Life In Mexico

I thought I’d start with full disclosure about myself, given that I’m featuring immigrants. I was born in Mexico. My family and I, left Totatiche, Jalisco, in 1974 when I was five. We crossed the border at Tijuana, in late February. Two days later, we arrived in Madera, six hours north of San Diego. I lived there until 1998. Since then, I’ve resided in Fresno, except during my studies at Art Students League of New York City, and Grand Central Academy.

My trip from Totatiche, Jalisco to Madera, CA

I was born in a stone house that my father built. It had no plaster, cement or mud. Thus, the wind and sun seeped through. Fortunately, the climate of northern Jalisco is not too cold and summer gets to mid 90s. Still, there was much strife. There was no plumbing or electricity. The land was hardly fertile. No roads existed for vehicles. Town was a 3-hour trip away, on horseback.

The earliest picture of me (with mom & dad), 1968

My first memory of my mother is of her crying because all we had was masa. I had asked what we would have for lunch. I didn’t comprehend the totality of the situation, but I recall feeling badly for her tears. I suggested for us to walk over to a small cactus, half kilometer away, which we could grill on the comal and have for tacos. Dad was in California, but had either not yet sent money, or his last mailed had run out on us. Either way, life was a perpetual scene of dispair. Luckily, we left that arid corner of the municipality and settled next to my maternal grandparents. Town was at a 50-minute walk. Cornfields occupied hills and small plateaus. Grandfather was a carpenter and sharecropper. He split the corn harvest with the owner. For us, he also grew peanuts, beans, sweet potatoes, squash and other legumes and vegetables. The running water was not through pipes but via a creek. That’s where we bathed, washed clothes and collected water for drinking and cooking.
Circumstances were better but poverty was still the harsh reality. Our usual diet was beans with cheese and tortilla. We had chickens, which provided eggs and an occasional soup. Clothes and footwear were hard to come by. Above all, money was scarce, though dad sent checks. There was only so much that a farm laborer, in California, could set aside for family back home. Occasionally, mother had to rely on grandfather good will.

Kitchen of the house where I lived, 1972–74

Since we left, in 1974, no one has occupied this adobe house. Photos taken 2008.

View from our house to grandpa & grandma’s house (Juan & Carmen Calderón)

At the same time, I have fond memories. Between our house and grandfather’s, there was a creek. I spent hours, there, with my 2 or 3 toys. I loved to gather turtles. I’d build small stone corrals in which to keep them. The next day, they’d be gone and I was left puzzled about their escape. I was free to roam the countryside, exploring meadows, trees and hiding places. I was too young to comprehend the true challenges of poverty. Though, it was sad when I’d notice worry in mother’s face. I knew that something was amiss but there was no way for me to understand how others lived. It was not until we arrived in Madera, CA that I flicked on a light bulb, saw a stove, refrigerator, washing machine and toilet. In fact, until then, I had never heard of these appliances.

Countryside where I played as a child. Photo by Miguel

In January of 1975, dad traveled from Madera, CA to our home, in order to take us across the border. In late February, we boarded a bus down to Guadalajara. From there, we took another bus to make the 1,400 mile I’ll trip to Tijuana. Crossing the border was not difficult. Literally, we walked thru a break in the chain-linked fence, around 10pm. The coyote waited for us inside of the fence. Then, we ran across I-5. My dad carried my sister Gloria (4), and our one suitcase. Mom carried Mike (3), and I and the coyote lead the way. We made our way to a bus stop and arrived in San Diego 30 minutes later. The following day, we were driven to Pacoima, in the LA area. There, I was given my first ham sandwich ever, which I could not eat. Up to that point, I didn’t know that mayonnaise was the most disgusting taste I’ve ever experienced. The following morning, we left for Madera, arriving with some sprinkles falling upon a vineyard. The house sat in the middle.

Dad worked those vineyards. Two weeks later, he was picked up by immigration. What a terrifying occasion because there was no way to know if he would be able to return soon. We had no telephone, no money, didn’t speak English, of course, and knew one person only. Fortunately, he crossed the border and appeared at our front door ten days later. By 1975, he had saved enough money to apply for legal status. We were heartbroken to learn that the only path, available to us, to becoming American would have us wait twenty years! It would not be until 1995 when we would be eligible to apply for our green cards. Fortunately, the Amnesty Law of 1986, changed our course. Still, it took three more years of waiting for INS to process our application.

It’s been forty-five years living in the United States. Now, I’m American, though a part of me still feels Mexican. Perhaps, modern psychology is right in that our first five years of life sets the foundation for whom we become. Mine is rooted in Mexico.

I’m thankful that my father brought us here. I have had opportunities that would not have been available to me, living south of the border. I’ve traveled about this beautiful country, lived in New York City and stayed in Seattle for a short time. I have lifelong friends. One, befriended me when my English vocabulary was about fifty words! Yet, by coming here, I also experienced loss. These loses can’t be made up by any other country, no matter how great it is. Never again did I see my grandparents, for example. Many small things were left behind, too. I never drank another Esquís or ate avocados right from a tree. I have never felt, again, that I am in my home land. Somehow, I always feel like a foreigner, regardless of my education, that I speak two more languages than most Americans or that I talk to you about great authors such as Whitman, Steinbeck, Salinger or Baldwin. Still, I’m thankful that I grew up and have made my life in this country though I wish I had seen my grandparents one more time.

Next Monday: When did you feel American for the first time?

Answering will be Ani (Israel), Bruno (Switzerland), Fernando and Angie (Mexico)

Looking ahead: Part 2 of my Immigrant Story

Feel free to leave a question or comment below. I will be happy to respond.