Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Confirmation Dress

Daniel Cano

I wanted to know what my mother remembered of Mexico or at least what she had heard about it. She was born in Santa Monica, California, in 1926. She told me that she thought her mother had taken her twice to visit the family ranch in Mexico as a child. Then she went again, reluctantly, in her late teens, after spending three years in Olive View Hospital.

When she was about thirteen, my mother was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis. In the 1940s, doctors didn’t always take the time necessary to examine children carefully or correctly diagnose the disease that afflicted so many poor, young Mexican, and lower-class kids. Considered a highly contagious disease, many children and adults ended up in sanitariums, isolated from society.

Complete and total rest in a dry climate was the most common cure. My mother told me, “What should have been my best years of my life, I spent at Olive View.” Then thinking, she added, “It wasn’t until I was an adult that a doctor who examined my lungs told me, I’d never had tuberculosis. The doctors had made a mistake.”

When she was finally released from Olive View, she tried to make up for lost time. She finished high school, worked at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, went to dances, movies, and beach parties. Mexico or her parents' lives in Mexico were the furthest things from her mind, so when her brother Chuy invited her to visit the family ranch in Mitic, Jalisco, she answered with an emphatic, "No!”
She was about eighteen or nineteen years-old at the time. Chuy was relentless. He insisted, but she had no interest in going to Mexico or in visiting family she didn’t even know. But her oldest brother persisted. She knew he had sacrificed for the family. He left school to work and help support his mother, brother, and sisters after their father’s, untimely, death.

She remembered, “We all worked, but my brother Chuy would leave home, go work in other states, and send my mother his check, every week.”

Her father, Nicolas, was in his forties when he contracted emphysema after working for years in Santa Monica’s brickyards.

My father once told me, “In those days, they didn’t wear masks or any type of protection. They worked in clouds of red dust all day with just hankies over their noses and mouths. They didn’t know they were breathing in pieces of brick. Over time, their lungs just disintegrated. They ended up choking to death.”

My uncle Chuy finally convinced her. Who knows what he promised her. As she spoke to me, and thought about it, she came to realize, as if working through a math problem: "Chuy, my brother," she said, chuckling, "had lived in Mitic for a few years. He had a girlfriend there. I didn't know then, and he didn't want my mom to know, and he was taking my mom with him. I guess he figured I could keep my mother distracted while he went to see his girlfriend. But, I think he had a baby, too. He might have even been married but nobody really knew. My brother was private."

Mitic, was a once thriving village until revolutions, revolts, and draughts devastated most of it, sending the people fleeing to San Juan, Aguascalientes, and the United States, many to Santa Monica, where the people from Los Altos de Jalisco had already settled in and around Pico Boulevard and 20th Street, going back to the late 1800s.

I visited Mitic in 2012 and my elder cousin Francisco, and his family still own and work the ranch. The old adobes are gone, replaced by a modern brick home, cows, and the automatic milking machines. In the distance, corn fields and trees cover the hills. Other dairy and cattle ranches dot the landscape. A small river runs adjacent to the property. It is a beautiful ranch, but still, even today, it was a jarring half-hour taxi ride over a pot-holed dirt road from San Gaspar, the closest town. I can only imagine what my mom endured in 1946.

At 18, my mother was fully Americanized and not a hint of Mexican ranch life in her. She wore slacks and blouses, Rita Haworth-style, at a time when ranch women in Mexico wore long, dark dresses down to their ankles.

"They were so poor," she said, referring to her relatives living in Mitic. "All they had to offer us were cooked beans and a little soup."

As my mother spoke, it was as if she had transported herself back into time. She was a teenager again. She said that while her mother stayed with relatives in San Juan, she decided to rough it and stay on the ranch with a young cousin, Patricia, whom she had met.

By the 1940s, the village was nearly deserted, the dirt streets empty, and many of the adobe homes decaying. Mitic had fallen onto difficult times.

"I had to sleep on…not even a bed. It was like a cot, and it nearly rested on the dirt floor."
She told me the house was old, made of adobe and in poor condition. At night when she tried to sleep, she could hear scampering in the house followed by banging noises. Sometime in the early morning, she opened her eyes and saw the face of a large rat staring back at her. She realized the rats were everywhere. It terrified her. The next day she told her mother she could not stay in that house another night. "I felt so bad because I had planned on staying a few nights, but the next day I packed up and left."

What made her departure worse was that she and her cousin Patricia had formed a bond. My mother remembered, “She was about fifteen and very pretty…a beautiful girl."

Patricia asked my mother to stay for her confirmation ceremony, which was coming up soon. My mother said Patricia had confided in her, saying she had nothing nice to wear for the confirmation.
Reluctantly, my mother left the ranch. She and my grandmother stayed with their cousins in San Juan de Los Lagos, while my uncle stayed at the ranch. At the time, San Juan was already a small city and a holy site for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims throughout Mexico who traveled there by bus, car, and on foot. The great Mexican writer Juan Rulfo captured the mystique of San Juan in a short story “Talpa” in his collection “The Burning Plains and Other Stories.”

My mother said her family in San Juan was middle-class. She remembered that one of her aunts was a teacher and college educated, but still their home was very modest. The children, her cousins, all played musical instruments, and she described them as "average" referring to their income. “They were all very friendly but didn’t have much.”

After leaving San Juan, they went to visit relatives in Aguascalientes, a major city, and back in the 40s, hours from San Juan. "Those relatives who lived in Aguascalientes were very, very wealthy."
My mother described how my grandmother's sister had married a banker. The family owned a house with many rooms, the floors covered in Saltillo stone, a courtyard and fountain, and maids to care for the children. These relatives, my mother remembered, were very polite and friendly but a bit reserved, and they were wealthier and more refined than any of the relatives that had come to the U.S., including her own.

As soon as my mom arrived home to Santa Monica, she excitedly told her mother she wanted to buy Patricia a confirmation dress. My mother said she picked the prettiest one she could find. She hoped the dress would fit. She and her cousin were about the same size. She wrapped it, took it to the post office, and sent it to Patricia. She wanted it to surprise her younger cousin.

A few months passed. She heard nothing from Patricia or her parents. Then, after what seemed a long time, my mother received a letter from Patricia's parents. They wrote, telling my mother how much Patricia loved the dress. However, Patricia had become ill not long after my mother’s departure. After a little time, Patricia grew worse, and she died. They thanked my mother for the dress and told her their daughter looked beautiful wearing the dress in the casket.

As she told me this, my mother looked at me and said, her voice cracking, "It was so sad."
I think there was a little tinge in her voice, as if saying, “So you want to know what it was like in Mexico and why our family came to the United States?”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Love it!!! This is so informative about the past. Question myself why I never sought this history of our parents. Enjoy reading your writing Danny.