Thursday, June 29, 2017

Listening to the Voices in Buried Libraries

                                                Listening to the Voices in Buried Libraries

Daniel Cano

     I hear voices. They come to me trapped in desk drawers and in stuffed file cabinets. They laugh. They sigh. Yes, they cry. I know them all. Sometimes I find myself hiding from them. Wait. Let me start again.
     Some years ago, I attended a presentation by activist-writer Ernesto B. Vigil, his most recent book, “Crusade for Justice: Chicano Militancy and the Government’s War on Dissent”.
     Ernesto described his close relationship with Corky Gonzalez and their early days in Denver, Colorado starting the Chicano movement Crusade for Justice.
     I asked Ernesto, “Of everything you and Corky talked about, what was the most memorable thing he said to you?”
     Ernesto didn’t hesitate. He answered, “Corky once told me that when we bury an elder, we bury a library.”
     I don’t know if Corky invented the phrase or borrowed it from someone else. I do know that it has stayed with me all these years.
     At the time, my father, mother, relatives, and many friends were in their late 80s, some into their 90s and passing quickly. How many libraries had we buried? How many stories covered, never to be unearthed? Do we, their descendants, bear some responsibility in not mining the book shelves of their lives and keeping their stories alive?
     Fortunately, at the time, I had already embarked on a journey recording the voices of Chicano elders in my community.
     Most of the men and women I spoke to were born in the U.S. Some were descendants of the California rancheros, but the majority descended from parents escaping revolution and seeking better lives for their families. They called themselves “Chicano” in private, as if only they understood the word’s true meaning. In public, they called themselves Mexican, even though they were Americans. They balked at the phrase Mexican-American.
     Many of those I interviewed described a cultural gap between themselves and their Mexican-born parents. After all, the men and women of my parents’ generation were the WWII generation, or as Tom Brokaw dubbed them, “The Greatest Generation;” though, in his book of the same name, not one Chicano merited a coveted spot.
     Still, in their minds, they’d sacrificed for the U.S., some Chicanos experiencing the worst fighting in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. The women remembered the pain their families suffered upon learning that a brother or husband was not returning home from the war. So, of course, they saw themselves as typically American with few ties to Mexico. Other than partying forays into Tijuana or Mexicali, most had never even traveled to Mexico’s interior.
     They were the children of Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, and Billy Holiday. They preferred jazz to mariachis, though they’d release a giant grito if the spirit struck them.
     To them acculturation wasn’t conceptual. It was a reality. Where their parents had been snubbed by the system, my father’s generation fought to integrate labor unions, politics, education, and employment. They didn’t think in terms of conservative or liberal but in terms of justice or injustice.

     Interested in their view of Mejico, “la madre patria”, I interviewed my 90-plus year-old uncle, Jess (RIP). I didn’t ask him why my grandmother had suddenly sent him to Mexico in his late teens. He wasn’t about to tell me. (Though, I later learned the real reason.) Still, he said he returned to his grandparents’ ranch outside of San Gaspar de los Reyes, Jalisco, for a few years, and saw it as an adventure. Since, he’d been educated in States, he could read and write well, both English and Spanish, which helped in the family ranching business.
     He worked hard. He saved money and bought the most beautiful horse in “all the ranchos,” and, “when I rode through the towns everyone would stop to watch me pass.”
     I could hear the pride in my uncle’s voice, as if he was still that teenage boy. He continued his story telling me that one day, an uncle asked to borrow the horse. He needed to go to town.
     My uncle told me he didn’t see his uncle for days. When he finally did see him, he asked about the horse. His uncle answered, “What horse? Oh, that horse. I sold him.”
     My uncle thought that maybe his uncle needed the money. But no. He just decided to sell the horse. My uncle asked the price. His anger mounted. He told me, “My horse was worth three times that much.” He said in Mexico he had no right to question his uncle’s actions. The first chance he got, he returned home, a bitter taste in his mouth.

