Thursday, September 02, 2021

Born to Suffer



 Los Unidos, circa 1940, Connie Saenz, bottom row, third from right

     We talk to family and friends and begin reminiscing about the old days, grandma, grandpa, uncle Narciso or Aunt Stella. The stories pour out, and often, before we know it, we are in the past, reliving our history. What we often don’t do is think about the stories, what they mean, or tell us about the person under the microscope, like why Demetrio Reynoso drank so much, made everyone laugh, and made a fool of himself, or why crazy Aunt Yvette saved every penny, lived like a pauper wearing old, worn-out shoes, and lived in the same old wood house her entire life.

     Unless we ask, we may not know, Demetrio saw terrible fighting in the Pacific during WWII and lost a lot of buddies, one dying in his arms, or Aunt Yvette hated the idea of renting, her parents back in Mexico instructing her to only rent until she could afford to buy a house of her own, and even if was a shack, it was her shack, bought and paid for.

     Demetrio and Aunt Yvette aren’t in the history books. Nobody will write songs about them. You won’t find their names in libraries. Like native American cultures, ours is an oral culture. Our histories live because we tell the stories, passing them down from generation to generation, or as native American writer N. Scott Momaday warns, " generation away from extinction." 

     Today, many people don’t read, not even the Bible, though many seem to talk about how much they love Jesus, yet have never read his entire story. The Old Testament? Forget about it. People barely watch the news on television, except for the cable station that fits their politics, a real limited access to knowledge. Today, we are glued to the mobile phone or computer screen and are satisfied with snippets of information, anything to keep from reading.

     Yet, the power of the oral tradition, talking and listening to each other's stories, survives. It's what set me on the road to visiting my parents’ oldest and dearest friends. As a kid, I grew up with them, heard them laugh and tell their stories, some, heartbreaking, others hilarious, and many insightful. As a child, I admired these men and women, the WWII generation, the men with long, flowing hair, combed back in ducktails, the women, graceful as Hollywood royalty, the first Chicanos and Chicanas.   

     I’m glad to have known them, if only to give me some breadth into their past, my past, our past. They helped me understand their and their parents' roles in building my community. 

     A month back, I told George Saenz's story to La Bloga readers. Now, here is a taste of Connie’s story, his wife.

     Sadly, both have now passed. I tell their stories in the present tense, for that’s how they live in my mind. I encourage La Bloga readers to talk to their older relatives and friends, before losing a valuable look into the past.


     Connie Saenz could pass for a Nebraskan or Kansan, light skin and hazel eyes, and not a hint of an accent, in ether English and Spanish, so I was surprised when she told me her family hailed from Oaxaca.

     Today, Mixtecas and Zapotecas from Oaxaca do much of America's heavy-lifting, mainly in agriculture, hospitality, and childcare, truly, work most Americans prefer not to do. In the 1920s, when Connie’s family arrived in the U.S., most Americans hadn’t heard of Oaxaca. U.S. employers, back then, recruited Mexican labor from central and northern Mexico, and they answered the call, in large numbers, mostly mestizos seeking relief from the ravages of the Mexican Revolution, the first major  revolution of the 20th century, preceding both the Chinese and Russian revolutions.

      In Latin America, as in the U.S., skin color is no small issue, and its residue doesn't easily rub off. We prefer not to acknowledge it, but we are products of our past, and the color or shade of one’s skin matters, even today.  

     In her book on the South American, Simon Bolivar, Marie Arana describes why. In Latin America, to control the populace, the Spanish created a system of domination based on birthright and skin color, the light skin Spaniard at the top, their American born children, creoles, next, then the pardos, mixed-breed, part white, part Indian, followed by the mulatto, a mix of white and black, the sambo, a combination of Indian and black, and the black slave at the bottom.

     Arana writes, “As in most slave societies, labels were fashioned for every skin color…. For each birth, a church registry would meticulously record the race, for there were concrete ramifications for the color of a child’s skin. If he were Indian, he would be subject to the Spanish tribute, a tax imposed by the crown. If he were unable to pay, he was forced to meet his debt through hard labor. Indians were also subject to mita, a period of compulsory toil in the mines or fields. Many didn’t survive it.”

     It was a system that lasted centuries, well into the 1900s, and the presidency of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz , who shipped Sonora's Yaquis off to the sweltering jungles to work plantations in southern Mexico. Many never returned. It’s no joke when a relative would call the darker skin child in a family, “Mi prietito, or la negritia.” Though it was said with affection, the word categorized the child, different from the favored, the consentido, "Mi, guero" or "guerita.".

     I recall my mother telling me how she and the darker skin Mexican children saw the Anglo teachers favoring the lighter skin Mexicans, and she said it matter-of-factly, as if that’s the way it was.     

