Saturday, November 25, 2017

Guest Columnist Antonio SolisGomez: Gratitude, Two Stories

Antonio SolisGomez

Giving thanks, feeling grateful, praising Mother Earth for her bounty and our
upkeep, all those sentiments come into play as we near the close of a year, as we
reflect on what has occurred in our community and on the love that is ever present
in our heart for family and friends. And we know intuitively and through study that
our ancestors shared similar moments, whether they were hunter gatherers gazing
at the stars around an open fire, or farmers sitting in their roofed quarters around
their cooking stove, their harvest contained nearby or factory workers glad for a
holiday from the mind numbing work. It is the human condition that easily leads to
sharing stories, stories that affirm who we are or where we have come from as well
as the values that sustain us.

Two Stories

In the early morning hours before dawn on his way to the bakery where he worked
Inez walked even more briskly than was his wont. He was a small man and his pants
were baggy, not in a stylish way, but because it was hard to find men’s work pants
for such a tiny person. He looked as if had just come from the highlands of central
Mexico, with very brown skin, a prominent nose, a ready smile and a shyness that
dominated his personality. It was the height of the Depression, a time of desperation
for many, a time when kindness from neighbors extended to those not from the
neighborhood, total strangers sometimes as had been the case with Inez when he
knocked on the door of the Diaz family on 17th Street of the Clover Barrio, asking if
he could be given lodging for the night. The Diaz’ were a large family, eight children,
two of whom were orphans and had been taken in and Chelo the adult blind sister of
Juan Diaz the head of the household who worked part time for the Santa Fe Railroad
laying and repairing track. Inez’ lodging lasted more than one night and even after
he landed the job at the bakery he stayed on with the family.

Julia, Juan’s wife was a master of managing the money, of availing herself of the
resources for families struggling to make ends meet and not reticent about
accepting whatever was offered as was the case when she was given a turkey for
Thanksgiving. The family had never had a turkey dinner and the children screamed
and jumped around upon learning of their good fortune, their delight ending just as
quickly when it became evident that the family’s tiny wood stove was too small to
cook such a large bird. It was Inez who proposed that he ask his boss for permission
to cook the turkey in the bakery’s oven, thus his hurried tiny steps on that
Thanksgiving morning, carrying the turkey wrapped in paper, close to his chest,
clasped in his small arms.

It was a curious day in the bakery that day, the fragrance of freshly baking bread
mixed with the heavier odors of a turkey being roasted, odors that the Diaz family
missed until Inez arrived that afternoon with the prized meal, a meal that was
recorded forever in their memory.

Julia with Juan & son John circa 1950
 Inez marrying Chelo circa 1959

It was warm November 23 1950, Thanksgiving Day in Los Angeles, prompting me, at
nine years of age, to make what I think was my first witticism when I told my
schoolmate Bobby that it was warm because everyone in Los Angeles was cooking a
turkey in their oven, everyone except my family I thought, our family desperately
poor whose Thanksgiving meal was to be a package of wieners. My stepdad, a
carpenter, had been unable to find work and had already sold his blood, hocked his
wedding ring and his hand saws, hammers, wood planes and anything else used in
his trade. We were totally broke. No one thought it would be this way when that
summer my mother, stepdad, my older brother and I had sat around the kitchen
table in our El Paso apartment excitedly looking at the home section of the Los
Angeles Times, and naively trying to decide which of the many houses depicted was
to be our future home. It was an exercise that my older brother and I had already
perfected during Christmas when we would look through the toy section of the
Sears Catalog and pick out our gifts, never giving in to the fact that such gifts would
never materialize.

In September of that year my mother, carrying my months old brother and I, holding
the hand of my younger brother, boarded a Greyhound Bus bound for Los Angeles,
leaving behind my older brother who was vising an uncle in Torreon and my
Stepfather who was working and who would send money to my mother. We rented
a room in an old Victorian Mansion on Bunker Hill, a room teeming with mice at
night and cockroaches at all hours, totally unlike what the Home Section of the
Times had led us to believe to be housing in Los Angeles. Luckily when my
stepfather joined us a month later we left Bunker Hill and rented two rooms
sectioned off from a home on 35th Place, a couple of blocks from the University of
Southern California. We were new immigrants, really, having left a city that was
more like Mexico than the United States, struggling to live in two small rooms where
nightly my older brother, who had returned from Mexico, and I, had to assemble the
green army cots in the room that also served as the kitchen and store them away in
morning upon waking.

Although in El Paso we were poor somehow or another Thanksgiving dinners were
sumptuous fare, turkey, potato salad, a Waldorf salad, eggnog, pumpkin pie,
cranberry sauce, a menu mostly attributed to my uncle Frank who had grown up in
Santa Maria and learned to cook with his mom who owned a tortilleria and
restaurant. When he was drafted during World War II, he was assigned to be a cook
and learned lots of Anglo recipes that became a staple for us especially during the
Holidays. But that first year in Los Angeles Thanksgiving was a pretty sad day for
the whole family and difficult to find the thanks in any of it until later, for it’s true as
the old adage says comedy is tragedy separated by time.

My younger brother Tito and I July 1950

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