Saturday, April 14, 2018

El Principe: Dealing with a Bully in a Bygone Era by AntonioSolisGomez

La Mansion 306 w. Overland (recent photo)

I was born in El Paso in 1941 a few months before the start of World War II. My mother, Nena, was a single mom, having given birth to my older brother Ruly three years before, while still married to our father. By the time I was born my father had left us and was in Los Angeles. We and her mother Herminia, shared an apartment at La Mansion, a two story brick building in the Duranguito neighborhood, few blocks from downtown El Paso. The building, along with much of Duranguito, is now slated for destruction to expand the downtown area and some citizens are fighting for its preservation calling it "the Ellis Island of the border" as so many lived there when they came from Mexico. 

Our apartment was on the second floor, one of eighteen apartments that shared two toilets, a bath and a roofed balcony where everyone hung their laundry to dry. It was a cozy life I thought, when I was old enough to appreciate what I had: family friends that came during lunch breaks to eat a meal prepared by my abuelita, whom my brother started calling Willy; jaunts to Juarez to buy food at the Mercado and to visit with my ninos; visits to the public library to get books; and neighbors that cared for one another.

L to R Willy and Concha, my nina circa 1944

The tranquility of our little community was interrupted one summer day with the arrival of the infamous ‘El Principe', a name coined by Willy to describe a pompous buffoon who thought much too highly of himself. He was a large swarthy man, given to loud talk, mostly about himself and his importance and often boasting that he had been a policeman in Mexico. He made it known quite soon after his arrival that he worked at night and that the building would have absolute quiet while he slept during the day. This was a building that did not have too many children and therefore my brother and I often became the target of his rage whenever we played in the hallway or ran up the stairs to our apartment. One day in a rage he threw a pail of water and thoroughly soaked me. My Willy was furious and had some words with him. That incident began a contest of wills and tempers that carried throughout the summer days, the tension mounting with each encounter. The final straw was reached that winter when El Principe, who went shirtless year around, decided that the door from the central corridor leading to the balcony would have to remain open because he was too warm in his apartment. El Paso temps during winter drop below freezing and it receives a snowfall or two. One of the tenants had been ill with a cold and she had closed the door, as the chilly draft would invade all the apartments. ‘El Principe’ wasted no time in reopening it. Willy took it upon herself to go close the door. How she got the nerve to do so is unknown, as she was not one whom one would consider a courageous person. She was a small petite women, about 4’10’’. ‘El Principe’ opened it again and Willy one more time went out to close it. El Principe was waiting for her and in a loud voice verbally abused her with the foulest language imaginable. The neighbors quickly called my mother who was at work to let her know what had just transpired between Willy and ‘El Principe’. 

Nena taken a few years ago. She is 98
An advantage of being at the lowest rung of the social order is that often one gets to rub elbows with those of the highest order or with the powers that be. My mother as an operator of the elevator at the courthouse knew lawyers, judges, detectives and in that crisis called on her detective friends to go and investigate the situation, which they did. In the 1940’s, especially in small towns such as El Paso, social mores were quite different from today and insulting a woman and using profane language was not tolerated. Needless to say the detectives hauled off ‘El Principe’ to cool his heels in jail for the night and a court hearing was scheduled to get to the bottom of the conflict. On the appointed court date a few days later ‘El Principe’ showed up with Mercurochrome splashed all over his arm where, he claimed to the judge, Willy had scratched him. But neither his dramatics nor his claim about being a former policeman in Mexico endeared him to the judge, who issued a restraining order to him to cease his harassment of Willy and of the other tenants. Shortly after the court hearing ‘El Principe’ moved out and once again peace reigned.


Unknown said...

Love this article!

your daughter said...

That's a great story! :)

Daniel Cano said...

Antonio, too bad it took so long for me to read this memory, but I'm glad I got to it. You capture the time, place, and situation beautifully, a true slice of Chicano history, and a story that shows everyone's humanity. Gracias.