A Gift on Fathers Day

Fathers Day is tomorrow, it has been creeping up and almost catching me unawares.

As I’m sitting here pondering my dad and the dads I know, I’m leaning toward writing about a dad and his girl/s. I wish you could see my son with his 3 girly girls. He’s a tough daddy, a busy guy, but not too busy to take his little ladies on a date. I’ve got a kind hearted nephew who patiently chases after his tough tiny little dynamite Rosalie with her little sister in his arms. I’m not sure what amazes me more, his consistent patience or her endless energy.

Watching my Benjamin and the one little princess who quietly tamed the males in her home and her hardnose mama has been intriguing and sometimes frustrating, afterall I’m the queen of my home…Verdad que si? 

Hats off to Dads

 I’m so grateful for fathers who put their hands to the plow. Providing, praying, playing, platicando and just plain participating in the lives of their children 

From what I can tell, dads have an interesting dilemma in their hands. They’ve got to be generous, gentle, protective and  they’ve got to be tougher, smarter and faster than anyone else’s dad, hands down! For the record, my apa was.

The “solito” is a Zepeda family tradition

The Value of Words

My dad wasn’t a man of too many words. He said what he needed to say and rarely did he repeat himself. He didn’t pull out useless degrading words to accuse us with, but on the other hand, words of endearment for us were not heard from him. That was my norm, it was ok, until I became my Benjamins. I didn’t realize how much I truly did yearn for words of endearment and words of approval, quizás un poco exagerada with my need for them. 

As an adult, words are my commodity. Bad words and name calling are worthless, so I don’t carry them in my vault, except maybe to call myself a mensa, not good, I’m sure God doesn’t want to hear me calling myself a dummy. Good words of appreciation are valuable to me and I make sure I use them generously as needed. Now, words of endearment are like costly jewels, I do have a wealth of them in my heart and my mind, but it costs me a lot to hand them out. Esperate, it’s not because I don’t want to, I’m just afraid they’ll get thrown or lost in a bin of multitudes of words.  I didn’t realize how much I truly did yearn for words of endearment and words of approval, yet it’s when I don’t get them from my loves that I realize I need them, me entiendes? My Benjamin shows me everyday that he loves me by his actions. His willingness to care for me and our kids, his patience to help, ves? But when he looks at me and tells me, “I love you Rosie” Hijole! That cold blooded Englishman steals my heart again and again.

Learning to Appreciate

 I’m very thankful for my apa. In his old age and in my “mature” years, I’ve been able to look past the days of trouble and appreciate the earthly father God gave me.

For too long I saw his terrible shortcomings and focused on things that I didn’t get from my apa. Now that my apa is gone, now that I’m not too busy taking care of him, I can look back and see what he did give me and I appreciate him.

 I know now that I would have loved to hear these words from my apa “Si hija, te aprecio mucho” It was a bit awkward to even write it. Pero, I’ve also learned that his part in my life demonstrated his love and care and I’ve chosen to embrace the love he offered and put it on like a comfortable mantle.

Now I can look back into my experiences with him and see his love for me. Mira, I’ll show you 🙂

Middle School rite of passage

Middle school was a hard season, hay si! Picture every middle schooler in America feeling my extreme pain right now. Let me fill you in,  I was desperately and hopelessly in love with a boy who didn’t even know I existed since 5th grade. 3 años! Then, ALL my friends we’re all grown up, they were real teens, I hated when one of my friends said “Oh my god! I’m gonna die, I started my period today” and another said, “Oh I know, I was so bloated last week, all I wanted to eat was limon and chile” I would roll my eyes, so jealous for those terrible pains. Ya se, ya se, there had to be something wrong with me. I was probably the only 13 year old and eighth grade girl in the whole world that didn’t have a period. It was so humiliating when the girls would look at me and ask me with their eyes if it had come and immediately their eyes would pity me. Sometimes we would discuss the whole matter, describing their first cycle, telling me what to expect and what to do. I didn’t want to hear it. 

And so it was that I suffered like this well into the school year. Now that I think of it, my poor ama! 4 feisty lil latinas to raise. Patty & I gave up watching for the possible symptoms. 

One morning as I dressed for school I fed my moodiness thoughts about how terrible life was treating me. My red polyester dress pants matched my red angry mood. Argh! And that day, the pants were quite apretaditos. I wanted a reason to skip school, but no, what if today would be the day the love of my life noticed me? I walked to school lost in my touchy thoughts. It turned out to be another long hot unnoticed day. 

After lunch, we were back in our homeroom classroom. I could hear my dad saying “Para acabarla de amolar”! And to make matters worse, we were having a test. Hot sweaty, sticky, pero I finished my test and got up to turn it in. When I walked back, my friend whispered that I had sat in something, my pants were wet. I turned around and rushed to the teacher for permission to go to the bathroom. I was ready to die! Why in the world hadn’t I noticed? What did I sit in? Ya saben right? My long awaited visitor showed up. Wow! How could I even welcome her with this mess in my hands? I couldn’t go back to the class, I needed to get home? But how? Everyone would know.

