Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Generation Thankful for What They Had and Ignoring What They Lacked

Daniel Cano                                                    
                                                   Los Unidos, University High School circa 1944

     I don't know why General Kelly's words weigh so heavily on me. I realize he was referring to the Dreamers who hadn't signed up to become legal residents or citizens when he said they should have gotten "off  their asses," insinuating they were lazy, as in Lazy Mexicans, since the majority of Dreamers are of Latino descent.
     Maybe it's because my generation remembers the dirty, lazy Mexican stigma of the 40s and 50s, that bothered me. I figured an educated man like Kelly should know the history of Mexicans in the Southwest and the labels used to demean us. So why would he use wording that raised such ugly stereotypes?
     One would think as an Irish descendent, Kelly should understand discrimination, and how the British and their descendants used it to exploit and dehumanize the Irish, not only in England but in the U.S., as well. Maybe because I am a veteran, I expect more of our military leaders, like General Kelly.
     As a descendent of the an oppressed people, maybe Kelly is adopting the behaviors of those who exploited the Irish. In his masterpiece "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," Brazilian educator, philosopher, Paulo Freire explains how oppressed people once they are liberated adopt the characteristics of their oppressors, since those behaviors were the only models they knew. So maybe in some weird way General Kelly has become like those who once oppressed and exploited his Celtic brethren.
     What I do know is General Kelly's words sting. They reminded me of a time when Mexicans freely crossed a border, manufactured in Washington, after, what the poet Walt Whitman, described as one of the cruelest wars ever waged, the U.S. war against Mexico. Educator Noam Chomsky has said that Mexico, to this day, has never "legitimized" the U.S. theft of Mexican lands. Mexico has only "recognized" it. There is a difference. Yet, even into the 1920s, Mexican migrants needed only to sign a few papers and pay a dime, if they had it, to answer the Yankee call for Mexican workers, much like the call that still rings clear today.
     So is it true, do immigrants need to "get off their asses," to stop the laziness? Back in 2001, my parents' comadre and compadre, described to me how their parents worked to scratch out a place for themselves here in the north. Lupe Herrera, who served during both WWII and Korea, then later made a career for himself at Hughes Aircraft, and his wife Peaches Rubio Herrera, who raised a family while working at high-security electronic and computer companies, shared their family stories, stories of sacrifice, hope, and hard work, a Mexican story, an immigrant's story.

     Guadalupe "Lupe" Herrera, whose friends pronounce his name Lup'eh or the Americanized Loop, still lives in the home where he, and Peaches (who sadly passed away some years after my visit) raised their four children, near Sawtelle Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, on L.A.'s west-side, not far from where they grew up, in the town they still refer to by its original name: Sawtelle.
     Today, the neighborhood is a mix of 1920’s faux mini-Craftsmen bungalows, 1940’s stucco homes, 1960’s block apartments, Japanese nurseries, churches--from Buddhist to Baptist, and modern high-scale glass monstrosities owned by the ever increasing dot.commers.
     "Look. Here's a picture of Los Unidos, a Chicano club at University High School back in the '40s," Peaches said, pointing to an old black-and-white photo she’d placed on the coffee table.
     The students, young men and women, many of them now passed--in their youthful bliss, their faces frozen forever in time.
     "Lupe, that looks like you in the top row, middle, in the white t-shirt?" I asked.
     "Yeah. That's me."
     "I also recognize Mrs. Flores in the front row," my friend John's mom," I said.
                                                                Eighty-plus years young                                                                                               
     “Yeah, yeah. Boy, look at that, “Lupe said, as if transported into the past. “As kids, we used to go to the Nu-Art Theater every weekend. An usher always stood in the middle of the lobby making me, my brothers, and friends-- all the Chicanos, go to the left door and all the other kids to the right door. One day I told my older sister, Julia, about it. You know, I didn’t think much of it. I was just curious. But she was suspicious and figured they were separating the Chicanos from everyone else, so she went to the manager and asked why. He couldn’t answer her, and she told him she wanted her brothers to sit on the right side of the theater if they wanted.”
     Peaches said, chuckling, “Maybe they were trying to keep the troublemakers on one side.”
    Lupe insisted that the American kids were loud and rowdy too, and that not all Mexicans were rowdy, yet they still had to go to the "left" side. “Really,” he said, “it didn't matter to me. I wanted to sit with my friends anyway." He thought for a moment, and said, "Still, I never forgot it. I never did sit on the right side."
     “What about the Japanese kids,” I asked. “Where did they sit?”
     Lupe said he didn’t remember the Japanese kids going to the movies, or if they did, maybe they went to the Tivoli Theater (the Royal Theater today), a half-mile west on Santa Monica Boulevard.

