Thursday, October 03, 2019

She Called Him Johnny

Josefina and Yndalecio Gonzales, Wedding Day, Circa 1940s, St. Monica Church

"We worked so hard to leave [Mexico] and to come here. Why do you want to talk about it all the time?" Josie Gonzales

"Promise me, if I die, don't leave me here [Mexico]. I don't want to be buried here. Take me home [to Santa Monica.]" Yndalecio Gonzales 

     As a boy growing up, I spent a lot of time at my aunt and uncle's Santa Monica home. They lived on 12th Street, just off Michigan Avenue, a mile from the beach. Today, a large modern condo complex has replaced their small wood frame home and three-unit apartment, security for their elder years. A tall stone wall separates the remnants of the neighborhood from the 10 Freeway, constructed in the early 60s.
     My aunt, Josefina—we called her Josie, and her husband Yndalecio, AKA Andy, worked at Armacost Nursery in West L.A., three blocks from my parents' home, near the corners of Bundy Drive and Olympic Boulevard, in 1828 part of Francisco Sepulveda's Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica.
      At 4:30PM, a blast from a thirty-foot stack would howl across the Westside. It reminded me of a passenger ship pulling away from the docks and heading out to sea.
     For many workers it signaled “quitting time,” for kids it meant leaving wherever you were and getting home for dinner. In those days, the family ate together, usually around 5:00 or 5:30 after Dad arrived home. Everything was punctual. We’re talking barely five to eight years after the War. Most of our dads were veterans. They expected structure and order.
     Me, I'd walk to meet Josie and Andy at work and wait beside their car until they punched out. They didn’t have any children, so they treated me like a son, and were eager to get me into the car and start home. With a handful of kids, my parents didn't mind missing one.
     Andy spoke only Spanish. I knew just enough to keep him entertained. He’d correct my Spanish or just laugh when I made no sense. In those days, the 1950s and early ‘60s, my parents and their friends, most U.S. born, spoke to us kids in English. In school, they’d been punished for speaking Spanish, which caused something of a gap between them and their Mexican born parents. They were what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation.”
Women on break, Orchid department, Armacost Nursery, West Los Angeles
     Consequently, many kids from my generation never learned Spanish, except for the most basic words, or a mixture, like when my cousin would ask a worker, "Victor, Gareme la hose.”
     This lack of Spanish caused me embarrassment in the military when I met guys from rural California, New Mexico, and Texas, guys fluently bilingual. Though, some, like many of the Tejanos from along the border, barely spoke English or spoke with a heavy accent. I’d often find myself hanging out with the English speakers.
     In those days, on L.A.’s westside, immigration from Mexico was barely a trickle, and from Central America non-existent. Only our grandparents and older relatives who’d come from Mexico between 1900 and 1950 spoke Spanish. Some of my friends hardly uttered a word of it. Of course, there were always exceptions.
     Josie, my mother’s sister, spoke English and Spanish fluently. She attended St. Anne’s School near the family home in Santa Monica, just off 22nd Street and Olympic. She had a light complexion and she was often mistaken for an Anglo. Andy was also very light, also, but his thin mustache gave away his nationality.
     As I aged, especially when I started college, I wanted to know about our Mexican past. My parents knew very little and didn’t have much interest. Josie disliked talking about Mexico and would grow impatient when I probed too deeply. But Andy was okay with it, telling me about his childhood there and his early days in the United States.
     Once I asked him why he never ate chilaquiles. He told me that’s what they would eat, as children, when there was no other food. Families would scrape up the dried tortillas scraps from the bottom of the bin, put lard in a pan, fry the tortillas, and eat them, day after day. He said it gave him nausea to even think about eating them.
     I would occasionally force it out of Josie, and eventually she too would tell me stories about our Mexican relatives, people I would never get to know, except through her stories.
     Andy died in 1991, in Santa Monica, far from his place of birth, Hucar, Jalisco. Josie died in 2005, after spending her last days at Nazareth House, a Catholic rest home in Rancho Park. Both of them, along with my mother and grandmother, always encouraged us kids to save our money. My grandmother’s mantra, “If you make one-dollar put away fifty-cents,” and "buy, never rent. Renting is throwing away your money."
Josie and Andy in front of their home and apartments in Santa Monica