 I rushed to the nurses office and told her my terrible dilemma. No catching her breath in an “Oh my” She asked how I felt and started trying to figure out how to get a hold of my apa. Que?! Oh no. He worked for the city, he was busy. They just needed to find my big sis Marina. She would take care of this. Worst case scenario was that since I was feeling fine I could walk home alone, she could lend me a sweater from the lost and found to wrap around my waist. I sat there feeling quite miserable, knowing dad wasn’t gonna come, then he walked in. My apa looked at the nurse and thanked her and didn’t ask her any questions. He looked angry, but then again we Zepedas always look angry. I tried not to look at him, I just got up and walked out with him and hopped into his truck. I was worried he would see my stained pants. We had a 5 minute drive to the house, the longest drive de mi vida! He finally asked “Que paso?” and looked over at me. This very brown girl turned dark pink with humiliation! I didn’t know how to tell him, by this point in my life I was a liar and never had any problem making things up. But the dark pink face told another story. “Se mojo el pantalon” Like my pants walked over to a puddle and got wet all on their own. He knew, and he didn’t look angry anymore. That was it. He dropped me off at home and had to get back to work, his break was short.  I was relieved, he knew and accepted my story. I was happy, I was an official girl teen, pimples and feminine napkins and everything else! 

My ama was surprised, then worried to see me. The “not talking about your period or any femine issues” taboo talk is probably for another conversation, even now I can hear her say “de esas cosas no se hablan”. Somehow like we “women” do, we communicated with our eyes and she provided what I needed for this very important passage. 

I never forgot this moment with my apa, but only these days have I been able to grasp the covering of love my apa gave me that school day, in this small detail, which was HUMUNGOUS for me, with very few words he participated in this growing up passage of my life. 

The Gift of Healing

Sabes, he has given me, given us, my siblings too, some more invaluable words and a view of what his heart was experiencing as he transitioned into the very difficult  tercera edad. 

Very slowly I’ve been gleaning still through his belongings and his paperwork and to my delight I discovered some of his journal pages. Refreshing, like our San Diego breeze. 

His life turned upside down at 80, otra vez, I’ll have to tell you in a different conversation about his 80th year. It seems that he tried to cope with the difficulties through journaling. He wrote on his 81 birthday “This year was very hard for me because of the things that happened to my body…Thank God that he helped me so much. Also, I’m very grateful with all my children who all gave me their support and help” 

Can you feel what this dramatic latina felt when she read those words of approval and appreciation she longed for? I am shouting on the mountain tops, telling the whole world, my apa wrote, bien clarito, about his appreciation for us.

My apa has given me a valuable gift of words this fathers day, written in his own script. 

Feliz Dia de los Padres!!

Happy fathers day to all fathers and men who step in the gap to fill those fatherly needs. A personal hats off to daddys who give a part of themselves to their little girls, press on, don’t let their dramatics intimidate you, hopefully and thankfully we grow up to appreciate our apas.

Mexican-American Girl Goes East Part 3: The Cousins

It’s The People That Matter:

I’ve really enjoyed myself as I’ve taken this trip down memory lane to New England. Pero ya se que, I have done very little justice to the beautiful New England scenes. My eyes are mostly captured when something is familiar. Quisas, that sounds narrow, and I’m working on expanding my vision. So it happens that when a breathtaking scene grabs me, I always want to insert one of us into the scene. I want to memorialize it that way, but Ben probably considers it a photobomb! He sees the beauty of nature or historic sites and captures pictures all along a trip. People matter to me, when I look back at a memory, it’s hardly about the landscape and the climate. In the early days when Bens family was just Bens family, I was nervous about every aspect of relating. Comprendes? Now that they are our family, asi es, this Mexican American is a true Greene today.

Mother in Law Dance

Meeting my mother in law was  súper overwhelming, most every young wife will agree, that across the board it can be intimidating. My head was already filled with worries that I was not going to meet her standards. Can I insert right here, I am a mother of three boys, now men. mis hijos are guapos y trabajadores! Can another woman see to all their needs and wants? Hijole! Madre Cuervo! I heard my ama share this little tale more than once. You can imagine my fears, verdad? What will she think of me? Que va decir de mi? Maybe she had another plan for my Benjamin? Anyway you get the picture right? I have no idea what my suegra was thinking of me because she was very New Englandish, polite and reserved. Recently I picked up a book called “The Mother Inlaw Dance”. Check out the subtitle “Can Two Women Love the Same Man and Still Get Along” It was a good read, Heartfelt stories that described both sides of the relationship.

