Thursday, November 01, 2018

Early Caravans: A Song for my Father

West Los Angeles, A Father's Hands. 1947

Before my father passed, I would pick him up, and we'd cruise the neighborhoods of his youth, Sawtelle, Santa Monica, Palms, Culver City and Venice. Armed with a small cassette tape recorder, I'd toss out questions or just listen to his stories. Sometimes, we'd sit in his room and talk.

At the time, he spent his days listening to the radio and books on tape. A voracious reader, who introduced me to writers like Styron, Hemingway, and Steinbeck, he lost his eyesight in 2002, complications from glaucoma. He didn't realize the eye drops he'd carried around in his pocket when he worked in construction had to be refrigerated or lose its potency. I remember him once telling me when he could still see, "If I go blind, I will just end it."

Well, he didn't end it. He found a way to live, if not completely happy, then contentedly, sitting next to me at my grandkids' ball games, while I gave him the play-by-play account. At the end of a game or event, he'd remember more details than the rest of us who'd seen it with our own eyes. He had us analyzing the game hours after it was finished.

My sisters took him to his favorite restaurants for lunch and dinner, and he had a steady stream of family and friends visiting him each week. He even attended a monthly breakfast with friends he'd known since childhood. He could inch his way through the house, find his place at the dining room table, to the den, or the back porch. He appeared to relish the notion that someone else could cut the lawn, weed the flower beds, and finish his outside chores.

A friend of his once told me, "Whenever we had questions about the 'old days,' we’d call Ray because he knew something about everything.”

I once asked my dad, "Is it true what my uncle Chuy said that old-time Mexicans knew Olympic Boulevard as Pennsylvania Avenue and it ended at 20th Street in Santa Monica?"

"Yeah," he said, his voice rising, insinuating I should have known the answer. "Where Crossroads School is today, in Santa Monica, west of 20th Street, Pennsylvania ended. It was all bean fields, almost all the way to the beach. Pennsylvania became Olympic and started just about where Bundy Drive is today.”

I remembered reading that Francisco Sepulveda, back in the early 1800s, had a ranch right around what is today Bundy Drive and Nebraska, close to where our friends the Saenz family lived.

My father said, “East of Bundy, Olympic was Louisiana,” which he pronounced Lou-ziana. “In fact, if you go towards Century City on Olympic, just the other side of Beverly Glenn, there's a small street that veers to the right--it's called Louisiana. That's all that's left of the original street."

My father’s dad, Maximiano Cano, came to the United States from San Diego de Alejandria, Jalisco during the later stages of the Mexican Revolution, about 1917, after his father’s death. My grandfather’s older brother Pedro had joined the revolution and disappeared, leaving my grandfather the only male at home, and, at seventeen years old, the de facto "man of the house," responsible for his mother, Susana, and his sisters. Food was scarce and violence but a door-knock away.

Julian Mireles, the wild, hard-drinking son of a wealthy rancher, courted my grandfather's older sister, Carmen. My grandfather disapproved of Julian and wanted him nowhere near his sister. When Julian asked Carmen to marry him, instead of asking for my grandfather’s blessing, Carmen asked her mother, who consented, perhaps, seeking some relief from the suffering all around them.

Furious at his mother and sister's disrespect, my grandfather fled the ranch without so much as a goodbye, trekked through war ravaged central and northern Mexico, and crossed the border at El Paso, TX., joining hundreds of thousands of Mexicans escaping violence and poverty, some of it caused by past U.S. policies towards Mexico, not unlike the caravans of people seeking asylum in the U.S. today.

My father told me, in a lowered voice, "Somebody who knew my dad's mother back in Mexico told us she walked miles from her ranch, Las Amapolas, to the church in town, every morning, praying he would return." His mother would die never hearing a word from him.

