Bidding farewell to a man who loved laughter

I HAVE MANY photos of my brother, Alejandro Palomo, but these four show how I choose to remember him: a man who adored his family, a man who loved to tell stories, a man who loved to dance, and a man who thrived on laughter: laughing and making others laugh.

Alejandro, named after my father’s father, died early this morning in his bedroom in San Antonio after a relatively short but difficult struggle with the ravages of Alzheimer’s. He was 87. Many people knew him as Alex; we called him Jando. Six wonderful men and women – Becky, Sandie, Alex, Mandy, Art and Eva – had the privilege of calling him “Dad.”

Jando joined the Air Force in 1952, when I was six years old, and he never returned to live in Crystal City, where we grew up.  As a result, I have very few memories of him during my early years, not the kind of memories I have of my younger sisters. Most memories are of him as an adult, a husband and father.

The one big memory I have of him was of that day in ’52 when he left to enlist. We were in Wisconsin, near Fond du Lac, living in a big old farmhouse provided to us by the labor contractor who enlisted my father for work in the nearby canneries. Because the adults were at work, there was nobody available to drive him to the nearest town where he could catch a bus, so he walked along the side of the road, bag in hand, until someone offered him a ride.

The year before that, our family had traveled to Ogden, Utah, where we lived in a Del Monte labor camp while my parents and older siblings worked in a tomato cannery. Our apartment was adjacent to one inhabited by the Garcias, a family from Carrizo Springs (12 miles south of Crystal City), which consisted of a mother, a young son and several daughters. Jando fell in love with Elida, the most beautiful of those daughters, and they were married several years later, when he was still in the Air Force.

When he left the service, Jando and Elida moved to the suburbs of Chicago, where most of her family had settled, and he began working at the post office. He later worked in the composing rooms of several newspapers. In the late 1960s, Jando and Elida decided to move to San Antonio, where he worked for the San Antonio Express-News until he rejoined the postal service. He worked as a letter carrier, a job he loved because it allowed him to make friends along his route.

As a teen-ager, Jando hung out with two boys his age, his cousin Mike Palomo, and a guy who lived on the next street. His name was Tomás Rivera.

ABOVE ALL ELSE, Jando was a devoted family man. We visited him and Elida one year on our way to Wisconsin. They lived in a small mobile home but they welcomed us warmly and gladly. He took us to O’Hare airport to watch the planes land and take off, and he took us to the natural history museum, and he took us to a movie theater downtown to see “How the West Was Won.”

Another summer, when we were living in Wisconsin, finishing up with the cucumber harvest and getting ready to travel to Minnesota to harvest onions, my father got picked up for driving while drunk and his license was suspended. He was the only driver the family and we were stuck in Wisconsin until Jando drove up from his Illinois home, drove us to Minnesota and then took a Greyhound back to Wisconsin.

He loved to travel, whether by car, train or airplane. He and Elida traveled to Mexico, Germany, China, Costa Rica, and South America, and they camped in most of the nation’s national parks. As far as I know, they visited every state but Hawaii. One summer they drove all the way to Alaska in a pickup truck with a pop-up tent camper in tow!

Jando was a teller of stories, about his growing-up years, about his co-workers and neighbors, about his travels, about his family. Unfortunately for us, he developed a strange habit of repeating his stories, especially if they were funny, over and over again. And I don’t mean several days or weeks or months later, but right away: as soon as the laughter had died down. If he didn’t repeat the entire story, he would at least repeat the punch line. (This is a trait he inherited from my mother, who also often repeated punch lines of funny stories she’d told.) It could be irritating at times (especially, I assume, to people who didn’t know him), but for the most part, we found it endearing.

Not all his stories were funny. He often spoke of the difficulties of growing up poor in South Texas, about migrant life, and about the time he was stricken with lockjaw when he was 8 years old and he ended up in the hospital for days, stiff as a board, unable to move or speak or eat. He told about how his jaws would relax periodically, long enough for him to extend his tongue only to clamp down again, without notice. His tongue was caught between his teeth until the nurses administered enough shots to get him to relax again. Most of those shots were in his upper legs, which remained numb all his life.