Brown Skin and White Skin

Now top all those worries with anxiety about my being different from Ben. On the day Ben went to ask my parents for my hand in marriage, my apa looked at Ben as he put our arms next to each other and asked “Do you see her color?”  Being in New England for the first time, I truly felt my fathers concerns. Could Ben take care of me and make me feel safe? Would his cousins see beyond my skin color? Would I see past the white? 

The Hostess

My mother in-law Nancy getting ready for the family meal.

Settling in and taking in all the personal history the old Manse held was unreal. De veras, some of his family were very much a part of American history in the making. Imaginate? Ancestors from the Mayflower! Once here in the New World, they were considered immigrants! That knowledge should have comforted me as the first house guests arrived. 

To keep things in order, during family meeting weekend, any family member not in residence has to “reserve” their room with the hostess as needed. Nancy was a fine hostess, situating us, the cousins and organizing the potluck lunch, in her quiet demeanor.

I didn’t realize that it would be my turn to hostess one day.

Meeting the Cousins

Those cousins that lived in town walked over to the Manse to greet and meet Nancy’s new daughter in law, at least that’s how I felt, yet I feel my friend again saying “Esa, it’s not all about you” But I was anxious, should I have changed out of my shorts and calmed my wild hair down. That humidity was doing a number on my hair. Should I look a little more presentable to meet more of Ben’s family? 

The Frenchies

Dorthy and Jacques girls on Mt. Manadnock

 The Teddy Greenes from down the road came by to say hello and talk about the family meal for the meeting. Cousin Teddy was intimidating, in the New England way. He was very tall, lanky, serious and quiet. Except for meeting him I didn’t really share words with him. Mira nomas! Los Greenes have a French branch in the family. Ben had always teased that his family was already multicultural, now, I was meeting Frenchies. Quien sabe if cousin Dorothy is 2nd cousin, or a cousin once removed? She married a Frenchman and remained in France.

I Wanted to Run and Hide

Very friendly primos, but I was being a “ranchera” that’s what we call someone who’s too timid and gives off a rude vibe, I’m really tempted to blame it on cousin Teddy 😑. Dorothy’s husband, Jacque, introduced himself, thick accent and all, that helped calm my anxious nerves. Still the differences felt like huge chasms, not just my Mexican, but the economic status. I wanted to run and hide in the Cannonball room (remember the rooms have names), but that was scary too! 

 The cousins from out of town started arriving, first was Banky and his wife Sue. Banky was Nancy’s 1st cousin, we call it “primos/hermanos.” Ya se, something about latinos that we intensify life with such intimacy, can you get closer than a cousin/brother?. Cousin Bank was friendly and a little forward, which added to my nervios. 

When small talk ensued, he told me about his career as a school principal. Andale! That’s why I was uncomfortable. Mr. Hinkle, our basketball coach turned principal, would roam the school grounds to see who he would bust! Not a settling first impression. Then he disclosed that he was a minister. Mas nervios! I was saying things like “I don’t do religion anymore, I have a personal relationship with Jesus” Hijole! 

 Banky was curious about my upbringing. I was guarded. Why did he ask if I spoke spanish? Pues si, I am Mexican. I forgot that not all Mexican Americans spoke spanish, that it all depended on location, preferences and convictions. He did inform me that he dealt with spanish speaking students; Puerto Ricans and Newyorkicans, but in my eyes that’s a whole different language.

I clicked with his wife Sue a bit easier when she pointed out that she too was an “out-law” in the family. She shared her initial reactions to life in the Manse and discreetly? Or quietly and calmly encouraged me to talk about myself, Hay si, like that is ever difficult.

It was Bank and Sue’s long time tradition to spend several days in Jaffrey in the Manse during family meeting days. They had their daily routine and planned their various dinner dates and forums to attend. When they talked about going to a forum that first summer, I didn’t let on that I didn’t know what a forum was, it sounded so technical, so clinical. Una junta? Just a meeting?! A place where people hear views and opinions on a specific topic. In my world, we met at the dinner table, and the loudest voice interjected his/her ideas and the platica proceeded through the meal. 

Cousin Jane

Jonathan and his cousins

On Saturday morning, the day of the family meeting, I met Cousin Jane. She was a little bit different. Like, she veered off my New Englander compass somewhat. Yes, she was a little severe. I learned pretty quickly that she took her heritage, her projects, her jobs and her views quite seriously. She voiced her opinions with some feisty tones sometimes. Cousin Jane was a woman with goals. From what I can tell, when she took on a cause, like women’s rights, she gave herself to it. It did take me a minute to recognize that she wasn’t necessarily bossy, but her hands were in the masa 😉. As she chatted, she filled me in on the Torrey relatives, her brother Fred and his family. She asked questions, wanting to know what my plans were or even what I had accomplished thus far. Hijole! I wanted to react defensively, especially since I had done a quick inventory on my accomplishment and knew I had nothing great to share, at least not what I thought she wanted to hear. Instead, I smiled and told her about myself, no fluff added, porque, there was none.