In 1960, my aunt Carmen Hernandez (ironically my grandfather named his daughter after his wayward sister), insisted my grandfather fly to San Luis Potosi to visit his older sister, Carmen, where she was living with her adult children in a stately home near the center of the city. Carmen was his only remaining sibling. Reluctantly, my grandfather agreed, but their reunion didn’t last long. After a few days in Mexico, my grandfather cut his trip short and asked my aunt to fly him home.
Carmen Cano Mireles and Brother Maximiano, Only Inches Apart 
One photo remains of the visit. Outside Carmen’s two-story house, my grandfather is wearing a double-breasted suit and a dark shirt buttoned at the neck, his hair cut short, kind of punkish and very chic, for the day. His sister wears a simple housedress. They lean against a wall, their hands resting on a cement pillar, their fingers inches apart--as if desperately wanting to touch. They don't. 

"My dad was bitter with Mexico," my father said, as I described the photo to him. "He never talked about it. If you asked him, he'd change the subject."

I asked, "What did he do when he first arrived in the U.S. I mean, he couldn't speak English and didn't know anybody, right?"

He said, "He was a rancher's son. He told me he worked in El Paso for a German dairy farmer. He saved his money and took a train…. I can't remember where he ended up. I guess San Bernardino or L.A., then to Decklessville (Fontana). The German farmer liked my dad, who was a hard worker. He begged him to stay in Texas. Some place, in San Bernardino, my dad met my mother."

Placentia and San Bernardino were two major hubs for Mexican immigrants heading west at the turn of the 20th century. The migrants stopped to resupply, find work, or ask the whereabouts of loved ones who had arrived before them.

My grandmother, Santos Rios, was already a mother of three children, Nick, Jenny, and Gracie when she married my grandfather, some time around 1917. Some say my grandfather, ‘Ol Maxie, was a draft-dodger. By marrying my grandmother, Santos, he avoided serving in WWI. Friends told him Uncle Sam would not draft a married man with children. Who knows the truth, right?

Santos had come to the United States looking for her sister, Josefina, who arrived in Los Angeles with her children after her husband's death in New Mexico.

"I know my mom was from Chihuahua, and we still have relatives there," my dad said. "If you ask your uncle Mike (my dad's first cousin), he knows more than I do."

As he reminisced about his parents, my dad said, "My mom and dad didn't talk much. In those days, people married more out of convenience than anything else.

"I was born in Fontana," he continued. "Well, it was outside of Fontana, a place called Decklessville. I don't remember much, but I kind of remember rowdy guys. They used to drink a lot in those little towns, working in the quarry, breaking rock. My dad broke his leg there. A rock rolled on him. A lot of people were killed there. In those days, you know, they didn't have any safety standards."

Many of the rocks they broke ended up creating breakwater for the various harbors sprouting up along the southern coast. Sometimes I go to Sunset boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway, sit on the huge boulders, and watch the waves roll in. I’m well aware many these boulders were mined in the San Bernardino and Riverside quarries composed mostly of Mexican laborers, my grandfather among them. I figured, as long as U.S. employers hold out the "so called" welcome mat to low wage workers, the caravans will continue.

“When did they get to Fontana?” I asked. “Probably around 1922,” my father explained. "My folks followed Josefina, my mom's sister--your uncle Mike's mom. My mom found out through the grapevine they were in San Bernardino, and we came looking for them."

I later learned when work was scarce in Los Angeles, the Mexican laborers could always find work in the quarries, so they often travelled to and from Riverside many times, often walking or hitchhiking much of the way.

By the time my grandparents arrived in San Bernardino, Josefina had moved to Los Angles’ west side. "So, we came too. When we got to Sawtelle, my dad saw a guy he knew--Steve Ortado. Steve was a young man then, a gardener, and my dad asked him if he knew where Josefina Escarcega lived. Steve told him, 'They just moved in…down that street over there.' My dad found them right away. Josefina's husband had been killed in a mining accident some place in Gallup, New Mexico, and she came west with the kids, Mike, Peanuts (Rufino), Elia, all of them. To this day, I don't know how they made a living, how they made that trip alone, with no father…. So, by 1926, we were all here in Sawtelle. I was two or three years old.

