Thursday, May 25, 2023

Family Tree with Crooked Branches


 Nicolas Gonzalez, Creator of a Mighty Tree

     How long are we supposed to keep family secrets? The relatives responsible for them are all dead. The irony is that before they died, some of them revealed what they knew.

     I wonder if migrants carry more secrets than those with the luxury of being settled in one place. Mexican men, for example, often left family, including wives and children, to come north and seek work. The plan was to send money home to the family, and when the time was right, and enough money saved, to bring the family north, reunite, and start anew. 

     Sometimes it worked, often it didn’t. Sometimes the men reappeared with new wives, and new families. In some cases, the young wives who remained behind lost hope, and found comfort in the arms of another, secretly bearing a new child, the father, incognito, whereabouts unknown, a village scandal.

     When the largest migration of Mexicans came to the U.S., between 1910 and 1925, the years of the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans came north to flee violence, pestilence, and starvation. Most came from the central Mexican states of Zacatecas, Jalisco, and Michoacan-north, a two thousand miles trek, no easy feat in the early 1900s.

     In her sixties, my aunt recalled leaving the family ranch Mitic, Jalisco, in 1918, as a child, with her father, mother, and five siblings. She said her last image was of her grandfather, Juan, astride a tall horse, tears in his eyes, looking down at his departing family. They had lived on the ranch for generations. They realized it was probably the last time they would see each other.  

     Sometimes the men came north alone, bachelors or husbands, like my paternal grandfather’s brother Pedro, who told his family he was heading north, to look for work. It was during the worst of the Revolution The family never heard from him again. In those years, the migrant trail must have been brutal. There were no superhighways or paved roads. People took whatever mode of transportation they could find.  

     If they could afford a train ticket, they headed for the station in Aguascalientes and took the train north. They rarely made it all the way to the northern pass, El Paso del Norte, so they struggled onward, taking a horse, mule, cart, or on foot. Once in the north, they found relatives or friends and crowded into barrios, often living on top of each other, parents, kids, uncles, aunts, and family friends.

     The stories of those years were passed down from generation to generation, mostly the good stories, about hard work, family bonds, triumphant over dire social conditions. Only behind closed doors did they mention anything unsavory.

     Then, it started, years later, maybe a simple request, like a daughter needing a birth certificate to get married. The parents feigned ignorance, bade their time, hoping their daughter would forget. When no answer came, she finally travelled downtown to the Hall of Records where she would learn the city had no record of her birth.

     The parents held her off as long as they could, making excuses. It caused a ruckus, yelling and tears. Where was her birth certificate? Eventually, it came out. Her parents weren’t really her parents, nor her name her real name. They were her uncle and aunt who had taken her in when her real father, a man she thought was her uncle, a wayward alcoholic, couldn’t raise her after her real mother died of cancer.

     She inquired further and found out her biological working-class Mexican father had married a young Anglo woman, the daughter of a wealthy Los Angeles family. She also found out her two older cousins were, in fact, her brother and sister. So many questions and no answers.

     The parents who raised her couldn’t articulate the complexity of the situation, how her father had begged them to take her in as one of their own. They raised her since she was in diapers, along with six other children, who treated her like a sister. How could she not see how much they loved her.

     Later, she heard rumors, questions about the man she thought was her real father. Her adoptive parents wouldn’t discuss it. The older family members clammed up, but years later, after the adoptive parents died, she asked an uncle about it, the last link in a shaky family chain. Even in his seventies, he was hesitant to say anything, so deep were the bonds of loyalty, and secrecy. She pleaded.  

     He thought it over and decided she had the right to know. Her real father was another man, a stranger, the father of an older cousin. The branch in her family tree was cracking. The truth wasn’t easy to accept, but she was relieved someone had finally been honest with her. Still, the revelation raised more questions. Don’t they always?

     When my paternal grandmother arrived from Chihuahua to Los Angeles, without a husband but with three children, one son and two daughters, it caused quite a stir, a lot of commotion over the years, and many more questions. No one ever asked. The barrio remained mum.

     Later, my grandmother’s two sisters, also with children, arrived. Rumor had it their husbands died working in Arizona’s coal mines, one run over by a coal cart in a dark mine shaft. Once all the women married, including their grown daughters, I had relatives with so many different last names it was hard to keep track.

     Because of all the interest in DNA testing and people wondering about their family roots, when my children asked how they were related to so-and-so, it was like trying to catch somebody up on a soap opera, and like the proverbial iceberg, more answers lie submerged under the surface than above it.

     The elders didn’t like talking about the past, especially anything personal. As I aged, I became bolder. I wanted to know, so I asked my father why my grandfather, rumored to be a happy-go-lucky older bachelor, would marry my grandmother, a woman with three children.

     My dad, a firmly integrated Chicano American, was a child of immigrants, refugees of the early 1900s Mexican diaspora. He told me, giving my question ample thought by digging into the recesses of his mind, how my grandfather had told him that a friend in the barrio, not the best source of information, said my grandfather could be drafted into the army for the first world war, but that the government would not take men with families.

     Apparently, that was good enough for my grandfather. He went out and found a woman with children to marry and guarantee he’d be exempt from the draft and from fighting in the war, probably a war he knew nothing about, and cared about even less.

     This explanation raised some questions in my mind. My grandfather resided in the U.S. legally, working, and probably in his early thirties when he married my grandmother. He spoke no English. During the war, the U.S. needed agricultural workers. In Mexico, my grandfather had been a rancher’s son, experienced in agriculture and ranching. Would the U.S. really draft a Mexican national, an older man who couldn’t speak, read or write English, a man who, in fact, taught himself to read Spanish.

     Who knows, maybe just the thought of going to war put the fear of God in him. After all, he had escaped from Mexico during the Revolution, a savage war that had already taken his brother. On his way to the U.S., he traversed a war-torn country. Had he seen the dead bodies littered over the Mexican landscape, or as many migrants described, corpses hanging from telegraph poles, images I tried capturing, in first novel, Pepe Rios, imagining my grandfather’s travels.

     Maybe he thought -- why would he fight a war for a foreign country, even an adopted country, when he had fled fighting in his own country? If he was like other Mexican migrants, he was just biding his time in the U.S., dreaming about the opportune time to return to Mexico and resume the life he’d left behind -- a pipe dream?

     When my father was born, his two half-sisters had already started their families, which had to have been confusing for him. He was the uncle to nephews and nieces who were older than he was. In fact, when I once referred to them as my uncles and aunts, because they were so much older than I was, he corrected me, “No, they’re your cousins.”

     Then, there was the time my maternal grandmother, sometime in 1930, suddenly, out of the blue, sent one of my uncles back to Mexico when he was seventeen. Eight years old when he arrived in the U.S., he was educated and raised in the North, Santa Monica to be exact. He was fluent in both English and Spanish, played baseball and football, an all-around American kid.

     Then, whoosh, he was gone, back to the family ranch in Jalisco, as if swooped up in a time machine, back to another world, where he stayed for the better part of five-years. The barrio kept its silence, even if, over the years, rumors had a way of seeping out into the open, something about an older woman, a pregnancy, and her husband away from home, working in another state, another cousin with questionable roots, another crooked branch in the family tree.

     Is it only my family, or is it the same in other families? Some things we just don’t talk about, but the family tree grows, sometimes taking a long, circuitous route?    

1 comment:

msedano said...

i had a quasi-relative who brought his "real" familia to the EUA when he'd slickied the family house from the youngest daughter of the familia the asshole shacked up with over here. his excuse was he kept them in food. pigs is pigs.