Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Long Journey Home, Part 2


Yndalecio's work pruning knives, as sharp as the day he made them

My uncle, born in 1898, never told me, explicitly, the route he took as teenager from Jalisco to reach the United States. In 1943, his documents show him living in Tijuana. My aunt, born in 1910, traveled with her family to the U.S. from their ranch in Jalisco. I can only imagine what it must have been like to travel thousands of miles across war-torn Mexico between 1918 and 1925. Historians tell us Indians, Spaniards, and Mexicans have followed the trail north for more than two hundred and fifty years ago, before the existence of Ellis Island. In 1771, Jalisiences were among the soldiers in the first expeditions into Alta California. What I learned of my relatives' experiences was culled from numerous conversations over many years, with them and with older members of our family, sadly, all now departed, waiting for us to call them back on el dia de los muertos. What will never die are their words. I hope their story bring some insight into their lives and the lives of many Mexican immigrants who made the journey north, the long journey home.
Certificate from government of Baja California verifying Yndalecio an honorable man
     Yndalecio Gonzales met Josefina Gonzales (same last name) at Armacost Nursery in West Los Angeles where they both worked. It was the mid-1940s. Green houses covered acres of land along Bundy Drive and Olympic Boulevard a few miles from Santa Monica’s Sorrento Beach. Each afternoon, a soft breeze would blow up Olympic Boulevard cooling down the entire Westside.
     Yndalecio specialized in pruning roses, Josefina in separating and repotting orchids. Each performed the delicate operation with a surgeon's precision. One wrong cut, and the expensive produce could be damaged.
     Armacost was one of the principal commercial rose and orchid growers in the United States. Buyers from across the country and from around world purchased its plants. The nursery’s management learned early that its predominantly Mexican immigrant work force was not only responsible and reliable but knowledgeable about agriculture. Many had come from farms and ranches throughout Mexico.
     In 1947, Yndalecio proposed to Josefina. She accepted. She was in her late thirties and he pushing fifty. As the oldest daughter, when she wasn’t working, she stayed home with her mother to run the house. Her Americanized younger sisters, who called her Josie, had already married and moved out of the family home in Santa Monica. Though born in Mexico and reared in the U.S., Josie saw herself as more American than Mexican.
     Yndalecio’s bachelor years had taken their toll on him. He was drinking and gambling too much. He’d been a "dandy," dressing up and spending many nights in Los Angeles’ dance halls, but it wasn't an easy life. He recalled how he had once lain alone in his rented room in agony during a violent illness. When no one had seen him in days, the woman who owned the boarding house came looking for him. When she saw his condition, she scolded him for not seeking help. Then, she brought him water and soup, and nursed him back to health. It was then he realized he needed a companion.
     He remembered happy times, also, like when he entered a dance marathon sometime in the early 1940s, where hundreds of couples started at Ocean Park and danced east on Venice Boulevard heading to downtown Los Angeles, a grand prize awaiting the winning couple.
     Following a band's blaring music from the back of a flatbed truck, Yndalecio and his dance partner still had a lot of energy as they reached La Cienega Boulevard. But his shoes had begun to unravel, heels first then the soles. His bare feet could take no more. They had to stop.
     After they married, Yndalecio, whom everyone called Andy, and Josie rented a shack at the bottom of 22nd Street in Santa Monica from a woman named Chavela. Early each morning, they both rise, have their coffee and pan dulce, and ride the bus to work at the nursery.
     My mother, Josie’s baby sister, always on the prowl for a real estate bargain, found a house for them on 12th Street and Michigan in Santa Monica. They purchased the home for $3,000 in 1955, a one-and-a half bedroom home on a lot roughly 150x50 feet. The half-bedroom they dubbed the "little room."
     Their neighbors were a mix of Mexican, Anglo, Japanese, and African-American families. It was a time when everyone met on the sidewalk and talked after dinner. They borrowed sugar and eggs from one another. The neighbors also served as their own neighborhood watch. Kids filled the streets.
     Andy learned to drive when he was in his fifties, Josie in her forties. They bought their first car, a used powder blue 1953 Chevrolet. They drove their car to work slowly, and cautiously, following the bus route they’d taken for so many years.
     Andy drove only when necessary. He never got used to it. After all, this was a man who in the 1920s drove a team of mules to haul the first bricks to build UCLA’s Powell Library, one of the new Westwood campus’ first structures.
     Josie, on the other hand, loved to drive. She sped around the Westside well into her eighties, when nobody would dare ride with her. She would slam on her brakes at the last second, smile, and turn to look at her horrified passenger.
     In the late 1950s, an African-American man from their church, St. Anne’s, a contractor, Mr. Leduff, convinced them to build a triplex on the long stretch of lawn in front of their house. Neither knew the first thing about construction or real estate development. Josie figured if she couldn’t trust a Catholic, she couldn’t trust anyone.
     Mr. Leduff completed the work in six months to the exact specifications. He had told them the rental income would supplement their weekly pay, and later it would become the pension plan their jobs didn’t provide. He was right on both counts.
