Thursday, March 22, 2018

Surviving the Storm: Antonia "Toni" Gonzalez Escarcega

     Daniel Cano

        The sisters, Gloria, Candida, and Esther pose
behind home on 22nd Street, Santa Monica

     "In Santa Monica when we were kids, you could walk down Michigan, from Cloverfield to Lincoln, and not hear a word of English ." (Toni Escarcega)                                                                 


     In November, 2001, I arrived at my aunt Toni’s West L.A. home just as she and her mail carrier, a pretty, young, African-American woman, stood on the front porch, planning a birthday party for one of the neighbors. The mail carrier had set down her bulky, mail-laden bag. I listened, with interest. The two spoke like old friends, laughing and calling each other by their first names.

     I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was; after all, how many of us today even know our neighbors, let alone celebrate their birthdays? My aunt's interaction with her mail carrier reminded me just how caring, friendly, and funny, she was, quick to crack a joke but quicker to laugh. So much time I'd spent at her house, staying overnight with my cousins, yet, I knew so little about her. So, I set out to ask her some questions about her childhood and early days in Santa Monica.

     Her husband, my uncle Mike, was in the living room watching television as I entered. He was a genuine outdoors' man. He taught us all, his sons, nephews, and neighborhood kids, to fish, ride dirt bikes, camp, and hunt, using bows and arrows, shotguns, or rifles, depending whatever prey was in season at the time. He’d take us camping and fishing to the Kern River on weekends, or the King’s River in summer, and up to the creeks rushing off the eastside of the Sierra Nevada Mountains along Highway 395, above Bishop. When I’d once asked him about hunting, he told me he remembered camping, and hunting deer in the Santa Monica Mountains in the 1950s, just north of Sunset Boulevard, until the City prohibited sports hunting in the area.

     My aunt Toni (Tonia, a name I only heard my grandmother call her) is my mother's older sister but closest in age. We, the kids, all called her Toni or Aunt Toni, never tia. My uncle Mike (probably Miguel, but I don’t think he even knew for sure) is my father's first-cousin, so my cousins and I are related on both sides of the family.

     I suppose L.A.'s Westside Chicano community, back in the 1930s and ‘40s, was provincial, like many barrios throughout the Southwest, so the kids from different neighboring towns knew each other well. My mother once told me, "All the girls from Santa Monica married guys from W.L.A., and all the girls from WLA married guys from Santa Monica." When I asked why, she told me, "Marrying guys from your own neighborhood, like the Guajardos and Garcias, would be like marrying a cousin or a brother. Our families were all very close back then."

New signs, same streets


     The second youngest in the family of Nicolas and Eusebia Gonzalez, my aunt Toni was born in Santa Monica in 1924. Of her earliest years at her parents' home, she said, "It was a nice place to live. I didn't know any other home, so I guess my parents must have bought the house on 22nd Street in the 20s." She thought for a moment, then said, as if suddenly remembering, "We all had our chores. Actually, we inherited each other's chores. Since your mom, Esther, and I were the youngest, we didn't have to do too much. But when the older sisters and brothers all got jobs, then we had to do their chores.

     "Mama," the name we all called my grandmother, "would get up every morning about 5:30 and make breakfast and lunches for everyone. She usually made tacos." (For some reason, we all called burritos tacos.) "Then your mom and I would get up, and we had to sweep and mop the whole house before we got ready for school. Everyone in the family had a job."

     She recalled one summer during the Depression when the family traveled to Northern California to work in the fields. She said, as if had all happened yesterday, "My uncle and aunt had already moved to San Jose. One year they left Santa Monica and went up north to pick fruit. They never came back. I guess they told my mom there was a lot of work, and people could make extra money.

     "Well, my dad, my brother Chuy, and the older girls were already working here, so my mom, my brother, Joe, your mom, some other friends, and I went up north to pick fruit. I didn't think we'd ever make it back. Our car got stuck on a hill, one time, and we tried to move it, but the tires just kept turning. We'd go up the hill a little, and then, back down the car would slide. I was young, so I really thought we'd get stuck and have to live there.