BUT JANDO didn’t dwell on the negative. He was a man of dreams who believed in possibilities and who sought to find good in every person he met. He loved being with people. He would talk to anybody, anywhere about anything. He once got into a conversation with a native American man in New Mexico that resulted in an invitation to join a tribal birthday party, which he, of course, readily accepted.

His favorite conversations were those he had with his children, his grandkids and their children, even if (with the young ones), most were playful. In one of the pictures shown here, he is talking to his oldest daughter, Becky, about his early days as a migrant farm worker. In the other he is talking to his grandson, giving him advice.

Jando loved his booze, especially scotch. Of all the gifts I gave him over the years, nothing pleased him more than the bottles of scotch I gave him. And he was thrilled that he didn’t have to share it with me, as I long ago developed a hatred for scotch.

He loved to dance (and was lucky to have married a great dancer), and he loved parties of any kind, particularly if they featured Mariachi music. His favorite song was “Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu, Paloma” (and he was lucky enough to have two sons-in-law who are singers – and one of them plays with a Mariachi band.)

I visited Jando Sunday. Held his hands and kissed him lightly on his forehead before I left his room to return home. I don’t know if he knew I was there, but I’m glad I was.

It was not an easy death. There was pain and anguish. And there were tears. But it is over now.

Palomo, ya no lloras.

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Activist to the End: She Didn’t Shut Up

A FRIEND died yesterday.

Ann Chapman, whom I first got to know in the early 1990s after she wrote me a letter in response to something I had written in my Houston Post column, died early yesterday, at her Corpus Christi home. 

I still have that letter, somewhere, but unfortunately, I can’t find it. I don’t remember what she wrote but I’m pretty sure they were words of encouragement after my very public attempt to come out in my column as a gay man, which led to my being fired (only to be rehired a week later). 

I wrote her back and invited her to join me for a meal. She did that, even though she lived in Victoria, two hours away. 

Somehow, I missed one of her last Facebook postings, a status update: “April 2021. Anne Chapman has terminal cancer. Won’t be around much longer to enjoy your friendship. PLEASE VOTE.”

Her last post was a Washington Post story: “Climate Change has gotten deadly. It’ll get worse.”

That was Ann, believing until the very end that civic activism matters. That educating ourselves matters. That caring matters.

The only surprise is that among her last postings there is nothing about LGBTQ rights. Ann was passionate about many things, but nothing compared with her utter determination to be an agent for change so that young people struggling with their sexuality would not be subjected to the pain and suffering many have gone through.

IT ALL STARTED when she befriended Clay, a young man at the high school where she worked as a principal’s assistant. Clay is a successful businessman now, living in New York, happily married and the father of a beautiful young daughter. Back then, though, he was struggling, and Ann took him under her wing, becoming, in effect his second mother.

Because of Clay, Ann became a member of PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, first in Victoria and later in Houston, even if that meant driving all the way to Houston to attend meetings.

That first letter from Ann was a letter of support, and over the years I was to receive other such letters. But I also got some very angry letters from her, taking me to task for what she saw as my sins when I didn’t exactly share her views regarding tactics to achieve movement goals.

I tend to be a very laid back and tolerant fellow and I don’t get insulted easily, but Ann was capable of pushing some very sensitive buttons to the point that several times during our friendship we quit communicating. Those times of estrangement would inevitably be followed by letters of apology and/or explanation, which led to long periods of detente and mutual support. 

The last such estrangement was in the late 1990s, shortly before I moved to Washington. We didn’t communicate for a couple of years until one day, while walking on the Mall, I thought of her and called her. It was as if nothing had ever happened between us. 

THE LAST time I saw Ann was several years ago when she visited her brother here and he invited me over for dinner. A few months earlier, I had made a detour on one of my trips to my hometown and visited her in Corpus.