     In 1964, the construction of a new Santa Monica Freeway would take all the neighbors’ homes to the north of them. They decided to rent their Santa Monica property and purchase a Spanish style home in West L. A., two blocks from where Josie’s mother, Eusebia, had moved after selling the family’s 22nd Street home, where electronic companies were buying and demolishing homes in the old barrio to make room for factories and office buildings.
     In her new suburban house, Josie could walk to visit her mother. Since Eusebia never learned to speak English, she couldn't talk to the mostly middle-class Anglos in her area. One Mexican family lived up the street from Eusebia, and the young mother would stop by to chat. With many of her friends gone, Eusebia spent her final years watching television, going to movies at the Million Dollar Theater in downtown L.A., and enjoying her American born grandchildren, most who could barely communicate with her.
     Andy and Josie sold the Santa Monica property in the 1980s at a considerable profit. Westside real estate values had skyrocketed. Unfortunately, she allowed her realtor complete control of the transaction. He ended up purchasing her property, flipping it, and reselling it at a significant profit. She complained about his backhanded maneuver, this man she had come to trust.
     I once asked if she could ever imagine herself returning to Mexico. She answered with an emphatic, “No!”
Josie's original birth certificate, dated 1910, Municipio de Jalostotitlan, Jalisco
     Though born in Mexico, Josie became an American citizen, fully integrated into American life. She said she really knew no other home. As a child, she had attended St. Anne’s Catholic School. She spoke, read, and wrote English and Spanish.
     She made friends at her new church, St. Joan of Arc. Her neighborhood, beneath the flight path of planes landing at the Santa Monica Airport, was mostly Anglo. With their light skin, she and Andy easily blended in and became close friends with many of the neighbors.
     Children on her street visited her, sometimes stopping by on weekends to watch television and eat cookies. Andy stayed outside working on the garden or piddling around in the garage. He could speak only Spanish. Still, for many of the neighborhood kids, he exuded a kind and tranquil spirit. Always the wise elder, he taught the kids how to plant bulbs, rake leaves, and prune roses, of which he always kept in abundance along the driveway. He built Josie a green house where she raised various strains of orchids.
     After they retired, earlier than many of the friends at work, they joined a Westside senior citizens club and traveled to Descanso Gardens, the Huntington Museum, and Las Vegas, a favorite trip of theirs. Neither gambled much. Andy once hit the $50 jackpot and walked away, determined to go home a winner. Both enjoyed Las Vegas, more for the commotion, the lights, and glitter than for the gambling or shows.
     Each month, they stashed their Social Security checks in a savings account. They had invested wisely in real estate and bank securities. Neither was a big spender. After forty years, Josie’s 1950s Sears furniture looked like it had just come off the showroom floor.
     Andy rarely drank. His brother, Nicandro, and friends, would come to the house, usually on Sundays to visit. He dressed modestly, khakis during the week and on Saturdays, slacks, shirt and tie on Sundays. His only vice, an occasional beer and a Stetson hat he kept in a box, bringing it out of the closet only on Sundays. There frugal lifestyle allowed them a comfortable retirement.
     As prices on the Westside soared, fewer Mexican families could afford to remain in the neighborhoods of they youth. If they hadn't bought homes and rented, they were priced out of the Westside market. Many moved in with adult children, who had moved to places like the San Fernando Valley, Westchester, Hawthorne, or farther east, where money went further.
     Saving and investing weren’t always easy. It often meant sacrificing a new car, a vacation, restaurants, or expensive clothes. Andy said he was glad he had listened to Josie. She decided how to spend their money and how to invest it. He admitted if it wasn’t for her, he would probably have had nothing at all.
     Time passed quickly. It was 1991. I stood beside Andy’s hospital bed. We were alone He had suffered a stroke. At 93 years old, he was still a handsome man, an aura of peace surrounding him. He had suffered previous strokes and always recovered. I figured this time would be no different. He knew better.
     He spoke softly. He said, "Hijo, pienso que aqui voy a ser la ultima rueda. No salgo mas." (“I think this will be the final turn. I won’t be leaving this place.”)
     He made me promise to take care of Josie. That night the call came. Josie was on the other end, crying. "He's gone." Andy was granted his final wish, to be buried in the United States.
     Josie lived another fourteen years. When the rest home could do nothing more for her, my mother insisted they bring her home. Five days later, she died. My parents, siblings, and I by her side. We watched her final journey.
     Close to midnight, the people from the coroner’s office came to take her away. Wrapped in a white cloth, less than five feet in length, she fit neatly into the man’s arms as he placed her onto a gurney. I could hear her voice, telling me about Mexico, about their difficult life there and why they had no choice but to flee.
     In 1918, she was eight years-old, and felt responsible for the welfare of her five younger siblings during the journey north. They lost only one, Juanito.
     Though Andy and Josie had no children of their own, we, nieces and nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, considered ourselves their descendants, and we are proud of the legacy they left behind, truly, the long journey home, their story, an immigrant's story.

1 comment:

Al Manito said...

Great story that resonates widely...