Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Mexican Woman's American Journey


Daniel Cano

Eusebia Gonzalez, with grandchild, Santa Monica, 1947
     For this Bloga post, I’ve decided to continue exploring the American journey of Chicanos and Chicanas I interviewed during a sabbatical in 2001. My aunt 'Tonia's American journey, I’ve come to realize, is not just her journey but the journeys of many Chicana elders of the WWII-generation, their triumphs, and their struggles; unfortunately, a journey of little consequence to many Americans.
     Though some might categorize "us" as "one community", we know the differences between growing up in East L.A. or Boyle Heights, Alhambra or El Sereno, the Imperial or San Joaquin Valleys, Buckeye or Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, or any region of this vast, and, one time, borderless land.
     In the Army I met Mexicans [We didn't use Chicano, or even Mexican-American but simply Mexican, since in the 1960's few Mexican nationals migrated to the U.S.] from Kansas City to the Dakotas, and from Des Moines to Detroit. Detroit? Chicanos in Detroit? That’s right. Railroads, mines, ranches, farms, and factories needed workers everywhere in the country, and Mexican labor answered the call, going back to the 1800s. Our elders followed the original path north, the same route used by our Indigenous and Spanish ancestors, El Paso de Norte, and eastward onto the Santa Fe Trail, or west, through the Southwest, where Mejicanos have settled since the first expeditions of 1776, alongside their Indigenous brethren, and not always so peacefully.
     My grandparents just happened to settle in Santa Monica, about 1920, refugees of the Mexican Revolution, and, at the same time, filling the, not so subtle, U.S. demand for labor. My aunt’s story takes place on the Westside of L.A., though it could have taken place anywhere, even back on the little ranch of Mitic, in Jalisco, where it all started. But who controls fate, right?
    After recounting her earliest memories (La Bloga 3-21-18), she began telling me about her school days. She attended St. Anne Catholic School in Santa Monica. It was 1934. The nuns assigned homework every night, hours of it, and they'd punish the children who didn't finish. My aunt's teachers, she remembered, were strict, disciplining their students, not only in academics but in their behavior, also.

