DIA DE LAS MADRES
Mothers’ Day is upon us. In the United States this year it will be May 8 (observed on the second Sunday in May), while in Mexico it will be observed – as always – on May 10. In my family we always celebrated on the gringo calendar. Nowadays the focus of Mothers’ Day is my wife. My stepson and I usually take her out to a big crazy breakfast and there are usually flowers galore.
I wish I could take flowers to my mother, but she died twenty years ago. But still I remember her on Mothers’ Day and on her birthday. Inevitably I think of that dirge-like blues song with the poignant line: “Motherless children have a hard time when your mother is dead.”
So, Mothers’ Day can be a bit sad for me. But I genuinely try to seize the day as an opportunity to remember the happy times, the joyful experiences associated with my mom. I’m sure I drove her crazy sometimes and I am not entirely free of tinges of guilt when I think about my youthful days. (Hey, I am Catholic you know, and some kind of institutionalized guilt comes with the entire package. Actually, I’m more of a Recovering Catholic these days.) But, at any rate, I do try to focus on the good times when it comes to my mother. She was 90 years old when she died.
I’m pleased I was able to record some of her life experiences a few years before she died. I tape recorded hours of recollections. It’s sort of a family oral history. I still have the tapes. But I decided to do something with the information on those tapes. My wife, Sandra Gutierrez, and I self-published a little book. It was a compact biography of my mother, complete with all the family photos we could dig up from my brothers and sisters. We printed about 200 of them. I gave them out as Christmas presents to the familia. My mother had scores of grandchildren and great grandchildren. One of the gifts I got from my mother was the storytelling gene. She was a great storyteller. She had a wicked sense of humor, despite all the hardships she endured. Her mother died when she was just a child. She had to become an adult at the age of ten.
The little book traces her life from her childhood in the tiny town of Santa Bárbara, Chihuahua to her teenaged life in Ciudad Juárez working in a bottling plant for a dollar-a-day, to her emigration to the United States in 1927, to her marriage in Arizona to a copper miner, to the family’s stint as farmworkers in California, to her life in Los Angeles for nearly fifty years.
I often shake my head and wonder how she did it. How was it that she kept us fed and, generally, out of trouble? I am the youngest of nine kids. My mother was well into her forties when I was born, smack dab in the middle of the 20th century. My father was gone when I was four years old, although he did pop back into my familia’s life from time to time over the years. He died long ago. He was a pretty tormented soul. Alcoholic. Violent. Abusive to my mother much of his life. Still, my mother soldiered on.
Again, I don’t know how she did it. Feeding us. Taking care of us. Somehow coming up with enough dough for the monthly rent. She babysat for neighborhood families and “took in washing” as the cliché goes. My teenaged brothers and sisters pitched in with pennies from part time jobs.
I grew up in Lincoln Heights, on L.A.’s eastside. I always had something to eat and I always had the sense that my mother cared about me, that she wanted me to be protected – to be safe. I could have ended up making license plates in Folsom, if certain turning points hadn’t turned out “the right way.” Luckily for me. The library and some protection from older brothers and sisters kept me from getting seduced by gangs and drugs and violence – stuff that I had to navigate around as a mocoso. I’m very grateful. (I’m reminded of a Chicano comedian who once said from the stage: “I could never be a cholo – I can’t iron.”) Funny line. My mother would have probably come up with a better punch line.
We were poor, but I didn’t really think I was. Most of the people in my neighborhood struggled economically. We were all in the same boat, so I didn’t realize we were poor until I started to see things with comparative eyes. Yet, I’m grateful.
