Thursday, March 12, 2009

Brick by Brick

Guest essay by Álvaro Huerta

My mother built her own home, brick by brick. Too poor to get a piece of the American Dream, in 1985, while still living in East Los Angeles’ Ramona Gardens housing project, she decided to build her own home in Tijuana, Mexico.

When she told my siblings and I (all eight of us) of her plans, we all thought she had gone mad.

“What are you going to do over there all by yourself?” I asked.

“Not too worry,” she told me in Spanish. “I’m going to build a room for each one of you.”

Our family, like many Mexicans, has a strong bond with Tijuana—a place where countless immigrants first settle before making their arduous journey to el norte. My parents first migrated to this border city from a rancho in Michoacan in the early 1960s, fleeing a bloody family feud that claimed the life of my tio Pascual.

Like a “good wife,” my mother relocated with my father and his siblings (all nine of them) to the hillsides of this poor yet vibrant city. Unlike the U.S., the poor in Latin America, for the most part, live in the hillsides while the affluent reside in the city core.

Once settled in Tijuana, she managed to get a work visa in San Diego as a domestica (domestic worker), cleaning the homes of mainly white, middle-class women, while she left her young children at home. In her absence, my older sisters took on the “mother” role by cleaning, cooking and caring for the younger ones.

Not one to conform, my mother, during her fifth pregnancy, arranged for me to be born in los estados unidos. Accessing her kinship networks in the U.S., I was born in Sacramento in the mid-1960s. Isn’t San Diego closer to the border? Regardless of this mystery, having a U.S.-born child facilitated the process for my family to successfully apply for micas (green cards) in this country.

Once in the U.S., my mother continued to labor as a domestica while my father earned minimum wage in dead-end jobs. Due to their lack of formal education and non-existent English skills, accompanied by low-occupational skills, my parents eventually applied for public housing assistance in East Los Angeles.

Tired of the abject poverty, violence, drugs, gangs, police abuse and bleak prospects associated with inner-city housing projects, my mother decided to return to the motherland, Mexico, as a refuge.

During my freshman year at UCLA in 1985, my mother phoned me about herplans: she bought a small empty lot in Tijuana to build her dream home.While initially shocked, I asked for an emergency student loan to help herwith this goal. If the financial aide office would have asked me tojustify the loan, I probably would’ve said something like, “Help motherescape from housing projects.”

Not long after acquiring the land, my mother gave my siblings and I a tour of her new purchase. Like a recent architecture graduate from UCLA or UC Berkeley embarking on a major design project, she created a visual image of her plans for us.

“This is where the kitchen will go and over there I’ll build the living room,” she told us on our first visit, as we surveyed the uneven, dirt-filled lot. Without saying a word, we all looked at each other, wondering if she could pull it off.

In retrospect, we should’ve never doubted her. This is the same woman, who at 13-years-old, hit a menacing man in the head with a rock, as he failed to kidnap in the rancho. By kidnapping her for several days and then returning her home, she would be forced to marry her abductor to “save her honor”—a barbaric practice that continues to the present throughout the world. This is the same woman who worked as a domestica in the U.S. for over 40 years to provide for her family; who forced my father to take my brother and I, as lazy teenagers, to Malibu as jornaleros (day laborers) so that we could appreciate the importance of a college education.

“If you don’t take them to work,” she threatened my father, as he watched Bonanza re-runs, “then I’ll take them myself.”

During the next 24 years, my mother, with the help of the family, slowly built her dream house, brick by brick. First came the cement foundation, then the walls, followed by the roof. Then came the windows and doors. Not satisfied with a one-story house, she eventually built a two-story home, with a detached guest house in the back.

Defying the odds, she transformed an empty lot of land, filled with rocks,used tires and broken glass into the most beautiful house on the block;probably in the entire colonia (colony). She hired and fired workers,fixed leaky faucets and remodeled, painted and repainted like there was noend.

For me, this house became my mother’s obsession, but for my mother, itsymbolized her true passion, to create something out of nothing, and shewasn’t going to let anyone jeopardize her vision.

I only wish she could live one more day so that she could buy that bed comforter she was looking for.


Anonymous said...

Alvaro Huerta. Your Mother's story
is beautiful. Thank you so much
for sharing. Te lo agradezco!
Maybe what you have shared will
encourage others to do likewise.
There are many more stories out
there. Juan Sanchez

Mo said...

This story kind of breaks your heart and heals it all at once. Where would we all have been without out mothers, the strongest people on the planet. I had a wonderful, resourceful mother (Scottish, in Scotland) and I´m glad you did too. I love the photo of your mother, she is beautiful.