As I said, I don’t remember the contents of her first letter to me, but I did manage to save some of her subsequent letters, in which she praised and/or criticized me. I want to share some of what she said:

  • I’M A PEST. I know that. But I haven’t always been. My teachers, both in high school and college, knew I existed only because of what I was assigned to write. I never spoke in class unless I was called on. Even as an adult, few knew what I thought because I didn’t want to bother people with my opinions. Then I met Clay…then I joined PFLAF, and now no one can shut me up!
  • I SAW THE pink triangle [decal on your car]. I thought, what an act of courage. Then I thought, what’s wrong with my country that I should have to think such a thought. Our young ones need us. Let’s change the world before we get too old.
  • I GIVE MY time, my money, my energy, my passion, to this cause. My friends and family think I’m obsessed. My husband resents it. “Why do you have to do this?” If I don’t do it, who will? Someone has to. I want my Dear Ones to have both rights and acceptance. I want their parents to know that people can be normal and gay.
  • I FEEL BETRAYED by Juan Palomo. You have so much more power than I do, to change things. But I know I accomplish a little bit. It’s just that it’s 3 a.m. now, and I’m asking myself why I bother. Yesterday, a lesbian told me with great passion that she wanted to throw rotten tomatoes at Bruce Brawer [conservative gay Republican]. To what purpose? Purpose. I guess that’s why I bother… So, I’ll keep working beside you. I’ll keep trying to understand. I hope you will too. I really believe we need each other to make it happen.

THANK YOU, Ann Chapman, for doing it. For bothering. For not shutting up. For not giving up, even after many of us let complacency or inertia or hopelessness rule our lives. 

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Seventy-Five Random thoughts on my 75th birthday

TWENTY YEARS ago, when I turned 55, I posted this entry. I updated it and reposted it when I turned 70. Here is an updated collection of random thoughts:

