Thursday, November 15, 2018

Max Vigil: Cinderella in Huaraches

Daniel Cano

Remnants of Westside Tobacco Road or the train to the sea
    Before he passed away, I spoke to Max Vigil many times about his American journey. He told me he arrived to LA's Westside in the mid to late 1930s. He used the old city name, Sawtelle, rather than West L.A., a suburb of Los Angeles. He said, and pointed, as I drove him through town, “The first house we lived in was right there on Barry Avenue and Olympic, right behind that building that says Barry Plating, on the corner, just a block from Tobacco Road.”
     He spoke slowly and clearly, as if considering each word before releasing it.
     I said, “Tobacco Road? I never heard that, I mean other than the book and movie.”
     “No!” he said, surprised. “Oh yeah, it was right there, where the Abelars lived, on Federal between Olympic and Pico. The Dorames lived there, near the railroad tracks, mostly shacks and dirt. I guess it was called Tobacco Road because it was such a poor area. From there we moved to La Gara, on Pontius Avenue.”
      “Weren’t all the neighborhoods poor in those days?” I asked.
     “Yeah, I guess that’s right.”
     Max remembered his family moving to different locations around West L.A. He said his childhood memories remain hazy, though one thing was certain, "Sawtelle was a great place to grow up."
     “As a kid, did you ever think about the future?” I asked.
     He said kids didn't look too far ahead in those days. “Everybody lived for today. You see, my mom was the one who raised us.”
    “Didn’t your father move with you to California?”
     "My father left us--in El Paso.”
     “How old were you when he left.”
     “Let’s see. Mmmm, I don’t even remember.”
     He spoke about his mother, Lupe, and his aunt, Adolfina, as gente educada. His mother and aunt demanded good speech and manners in her children. Also, they instructed him to be respectful and to never accept disrespect from others. His mother and his aunt spoke, read, and wrote English, something rare in first generation Mexicans.
     His family had already lived in Texas years before they arrived in Los Angeles. He remembered his mother telling him how, in El Paso, she and Adolfina had worked in the early days in a factory cleaning floors.
     “My mother and my aunt…all they were allowed to do was scrub floors. You know, Mexicans! Back then…in El Paso, man…Texas, whew," he said. I took his cryptic talk to infer that Texas racism left little opportunity for Mexicans in those days.
     “My mom and aunt came from Parral, Chihuahua. My mom only had a third-grade education, and I’ll tell you what. That lady, when she died, could do more with the English language than I could…amazing--in speech and mathematics. But we never did see eye to eye.”
     Parral de Chihuahua would loom large in Mexican/American history as the location where federal forces executed Francisco "Pancho" Villa.                                                                    
     “Do you think in your family's background education was appreciated? It doesn’t make sense that your mom and aunt could grasp English so easily.”
     He said, “My mother told me ‘speak English’ and ah, she was the example. She learned English in El Paso—fast. None of this…you know? She would not go for that….” insinuating how many  first-generation Mexicans learned little or no English after years in the U.S. He added, “She made a conscious effort to study it.”
     “I suppose some people acquire language easier than others,” I said, “or else there’s education in their family’s background they didn’t know existed.”
     “Yeah, well that’s interesting,” he said. “My grandfather, Eugenio Rodriguez, my mom’s dad, was the postmaster in Parral—during the revolution, and an enemy of the federals.”
     I suggested, “He had to have been educated to be the postmaster.”
     “Oh, yes. He was Indian, an educated Indian. Let’s see. From Mexico my grandfather brought them all over here [to El Paso], including my grandmother, Dolores. He went back to Parral, and I don’t think he was ever heard from again.”
     Fortunately, at the time, the U.S. welcomed Mexican refugees instead of calling out the army on them. U.S. Labor, of course, greeted them with great smiles and open arms.
The heart of Sawtelle, 1960s, before its destruction
     “So, then" I surmised, "your mother, aunt, sister, and grandmother came to Los Angeles, Sawtelle, together?”
     “No, not my aunt, but I had two uncles, Benny and Abel who were already here. They had come out to California earlier looking for jobs. They were excellent cooks, self- taught. They settled here, in the Westside, Venice, I think. In fact, now I remember, they went back [to Texas] after us and brought us out here. That must have been about 1939. I also remember when my Uncle Benny got married. It was on December 7th, 1941. We came out of the church, and there were guys selling news papers up and down the street, you know, yelling U.S. Bombed--Pearl Harbor Attacked!”
     “So, you were about eleven, then?”
     “Yeah, that’s right. I became an Air Raid Messenger.”
     “An Air Raid Messenger? At eleven?”