Cousin Jane was not a typical Torrey, don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t loud, but she spoke her mind. My bestie could easily pass as a New Englander, she’s got a quiet voice, a calm demeanor and when she listens to you, she also studies you, both ears and eyes are paying attention. Sometimes that makes me want to squirm. This is how I would describe the Torrey side of Ben’s family. Comprendes? 

Homemade Ice Cream Tradition

Cousin Jane & her daughter, cousin Debbie

Cousin Jane was in charge of the wonderful sweet tradition of making and sharing homemade ice cream on family meeting day. She brought her prepared fresh peach mixture, her recipe, rock salt and ice. The antique hand crank  ice cream maker was at the Manse ready for use. She recruited all the kids, teens, and toddlers. She used any willing person that wasn’t in the actual meeting. A little kid stood on the lid to secure it while a big kid cranked the handle, spinning and freezing the ice cream. Good old fashioned hard work for sure. Traditions were important to Jane and even with something like ice cream, it seemed that she did not minimize the experience or change the patterns. 

Daniella helping with the cleanup after the ice cream was cranked

Offenses Will Come

How do you publicly speak about first impressions and not offend? My typical latina self had several reactions at my first family meeting. Some things were strange to me. I tended to misinterpret certain mannerisms. My biggest hurdle has been the quietness and the lack of emotion or reactions to situations, even after almost 33 years I can find myself offended with my flaco for not feeling enough. Asi es, coming from an emotional familia and culture I sometimes still forget that lack of outward emotion doesn’t mean lack of feeling. In my world, the way we tend to control all other emotions is with outward stone faced anger. That will show a person to stay away and keep me from talking too much. Imaginate! Bens had to field that bomb plenty of times. The thing that keeps both of us grounded is that we are anchored in Christ, otherwise ni se sabe!

Conclusion: Different People can thrive together.

Today, there are many mixed marriages, but over 30 years ago, I really thought I was the only Mexican in New England, and we were the only couple with this formula; Mexican American + New England American, I was not alone and for sure in America we were not that unique. It didn’t stop me from feeling like my sailor on the high seas, bien solita en el  mar. 

I know now that with a willing heart couples, families can grow and prosper no matter the different stations of life.

Se Vende! Clinging to What’s Left Of The House I Grew Up In

The house on 511 E. Delta street is for sale. My house! (Or my apas house.)  It’s been empty for almost 2 years and looking very abandoned. When I moved my apa to our house here in San Diego, I had gotten wind of the house in Calipatria going up for sale but I was too busy taking care of him to go back and see for myself.

I thought I had disconnected from that old house when my apa remarried and the house itself was no longer mi amas house. But you know, we hang on tight to things, as if we’re gonna take them with us, into our future and or our eternity. I’ve struggled with the fact that it is no longer Don Manuels house and of course the memories came flooding in as I finally looked at the old worn house. Memories like a quilt, bits and pieces fastened together by the intricate stitches of life that is worn and faded with the passing years.

Not Your Typical Open House

I was very little when the house was built. We were living in the projects on Brown street on the East side of Calipatria when brand spanking new houses were erected on Delta street. They were different, bigger than the ones the other side of the street. Three new houses, with big backyards, well big according to my little perspective. 

My ama crossed the alley and went to see the houses. No open house event, she just walked right into the 4-bedroom, 2 bathroom house. The middle house was much larger than our project home. Imagine, one bathroom had a tub and one did not. Hijole! I could play longer in the bathtub and leave the other bathroom open for someone else. A win win situation. Meanwhile, my sis says that some of the kids played in our house like it was just an old abandoned ugly house, she didn’t like it.

Ama walked through the rooms, opening doors, looking over it all with a dislike. “No me gusta” she decided and walked home, in agreement with Marina. 

Our Large and Ever Growing Family

The small duplex we lived in the projects was pretty crowded, Apa, Ama, and 8 kids ranging from 6 to 20 years old. I shared a room with my sister Patty, I don’t know where everyone else was settled, but I didn’t feel tight at all. I imagine that my ama was squeezed for air. 

One day, my oldest brother left home to get married. It was a lone decision between the two young lovers, no elaborate wedding plans or guests to consider. They ventured to Northern Ca. to start their life together.

The new couple was not quite prepared to face life, as young lovers usually aren’t. The weight of life pressed down on them, my brothers wife; Mary was heavy with child. He figured it was best for them to be near family as she neared birthing. They settled into a house in the next town of Brawley, Ca. but when the baby was born they came back to our house. My ama was relieved to have her son home again.