     Josie had once told me, if it wasn’t for her savings and decision to build apartments in the front yard, she would have never been able to afford in-house care for Andy, and a place like Nazareth House for herself.
     Born in 1910 in Mitic, Jalisco, Josie was the oldest of her eight brothers and sisters, the three youngest, including my mother, born in the U.S. Today, all have passed but their voices remain alive, as if they were all still here.
     Without my oral sleuthing, I would know nothing about our Mexican past. Josie once asked me why I cared so much. I told her I wanted to know about our family. This puzzled her. She said, “We worked so hard to leave [Mexico] and to come here. Why do you want to talk about it all the time?”
     What I realized was that for her, Mexico, even after all these years, still represented pain and suffering. To make her point, she told me that in 1964, she and Andy had travelled to Mexico to visit. They enjoyed Mexico City and Guadalajara, beautiful and modern, especially the shrine of La Virgen de Guadalupe. But on the ranchitos, little had changed.
     In San Juan de Los Lagos, a bustling city in Los Altos de Jalisco, about an hour from her grandparents’ village, she said a cousin had taken her to the local bakery to buy sandwich rolls and pan dulce. She figured she’d try the bread covered in a dark sugar. When the woman behind the counter picked up the bread to place in a bag, a swarm of flies flew from the bread. Josie said to me, “The sugar wasn't brown. It was white.” She looked at me as if to say, “That’s your Mexico."
     On the final days of their vacation, she and Andy decided to visit Hucar, Andy's home town in Jalisco, a place he fled when he was fourteen. Over the years, he’d written to relatives, so he knew some family still lived there. Josie told me that before the visit, Andy had grown anxious. His memories were painful.
     His parents had died when he was a child. His older brother, Jose, just a teenager, had been forced to raise the family. The only way Jose knew to keep the kids in line was to beat them. Andy never forgot the beatings. When he was 14, he was forced to defend himself against the local landowner's son who accused him of not working hard enough. When the man, a pistol at his side, came at him, Andy pulled a knife and slashed the man, who lived but would come to seek revenge. Jose told Andy to flee or they would kill him. Andy, at 14, headed north, alone.
     When she saw Hucar, Josie described the poverty, “…worse than Mitic,” she said, a dry, dusty place with no water, no river or stream, just sun and dirt. It hadn't rained in some years, and the people were barely surviving. Even Andy was shocked at the condition of his home town.
     On the second day of their visit, Andy came down with a fever. By the next day he was delirious, and she feared he might die. They called for a doctor. He would have to come from a long way.
     At one point in his illness, Andy sat up in a sweat. He said to her, "Josie, promise me, if I die, you won’t leave me here. I don't want to be buried here. Take me home [to Santa Monica]." She said he wouldn’t rest until she promised him.
     Eventually, a doctor came and injected him with antibiotics. The fever lifted. She said, though he was still weak, the next morning he dressed, packed, and rushed to the airport in Guadalajara to catch a plane home.
     “Imagine,” she asked me, “what life would have been like if my daddy had remained in Mexico?”
     Josie remembered the day her parents, Nicolas and Eusebia Gonzales, and six siblings, departed from their ranch in Jalisco north to the U.S. The family crowded into a horse-drawn wagon. Her grandparents watched, tearfully. Josie loved her grandparents and cried because she wanted to stay with them. She said she would always remember that day, her grandfather Juan, dressed in ranch clothes and a wide sombrero on his head. He looked down on them from his large horse. He knew he would never see them again.
     Of the train from Aguascalientes, she remembered looking out of the window. She saw bodies dangling from telegraph posts along the railroad tracks, executed rebels. At eight years of age, it was an image that would forever be engraved in her mind.
     Then there was Riverside where Nicolas had found temporary work. The workers received an afternoon off. It was a hot day. Nicolas and Eusebia decided to take the children to the canal to cool down. In the commotion, they lost track of three-year-old Juanito. They began to search. Others joined them.
     Josie and a sister waded into the canal's shallow water. After some time, Josie said something rubbed against her leg, a fish, she thought at first and jumped back. In the murky water, she saw a little boy’s body. It was Juanito. She called him Johnny.

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