     "Picking fruit wasn't so bad, though. I guess I saw the trip…well, not as a vacation, but like something different, like camping out. There were about seventy-five people living in a small outside area. We had to crowd into a tent. I was about ten or eleven but old enough to work. Your mom was still too young, so she just stayed around the camp.

     "I was pretty fast at picking, and I thought it was fun, until the heat got to me. I was in a row way ahead of everybody when I got tired and laid down on my back. I could hear the others catching up, so I thought I better look like I was working. I was still lying on my back resting.”

     She began to laugh, “So I kicked the plants with my feet to make it seem like I was picking the fruit. I guess they got suspicious when the sounds kept coming from one place. The next thing I knew Mama came around a row and saw what I was doing. She gave me a good whacking.

     "I don't think we ever picked fruit again. I guess we [the family] weren't very good at it because I remember Mama had to call my brother Chuy, who had a job back home, so he could send us gas money to get home. But our relatives who lived in San Jose made money. They were used to that kind of work and knew how to do it. But since we were from Santa Monica, we weren’t really good at picking."


     My mother and I lived with my grandmother, Eusebia, for a short period of time when I was a toddler, so I knew my grandmother well. I never knew my grandfather, Nicolas, who died before I was born; though, I’d heard many stories about him, so I felt I knew him. I asked my aunt Toni what she remembered about her parents. She said, “They were both good parents but really strict.”

     Of the seven Gonzalez children, my aunt, Toni, and my mother were the only ones born in the U.S., in Santa Monica. So, of course, they were the most modern of the Gonzalez sisters. To them many traditional Mexican customs seemed rigid, out of date.

     When I asked her about this, my aunt told me, "One day we were all walking home from school, boys and girls. After awhile, the girls had all walked in different directions home, and I was the only girl walking with the boys. In Santa Monica, the back of our house on 22nd Street was on a hill. From there, my father could see over the whole neighborhood, and he could see me walking [with the boys].

     "When I got home he started hitting me. I cried and hollered but he wouldn't stop. Your mother, Esther, even came and tried to get him to stop. The bad thing was I didn't know why I was getting hit. When he finally stopped, he said he never wanted to see me alone with the boys again."

     She said she tried to explain to her father what had happened. She said her father knew the boys and their families, some of them had even visited their home. As she told me the story, my aunt's voice sounded more fascinated than hurt at the memory.

     Her father's reaction was common in Mexican communities across the United States in the 1930s. A child's action was a reflection of the family's reputation. After all, small communities turned truths into rumors and exaggerations. Nicolas Gonzalez knew this. He also knew a perceived "loose" daughter certainly would offer fodder to neighborhood gossip. "Oh, yes," she continued. "My mom and dad were good, but they were strict," she repeated during our talk.

22nd Street Hill, 2018

     "Another time, your mother and I went roller skating just up the street. Since our house was at the top of a hill, kids from other neighborhoods came there just to skate down the hill. Sometimes you could see twenty or thirty kids skating down the hill on Michigan Avenue. We all laughed and yelled, having a good time."

     She described how during those long, summer days, my grandmother, Eusebia, ordered the girls home by eight P.M. and to not dare stay out after dark. Toni and my mom were probably about eight or nine years old, at the time. The two sisters lost track of time. One of their friends said, "Here comes your mom." My aunt laughed, when she said, "Your mom and I squeezed into the group of kids and ran home through the back alley, hoping my mom hadn't seen us. When we got home, we took off our skates and jumped into bed with all our clothes on. Mama came into the room and started hitting us with a broom. No warning, nothing."

     Her voice rose, as if she were reciting a poem. "Your mom was smaller and she squeezed under me to hide, so I got the worst of it. Funny," she kept laughing, "your mom says she doesn't remember. Yeah, but I remember. I guess since we were so close in age, we were pretty competitive. But I was older, so I think I always got the blame."