The New Mother In Law

We were all in awe when the new baby came home, all kinds of feelings. My ama was just barely finished with diapers and toddlers and suddenly she was an abuela! Isn’t it amazing how God fills your reservoir as your family grows? We can love with an overwhelming love. This new baby had captured our hearts.

During the day we kids were at school and then in afternoons we were hard at play so ama was able to adjust to mother in law status. Now that I consider it, my mother with her first daughter in law reminds me of me and my daughter in law. Quiet, shy, soft spoken daughter in laws who would have to learn quickly the ways of a loud family.

La Cuarentena

Everyone settled in as well as possible and life went on as usual for all of us kids. My sister in law Mary was recovering from her delivery and under my mothers care she was going to experience the full cuarentena! 40 days to recover, to rest, to learn her baby, and learn the Zepedas!

My ama made her atoles to increase her breastmilk. A thick hot comfort drink, made  from masa flavored with canela and piloncillo. I can imagine that she was making sure Mary was eating properly, with calditos de pollo. Chicken soup was a remedy for most of the ailments we encountered. Of course it was very likely that mi ama was taking the baby every chance she got. I never practiced the cuarentena as a young mom, probably because I didn’t have my ama to watch over me and make sure I’d be still enough during those 40 days.

Ama would send us off to school and get busy taking care of Mary and the baby between housework and cooking and laundry.

(No se desesperen, I haven’t gotten distracted in my story telling, this is about how the house on Delta street became home to us.)

One day, once we were all sent off, Mary and baby were resting and ama was busy with everything, focusing on the pile of laundry. The laundry room was next to the kitchen. A small room with washer, sink and water heater. On laundry days, she would be in and out because she needed to hang the laundry out to dry. In her going in and out and leaning over the tub to do some extra washing her dress got wet. The laundry had her so busy that she didn’t pay much attention to the water heater’s struggles and noises! After checking on Mary and baby she went back to her laundry. The water heater had burst into a small fire and Ama was blocked from going through the house to get Mary and the baby. Ama used to tell us that her wet dress probably kept the flames off her! She cried out “se esta quemando la casa, llama a los bomberos” Mary had heard all commotion and went to call the fire dept. Then she turns to see her suegra walking out the back door! Imagine that sinking feeling. Mary had to remind her of the baby in the back room. Mi ama went around to the front door to get the baby out to safety. The fire spread very quickly but was contained to the front of the rooms. Thankfully nobody was hurt.

We had been delayed at school because of the news of the fire so when got home the excitement had died down, but not the curiosity. The vecinos were all around. Our home in the Projects burned along with most everything in it. Marina says the house had the strong stench of burn. It was exciting to me. This only happened in the movies and my 7 year old mind wanted to see and touch! I didn’t see anything burning, I wasn’t even near the fire. No se vale! Cheated out of a time of glorious danger and drama. So close but so far. Mary reminded me that our T.V. survived the ordeal! Partially melted but still working!

When the fire was put out, my parents didn’t know what they were going to do with us. Neighbors reached out to help and we all were distributed to different homes for the night or maybe a few nights, just until it was safe to breath in there again. I’m not sure who determined that it was safe to go back in, but my parents and older siblings did.

Three of us went with Mary, baby and my big brother Angel. Needless to point out that my sister in law didn’t get her 40 days of rest. In fact she had her newborn and 3 pesky little in laws to take care of. It was no small task because my lil brother Chicha was a travieso! There was nothing that he wouldn’t try even in their little one bedroom apartment. Having the newborn there definitely kept us fascinated. When he cried we would blow in his face and he would catch his breath. My little mind was amazed at how I was able to do that, how did I have so much power? Mary was feeling motherhood in full force! 

Me and my brothers playing in the driveway

Epilogue:

I don’t know how many days passed, but when we returned back to the barrio, we went right past the projects on Brown street and made a right turn on to Delta street. It was that house!

The community stepped in to help by donating household items, the football team bought us a brand new fridge! We were given clothing, like a mountain of donations! As we got back on our feet. my ama was so grateful I don’t remember her complaining about the house.

It is where they raised the rest of us kids until we were married or off to boot camp or school.

As the country song says, it is the house that built me.

40 years La Casa de la familia Zepeda

La Tiendita on Delta St

Our house on 511 E. Delta St. became the go to spot for Mexican candy and other goodies. Before and after school kids would knock on the door to get their supply. It wasn’t an official store, but mi ama ran it like one. She tended it and kept our tiendita running for many years. 

It all started because my 13 year old entrepreneurial self needed money.

