Thursday, July 11, 2019

Ignoring the Past, Envisioning the Future

Jesus, The eldest son
     Three brickyards set up shop in Santa Monica and provided more work than there were bodies to complete it. One of the largest brick producers, Simons, depicted in Alejandro Morales' novel The Brick People, opened a plant in Santa Monica in the 1920s and sent workers from Montebello to get it up and running. They settled in an area the locals called El Hoyo, where a trendy arts complex Bergamot Station stands today, adjacent to the Reclamation Center, or what we used to call the Dump. Jesus "Chuy" Gonzales’ father, Nicolas, and other men, mostly from Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Michoacan, performed the backbreaking labor.
     Life was good in the U.S. after WWI. Development in all areas of society was booming. Anglo contractors sent messengers to villages and towns throughout Mexico promising steady work, housing, and a chance at a new future. Mexicans answered the call. It was a time and place I tried to capture in my 2010 novel Death and the American Dream (Bilingual Review Press).
     Many had already been crossing the border for years, like Nicolas, who first crossed in the 1890s, where he found work in Santa Monica, already home to families from Jalisco, some going back to the first expeditions of 1769, and a slow, steady flow into Alta California throughout the subsequent years. Mexicans who worked in the brickyards sent word back home to their relatives, who soon began arriving, some to escape the Revolution, others seeking work, and a better life.
Gonzales immigration photo, kids with mother Eusebia   
     At El Paso’s Port of Entry, they paid a minimal fee, took a photo, had a few papers stamped, and continued on their way in all directions, some to the stockyards in Chicago and Michigan, some to the ranches in the Dakotas, others to the dairies in Kansas City, but most headed west to join family and friends who had already settled there.
     Whenever the U.S. needed Mexican labor, the question of immigration status carried little importance, especially in agriculture and manufacturing during WWI and II. But when those workers, who were promised but did not find humane work conditions, first requested then demanded, certain rights, like fair pay, safe working conditions, decent housing, or education for their children, Yankee employers were ready to repatriate them, no matter how long they’d lived in the U.S.
     Of course, Mexicans crossing at El Paso didn’t see the political demarcation at the border, for they and their families understood the land on which they stood had once been theirs, until U.S. had usurped the land in 1848, in what General Grant referred to as one of the wickedest wars the U.S. ever perpetrated on another country.
     Unlike the East, where an entire ocean separated immigrants’ homeland from their new home, for Mexicans, the separation was a but a few dusty steps away. There was a time when one’s house could be on one side of the border and his family’s grazing land on the other. For those living along the border states, it was more dramatic. Every day, they crossed in either direction to conduct business and return once the business was completed. But for men and women of Chuy’s generation, they weren’t looking backwards to the past, to historical inequities or injustices. Their eyes were on the future, envisioning a new life, an American life. Racism was but one more obstacle to overcome.
     As children, he and his sisters attended different Santa Monica schools, like McKinley, Garfield, and Grant, except for an older sister Mary, who attended St. Monica’s. Of his school years, Chuy admitted he did not remember much. “Even as kids, we were always working,” he said.
     "Oh, it must have been 1921or '22. I was ten or eleven. At Grant School in Santa Monica, I was a good baseball player, first base. Oh, I used to stretch to get that ball. One day Mrs. Stratman, my teacher, who was head of the team, told me, 'Jesus, you got to bring shoes to school.' I said, 'Mrs. Stratman, you're gonna punish me by making me wear shoes. Okay, I won't play [baseball].' She thought about it and let me go barefoot. We used to beat the other schools, like McKinley and Garfield."
     "Did all the boys go barefoot?" I asked.
     "Oh, everybody, everybody." He added, "But oh we suffered living in those little houses in the brickyard. We were poor. But my sisters when they were big enough, they went over here to the walnut factory to work."
     It was during the Depression, Chuy's sisters found jobs in Ocean Park, shelling walnuts. "Oh, my sisters worked hard…every day, every day…standing all day long, cracking those walnuts."
     They would use hammers to crack the walnuts. One of my aunts told me they would go home each day with bruised fingers and broken fingernails.
     "How about you? What kind of work did you do?”
     He answered, looking at me, surprised I didn’t know the answer. "Digging holes, viejo. Pick and shovel, that's it, pick and shovel, sometimes all day."
     "And Uncle Joe, did he work with you?" I asked.
     "Oh, no, hijo, my dad wanted Joe, my brother, to become a lawyer.” He repeated, his voice rising an octave. “He wanted Joe to become a lawyer."
     "What happened?" "Well, Joe wanted to live the good life. He copied the life of my father."
     "You mean like in Mexico, when your dad played around too much and didn't finish law school?"
     "The same thing, the same pattern. But I tell you Joe was smart. He went to school longer than I did, and evidently, he took advantage of his schooling. He knew how to study, and he could build anything. He could figure things out…but I was a better worker," he added laughing.
     "And your dad?"
     "Well, he was ready to quit after the brickyard closed up around '35, but my mother didn't want to see him loafing around at home. She said, 'Why don't you go work with the Japanese?' You know over there in Sawtelle, there was nothing but farms, Japanese farms. So that's where he worked, for the Japanese.”