                                                                     The Tivoli Theater circa 1920s

     As a bachelor, Guadalupe Herrera Sr., Lupe’s father, began traveling to the U.S. in the early 1900’s working the railroads in Kansas and across the Midwest, where work was plentiful and Mexican labor welcomed, especially men trained in working the mines, railroads, and agriculture.
     He returned to Zamora, Michoacan, a city in Mexico’s central highlands, married Librada and the two decided to leave Mexico and the Revolution, not unlike those from El Salvador, Guatemala, and parts of Mexico escaping violence today. They traveled to California by way of Plasencia, an early Mexican settlement and resting point for Mexican families migrating west.
     Guadalupe and Librada settled in Santa Paula, California, where Lupe, his six brothers and one sister, Julia, were born. Ventura County’s vast strawberry and lettuce fields were magnets for Mexican workers. When not working in the fields, Guadalupe worked as a laborer, utilizing the construction skills he’d learned over the years. His goal was to buy a house for his family.
     He saved what he could, which was not enough to purchase the land for a house, so he borrowed $900 from the bank and bought a plot of land on a side of town where he knew the best school in town was located. Eventually, he built the family home on 12th Street in Santa Paula at the time Julia was about to enter junior high school.
     On the first day at Julia’s new school, the principal called her aside and told her she would have to leave and attend the school on the other side of town, at El Campo, located near the orchards, where the workers lived in homes, mostly shacks, owned by the growers, and where the field workers' children attended school. Never a couple to fear a struggle, Guadalupe Sr. and Librada protested. The principal would not listen. Lupe told me that it was "a standard thing" in agricultural communities for principals and teachers to tell the Mexican children they should work to help their families and not worry about school.
     He said, “A lot of the kids ended up working in the orchards when they should have been in school.”
     During the Depression, Guadalupe, a mason by trade, couldn’t find work in town. Unable to support his family, he was forced to rent out the family home and move into a shack in the orchards and pick lemons and oranges at a much lower salary. Not only hard-working but also astute, Guadalupe soon became a supervisor, but he still didn’t earn enough to adequately support his wife and children.
     When the family was living in El Campo, Librada became seriously ill. There was no money for medicine and little food in the house. With their mother weak and barely talking, two of the children, Julia and Alfred, decided to walk to town and search for a doctor. Fortunately, both children could speak English and Spanish. In those days, few people in town spoke Spanish. They found a doctor's office, but to their dismay, the doctor was out on call.
     Desperate, the two children told someone in the office about their mother’s condition. Once they finished explaining, they walked back home. Later in the day, they heard a knock at the front door. When they opened it, the doctor was standing there looking for the two children who had come to his office earlier. Today Lupe still thinks it was a miracle since the children hadn't left an address. The doctor must have knocked on every door in El Campo until he located them.
     When he saw Librada, the doctor immediately knew she was suffering from malnutrition. He started filling her with medication. He visited her each day for the next few days. He told the children to make sure they stopped by his office everyday after school to pick up vitamin supplements for her. Soon, Librada regained her health.
     "If it wasn't for him, our mom would have died," Lupe said. “My sister Julia always remembered that doctor…because, you know, he didn’t have to do that. We didn’t know it at the time but my mom had been giving us her food, so she wasn't eating anything. Our parents really sacrificed for us in those days."
     As the Depression took hold over the country, Guadalupe Sr. could not make the payments on his home in Santa Paula and lost it. He moved the family to West Los Angeles in 1937 where Lupe’s aunt Trinidad was already living, along with Lupe's older brother, Trini. Lupe's younger brother Edward had been living with another aunt, Luisita in Santa Paula. Lupe said that the times were so tough many families sent children to live with other relatives to make ends meet.
     When the Herrera family arrived in Sawtelle, they couldn’t find a house to rent. Lupe said, "There was nobody going to rent to a family with seven kids, no way!" he laughed, thinking of the irony, I'm sure. Not only does he have his own large home, but he built an apartment rental in the back.
     His aunt Trinidad and her husband, who had no children and had saved a little money over the years, bought a small house, and rented it to the family. "I remember that," Lupe said, "Nine dollars a month."