     Regarding work, I talked to a family friend, Bart Carrillo and his wife, Pearl. Bart, and his family, started one of the first Mexican restaurant-bars on the west side (the first was Casa Escobar, another family friend). Bart remembered when his father, who could barely speak English, wanted to work in construction since it paid more than gardening.
     “My dad heard they were hiring, so he showed up early to the work site,” he said.
     Most construction workers were “white”. The foreman on the site asked Bart’s dad if he could lay a sidewalk or use a trowel? Though, he’d never worked with either, Santos Carrillo answered, “Yes.”
     The foreman handed him the trowel and told him to finish a sidewalk the workers had just poured. Everybody stopped working and stood back to watch. Of course, Mr. Carrillo had no idea what to do, but he jumped in with the trowel and started slapping at the wet cement.
     Bart said, “The foreman couldn’t believe his eyes. The workers were laughing at him. My dad didn’t know anything. It was humiliating. But he was trying.”
     I asked, “What happened?”
     Bart said, “The foreman laughed so hard, he hired my dad for having the guts to try.”
     When I spoke to my parents’ compadres Lupe and Peaches Herrera, long time west side residents, I asked, “Why are you all such hardcore UCLA fans?”
     Lupe answered, “Look, Westwood is right up the road. After school, we would go watch the Bruins practice. We knew all their names. There were no fences then. We could sit on the sidelines.”
     It was an answer I’d heard from many of the west side Chicanos who loved sports.
     Peaches (RIP) spoke up, suspiciously, nudging Lupe. “That’s not the only reason,” she said, rolling her eyes at him.
     Confused, he turned to her. “What else?”
     “You guys used to go goo-goo eyes over the coeds UCLA sent to our elementary school to tutor us.”
     Sheepishly, he answered, smiling, “Yeah, I guess that too.”
     I asked Lupe if he remembered racism ever being a problem.
     Many men of my dad’s generation answered no to this question. They had answered, “We called each other names. If we fought, it wasn’t ‘cause of race but because we didn’t like a guy. We played sports and all hung out together, Chicanos, Okies, and Japanese.” To them any working-class whites seemed to be an Okies.
     Lupe answered, “I do remember one time when we’d go to the Tivoli Theater on Saturdays, a kid would be standing there as we walked in. He’d send half of us to sit on one side and half to sit on the other side. Once I realized, all the Chicanos and Japanese were on one side and all the American kids were on the other side.
     “I didn’t think much of it. But when I got home, this one time, I told my sister Julia about it. Whooo, she was tough. She went to the theater and told the guy she wanted her brother to sit on the other side. She even went to see the manager. After that, we all started sitting anywhere we wanted. I guess that was the only time.”
     To them, I analyzed, the question of racial discrimination was tricky. If a person claimed to have experienced racism, that made him or her a victim. It was clear that the men and women of my dad’s generation refused to be victims. They saw themselves as victors, just like the vegetable gardens they planted during the war, which they called Victory Gardens. They triumphed over Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. They weren’t about to see themselves as victims.
     Two older men I interviewed separately, cousins Ysidro Reyes and Forrest Freed, (both now deceased), descended from the Reyes, Marques families, early settlers of Santa Monica Canyon and the lands along the mountains up to Westwood. The two seniors were feisty and held tightly to their opinions. One was conservative, the other liberal, one an entrepreneur, the other an educator. Both were close to 90, hard workers, and active in community affairs.
     The one question I wanted answered was, “How did your families lose their land? I mean, historians have written quite a bit about the early California rancheros and how they lost their land.
     Forrest, whose mother was a Marquez, told me about his research and how he found so many illicit, secretive, or ambiguous documents that proved the land had been stolen. He told me that the government (the bank) could confiscate land from an absent owner. First, a newspaper announcement had to be published notifying the absent owners. While researching his family’s land, Forrest found an old newspaper clipping announcing, “Inability to locate owners.”
     Forrest spat, “How could they not find the owners? Hell, my cousin Rosemary and my aunt Angelina still live of parts of the original land grant.” Forrest fiercely maintained that the family’s land was stolen.
     Ysidro, on the other hand, a small man, but firm in character, said, “Nobody was cheated out of anything. That’s just ‘dijeron’.” When I pushed him further, he said, “My family sold Pacific Palisades for $55,000 in 1885.” He looked at me, “You know how people are, saying that everything was stolen, poor people,” (as in “poor Mexicans”). He said, “No! It was their fault, nobody else’s. You wouldn’t be anything if you sat there and just let the world go by. You’ve got to make things [happen] yourself.”
     A good memory for me was when I interviewed my dad’s compadre George Saenz before he died, Georgie to everyone in the neighborhood.
     Georgie was a coyote, a jokester. A handsome, short, light-skinned man, with bright blue eyes and a wide smile, a sailor on a destroyer during WWII, he was a trained carpenter who could fix any gadget you put in front of him.
     Georgie’s parents hailed from Parral de Chihuahua. He told me, “My dad was a captain in the Mexican army. He hunted Pancho Villa. That’s why everybody in Sawtelle called my dad Capitan Saenz. I don’t think they even knew his name,” he said, laughing.
     His favorite story was telling people how his mother, a strong-willed woman, broke the news to her father when she decided to marry el capitan Saenz.
     George said, “You know, my mom was sixteen when she told her dad, ‘Me voy a casar con el Capitan Saenz.’ Her dad said, ‘Ni apenas lo conoces’. You know what my mom answered? She said, ‘Ni el a mi’,” and he laughed, as if it was the funniest thing in the world.
     Max Vigil was rare among my father’s friends, a college graduate, an M.A. from Pepperdine. He worked as an executive at Everest & Jennings, an early innovator in manufacturing wheelchairs. From there, Max moved into politics, working for the Reagan administration. Ironically, he quit high school in the tenth grade.
     His mother taught him the importance of education. In elementary school, he earned A’s. When he got to junior high and earned an A in a difficult exam, his teacher accused him of cheating. Max was shocked but didn’t argue. When he got to high school, the same thing happened. “I realized what the teacher really meant was that a Mexican couldn’t earn A’s without cheating. I was the only Chicano in class. So, when he told me I cheated, in front of the whole class, it was humiliating, degrading. I couldn’t face the other students, so I didn’t go back.”
     He hitchhiked up and down California, worked, and joined the army but was transferred to the Air Force because his test scores were so high. “Some teachers made all us Chicanos feel dumb and inadequate. A lot of guys quit school. But we were smart. We were just like anybody else.”
     Max was a natural mentor. In my 20s, when life got tough, raising a family, holding down a full-time job, and going to college at night, I’d see Max up the street visiting his in-laws. He always walked up and asked how my studies were going. With a serious look on his face, he’d say, “Danny, stick it out. Think of your future. You are too smart to quit. If I did it, you can do it.” It just took a few words of encouragement to get me over the hurdle.
     I did ask Max why he became a Republican. He said, “I followed politics. I read everything, since I was ten years old. I couldn’t stand that Roosevelt (the Democratic president at the time) was kissing Joe Stalin’s ass, one of the cruelest men who ever lived.”
     My aunt Toni Escarcega (RIP) told me she remembered a time in Santa Monica when you could walk from Cloverfield to Lincoln boulevard, about a mile’s distance, and “not hear a word of English.” Nobody thinks of Mexican Santa Monica.
     Another aunt, Gloria (Gogi; RIP) told me that her father was so strict, she couldn’t even be seen talking to a boy alone, even if the boy was a family friend. She said that when she finally found a boy she liked, the two would meet at St. Anne’s Church for the last mass. They would reach the container that held the holy water at the exact same time. They would dip their fingertips in and rub fingers. It was the closest she could get to having a real date.