     She said she was a good student, and good girl, as were most of the kids at St. Anne. She minded her own business and stayed out of trouble. She enjoyed school and believed the nuns treated all the kids fairly and kindly, even if they were strict. Everything was fine, until one day, a friend who attended John Adams public school, told her it was more fun than Catholic school. Besides, there were a lot of neighborhood kids there, too.
     My aunt Toni begged her mother, Eusebia, to let her go to John Adams. She said, "Even though my dad was strict, my mother was really in charge." It's something I've heard many Chicanos of my aunt's generation tell me. "Mom was really in charge, though Dad thought he was." Emphatically, Eusebia refused. Barely 14 years removed from a ranchito in rural Jalisco, in Eusebia's Mexican mind, if children were to receive an education (most stayed home and worked in 1900s rural Mexico), it was the church's responsibility to instill knowledge in a child. Eusebia knew that only undisciplined kids attended public school.
     Toni persisted. For months, the mother and daughter tussled over the problem. "I think finally I wore my mom out."
     Eusebia reluctantly agreed, but on one condition. She told Toni she could go—but only for one year. Regardless of the outcome or how much she liked it, once the year had passed, Toni must return to Catholic school. For Toni, whose childhood requests were often met with a "no", her mother's set-condition was good enough.
     During the first weeks at her new school, Toni couldn't believe her eyes--or ears. She said a lot of the kids refused to do their homework. "They just wouldn't turn it in." It didn't seem like any of the teachers cared. The kids got away with it. The boys picked on the girls, teasing them, calling them names, or flirting with them. Many teachers, it seemed to her, didn't want to get involved "with those kinds of things." If kids misbehaved, it wasn't a big deal. You got sent to the office then back to class.
     What she hated most about public school was the mandatory shower after P.E. "At Saint Anne, we never played hard enough to perspire. And the nuns weren't going to run around with us to make sure we exercised. But at John Adams, they told me I had to take my clothes off in front of other girls. For us [the Mexican girls], no one ever saw us naked."
     For weeks, Toni pretended to shower. She wrapped a towel around herself and walked along a wall, away from the water, mussing her hair, as if she'd been in the shower. She'd exit the other side. But one day, a suspicious teacher asked why her hair wasn't wet. The teacher guessed what Toni had been doing. She forced her to shower like the other girls. Mortified, Toni had to bare herself in front of the others. "That was terrible." Now, she laughed about it, but still couldn't help recalling how the American girls disrobed and didn't think a thing of it, chasing each other around and playing in the dressing room, romping around happily--completely naked, not caring who saw them.
     Attached to the girls' locker room she saw another room, rows of cots lining the walls. On the days when it was too hot, the teachers moved the cots outside. Toni thought it strange when she passed by because there were American girls always lying around, as if they'd been in a crash or something. When she asked about the cots, someone told her it was for girls who were menstruating.
     Toni couldn't believe any girl would lie there announcing to the whole school something so private. She would rather suffer. But the worst thing, she said, was that the boys knew, and everyday, they would walk by and say things like, "Hey girls, how's the bleeding going today? Do the cramps hurt?" She said, "Can you imagine? Oh, you didn't see any Mexican girls on those cots. It was the American girls. I think they liked the attention or just needed an excuse to get out of going to class." After her year at John Adams, Toni happily returned to St.Anne.
     As a teenager, when she wasn't in school or working, Toni and the girls from her Santa Monica neighborhood would walk east, up Colorado Avenue, past the bean fields and brickyards, to Stoner Park, where the boys from West L.A., played baseball or swam in the pool. It was a three-mile walk one-way. "We walked everywhere. If we wanted to go the show, we would walk from 22nd Street to Third Street and go to the Majestic or the Elmiro Theater. Everyone walked.
     "When my brother Joe got his car, sometimes, he would take us to the beach, but most of the time we walked. Everywhere you looked, kids were walking all over the streets." She recalled a gas station owned by an African American man, some place close to Olympic Blvd. and 15th Street. "He had a jukebox there, and all of us girls would go and listen to the music. We usually walked there because we had to go buy groceries for our moms at a store on Olympic." In the 1930s, a savings of five-cent was significant.
     "One time, oh, I must have been about twelve, my mother gave me a dime and sent me to go buy something for her at the store. I went with a friend of mine. I was showing off, playing with the dime, tossing it in the dirt. When I went to get it, I couldn't find it. We looked all over. I knew my mother would punish me if I told her what I had done. So, I told my friend to let me charge my mother's food to her mother's credit account. Oh, she got so scared. 'What if my mom finds out?' She said. I told her not to worry, since we all had credit anyway and her mother wouldn't even know. So that's what we did, and her mother never did find out. Was I lucky."
     She remembered mostly Mexicans living around the 20th Street area. "We could walk from 22nd Street all the way to 14th Street. The whole thing was Mexican, and I remember we knew everybody. I think there were only a couple of black families, but I don't remember any American families in that area at all. You could walk around at night, and you could even walk in the alleys because there were always people outside. Everybody hung out in the alleys, even older people. It isn't like today where people are afraid to walk through alleys."
     About 1940, Toni's friend from next-door neighbor, Connie Guajardo, was dating “a guy, Rufino Escarcega, from West L.A.” Rufino wanted Toni to meet his younger brother, Mike. Toni didn't like the idea because she didn't know Mike, at all. But she had met Vera, Mike's sister, who urged Toni to date her brother. Mike had a pretty nice car, she remembered, and that alone was enough to impress a lot of girls. Few guys could afford cars in those days.
     As she talked, I interrupted my aunt to ask if she saw any differences between the Mexican kids from Santa Monica and West L.A. I could see my aunt considering my question. She answered, carefully. She thought the kids from Santa Monica were better educated than the kids from West L.A., especially the boys.
     She said when she met Mike, she saw right away, he, and his friends, used a lot of English and Spanish slang words when they spoke, words her parents considered crude. She said people in Santa Monica didn't talk that way. “In some ways it was cool,” she remembered. After all, they were all entering their teen years, and it was the early days of the early zoot-suit era. Still, she wasn't used to that any kind of crude behavior.
     My father, who was raised in W.L.A. once told me, he and his friends went to the movies every Saturday and were influenced by the tough-talking gangsters portrayed in the movies. My mother, who was from Santa Monica, told me she remembered going with her mother and aunts to see Mexican movies, at the Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles, especially the romantic, rancheras. She didn’t see many American movies.
     The theaters in Santa Monica were a six-mile round trip for the kids who lived near and around 20th Street and Pico. Walking to the theaters wasn’t as easy as it was for the kids from W.L.A. who lived right down the street from the two theaters in town. When I thought about this later, I realized it made sense.
     My father also told me, one time, the kids from Santa Monica lived in a true barrio, in the real sense of the word, their Mexican parents teaching them old country values. In West Los Angeles, the neighborhood was a mixture of Mexicans, Japanese, Italians, and many poor migrants from Oklahoma and Arkansas, farmers, with little formal education, who came West to escape the Dust Bowl. Okies spoke a more ungrammatical, provincial English, a homegrown language, using words like “ain’t” and “cain’t,” and “I seen” instead of “I saw.” Yet, it was also a colorful means of verbal communication, filled with figurative language, symbolic images that made up for its lack of formal vocabulary.
     The Okie and Chicano boys from W.L.A. peppered their language with each other’s words, ate each other’s food, and listened to each other’s music. When I once asked my father about racism, he’d answered, “Naw, hell, we were all poor. What was there to be racist about? We hardly ever fought. We played sports together.” So, there was a distinct difference between the kids in both towns, even though they bordered each other.
     Toni’s friends pressured her to go for a ride in Mike's car. Toni said she felt leery about getting in anyone's car, let alone someone she hardly knew. She went out with Mike and remembered how he shocked her. "He tried to get fresh with me," she said, laughing at the memory, but she didn't offer any details. She said, matter-of-factly, "One thing led to another." After Mike returned from the war, they married, and she moved with him to his family's home on Cotner Avenue, the heart of the West L.A. Chicanada, more Tobacco Road than Green Valley.
     The young couple tried to set up home, surrounded by his mother, brothers, and sisters, who raised Mike after his father was killed in a mining accident, years before in New Mexico. For Toni, the situation was nearly impossible. She had no privacy. It didn't seem to bother Mike. Finally, she was fed up and told him she wanted her own home. It took some persuading, and soon they found a house to rent between two dirt streets, facing an alley. She remembered, "The houses in West L.A., uggg, were just shacks, old, bare wood, no paint, and falling down. Moving from my parents' home in Santa Monica to a house in Sawtelle was like going from a palace to a hut. Even though my parents' home on 22nd Street was also old and made of wood, my father and brothers were always making improvements, painting, adding bedrooms, and an indoor bathroom. My dad had a garden, plants, and flowers. It was very comfortable."
     She told me the houses where they rented near Sepulveda and Santa Monica Boulevards had dirt yards and alleys. Dust would rise whenever cars passed. Few people had gardens or flowers. She said, “It makes me shutter to even think about it.”
     Then her first child was born. "You know how much it cost to have a baby?" she asked me, laughing. "$65.00. And you had to stay in the hospital for seven days. That was a reasonable price. Sometimes it was good to have a baby just to get the seven days rest in the hospital." Then came another child, a girl, and the rented house was too small.
First rental, Cotner W.L.A. 1940s