  1. As a kid, I would read western comics and invariably I came across the term, “old timer.” I read it as “old timmer.” I never could figure out what an old timmer was. Now I are one.
  2. I often try to imagine what went through my mother’s mind 75 years ago when she gave birth to her, ninth child. Was there joy in her heart? Was there sorrow? Did she wonder, “How are we going to feed this kid?” Did she wonder what I would turn out to be like? Did she even imagine I could be anything but a farm worker, destined to live in perpetual poverty? Do mothers always believe that their newborn child is going to be the perfect child? Or do they wonder, is this going to be the president who is going to be impeached? Or the congressman who electronically exposes his thing to strange young women? Or the loser who goes to a mall to shoot a congresswoman and a judge and others? [This item became a poem, “July 7, 1946,” that is included in my chapbook, Al Norte.]
  3. There are no pictures of me as a baby. Not a single one.
  4. As a kid, when I’d hear my mother exclaim, “Yo creo que me voy a volver loca,” as a result of my father’s abusive behavior, I really believed she could go insane, and I feared that more than anything else in the world.
  5. I’ve never been as sad as the first time I came home from school and my mother wasn’t there; she’d gone off to work. [This was the seed for another poem found in Al Norte: “They Day They Did Not Come Home.”]
  6. I never dreamed I would spend almost as many years in Washington as I did in my hometown. [I left DC in January, 2013. I lived there a total of 26 years. I have now lived in Houston 18 years. I lived in San Marcos about 10 years.]
  7. There was a time when I believed I would spend the rest of my life in San Marcos, a town I love.
  8. I know hundreds of people; very few of them know me, and that’s never going to change.
  9. Seventy-five feels no different than 70 and 70 felt no different than 60 and 60 felt no different than 50 and 50 felt no different than 40. That’s as far as I’m willing to go, although sometimes I feel as if I were 18. I don’t feel so young anymore, although I definitely do not feel old. There are still times I think of myself as a 32-year-old.
  10. I am in better shape, physically, now than I have ever been. Emotionally? Ditto. Mentally: that’s for you to decide.
  11. “Our bodies change,” said the old guy sitting at the next table just now, to his wife. No shit.
  12. I’m a good person, in general, but I am not very tolerant of fools. There are too many fools in the world.
  13. I’m not very good with people who need me.
  14. I can be very superficial.
  15. I’m a snob at heart and you can blame my mother for that because she always taught us that we were better than others (even though I don’t think she ever put it that way) and that was why we couldn’t do some of the things others did.
  16. If I were someone else I’m not sure I’d want to spend too much time with me. I’d be bored shitless.
  17. I think I can safely say that the biggest thrill of my life was seeing Janis Joplin in concert on the UT campus. The second was watching the full moon rise over the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. The third was flying on the Concorde from London to Dallas. The fourth was the first time I put a handful of Fritos in my mouth then quickly took a swig of Coca Cola, with the salty chips still in my mouth. The fifth was when I was told by Octavio Quintanilla earlier this year that he would publish my book of poetry.
  18. My first professional baseball team was the Brooklyn Dodgers. As a kid, I didn’t even know where Brooklyn was but I knew the Dodgers were always in competition with the Yankees in the World Series. The Yankees were my Tío Adrian’s favorite team, which meant they were my cousins’ favorite team. And that was enough to make me a Dodgers fan.
  19. Over the years, I’ve switched loyalty a few times: The Milwaukee Braves, the New York Mets, the Astros, the Nats and Astros, and then again, the Astros.
  20. I hate confrontation.
  21. I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until I was 13, and I didn’t own one until I was in my late 20s, but in Washington, I rode my bike almost everywhere in town. I don’t ride my bike in Houston half as much as I did in DC. I can’t imagine my father riding a bike at 75.
  22. I’m not afraid of dying and I don’t wonder what comes after death, primarily because I believe there’s nothing after we die, but I sure resent not being around to observe what happens. At the same time, I really don’t want to be around to see what’s going to happen to this world, given the way we’ve been behaving these past four or five decades.
  23. Before I die I’d love to visit Berlin and Morocco and South America. And I’d love to go back to Spain and Italy and France. And Britain.
  24. I’ve been to 49 of the 50 U.S. states. I’m not sure I’ll ever make it to Alaska.
  25. I love traveling, yet I get terribly depressed in the weeks before a scheduled trip. Once I get in the car or on a plane, I’m fine. I blame that on my mother, who believed you should only travel for work, or other necessity.
  26. I’ve never wanted children and I don’t regret never having had any and I think I’d be terribly depressed if I had had some because I’d be worried shitless every single hour of the day about what bad things could happen to them. I do love kids. I love being around them, when they are happy, seeing pure joy in their smiling faces.
  27. I’m a pretty decent photographer and I love street photography.
  28. I’ve been intellectually lazy all my life. As a kid learning English, I’d come across a word that I didn’t know what it meant but I rarely bothered to look it up. I’d just wait, knowing that eventually the meaning would become clear. Today I look up everything. Not a day goes by that I don’t look up something on my dictionary app or my translation apps.
  29. That guy I just quoted a while ago? He just said, “There is always a light at the end of the tunnel.” Yeah, so? We spend most of our lives in the damn tunnel.
  30. I have the best family in the world and I have the best friends in the world and most of my working life I’ve had the best colleagues in the world.