My mother came to this country from Mexico when she was in her twenties. (She was born in 1906.) She came here, “legally,” with visa in hand to work in a boarding house her tia ran in Morenci, Arizona. The boarding house was for copper miners, mostly Mexican immigrants, who toiled for the nefarious Phelps Dodge mining conglomerate. She met the man who became my father there. When the Great Depression shut down the copper mines my parents were forced to return to Mexico because of the threats of the pernicious “Repatriation” program instituted by President Hoover. (“Ese maldito viejo Hoover,” as my mother referred to him.) Mexicans were accused of “taking American jobs” and were rounded up – sometimes at gunpoint — and sent to Mexico. (Sound familiar.) Many, including my parents, fled instead of being forcibly deported, even though they were here “legally.”
Eventually my mother and father came back to the United States. During the 1940s (there were eight kids by then) my family worked the piscas in and around San Jose, California. They lived in a barn and barely scraped by. Eventually my mother fled her abusive husband and headed to Los Angeles with the eight kids in tow. She was pregnant with me at the time – so I came with her. I was born in L.A. in 1950 and we lived for a time with my Tio Luís who had half a dozen kids of his own.
Anyway, I grew up with a mother who cared for us all and did what she could to protect us. I grew up poor, but I had it waaay better than my brothers and sisters who lived in that barn in San Jose – chasing rats from under the beds and generally eating nothing but beans and fideo. But my mother made great tortillas. It’s a story familiar to lots of Chicanos of my generation.
But again, when I was a kid I didn’t really feel that we were poor. Everybody else in my neighborhood seemed to be in the same shape. There was, however, one incident that crystalized our situation for me. I’ll never forget it.
When I was about nine years old my mother took me shopping in downtown L.A. What passes for winter in L.A. was approaching and we went to the downtown department stores hunting for a jacket for me. (All I had to protect me against the cold was a hand-me-down sweater that one of my brothers had outgrown.) I was excited. As it turned out, something unexpected happened on that shopping trip that opened my eyes – and my heart, I suppose.
Like all kids that age, I assume, I was pretty self-centered. I was concerned about “me” and not much else. I was looking forward to owning a cool, new jacket of my very own. We went to several stores. I remember we started at The Broadway and ended up at J.J. Newberry’s. (Nowadays that’s a bit like starting at Nordstrom’s and ending up at Target.) I saw a fancy – and expensive – jacket. I tried it on. It fit perfectly. I felt fantastic looking in the three-sided mirror. But for some reason, my mother kept finding fault with that jacket. I couldn’t understand.
Gradually she steered me to a different jacket. It was more or less the same color as the one I was crazy about. But it had buttons instead of a zipper. It was flimsier. It didn’t feel as “tailored” as the one I liked. The jacket she steered me towards was clearly more cheaply made, and much cheaper in price. She kept praising the “cheap” jacket and urged me to be satisfied with it. And then it hit me. We simply couldn’t afford the cool jacket. I realized what my mother was doing. I realized she had just enough money for the less expensive jacket. I understood. And I realized that she was trying to keep my spirits up while I saw in her eyes that she wanted me to be happy. She wanted me to have the cool jacket, but she didn’t have the money. I understood. She was being very kind, and she was doing what she could for her mocoso.
It was a bit of an epiphany. I understood. And when I did, I loved my mother for doing what she could for me. And I felt a strange kind of guilt about being such a pendejo about what was going on at first. (I told you I was raised Catholic and that some measure of guilt seemed to be inherent in everything we did.) That was the time I realized we were relatively poor. But it didn’t bum me out or deter me. That was also one of the times as a kid that I understood what caring mothers are all about – the struggles and the sacrifices involved in doing what they can for their kids.
As a teenager and as an adult I tried to be worthy of my mother’s love. However, I’m sure I was often ungrateful and selfish toward my mother – as all of us are capable of being. I always loved me mother and tried to do right by her. And I think of her often, especially as Mothers’ Day approaches.
As most of us recognize, being a mother is the toughest gig in the world – and probably the most important one there is. I wish them all Happy Dia de las Madres!
Luís Torres is a veteran journalist in Los Angeles. He is the author of “Doña Julia’s Children.” All photos are courtesy of Luis Torres.