     What my mother, Esther, recalled, were her Japanese neighbors on 22nd Street in Santa Monica. “Veronica lived next door to us. She was so nice. I will always remember how one day they were there, and the next day they were gone. It was so sad, sent to a relocation camp.”
     My father, a born storyteller, told me, “You know, your grandfather was the last cattle baron in West L.A.”
     “He owned the last cow in town. He would let it graze on a vacant lot behind the Nuart Theater.”
     “Wasn’t he worried it would get stolen,” I asked?
     “Nah,” my dad answered. “There weren’t many cattle rustlers left in those days.”
     As I write this, I think about the cassette recordings and transcribed pages that call to me from the desk drawers and file cabinets where I keep them. So many voices, so many stories, a source of history and literature aching to be heard. And they aren’t just cassettes and pages, or plastic and paper. They are people, my elders.

     I hear voices. I know their names. I know their families and friends. It’s as if from the grave, they are alive and calling, “Tell our stories. Don’t just bury us as if we’re in a cemetery. Listen to Corky. Let our voices speak to others. Do something with us. Don’t just leave us in these musty drawers.
     And what about those elders still alive? I need to get their stories. I need to collect all the photos before the kids toss them into trash cans that get hauled off to the Calabasas dump. Their voices say, “Don’t let that happen to us. Aren’t we just as important as the stories you make up. Why not finish telling our story? Listen to Corky. Stop burying libraries.”

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