     Toni grew tired of renting and living in such a shabby, cramped house. After the third child was born, she wanted to buy her own house, following her parents' example, understanding the importance of home ownership. "Something about certain guys from West L.A.," she said. "They had a hard time leaving their neighborhood and buying their own homes. They were happy living in rented places, everyone squashed together."
     She said, "Mike wasn't interested in buying a house." He either liked the old neighborhood, or he figured he could buy a house later--rent was cheap--why rush? She said, “Fine, if he didn't want to buy a house, but I went to work and saved my money, enough for a down payment, and I decided to buy a house."
     She said she and Mike argued about it, but, eventually, he agreed. She started looking around the different Westside neighborhoods. New homes and neighborhoods were sprouting up all over the Westside. The first house she saw was on Greenfield Avenue, just east of Sepulveda, close to Westwood. She took Mike to see it. He liked it and wanted to buy it. She realized it was too small for a growing family, and she didn't really like the house. "Mike," she surmised, "wanted the house because he didn't want to keep looking."
     Toni found a three-bedroom house in a new W.L.A. subdivision, a half-mile from the Santa Monica City limit, just off Bundy Drive and Olympic Boulevard, across the street from the railroad tracks, one block from the Olympic Drive-in Theater, three blocks from her sister Josie's job at Armacost Nursery, and a half-mile from her sister, Esther, my mother.
     Shaded by an enormous avocado tree, the home was located in a mostly white neighborhood. She never seemed to notice; on one side, she had a Japanese neighbor, and on the other, a Chicano family. Toni didn't see skin color. Both she and Mike had light-skin, light eyes, and fit in easily. They attended integrated high schools, she Santa Monica High School, and he, University High School, both predominantly Anglo and upper class schools.
     I think it surprised people whenever they spoke Spanish. It did me, for neither of them had an inkling of a Spanish accent when speaking English. Yet, when I spoke to both of them, they were well-aware of the Mexican heritage, and never shied away from acknowledging, or discussing it.
     Mike's two-car garage became his haven. Filled with hunting, fishing equipment, and gardening tools, jazz music floated into the adjacent alley. He stayed up late each night re-loading shotgun shells, new, high tech equipment on his workbench, giving us kids the impression of a crazed inventor. When I finished talking to my aunt, I asked my uncle if I could interview him next. He said, "Ah, I don't remember all that much, but yeah, if you want to." I looked forward to hearing his perspective of life in the U.S., though, I really don't think he'd given it much thought.


Antonio SolisGomez said...

wow what a great account, vivid descriptions of character and place and informative as well. kudos

Unknown said...

Great story. I am never disappointed by what you write about. Thank you for sharing.