  31. The only thing I don’t like about retirement is that I don’t get to be around people as much.
  32. I don’t know of anybody who hates me or even dislikes me strongly, and I really would be surprised is such a person were to surface. I like that.
  33. I have evolved from being passionate about politics to being almost completely repulsed by it.
  34. I would rather unclog a stopped-up toilet than watch or listen to a talk show.
  35. I miss David Letterman and Garrison Keillor. A lot.
  36. I used to watch every movie released and now I probably see no more than 10 or 12 movies a year at a theater, and about that many on TV or DVD. The last 3-D movie I saw was in the 1950s, at the Guild Theater in my hometown. 
  37. I do not see sci-fi movies, fantasy movies, shoot-em-up movies, spy movies, adventure movies, documentaries or animated films. Woody Allen is still the best, along with Almodóvar. And I believe Hollywood should make more westerns.
  38. I learned to love newspapers when my brother-in-law, who lived next door, started subscribing to the San Antonio Express (or was it The News?). At first, I’d borrow it to read the comics but then I started reading most of the paper. As a young adult I would read every newspaper I could get hold of, no matter where I was. Today, I couldn’t care less what the LA Times or the Chicago Tribune or the Boston Globe or the Dallas Morning News looks like.
  39. The first newspaper I ever bought was a Sunday Grand Forks Herald (I think that’s its name); I bought it in Forest River, North Dakota.
  40. I read the printed version of the NY Times daily and I read the Chronicle and the Washington Post online.
  41. I subscribe to The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and the Texas Observer. 
  42. The first razor I ever bought was in a small grocery store near Wautoma, Wisc. That was the summer my father had left us to go to Colorado with his girlfriend and so I could no longer borrow his razor to shave off my wisp of a moustache.
  43. I love the moon, but the stars don’t do much for me.
  44. I envy anybody who can sing and/or play a musical instrument (except for flutes and harps and classical guitar: I find them irritating.)
  45. I’m scared of snakes, spiders, lizards and snakes. And ghosts.
  46. I love doctors, nurses, dentists and hospitals.
  47. I love airplanes, architecture and bridges.
  48. I love dancing and wish I could dance better than I do.
  49. I do not believe anyone who says he/she can’t cook and I have little patience with anyone who says he/she is too tired to cook.
  50. The first time I ever ate French fries was at Morton’s Seafood Restaurant in Green Lake, Wisc. I was 14 years old.
  51. The first time I ever ate restaurant-made pizza was when I went away to college in San Marcos.
  52. I do not eat sushi or raw meat of any kind.
  53. My favorite breakfast place is still La Guadalupana on Dunlavy. (Chilaquiles or machaca norteña.) Its chicken mole is a favorite for lunch, although recently I’ve been going to Pico’s for my mole fix.
  54. My favorite fast-food meal is Jack-in-the-Box’s Sourdough Jack with curly fries.
  55. Whataburger continues to disappoint. If you want a good Texas-style burger, go to DQ. 
  56. I have been unable to find the kind of great Thai food in Houston that I enjoyed in Washington. 
  57. I’ve only gotten sick-drunk once in my entire life. It was on some scotch at a San Marcos school board election victory party. To this day I cannot stand the taste or smell of scotch. But I’ll take your bourbon or your rum or your gin any time, thank you very much. Or your beer or wine. Or tequila. Vodka? Meh.
  58. I know very little about wine and I’ll always pick the cheapest bottle or glass of wine. Usually, it’s a red; cabernet sauvignon. 
  59. Houston will always be one of my favorite cities, as will Washington, DC. I don’t care too much for Austin.
  60. I’m into cheap thrills. I can’t resist taking home those little hotel shampoo bottles, and I don’t want to throw them away when I use up the shampoo. I really believe most bottles are beautiful, be they plastic or glass. I like boxes, too – especially wooden boxes. I also find it difficult to throw out Popsicle sticks and whenever I go to the Chinese take-out, I always grab an extra set of chopsticks. I have hundreds of them.
  61. I once built a popsicle stick replica of the Empire State Building. I still have it.
  62. I was a decent reporter and a good columnist, but I have no desire to be either.
  63. Although I grieved when The Houston Post closed and my heart still aches for my colleagues who were never able to find decent jobs in journalism, the paper’s closure ended up being a good thing for me. Had I stayed in journalism and not spent 14 years flacking for the oil industry, I would be a broke, maybe homeless, ex-journalist today.
  64. Had the Post stayed in business and I’d continued as a columnist, I’m not sure I’d have had the sense or the courage to quit when I started getting stale.
  65. I still keep in contact with friends I first met after they wrote to me (some in praise, some not) in response to columns I wrote for The Post and I invited them to share a meal or coffee or a beer with me.
  66. I always knew Santa Clause was make-believe and nobody ever tried to convince me that he was real, and for that I give thanks.
  67. I rarely read books anymore; I listen to them. The only ones I read are those books given to me by friends. 
  68. Even though I’m not into religion, I’m glad I grew up Catholic.
  69. I love listening to the Gregorian chants.
  70. I honestly, truly believe that, if there is a God, the greatest, most profound prayer anyone can utter is a simple, “I don’t know.”
  71. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be a published poet, I’d have said you were crazy as shit.
  72. Although I was foolish enough to list use “poet” on my business cards, I do not consider myself a poet yet. I may never be one.
  73. I’m addicted to Facebook. I do not see the value of Twitter and I don’t understand the attraction of Instagram.
  74. Why am I sounding like Andy Rooney? Of, that’s right: I’m an old geezer.
  75. Damn it, I can’t come up with #75!
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Juanzqui’s Pollo con Chayote y Fideo

