito took place. Here in the United States, communities with large Mexican American populations celebrate with an almost Grito zest. However, it is not about Mexico’s independence, but rather, Mexico’s perseverance. The United States was indirectly affected because of Mexico’s small triumph. 

Mexico’s Struggle 

After it’s long and difficult fight for independence, Mexico struggled so much that it became financially bankrupt. Mexico’s presidente, Benito Juarez found a solution by stopping payments going out to their foriegn debtors, que facil verdad?  Nope! It wasn’t that easy, the Europeans wanted their dinero.  Three powers met to see how they would deal with those Mexicanos! Spain, the U K and France devised a plan to invade Mexico. They sent an intimidating military presence to bully the Mexicans into paying their debts. France led the campaign since it had greater aspirations through this attack. Napoleon III was looking to establish a stronghold in North America through Mexico! Esperate! it gets more intense. As soon as the other countries saw his grand scheme, se arrepintieron

 Napoleon Connects with the Southern States

Although Napoleon was now on his own, he was confident that he could easily take care of Mexico and accomplish a French stronghold. But listen, this was only part of the bronca, he had visions to dominate in North America!

 Napoleon had a close connection with our Southern States. He was aiding the Confederacy during the Civil War! Yes,  asi fue, Napoleon supplied them with weapons in exchange for cotton which France’s economy heavily relied on. Imaginate! Napoleon was busy trying to conquer the world while Abraham Lincoln was trying to bring about Emancipation and reuniting the divided nation. 

The Battle in Puebla aids the Civil War Cause

 Yendo al grano. The bottom line is that the battle in Puebla was a classic underdog victory story. My apa loved these kinds of stories! The French were a superior military force, while the Mexicans with their humble state of enlisted and volunteer army had more will and perseverance than might. The French went in confident and well armed,  the battle raged  from sunup to sundown, but neither General Zaragoza nor his men would back down. When the French General realized that more of his men were going down in the battle, he had no choice but to retreat, Victory!  As I write this historic event I can picture my apa telling me  accounts of the Revolucion de Mexico, his eyes always glistened proud when talked about Mexico’s battle for independence. He was an underdog advocate, he strongly believed that one must confront that bully no matter what!  He backed conviction up referring to his own victory against the Bully in his life. 

The victory in Puebla gave Mexico a surge of confidence as it forged on. Napoleon was stopped in his tracks for a moment. He was prevented from helping the Confederacy with relief supplies and weapons while the Union army was able to regroup and gain strength. Meanwhile, en El Norte, established Mexican Americans citizens that lived in free states were relieved for the reprieve because it would indirectly aid in the Civil war cause. The Union could march forward with its vision for Emancipation.

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on Pexels.com

Sin duda! A good old fashion David vs Goliath victory. It was a cause for celebration. Those early fiestas included honorable mention of  General Ignacio Zaragosa who stood his ground and faced that bully! 

The story may have been forgotten but the fiesta goes on

Through the years the battle in Puebla or it’s historic significance has gotten buried, but in Mexican American communities, Cinco de Mayo is a continual celebration of Mexican culture. Traditions such as Mariachis, Ballet Folklorico and delicious Mexican food are celebrated around our states.

Que Sigue La Pachanga

 However you layout your menu for the day’s festivities make sure to include plenty of salsa and guacamole for all the unavoidable tortilla chips. After that, feasts range from tacos, chalupas, enchiladas and somewhere you’ll see some carne asada on the grill. Of course we cannot enter or leave a Cinco de Mayo feast without having a tamal, verdad? Y acuerdense  “Si se Puede”

Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

Migrant Work in the Valleys

HIstory in the Making

As I’ve written this account of my work experience, just a teenager needing to contribute to the family economy, I realize now that I was living through a time that made history. Wow! I wish now that I would have paid more attention. Migrant workers all over the State were standing up for their rights, linking arms with Caesar Chavez! Meanwhile this teenie bopper was worried about how ugly our work clothes were!

Migrant Workers

One fourth of the economy in the Imperial Valley depends on its agriculture. It is a hub for trabajadores del fil, my dad worked in the out in the fields most of his life, yet I don’t consider him a migrant worker because he planted himself in the Imperial Valley and gave his youth and strength in that land. Honestly, not until I started looking back into my life did I wonder about the category the Zepedas fit into. Were we immigrants? Permanent residents? Americans? Just last night my son Emery said “When you talk about your experiences, I’ve imagined you like that.” A migrant family.  According to the definition, a migrant worker migrates. My parents uprooted from Jalisco to Baja California, then one more and final time to the Imperial Valley in California. 

Sometimes migrant workers wait for harvest season or work from one crop to another. My apa prepared the soil where the crops would live, using the big carapillas. My grandsons will be excited to know this fact about their Tata. My apa was also a regador, irrigating the crops and in due season when the harvest was ready the piscadores were there. Thankfully some of the picks of Imperial Valleys bounty always made it on our table. Someone always gave us lechuga, melon, cebolla y sandia

Money from the Sugar Beet

Then, there were the train cars filled with sugar beets, which contribute significantly to the Valleys economy. They passed slowly along the tracks near our neighborhood, the Eastside. Many times they crawled by at such a pace that when we walked home from school we would jump onto the cable that connected the cars (I just discovered that those are called a coupling) to cross the tracks and get home. The sugar beet train was making its way to the sugar plant in Brawley, CA. Man! Those beets sure did smell when they were getting processed into sugar, but they provided work for plenty of families.