     By this time, Eusebia, Chuy’s mother, saving everyone’s pay, bought a one-bedroom, wood-frame house on 22nd Street in Santa Monica, between Olympic and Pico boulevards. She did not believe in renting. She once said that to rent was to throw away your money.
     "My daddy was a strict man," Chuy said. "When we lived in the brickyard, a man named Aurelio used to bring alfajor (he pronounced it), some kind of candy, from Mexico to sell it, kind of a plant."
     "Like sugar cane?" I asked.
     "Yes, something like that. Well, one day he missed some of it. I was standing in front of his house, and he blamed it on me and told my father I took it. Oh! did my dad give me a good one. But later, they learned someone else stole the candy. I tell you my daddy would not stand for thieves in his family."
     What I heard later was that Nicolas found the man, took him to every neighbor's house, and forced him to tell every neighbor that Chuy had not stolen his stash.
     "Whooo, another time he gave me a licking, and that time it was my fault… Let me tell you. He was good man if you didn't go against him. He wanted everything perfect. He was good to us because he kept us in line. Si me hubiera dejado, me hubiera hechado de perder," he said. (If he had let me, I would have been lost.) "Oh, he gave me a good one, but he was right! My daddy liked beer, but he wasn't much of a drinker. He did not want us drinking.
     "I was about fourteen. My daddy bought us a car. Oh, he was good if you didn't go against him. Let's see, my friend, Silvestre Casillas, said to me, 'Chuy, I'll fill the gas tank if you drive me to Ontario.' Mexican pickers used to live out through there. Era un rancho Mexicano. On weekends they'd have dances and parties. Anyway, I got drunk, see. And [when arriving home] my father noticed right away. He said, 'What were you drinking?' How could I lie? He saw right then. I was, como se dice, sobering up. And he gave me another good one. Then he said, 'If you start drinking now, you're going to become a drunk.'
     "My daddy was good. He knew when we needed something, but he knew when to draw the line. So, I told my father, 'Daddy, you know when I start making more money, I'm going to buy you a house like that [one].' See there was a house on 20th Street, a Spanish-style house, bigger than ours. We had a tiny house. Ah, I don't think I was asking too much [to have a bigger house] at that time," he laughed.
Gonzales girls, Gloria, Candida, my mother, Esther, at house on 22nd St. Santa Monica
     I asked, "You already had the house on 22nd Street? How did you make your house bigger?"
     "My brother Joe did it…. I've got to hand it to him. He was smart. Joe was good with anything he touched. Joe could do anything, anything."
     Chuy described how Joe once got under his dad's car with a wrench and in no time, he lowered the car, so it would look “cool”. Their father disliked the look. "But my daddy was so darn smart he would raise it up again. By the time Joe came back, there was the car--up again. My daddy was pretty smart. He wouldn't give up. He would find a way to do anything," he said.
     He told me about the house and the work his brother and father did to make it larger and more comfortable. He remembered a lot of people crowded into the house. His mother Eusebia's two sisters Micaela and Lupe and their husbands arrived in Santa Monica from Mexico, and they moved in.
     "Where did they all sleep?" I asked.
     "On top of each other," he said, and chuckled. "My daddy built another bedroom to the house. When he would start something, he finished it. Later, Joe built a bathroom inside. We all had outhouses in Santa Monica back then. Then he modernized the whole thing. Joe put up the work and I put up the money, from wherever I was working at the time."
     Chuy was modest and didn't give himself the credit he deserved. My mother told me her brother Chuy would travel up and down California working, even as a dispatcher for farm contractors in Oregon. She said, “My brother Chuy always sent home the money he earned.”
     Nicolas never turned anyone away. Most of the relatives came from Eusebia's family, from the ranch outside of Jalostotitlan. He also had to earn extra money to feed them until they could find jobs. But, according to Chuy, his father never complained, and soon enough the relatives all found work in the brickyards or gardens and moved into their own houses on 21st and 22nd Streets.
     After he left school, Chuy worked for the Japanese who owned the farms and nurseries throughout L.A.'s Westside. “Whatever they needed, I did it,” he said.
     When there was no work with the Japanese, it was back to the pick and shovel and the ditches. Chuy remembered after the brickyards closed, Nicolas was getting older and weaker from the emphysema he contracted breathing in years of brick dust. The only job left for him was to dig ditches: sewer lines, gas lines, and roads.
     Chuy said, a painful expression on his face, "It was hard work."
     One day, passing by his father’s job, Chuy watched as his father struggled with the pick and shovel. At the time, Chuy had a good job at a nursery, but he felt bad for his dad. He figured if he could get hired with his dad, he could help him with the pick and shovel. So that's what he did. The boss hired him, and he worked alongside his father. When the ground was rocky, his dad’s pick hit hardpan, or there was something too heavy to lift, Chuy stepped in to relieve his father.
     Chuy said, "My daddy had a hard life. He worked hard to keep all of us fed."


jmu said...

So that's why so many güeros from Jalos live in the area. The migration pipelines are old and still working.

Thanks for sharing that.

Daniel Cano said...

That's right. Santa Monica, especially, was home to people from Los Altos, around Jalos, San Juan de Los Lagos, and Valle de Guadalupe, many relatives and friends settled the area around 20th and Olympic.