     “You don’t know what that is? Well, we had Air Raid Wardens whose job it was to make sure at night all the windows were sealed off so that there was no light anywhere because a lighted match could be seen from twenty thousand feet up. So, my job was to run around and find anybody who had a light showing, knock on the door and tell them to secure it, and if they didn’t, we’d take care of it.”
     “Was it a volunteer job?”
     “Oh, yeah! It was my first big volunteer job. I loved voluntary work.”
     I said, “Could explain your later volunteer work in politics, when you got older? Did you know anybody else who volunteered as a kid?” I asked, wondering how many other kids might like such jobs.
     “No,” he said, thoughtfully. “I never did.”
     “So,” I probed, “your grandfather as postmaster, literate, and educated, could have had an impact on your need to educate yourself?”
     “Yeah, it’s interesting, my uncle Abel’s son studied law at UCLA. I guess he’s in his 60’s now. He was very successful in real estate.”
     “That means he was at UCLA when few Chicanos were enrolled there.”
     “Right. Yes. And his brother Charlie was a B-52 pilot, a lieutenant colonel. In Vietnam, he flew on twenty-two missions.”
     “Yeah,” I said, “I think there was something there, in the genes or something, that went back to your grandfather, the postmaster,” I laughed. “Or else someone was a good model for all of you going back to your grandfather.”
     Max was one of the few of my father's friends who earned an advanced university degree, and he went on to work in the Reagan Administration.
     He said, in response to my suggestion, “And my father, a very intelligent man, was in the military, the cavalry. He was on this side [the U.S.]. He wasn’t from Mexico. He was a Spanish-Indian, from Socorro, New Mexico, and those people are not Mexican but Spanish.”
     “But wouldn’t that make him mestizo?”
     “Yes, but not Mexican. He was Pueblo--Isleta, an Indian from this side, not the Mexican side.”
     I thought, how ironic, back before 1848, there was no "this side". It was one large territory, where recent discoveries have found Mayan and Aztec gems in Southwest Pueblo ruins.
     “So, your father’s dad was Spanish and his mother Pueblo.”
     Max thought, then answered, “Now here’s where it gets complicated. My dad was adopted by a Vigil. His real father’s name was Abeyta…question marks all over the place. He [Max’s father] said both Abeyta and Vigil were Spanish.”
     “But the birth mother was Indian, Isleta?”
     “Yes, right.”
     “And your father had no connection with Mexico.”
     “None at all. Now, there’s a painting in a restaurant in Albuquerque, Maria Teresa’s, of which my cousin, who lives up in the Sierras, in California, has the same picture, handed down through the family. And that’s him, last name Abeyta. Chato they called him. In recent years the restaurant was sold. It’s no longer Maria Teresa’s. I want to go back and chase it [the picture] down. My dad ended up in Indiana, the Fort Wayne area, Decatur, where he died. In the later years, he and I kept very much in touch.”
     I said, hesitantly, “But growing up you never knew him. Did you look for him?”
     “No. He found me. I first had contact with him in ’57-’58. And he was remarried at the time. You ever hear of Carole Lombard? Well, he married her kin. My dad’s wife was a very pretty lady. See, that’s where Carole Lombard is from.”
     “But your dad was from El Paso?”
     “Well, he was stationed at Ft. Bliss. I was born at Ft. Bliss. My parents split before we came to California.”
     “But your mom, grandmother, and sister came to California directly from El Paso?”
     “Yeah, now let me tell you about that. My aunt would have been a terrifically wealthy woman.”
     Max explained how each day, in El Paso, his mother and aunt, Adolfina, when they were young women, scrubbed floors in a large factory. One day as they worked, scrubbing the stairs, a nicely dressed man approached Max’s aunt and began to speak with her, first a hello, then a little more each day.
     “You know,” Max said, as he told the story, “the man said to them good morning ladies and made conversation with them. One thing led to another and my aunt and the man began dating. The man owned the petroleum building where my mom and aunt worked, and he owned some other holdings. Well, as it turned out, they married.”
     Max remembered his mother telling how his aunt's wedding had been like a fairy tale. Then,
some time after their marriage, her husband had promised Adolfina a trip to New York. When the time came for the trip, an emergency arose at his company, and he could not leave. He told her to take a friend and enjoy New York and, at a later date, he would take her again.
     Max said, “While she was in New York, her husband suffered a fatal heart attack. Now get this. It was written in his will—'if my wife is at my bedside when I die, she receives everything I own.’ Otherwise she would only get a certain amount. The lawyer told Adolfina the stipulation had been a part of the will before she married him, and he never got around to updating it. So,” Max said, “my aunt inherited only a portion of the estate. She remarried, traveled, furthered her education, and eventually moved to California, where she bought a beautiful home on Selby Avenue in Westwood. So, you see, that's why I said she could have been extremely rich.