"My half-sisters Gracie and Jenny were a lot older than I was. They were part of the 'Roaring Twenties' generation. Both of them drank a lot. They spoke mostly Spanish. I remember them pretty well. Jenny went to see me graduate from Emerson Junior High. I guess my parents couldn't go. I remember when I enrolled in school, my older brother Nick took me. My sisters both died young from drinking, sclerosis of the liver."
Father and Sons: Ray, Maximiano, and David Cano, circa 1940
Eventually, the same disease would take the lives of his two older brothers, Nick and David. We talked a few times about how "drink" was a curse in our family, yet, we never reached any conclusions. If not for my mom’s persistence and our at-home rehab, my dad might have been one more statistic.

My father remembered the family's first house in West L.A. on Cotner Avenue, near Pico Boulevard, a barrio known as La Gara. I think every Chicano town across the U.S. has a neighborhood with same moniker, La Gara or the “Rag”, named for washdays when mothers hung clothes out to dry, and the entire street looked like a parade of white rags flapping in the breeze. It seemed that every Chicano town also had an El Hoyo, since so many Mexicans, receiving low pay, rented shacks built in the lowlands, or, literally, in neighborhoods built in "holes".

"We left La Gara about '27-'28 and moved near the police station, on Purdue and Iowa, near Santa Monica Boulevard, close to the Old Soldiers Home. I remember everything after that. I had a photograph of myself on a pumpkin, some place on Purdue and Olympic, but I don't know who has the picture. That's about the earliest picture of me. Somebody's got it but I don't know who. It just disappeared. I was about three years old."
Raymond Cano, West LA, Halloween, circa 1926
  After my mother passed, I located the picture stuffed behind another in a large frame.
"Do you remember much about other men from Grandpa's generation?" I asked.

It donned on me that we didn't refer to our grandparents as abuela or abuelo. We spoke primarily in English. To us, our grandparents answered to Grandma and Grandpa, except for my maternal grandmother who insisted we call her Mama. She said Grandma made her sound too old. Of course, she said this in Spanish.

My dad thought for a moment and said, "Well, he had a couple of friends who used to come and visit from Decklessville. They would stay at our house for a couple of days. My dad had friends here, in Sawtelle, but…ah, most of the old timers from Mexico, they were hard workers and always working. Remember, a lot of them were bachelors, so they used to like to have their nips on weekends, and my dad wasn't a drinker. Oh, he'd take a social drink, like wine, when long-time friends would come over. But the men who lived in La Gara, they used to drink heavy on weekends, and my dad didn't like that."

"Did they drink at home or in bars?"

"Oh, at home, the bars—ah, don't forget--they closed the bars during prohibition, so lot of the men made their own beer or liquor or a lot of them knew the bootleggers; oh, a lot were bootleggers. There were two of them, and one killed the other, over on Cotner and Santa Monica boulevard, because one thought the other was taking his customers from him. Demetrio Granillo, he killed Tony Loya, his neighbor. They lived right next door to each other. One day they accused each other of stealing business. Well, they'd been feuding for a year or so, and one Sunday afternoon they just got into it, and Demetrio pulled a gun and shot Tony. He [Demetrio] took off and they caught him in La Cruces, New Mexico. He did most of his life in San Quentin, because, then, if you fled the scene of the crime, it was worse. If he'd a stayed here, he would've done maybe four or five years, but he took off."

"Was Demetrio considered a bad guy?"

"No. It was just the heat of the moment--because of business and customers. But all of us kids were so young then, it didn't really affect us."

Daniel Cano is an award winning writer, whose most current book Death and the American Dream (Bilingual Review), available on Amazon, portrays the final days of Ricardo Flores Magon, and recreates life in 1920s Santa Monica and Los Angeles. 


msedano said...

and thus history speaks. i see our gente making their way here, parallels in every account. i believe we understand them, what made those men and women tick, because we're them.

Daniel Cano said...

Michael, you summed it up perfectly. That's what was exactly on my mind.

Antonio SolisGomez said...

an amazing account daniel-it's alive and makes us aware of a generation carving a foothold in a new land

Daniel Cano said...

Antonio, You and Michael have caught my intent. Pero, one never knows for sure until a piece is completed, right?