Middle School Graduation

Middle school ended with the big show of our 8th grade graduation ceremony. Once again I was subjected to wear a dress. On graduation day our chairs had been arranged on the football field, and we were seated in alphabetical order, the Zepedas are always the last ones. Like the high school graduates, our names were going to be broadcasted on the PA system and we would walk up to get our diploma front and center for everyone to cheer. In 8th grade a person feels real grown up, since they are the oldest amongst all the kids, graduating seals the state of coolness. My big brother Arturo had decided to take me and his sister in law who also graduated out to dinner. It was a big evening for me, I had never gone out to dinner, bien muy muy at a fancy restaurant (at least I thought it was fancy). Then he was going to drive us to the graduation party and hang out. He couldn’t necessarily admit he was keeping an eye on us. As soon as I was able to get out of the big baby blue poofy dress and pull my hair back to control the hairdo, I relaxed and enjoyed my very grown up experiences. 

Rosalba Flores Zepeda

Preparing for High School

Graduation now meant that I needed to get serious about life. High School was around the corner. What were the rules there? Suddenly I was “on my own.” At the Freshmen orientation, I was going to pick my own class schedule. So if I didn’t want math I didn’t have to have it, yet. If I wanted to play volleyball, or any sport, I would have to try out, hijole! The older girls were also trying out or returning to the team. I would get assigned a locker in the gym and on campus. I needed to be ready!

I needed money like the older kids who always seemed to have it. I wasn’t old enough to get a real job and make money. In the summer en el tiempo de la uva, I couldn’t go with mi ama and sisters to pick grapes. I had to stay home to do the cooking for my dad, with no pay of course. What could I do? I planned on making the most out of my high school years, but when school started there were going to be a lot of expenses most likely beyond my amas pocket book.

Opportunity

In my little town of Calipatria, there was no park across the tracks on the East side, but there were a couple of open lots. One was huge, it became our legitimate park a few years later, and I’ll boast a little to tell you that my apa was instrumental in getting us Hernandez Park in our lil ole Eastside. The other lot was private property not yet sold on our street. Our side of Delta street had only three houses on it so it was perfect for our baseball games.

The kids in the barrio would gather for a game of baseball. A few older teens, middle schoolers and little kids came to play.  We’d divide ourselves up according to skill and age and we played hard. We took our games seriously, and developed our skill in these skirmishes. I was just an ok player, not at all like my sister Marina. She loved baseball. I knew I wouldn’t be missed if I was on the bench and here’s where I hatched my money making scheme. Why would I sit around when I could be making money?

Calipatria Hornets was our school softball team.

I took my plan to my ama because I needed an investor. I planned to sell lemonade and cookies at the game. Pero, esperate. I knew nothing about bougie homemade baked goods. En mi casa the oven was used to store the casuelas and comal! Everyone loved cookies, and nobody knew the difference in quality. In fact, we thought that if food was packaged and straight from the store it was obviously better. It was a great plan, if only mi ama would lend me money for my business venture. 

My mom always had a stash of money! Somehow bam! After her ranting about not having any money and needing some herself she would bust out with her dolares. I never accepted it when she claimed not to have any money. I knew that she didn’t have money for all the things we asked for, but she was a true business woman, era bien trucha, turning over and examining our requests. Having raised 4 children with one income in the very expensive city of San Diego, Ca. I now understand her frugality. 

Learning the Business

The lemonade and cookie stand was going to cost more than just a couple of packs of cookies. She pointed out the other things I would need, but I was excited and promised to follow through. She gave me the money so I could prepare for the big day. Although things were changing for me and I was stepping into the more serious side of life I still took advantage of all the other afternoons I could play ball. Playing ball wasn’t just for the little kids, it was a serious thing and because of the hot sunny days, I knew my lemonade was going to bring me that needed money.

I was excited on my big business day. Good old fashion baseball in the empty lot before the many fear of germs or regulators. It wasn’t a snack bar, it was just me and my lemonade and cookies. The kids playing hard in field would return after each ending for lemonade. The little kids watching ran home for money to buy my sweet goods. I sold out that first day.
My ama was impressed. When she asked me what I would do with my profits, I said that my plan was to spend it slowly, thinking that was the shrewd way to do it. I knew I needed money, but I hadn’t realized that money isn’t a one time need. She proposed that I invest my money into another market: Mexican candy, and keep on selling. I was convinced and ready to stock my store.

Saturday’s in Mexicali

Weekly grocery shopping was a big event for my ama, it was a day which she shared with all of us kids.  On Saturdays, Apa would take the family across the border to Mexicali for the day. Mom did her shopping, the boys got their haircuts, and there were all sorts of things on the to-do list.
Sometimes we would eat gusgerias, junk food, that included treats covered in chile y limon, from the carts in the streets. Coctel de camaron (I still can’t stomach shrimp), churritos with plenty of chile, and Tamarindo! A sweet and sour fruit that grows in pods. It has a large dark brown seed covered in a brown sticky pulp and that is encased in a dry easy to break light brown shell. When explained like that it does not sound tasty, but I love that tangy fruit. I always ate too much and made my tongue raw. Much of the Mexican candy I chose to sell is made from tamarindo. Perhaps my favorite treat was the mango on a stick, peppered with chile, limon y sal. My taste buds are getting excited just thinking about it. 