     In the early 1900s, Connie’s grandfather left Oaxaca for Mexico City seeking a better education for his seven children, five sons (of which Connie’s father was one) and two daughters. In the Mexican metropolis, Connie said her relatives all earned degrees, at a time when formal education for the working class in Mexico was rare.

     I found this point intriguing since most people I spoke to said their ancestors migrated north looking for work. Connie was one of the few who said her family migrated to seek a better education for their children, especially during those early years.

     Her parents met in Mexico City, married, and soon after, migrated to the U.S. Connie didn't know why they left Mexico City or anything about her father’s life in Oaxaca. Since she doesn’t show a hint of Zapotec of Mixtec blood, there must be a story of how the family settled in Oaxaca, home to many more Indians than whites in the eighteen-and-nineteen-hundreds.

     Unlike other first-generation Mexican immigrants who worked the most undesirable jobs in the U.S., Connie’s parents found work and took up residence in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Irving Miller, a wealthy Bel-Air couple. She recalled Mr. Miller was a nice but "very quiet man."

     Connie's mother cooked and took care of the house. Her father chauffeured the Millers and maintained the estate. She doesn’t remember anything about the Millers children. Maybe, they were all grown and gone. Either way, Connie became the child of the house.

     She said, "Mrs. Miller’s maiden name was Dukie. y Hablaba espanol muy bien. She comes from a family of attorneys in L.A. I believe one of them is still alive."

     Connie remembered how each Sunday Mrs. Miller would take her to the newly built St. Paul's Catholic Church in Westwood. It would serve the local community and the new University of California campus.

     Connie remembered snuggling at Mrs. Miller's side during the mass. "I used to pick at the loose skin on her arm. I guess she must have been pretty old," Connie laughed.  "And to this day I remember how good I had it. Whatever I wanted to eat, I could. I wore nice clothes, and was spoiled by the little things, like I didn't have to fight brothers and sisters over food. I got all the cream off the top of the Ador milk bottles to myself. I got ice-cream and fresh butter."

     This was during the Depression, when many families barely had enough food to eat and children in poorer neighborhood succumbed to tuberculosis, dysentery and other deadly diseases. As she looked back on her childhood, Connie understood her luck, and realized had it not been for her uncle and aunt who had already arrived in Los Angeles and been working as domestics "for one of the head doctors" at St. Vincent's Hospital in Los Angeles, her parents may not have found their job.

     When Connie's mom and dad arrived from Mexico, her uncle told the doctor about them. The doctor recommended them to the Millers, who liked the family and hired them.

     No one can know for sure, but maybe Connie’s family, in Mexico, had more wealth or education than even she knew. For a Mexican couple to work as domestics in Bel-Air, they must have a certain amount of sophistication and experience. From appearance to language and manners, domestic work isn’t something one learns on-the-job, not at that level of society. Since Mrs. Miller spoke Spanish, that made all the difference.

     Connie knew one thing for sure, "I got spoiled,” she admitted. “I tell you. I lived 'high on the hog' in those days. And then I met Beatrice, ‘his’ sister," she said, shifting her eyes towards her husband, snickering, then laughing, as if indicating, from there, everything went downhill.

     Her husband George rocked in his Lazy-Boy and smiled. “What are you gonna do?” he said.

     The Millers enrolled Connie in St. Paul’s Catholic School, an elite, private school. "Bea was also attending St. Paul's."

     I interrupted, "If Bea was from Sawtelle, how could her parents afford to send her to St. Paul's? It must have been expensive."

     All the kids, Mexicans, Anglos, and Japanese, who lived in Sawtelle attended the town’s two public schools, Sawtelle Avenue School (today, Nora Sterry and Brockton Avenue School).

     "Sure. It was expensive. I went to a reunion there, would you believe it, four years ago…no, two years ago? And of our class…I saw two girls I knew. One of the boys in our class ended up being a…some kind of judge, Matt Burns. You remember, George," she asked?

     "Did they have beer?" He responded.

     "Yes, wine and beer."

     "I remember," he said.

     "And I saw the nuns that are still alive, in a retirement home in Palos Verdes, Daughters of Mary and Joseph. One of them was--recently--at St. Augustine. She just passed away a few months ago. I think I saw it in a bulletin."

     Connie didn’t know how Bea’s family could afford St. Paul, but as the only Mexican girls at the school, they became good friends. Connie's parents were strict. She wasn’t allowed to go anyplace alone, not until she entered her early teens, and they let her to visit Bea's house. They didn't know about George, who Connie remembered, "acted like a brat, a real handful, even as a kid," she said.

     The public school, Emerson, was right next door to St. Paul’s, and Bea introduced Connie to the kids from Sawtelle, the same kids her mom and dad probably hoped she’d avoid.

      She graduated St. Paul in the eighth grade and enrolled in 9th grade at Emerson, where she got to know all the kids from Sawtelle, and met lifelong friends. After graduation from junior high, she attended University High School and joined the Mexican student club, Los Unidos, one of the early clubs for Mexican kids on the entire Westside, if not the first.