Beef

Another money making smell in the Valley is cattle. Driving along the freeway, we’ll get whiffs of the alfalfa, the earthy smells of growing produce. But, get down into the towns, pass through Brawley and the outskirts of Calipat and you’ll be hit with the pungent smell of the feedlots. The hot desert sun burning into the herd of cows and the dry air stirring the air, filling it with cow dung aromas. Ugh! We hated that smell, it burned into our nostrils, then my dad got hired in one of these feedlots. It became a smell that I learned to tolerate. Dad even got us an office cleaning job there. Every Saturday we had to go to that feedlot where the air was thick with cow manure smell. My sisters and I had to clean off layers of dust that gathered everywhere in that office. Once we would start cleaning the air mingled with the foamy window cleaner, then it was a mixture of dust, dung and cleanser, and that mixture seared our noses. I was just a helper, I didn’t get a paycheck for this work, it was my family contribution.    

Teenagers and Work

Calipatria is a small town, there wasn’t too much work for a teenager to find. The 2 grocery stores were set, jobs for teenage stockers were filled already. Circle K couldn’t hire minors and the gas station was owned by the Rivas family. A large family that needed no extra help, so the choices left were the fields at harvest time.

The GrapeVines

I started working the summer of my 14th year. Like, get a paycheck job. I had nagged my ama into letting me work with her and my older sisters. My first summer as a migrant worker in Coachella Valley picking grapes. A memorable experience that I was confident I could handle despite my mothers concerns and warnings.

Our day began just before 4am. For my ama it began at 2am. She would prepare our lunch. Listen, I’m not talking about the individual little lunchbox with a sandwich, chips and a pastelito. I’m talking about serious food that went into a huge Mexican shopping bag. She would prepare and cook the meat and while that simmered she made tortillas for burritos, more than one for each of us, there were 3 of us kids and herself. She filled two thermos, one with coffee and the other one with avena. (Wow! As I’m writing this account I’m realizing that my mother, a grandmother by this point, was out there working piscando uvas! She was tougher than my silly teenage mind realized)

The Outfit Matters

Getting dressed for the day was tricky because it was nice and cool in the wee hours of the morning, but it was summer time, 100 degrees on cool days! We had to be sure not to over dress, but also make sure our skin was covered, especially our face. We didn’t know anything about sunscreen, our protection was long sleeves, a handkerchief for our head and one for our face. 

By the time the work truck pulled up she had us somewhat awake, we were dressed and had our first dose of avena. I think every Mexican momma religiously believes that oatmeal in a porridge style gives extraordinary power to the body. Doña Elena, the owner and driver of the camper truck didn’t let us waste time. She was a tough militant looking lady whose mannerisms commanded our quick response. Andale! Andale!  We quickly hopped into the back camper. It was lined with wooden benches all around, a nice tight fit. She went up Delta street and picked up other workers. There were probably 12 of us in the back and 3 in the cab. We had to be on route 111 at least by 4:30am since it was an hour and ½ drive. The road dipped up and down, moving the avena around our pansas. Eventually we were lulled to sleep. No exagero, some of us teens would fall asleep and our bodies were like pendulums swinging back and forth, stopping only when we banged against another body. Just imagine the adults catching a teen on the left and another on the right, and sometimes pushing one up and back against the wall to keep him/her from falling forward. We rode on like this right into the grape field.

Unloading was another spectacle. Teen after teen jumping off that truck, followed by the  slower moving adults. It seemed endless. Families grouped together while the loner joined a family. Each group had its piscadores and one empacador. We were paid per box, besides our minimum wage, most likely a result of the huelgas of Caesar Chavez. You know, I have a vague recollection of having to stop work and join a peaceful protest that was taking place on the grape farmers property. What mattered to me was that we got off early in a typical teenage attitude!

Ok, back to work. Our time was limited because of the heat and our speed was critical. More cajas de uvas meant more money. My mom did not mess around, she was a little in size but fast and focused. She would walk right under those grapevines without ducking and bust out pails full of grape clusters 3 or 4 at a time, which one of us kids would have to carry out of the row and bring the packer. I’m not sure how I got to be the designated packer, but I then had to arrange the clusters of grapes nicely in the crate.  The counter came by to approve my box and add it to our count. A sweet memory is seeing my ama come out from under those vines looking like a racoon, covered in dust from the vines, looking furious if she saw us working slower than her. I’ll say it again, my ama was tough!  I don’t remember how many boxes we completed in the 3 hours before the 15 minute break. I can visualize the rows of maybe 6 stacked 4 boxes high. My sister Marina thinks it could have been more!  

 At break time, the sun had reached us, the 9 oclock break didn’t come quick enough. We didn’t actually have time to rest, just enough time to devour the tacos, drink lots of water, and run to the porta potty. By the end of our day the heat would just about consume us. Hot dirty work that is not for the faint hearted. At noon we were packing up and climbing into the truck for home. 

Now the ride home took an evil twist. The stench of our sweaty dusty bodies with no air conditioning back there to relieve us.  With so much cold water in us, the up and down movement turned our stomachs. Argh! The sweaty armpit smell that most likely came from us teens choked us and we audibly gagged.  The adults remained the same as in the morning, straight as a board, eyes wide open, watching out for us. 

Working out there in the vineyards was hard, but somehow our youthful hearts manage  to laugh and tease one another and flirt with boys. While I wasn’t paying too much attention my heart and mind recorded the necessary scenes so that I could eventually appreciate my hardworking momma and be amazed that she could get our hormone crazy teenage selves  to obey her and work hard too.

Maria de Jesus Flores Zepeda