Thursday, May 30, 2019

What's in a Name?

The Gonzales home, Santa Monica, 1934
     In the late 1930's, when he was a teenager, my uncle Chuy obeyed when his mother insisted he return to the family ranch, Mitic, in central Mexico, some shenanigans having to do with him and an older woman from the neighborhood whose husband was away, locked up in jail, I think it was. You know how the chisme mill works in Chicano neighborhoods? The truth is probably buried in there.
     By all accounts, Chuy was a good kid, maybe a little too naïve, yet bold. When his mother told him to return to Mexico, he balked. He was an American. Born in Mitic, he came to the U.S. at seven or eight years of age, with his parents and siblings right about 1920.
     The last time I spoke to him, of course, we didn't discuss the older woman. Still, today, as I write this, his voice comes to me from another place, yet, it's as clear as the day we spoke, eerie, right? They're gone now, his entire family, so I'm glad I got a chance to talk to him before he went to the other side. I hear him in English, though, occasionally, he slips into Spanish, words and no body. “Danny Boy,” he called me. Made no difference my hair was rapidly graying, to him, I was always Danny Boy.
     He made his home in Venice, when the canals still smelled of oil. Beatniks roamed the streets. Abbot Kinney catered to drunks and winos. There was no Marina, only Mud Lake, where, in summer, Westside families frolicked in the thick water, oil derricks in the distance.
     Chuy bought his first house near Oakwood Park, where a Venice gang, the Dukes controlled the neighborhood. There he started his family, until he could afford a larger, nicer house, still in Venice but east of Lincoln boulevard. In those days, few people wanted to live west of Lincoln, or near the beach and the riff-raff hanging out on the boardwalk. Man, how times have changed.
     In the ensuing years, he would work long, hard hours, and acquire enough rental property to secure his, and his children’s futures. Not bad for a gardener who started out with a push lawnmower.
     He was raised in Santa Monica, where he attended school and worked, until his sudden departure to Mexico. He hadn't wanted to go, but once on the ranch, he enjoyed the Mexican lifestyle, both the work, the play, and the time to rest. He especially loved the horses, coming to buy his own and treating it like he would have a new car in the States. 
     He described his mother's ranch, Las Palmas, as small, desolate and very poor. “I don’t even think it’s there anymore,” he told me.
     But, in Mexico, no never knows for sure. 
     On day, while I was eating at a popular Mexican restaurant in West L.A. I chatted with the bartender. He told he had come to the Westside from San Gaspar, Jalisco, and knew Mitic well.

     “Ever heard Las Palmas. I think it’s gone, now.”

     "No, it's there. All those towns are very old."

     In Mexico, anything is possible.

     This got me to thinking. United States history is short, less than 300 years. Cut off from their ancestral homelands, Americans of European and African descent, know only the U.S. territory as their home. Oceans, mountains, and deserts separate them from the motherland. Most have lost contact with family there and their roots, all part of the American spirit, I guess.
Francisco Gonzales, Mitic thriving
     But mestizo roots in the Americas, including the U.S., grow wide and deep, and in some cases, barely steps away from the motherland, a car’s drive or short plane ride. Family visit each other on both sides of the border, that is until someone changed the rules and made it harder to cross. Even for those who never visit Mexico, it's there, both physically and psychically. It hangs over Los Angeles, San Francisco and the entire Southwest. Even those little pueblitos are there, sometimes burgeoning, sometimes just lost in time.
     “Mitic,” (Mee-teek) two syllables, is how my uncle pronounces the name of his father's ranch. My aunts pronounced it Mitique (Mee-tee-keh), three syllables. They even argue about it. What's in a name, right? And though they rarely visited, it remained in their imagination, magical, almost mythic, for better or worse. My aunt Josie once said to me, "You always want to talk about Mexico. It was awful. That's why we're all here." Then she would reminisce about being a young girl on the ranch, and how much she missed her grandmother and grandfather.
     Anyway, how old are these American settlements? After all, the name "America" was here before the pilgrims landed in the east. There was a time when the southern border wasn’t the southern border. Meso-Hispano-America was one. As I once heard Chicano writer Rolando Hinojosa say, "We (his family and our people) have been a growing in concern in these parts for many generations," or something to that effect.
     In their book Beyond the Codices: The Nahua View of Colonial Mexico, the editors Arthur Anderson and James Lockhart published the letter of Miguel Lopez, a colonized Indian from a town near Jalostotitlan, Jalisco, who wrote a petition to the Spanish King for the removal of the near-almighty local priest, the vicar Francisco Munoz.
     Lopez claimed the [Spanish] priest beat the Indians mercilessly, took their food, and had a lady for his personal use.
     In the Indian language Nahua, the name of Lopez’s settlement is Mizquictlaca. Lopez also used the shortened version, Mizquitic, probably to satisfy the Spanish chroniclers, who avoided extra letters.
     As I read Lopez’s letter, I wondered if this could be my grandmother’s village. I turned the page. There, I read the Indian Lopez noted the name Mitic, just as my uncle Chuy had pronounced it.
     Located in the province of Jalostotitlan, near San Gaspar, there could be no doubt it was my family's paternal home. Lopez sign his letter and dated it 1611.
     Who knows how many years earlier the first Tecuexe Indians settled there? By the 17th century, it had already been a well-established Mexican community.
Where the spirits of ancestors roam
     My uncle Chuy told me that as far as he knew, his grandparents (my great grandparents), Juan Gonzales and Micaela de Los Santos, knew no other home than Mitic.
     At the turn of the 20th century, the Gonzales family of Mitic lived relatively well. Juan invested in land and cattle. In those days, Mitic was a thriving community. By 1920, the Mexican Revolution ravaged the land, sending many fleeing their ranches and heading north, crossing at El Paso del Norte, the location Mexicans and Indians have crossed hundreds of years before Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
     My uncle Chuy said, “Today, it's only a few ranches.”
     When I visited in 2002, our cousins had turned the ranch into commercially successful dairy, complete with electric milking machines and acres of farm land ready for planting. Mitic is a survivor.
     From that little rancho, the mestizo American branches of the Gonzales-De Los Santos-Villalobos family reaches to Santa Monica, Venice, Alhambra, El Sereno, Eagle Rock, Rancho Cucamonga, Newberry Park, Santa Ana, San Jose, and Fairbanks, Alaska. They are as much a fabric of the American tapestry as any European family, maybe even more, by 1000 years.
     So, when a Fresno State University professor argues in his book that Mexicans and Latin Americans don’t assimilate into U.S. culture as successfully as Europeans have before them, one must question not only this professor’s research, but his intent, as well. After all, there is more to a name if we take a little time to study it.

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