Some Saturdays we would get comida china. Chinese food in Mexicali is delicious but different from what I’ve had in San Diego, I really wish I could describe it and do it justice.  Other times we would stop at a hamburger stand in Calexico, and have a big, good old fashioned hamburger with french fries. It was a real treat for us, because we never ate hamburgers at home. Our wants were endless, and maybe here’s when mom would pull out her stash of cash. 

Inventory for Dulceria Rosalba

There was a certain colonia my dad drove to for the candy. It had a whole street blocked off like a swap meet. Every kind of vendor set up shop, that’s where my mom did her shopping. Vegetables, carnes, tortillas, bolillos, quesos, aguas frescas and of course, dulces. The air was mixed with all the scents of meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables and it would take a minute for our nostrils to adjust to the sour smell. With so many vendors vying for our business, all of a sudden our spanish would be all mangled around our tongue, but mi ama knew exactly how to handle them all.

Since it was my investment, she let me pick the candy after all, I new what would sell. We bought pulpas de tamarindo and powdered chamoy. We got paletas con saladitos, saladitos, those little salted plums are delicious in a sweet orange. I stocked up on rollitos and churritos. This was the start of our tiendita. I must say that it was quite a trial not to eat up my inventory!

In the barrio everyone loved Mexican candy and my business took off very quickly. It helped my sales that I was taking candy in my backpack to sell at school. You would think that with money coming in so quickly and steadily I would have kept my business up.

It got tedious and pretty soon mom was doing all the work. I was done with my tiendita and I told her I was shutting down. She tried to get me to continue, but I was too busy with my sports and besides I was getting too cool to be seen selling my paletas con saladito and pulpas

Dona Chuy’s Tiendita

My mom was not ready to give up the venture. She put out a small table in our already small dining room and set up her array of assorted candy. Her inventory was much bigger and she even branched out and sold ice cream cones. Dona Chuy was now the unofficial spot for candy for the whole barrio. When kids were short on coins, she allowed them to ‘owe’ for the next time and soon she had to have her libretita to keep track of borrowers. No interest was charged, of course, she did it only to keep kids happy and her store running.

My siblings and I had an unspoken agreement with ama. Business boomed after school and when we were home we had to get up and answer the door for a customer and attend to them. Occasionally we’d get a free candy or ice cream cone. 

This little business went on for years. When my mom passed away, dad kept it going. The kids in the neighborhood all knew dad (Don Manuel) because of the candy store. My own kids would always come prepared with change so they could buy candy from Tata when we went to visit. Of course he never charged them and of course they were only too glad to take the blessing.

After a long battle with dementia, my apa has now passed on. The little tiendita has been closed for many years, but it lives on in the memories of countless kids who grew up in our barrio. When my sister and I were arranging his burial and choosing his plot in Brawley, CA the young man who was pointing out plots to us said, “Wait? Are you talking about Don Manuel from Delta street in Calipatria? I used to go buy candy all the time at his house.”

another story for another time, where I again had to wear a dress.

The Mourning Process

Mourning has seven stages. The mourning process is a difficult passage that requires time and grace. Mourning will take you to sweet memories and then cast you into darkness. You plan your day, it’s going to be a good one. Then one thing, anything, will trigger a memory. If you’re all alone you’ll find yourself crumbled up in a heap of tears. I’ve walked this road three other times and I still don’t know what stage I’m in today.

Triggers

This afternoon at the grocery store I saw a man walking with his elderly father. A frail old man who was being led by his son (at least that’s what I imagine). The son impatiently prodded him from behind to make his father walk faster. The viejito took those tiny steps as quickly as he could. I held my breath as I watched him, ready to run and catch him if he fell. Every step, every movement was a victory for him. I was happy and I was sad for him.

Once upon a time that son was being led by his father. We never think that it’ll happen to us. My dad was too strong to have his body weakened by age. His back was not supposed to give out at eighty years old!

I Don’t Want To Get Old

Once, when I was fifteen I overheard him say, “I don’t want to live to be an old man.” My snotty teenage self thought, “Dad you’re already an old man!” He was fifty-five, didn’t he realize that was more than half-way to one hundred?! Yikes! That’s my age now.

My father hated the humiliation of a weakened body. I hated it too! Every time I lifted his arms to dress him, his skin hung on him, I was sorry for him, I did not like that either. I realize now that I was already mourning.