Remnants of family home, Mitic, Los Altos de Jalisco

     If--in his novel Al Filo del Agua (At the Edge of the Storm), Mexican writer Agustin Yanez’s portrayal of life in 1910 in a Mexican village in Los Altos de Jalisco (my grandparents’ home in Mexico)--is accurate, it’s a bleak vision dominated by religious repression, as if all men and women are expected to live as monastics and ascetics, giving up all worldly pleasures.

     In Yanez's telling, his narrator describes the rural setting: "There are no fiestas in the village; only the daily dances of myriads of sunbeams, the only music is the sound of the bells that toll the passing of the dead, or the tuneless, plaintive melodies of religious chants that express the latent sense of oppression. Never any parties. Dancing is held in horror...Never to be thought of ... never, never. Families visit each other only at times of bereavement or illness, or possibly to welcome home a long, absent member. ...Village of black-robed women, hermetic and solemn."

     I can't help but ask, if my grandparents grew up in Mexico at the turn of the 20th Century, in the darkness described by Yanez, how did they reconcile the differences between life in those desolate villages and life in the United States? How did their Mexican lives impact the lives of their children, grandchildren, and future generations? I mean, we, the Chicano children, American baby-boomers, are but one generation removed from life in those villages.

My mother sitting, left, my aunt Toni standing, final reunion


     My aunt told me that when she was a child, the neighborhood kids had to go to the clinic for regular health checkups. She said, "Your mom and I walked to the clinic. I think it was on Michigan and 17th Street, near the cemetery. I was about fifteen, so your mom must have been about twelve or thirteen. Well, I was healthy, but the doctor said your mom was very sick." (In fact, my mother had been misdiagnosed with tuberculosis and spent three years at Olive View Sanitarium recuperating from an illness she never had.)

     "On the way home, your mom kept crying, so I wanted to make her feel better. I said, 'Look, it is better for you to be sick now because you're still too young to go to dances and have a good time. It wouldn't be good if I got sick because pretty soon I'll be going to the dances, and that would be bad.' Oh, your mom got mad at that. She hit me and said, 'That doesn't make me feel better.'

     "Another time, I had to go outside and start a fire, so my mother could wash clothes. I had to pile wood and paper, get some brush, and get the fire going. We would start washing about 9:00AM--first the whites in one tub, then the colored clothes in another tub. We wouldn't finish until about 2:00 or 3:00. It was so hard.

     "Well, this one time, I finally got a flame going, and just as the fire began to catch, your mother came over and stomped it out. Then she started laughing. Oh, I got mad and told her not to do it again or she would be sorry. I got it going again and here came your mother, laughing, and did the same thing. I grabbed her, just to make her stop. We started wrestling, then we fell, and we started rolling across the dirt, right into the garbage pit, a hole my father had dug. My mother came out and saw us. She started yelling at me. I tried to explain, but she wouldn't listen. She reached in and helped your mother--who was crying--out of the pit. I reached up for my mom to help me too, but she just walked away, so I had to crawl out by myself."

     My aunt laughed as she finished the story. "Funny how your mom doesn’t seem to remember any of those things today, but I do."

     My aunt Toni went on to describe how my grandfather, a small but strong man, "...used to raise a pig and kill it, cook it in a pit, and invite people over for a party. He didn't like us watching him kill the pig, but we would peek from around the corner. I remember watching him, with a big knife in his hand, jumping on the pig's back. But my dad was so small, the pig would buck him off, and oh, we'd laugh. But my dad got back on the pig, getting bucked all over, until he killed it.

     "But he was also real kind. When my mother would take the older girls to the dances in Santa Monica, your mom and I would stay home with my dad. He'd put us to bed as soon as it got dark. We'd crawl in between him because we knew he would tell us scary stories about Mexico. Well, after a few of his stories, we were so scared, we'd tell him we were sleepy, and he'd say, 'Okay girls, enough stories. Go to sleep.' And we would. We'd fall right to sleep. We were pretty good kids."


Mike Escarcega said...

Nice article about my mon Danny. One comment, my dads actual name was Ismael but he liked Mike better and used it.

Daniel Cano said...

Oh, that's funny. See, he kept a lot of stuff from us.