                                                    Lupe and Peaches Herrera, University High School Reunion
     Located on Nebraska Avenue, near Santa Monica Boulevard, the house, Lupe said, “…was just a casita, one bedroom, a tiny living room.” He held out his hands showing a room half the size of his living room. “It had a small bathroom and a porch.”
     Peaches said, chuckling, "It was small!"
     She said she had met Lupe's younger brother Edward before she met Lupe. "Eddie was a friend of my brother, Roji." She said each Sunday she and her brother stopped off at the Herrera's house to pick up Eddie on the way to church. She remembered a few times the weather was cold and rainy, and she and her brother would wait outside for Eddie.
     "Why doesn't he ever ask us in?" she had asked Roji.
     Peaches said years later, when Eddie was already her brother-in-law, she reminded him of those days and asked why he had never invited them in. Eddie told her, laughing, because the living room floor was so full of mattresses, there was no room for anybody to stand up.
     Lupe said two small beds took up nearly all the space in the one bedroom. He and Eddie slept in one bed, but he couldn't remember who slept in the other. His older brothers slept in the living room, each evening spreading out mattresses, and storing them away in the morning.
     I asked, “Where did your mother and father sleep?”
     Lupe started to answer, mumbled, then stopped, as if startled, he thought for a second, then said, embarrassed, "To tell you the truth, I don't know. I really don't know."
     Later Guadalupe and his sons added a room to the house, roughly 30x20 feet. Lupe said it was just made of plywood and simple, but to them back then it was like a mansion.
     “Do you remember what the furniture was like; did you have a stove?” I asked.
     Lupe said, "In the kitchen there was only a mesita."
     He couldn’t remember the entire family ever sitting down to eat at one time. "We must have eaten in shifts," he said. “Everyone was either working or going to school, so nobody ever seemed to be home at one time, except to sleep.”
     He didn’t remember anyone ever complaining. Mostly, they gave thanks for what they had and did not concern themselves with what they lacked, and, most certainly, they did not see themselves, or their parents, as an American general would come to see them.


Unknown said...

Danny, in 1957 at around 9 years of age, I went by myself to the Nuart Theater there in West L.A. (The theater in the 50s and possibly 40s was showing Mexican movies on certain days to the local Spanish speaking Latinos). a movie from the Mexican Cinema in Spanish title "El tesoro de Panch Villa" was at the Nuart at that time and I imagined Pancho Villa as a hero type that fought for the Mexican people, a kind of Superman, cowboy hero that i Wanted to be proud of. I was greatly disappointed that EL TESORO DE PANCHO VILLA starred a MASKED WRESTLER.
Masked wrestlers were popular in Mexico but not my cup of tea as the gabachos would say.

Daniel Cano said...

Samuel, I do remember those days. Luckily, we had a lot of theaters around. I think wherever we were raised, in whatever neighborhood, city, or state, we all cherish those memories.