La Tercera Edad

The english word for a person over 65 is “senior”. My apa was a newlywed for the second time at his senior age of 65! In spanish, it’s called la tercera edad. Think about it. We carry a baby into the third trimester and at the end of that tercer tremestre that baby passes that birth canal and takes his first breath, a very difficult passage. La tercera edad is like that. Not everyone gets to live on that stage and my dad didn’t even want to be on it. Many times he murmured his frustration that he was done living. I got to the point that I would say “Dad, you need to bring that complaint to God” 

Dementia

As difficult as that stage was, I thank God so much that he gave us these years. Despite the cloud of dementia we managed to get through the  difficult conversations and confront past violations. We faced that terrible pride looking kind of haughty as we took it on.  It has destroyed relationships and deceived us into a corner of fear and rejection. Many times we were able to push the dementia aside and make sweet memories. Of course the many years of  “no relationship” wants to accuse me at times.  I do find myself wondering if my apa loved me. He didn’t say those actual words to me, and when I finally said them to him I’m not sure if he heard me. 

His tercera edad affected us so much. I cringed every time my big sister called him “daddy”. It made her so vulnerable. We couldn’t be vulnerable, we had to be strong as we  helped him get through that dark and scary valley. When we were little and the  earthquakes would wake us up at night we would run to my apa and amas bed. There in their bed he would protect us. 

Caregiving

Toward the end of last year,  I grumbled a lot about the constant repeated conversation  “AAYY!” I’d go down the hallway, no longer running because I knew the routine. “Que Paso Apa?” He thought I left him again. It was wearing me down. “Cuando nos vamos a la casa?” “You are home Dad.” He knew he wasn’t home. “Donde esta Lupe?” “Your wife died Dad.”

Why didn’t he ever ask for Chuy? My mom was forgotten to him and it hurt so much to know it. I cried many times over, so conflicted with emotions. I was angry that he did know what he was saying! I mourned my shut up life. I felt guilty that I felt so much, what a selfish daughter I was!  I was exhausted. 

Final Stages

Then, he turned ninety-six. By this point in his life, his last month he was spending all his days in bed. He was shocked to know he was so old and when he said again for the millionth and one time “ya estoy listo para el arrastre” My usual response was “Well only God knows when you’ll be ready to be buried Dad” But this time, he was. It’s what we were expecting, yet it was so shockingly unexpected. We were barely able to warn our brothers. 

Just like that! In a few days, he breathed his last breath and was gone. My nephews drove up from the Valley and missed him by fifteen minutes. He could no longer wait for them.

Death

Suddenly, his cluttered room with all his equipment and endless supplies was empty of him. He couldn’t be gone! Wasn’t it supposed to be dramatic? Shouldn’t my sister and brother have seen that last breath leave his body? How could he slip quietly away, I wasn’t even in the room. He never listened. I had specifically told him that morning “Apa, por favor. I want to be right here with you when you leave.”

Packing It All Up

Hospice took his bed and oxygen tank. Any supplies that they lent us were swept away. My sis and I kept ourselves busy with clearing things out. But now, all the little things that are left fill his room and it feels like he’s there again. I have to finish up his room. I have to move forward. Things are going back to normal, whatever that is. Business as usual.

I got busy with emptying out my fathers room. My plan was to just get rid of everything my sis didn’t take. It should have been easy to do. Bag it up and designate donations or trash. 

I didn’t realize I was avoiding the chore. I didn’t know I was deeply missing my apa. I mean, my goodness I am now able to leave my house. I can sleep through the night. I am not anxious, nor is my dad. It was the final stage; la tercera edad and he so graciously and quietly crossed the finish line. You know, he was like that always, quiet smiles when he was happy, quiet firm stares when he had to take care of business. He never had to raise his voice at us. My ama on the other hand, let’s put it this way, I was blessed with her vocal chords.

Mourning

My dads keys. The keys to the house I grew up in.

It’s over now. His room is almost empty. I picked up his keys and I went to toss them in the trash. As they dropped into the can I remembered the arguments we would have about him needing his keys. His car and house keys. Wait! It was my house too! The keys to the house on 511 E. Delta street were still on the ring. I had so much to clear out and keys were stopping me?!

Every episode, any little thing that provokes me I share it with my big sis. I miss her too. When dad left, her week long monthly visits to my house ended. Mourning kind of piles up. So with my apa gone, I miss my ama more than ever. With my ama gone I miss my sisters. 

In mourning as you heal, you always water that memory garden, sometimes it is with your tears.

Some Advice

Back to where I left the viejito and his son . I wanted to judge that son and criticize his impatience, then I remembered my recent journey. Trips to the grocery store were a burden to me, but for dad they were his delight. Dementia affected his memory but not his sharp mind. He paid attention to details when we were on the road. He loved to watch all the interesting people almost as much as he enjoyed watching and hearing the birds. I wish I could have told that son to enjoy his apa, because even though you know that last passage is coming, it still catches you off guard.

Mourning comes and goes like the ocean waves. Hope is very key, while they cannot come back to us, I can live my life so that I can go to my apa, ama and my sisters. 

Have you lost a loved one? How are you coping with life?

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