     Eventually, Connie’s parents moved from Bel-Air to a home they purchased in Sawtelle, near the corner of Colby Avenue and La Grange, where much of the farmland was being subdivided to provide more housing. It was a more desirable neighborhood than the area known as La Gara, where George’s family lived, among Mexicans, and migrants from Oklahoma escaping the Dust Bow. They lived in shacks near the railroad tracks along Sepulveda boulevard, where the railroad companies often hired men and women for temporary work, mainly unloading and sorting the produce.

     She didn't know much about her dad's job after they moved from the Millers’ Bel-Air home, only that each morning a man drove up to her house in a large car the people called La Baena (the Whale). Her father would “get in and off they would go.” Maybe her father still worked for the Millers and was given a ride each day, or, as she guessed, “Probably, he was doing gardening. It was still during the Depression.”

     George said, "I used to get a cloth sack and walk to Santa Monica Boulevard and Colby Avenue, in the alley behind the Tivoli Theater. The W.P.A. set up a center there, and they gave food to the families. Dried peaches." 

     During the Depression, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federally funded Work Progress Administration hired workers, distributed bags of food, and began to set labor laws.

     I was curious. "Did your family need it, the food?"

     George answered, a puzzled look on his face, "I don't know."

     Connie chuckled, "Well, there were enough of you. How many?"

     George counted, "Let's see. There was five…two boys and three girls. Doris and Tina were born in Mexico, Caborca. Once we were here, my brother, Ray, stayed in the hospital a lot, paralysis, in both legs. Yeah," George remembered, "That's one of the reasons my dad came here, so Ray could get better treatment."

     "You know," Connie said, laughing, “…the creencias (beliefs) people have in Mexico. When Ray was a baby, they told Adela (George’s mom) to put him inside the belly of a cow that had recently died, something about the cow, and its warmth, would cure him. Well, that didn’t work."

     George said, "When he got older, if Ray wanted to go someplace, he made his way around on crutches and went wherever he wanted. He was trained as a cobbler, like my dad."

     Connie said, "That's right. Ray had his own shoe shop right there on Sawtelle and Pico. Ray could do everything." 

     George said Ray even learned how to drive a car. He married and had two kids. He could repair cars and electrical appliances. He was a plumber and carpenter. When he painted a house, he would tie a roller to the end of two poles tied together to reach the right height, plop down in a sitting position, and scuttle along on his behind until he finished the job. George said, "Almost as quick as if he could use his legs."

     "Still," Connie said, "Poor Ray, he was born to suffer."


jmu said...

It is interesting that you spelled "ballena" without the "elle."

For a while, Sedano and I rib each other over the fact that Chicanos and most border Mexicans don't pronounce the "elle". Since the language is learned orally and formal education on orthography, grammar, etc., is absent, it is not surprising that you write it like you hear it. (Peculiarly, this might have something to do with "the ear" that one develops in these areas. I remember one time driving by a store on Alvarado that had the word "calcetines" painted on its facade. My son was struck by that because he never realized there was an "ele" in the first syllable. Of course, I always pronounced the word correctly but he never "heard" the sound.)

By the way, no diéresis over the u's (güero)?

So what did Ray have? A congenital disease as he seems to have been born with it? Or survived polio but lost use of his legs?

A couple more things: where is Cajorca? Maybe it is Caborca, which is in Sonora, near the border? But if they migrated so that Ray could get better medical treatment, then that is also different than most, who, as you note, migrated to find work. In regards to earning degrees in the 1900's in Mexico, I'd say it was extremely rare since it required money in order to live in the towns where the universities were located (and pay for everything else). Even in my childhood, the cities where my peers moved to were Mexico City, Guadalajara or Monterrey. I'd guess that in the early 1900s it was Mexico City or nothing. That means they had to belong to the elite as "all earned degrees." The Revolution must have knocked them off their social perch as it did with so many others.

Daniel Cano said...

Want to be an editor? En serio. Since I've see Ballena spelled both ways, I chose the baena. Could it be a 16th century spelling? I was in Spain, and they they my Spanish sounded like I was in a Cervantes book, so many old words we still use in Mexico. The say the La Ballona area was supposed to be Ballena. Apparently nobody knew what a Ballona was but they all knew what a Ballena was. The mito is that from the bluff of Playa del Rey, the old Californios would watch the whales swim passed. Or should it be "plalla," like paella? As for "guero," I haven't figured out how to plug in the Castellano version, so I'm stuck with no "enyes" or accent marks. I'm a luddite. He said Cajorca, but you're right. It was probably Caborca. I know non-indigenous Mejicanos whose relatives settled in Chiapas and Oaxaca in the 1800s. So many of them were diplomats or plantation owners. Too bad her parents never told her about those years in the south. Gracias for the tips.