Thursday, April 01, 2021

Jess's Horse



      It was during the Depression and hard times, not only in Santa Monica where Jess lived with his family in the barrio up on a hill between Pico and Olympic boulevards, but throughout all Los Angeles, so he decided to quit school and find a job to help his family.

     In no time, he was working with the Japanese who owned farms, nurseries, and gardening businesses in Sawtelle, not far from the Old Soldiers' Home, an area people would later call West L.A. Jess would do whatever work the Japanese needed. He worked hard and learned quickly. No matter how hard he worked, it was better than pick and shovel (pico y pala), digging ditches for sewer lines, gas lines, and new roads, the hardest work, backbreaking and mindless, the kind of work his father did since losing his job at the brickyard.

     Each afternoon, Jess walked home from work and passed by his father’s job, thinking they might walk home together. One day when he arrived, his father was still working, struggling to lift the pick. In his forties, Nicolas Gonzalez’ body was deteriorating quickly. Jess knew the emphysema his father had contracted after working years at the brickyard had taken its toll on his dad, especially his lungs and kidneys. The next day, Jess quit his job with the Japanese to work alongside his father, stepping in to drive the pick into the hardpan and rock when his father needed help. Jess once told a friend, “My daddy worked hard all his life to keep all of us fed."

     In the evenings, Jess would meet his friends to play pool or cards at one of the bars, restaurants, and businesses along the newly named Olympic Boulevard, the busiest street in the neighborhood. He’d walk down the hill from his parents’ home on 22nd Street, wave to all the neighbors, most of them relatives and friends from the same villages in Mexico, Los Altos de Jalisco, between Lagos de Moreno and Valle de Guadalupe, and just outside of Jalos and San Juan. 

     His father once told him it was an area where the Spanish authorities would release rebel and outlaw Spaniards who could not follow the law. If they could survive Los Altos' elements and the Guachichil and Texcuecas in the area, they could survive anything. 

     On weekends, Jess and his friends would drive to dances, sometime as far a San Gabriel and San Bernardino. Even though this was during prohibition, buying liquor was simple since everybody made homebrew and sold it privately, a true underground barrio economy. Not only was liquor cheaper but also more potent. Jess tried not to drink to excess because he knew his father didn’t approve of people who couldn’t hold their liquor, but sometimes he just couldn’t help himself.

     Then came the trouble, with the older woman, the rumors his family tried to keep  secret. Jess, about 18 or 19, didn’t argue when his parents sent him to live with relatives in Mexico, at least until all the trouble died down. Of course, he didn’t want to leave his friends, but he had no choice. He figured he could ride it out for a few months, stay hidden in Mitic (Mee-teek), his family's home town. He had no idea it would turn into three years.

     By the time he arrived in Mitic, it must have been around 1932, his grandparents had died and relatives managed the ranch, a difficult time in Mexico. The revolution and Cristero's War had destroyed much. 

     At first, he was pretty depressed out there in the middle of nowhere, even if it was where he had been born. When his parents fled to escape the ravages of the revolution in 1918, he was only six or seven years old and didn’t remember much.


     But by the third year, he had begun to master ranching and farming. In one letter he wrote to a friend he said, “It is a change to completely live an outdoor life, and it’s nice. Now I see why my daddy always wanted to come back to Mexico, but my mother would not hear of it. She never liked it here.”

     With the money he brought from the north, he invested in horses, owning four during his stay, buying one, raising it and selling it for a better, finer horse, his favorite the last horse he purchased, the horse he loved. His horse was three years old, not even full-grown. It was the finest and most beautiful of all the horses in the ranches.

     It was such a gorgeous animal, whenever he rode it into San Gaspar, a neighboring town, people would stop to look. At first, he thought, maybe they were looking at him, but no, he knew it was the horse drawing their attention, especially the young women. Many influential men offered to buy the horse at double, triple the price he paid, but no, it wasn't for sale. 

     One day, during the fiestas at San Juan de Los Lagos, the largest and most prestigious city in the region, where people came from across Mexico to pay homage to the Virgin of San Juan, for her miracles, his uncle, his mother's brother, came by and told Jesus (nobody called him Jess anymore) he wanted to take the horse for a ride, to exercise him. Jesus never allowed anyone to borrow his horse, besides, he was leery of this uncle, but what could he say, the man was family, and an elder? Chuy (that's how family addressed him) couldn't tell his uncle no.


     When it was late and his uncle still hadn’t returned with his horse, Jesus went looking for him, searching everywhere, San Juan’s streets and alleyways thick with visitors and pilgrims. Jesus had family in San Juan and went to one of his aunt’s houses where he found his uncle, but the horse nowhere in sight. Jesus had to be careful how he addressed his uncle. In Mexico, he knew family relationships could be tricky. When he finally asked his uncle about the horse, his uncle said he had sold it, for a good price, arguing, "Better to sell it than to lose it to bandits."

     His uncle handed Jesus125 pesos, insisting it was a good price, but Jesus knew his horse was worth at least 1000 pesos. He stood there fuming, but in front of his relatives, what could he say? He couldn’t show disrespect, even if he wanted to call his uncle a stinking thief? The man was still family.

     Rather than confront his uncle and cause a family scandal, Jesus returned to Mitic. He packed his bags, and because he still could not return to Santa Monica, his home, he caught a ride to Aguascalientes, and he took a train to Mexico City where he knew no one and no one knew him. Only when the older woman confessed she had lied about Jess was he finally able to return home, just in time for the war, which he rode out in Oregon as a dispatcher, directing thousands of Mexican migrant field workers who aided in the war effort.      

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