I got a number of requests for a recipe for this dish, of which I posted a photo on FaceBook. Here it is:

What you’ll need:

4-6 whole chicken thighs, or any other parts of the chicken. (I used to be a breast man until recently, when I discovered how much tastier and juicier the thighs are.)

1 chayote, peeled and sliced (more, if desired; you can also use zucchini or yellow squash)

1-2 stalks of celery, chopped

Chicken broth, about 4 cups, or more.

1 bell pepper, sliced (if you’d like the dish to be a bit on the spicy side, use chiles poblanos, or jalapeños, with or without the seeds)

½ tomato (or 4-5 cherry tomatoes), sliced

½ cup sliced onion

4 garlic cloves, chopped

Olive oil

Cilantro

Oregano

Cumin powder

1 dried avocado leaf (optional), ground up into small pieces

1 tbs flour

Salt and pepper

Fideo (vermicelli) or thin spaghetti (or any pasta, really)

Step Numero Uno:

Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper and leave it out at room temperature while you gather and prepare the rest of the ingredients, about 30 minutes. If you finish getting the stuff together in less time, pour yourself a drink and sip from it while you wait. What’s the hurry, really?

Step Numero Dos:

Place some olive oil in a large heavy skillet (one that has a lid) and turn the heat to medium. Wait a minute or so then place the chicken thighs in the pan in a single layer and cook until golden brown, 4-6 minutes, then turn the thighs and cook them the same amount of time.

Step Numero Tres:

Add the garlic and onion to the pan and cook for a minute or two, allowing the onion to become translucent. Add the bell pepper and continue to let it cook for another couple of minutes.

Step Numero Cuatro:

In about half la cup of hot water, dissolve the flour, making sure you have no lumps. Pour the mixture into the pan then add the chicken broth, enough to cover the veggies. Use more than four cups if you need to (you can add plain water if you run out of broth); it all depends on how much gravy you want to end up with.

Step Numero Cinco:

Add the tomato and cilantro and the spices. Stir well. Taste the broth and adjust the salt and spice levels to your taste. Stir some more and cover. Adjust the heat if necessary, to make sure the whole thing doesn’t boil over.

Step Numero Seis:

In a separate non-stick pan, add some olive oil and place over medium heat. Add the fideo, or whatever pasta you’re using, and stir constantly to prevent it from burning. When the pasta becomes a beautiful golden brown, dump all of it in the large pan with the chicken and veggies. Stir to mix it. (Note: I’m horrible at figuring out how much pasta is required to make the desired amount of cooked pasta, so you’re on your own here.)

Step Number Siete:

Cover the mixture with the lid and let it cook under low heat until the pasta reaches your desired consistency and until the chicken is cooked.

Note: if you want to add a bit of Italian flavor to this, add some sliced black olives.

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Speed Queen, North Dakota, 1983

[In the summer of 1983, I talked my Houston Post editors into letting me travel with a migrant family from Crytal City, my South Texas hometown, to the area between Grafton (where I was born) and Grand Forks, ND, where my family worked during the summers for many years. This is the final installment of the resulting series (more of a mood piece, or thumbsucker), as I filed it. I don’t really know how much of it survived the editing process. At the end is a poem I wrote, based on this piece, which was published in The Acentos Review.]

Grand Forks, ND – The Frontier Airlines DC-9 has just nestled its wheels under its wings. I am flying away from, and looking down at, my past. 

I was going to spend more time in this state, but after yesterday I decided I couldn’t go on. I had spent most of my time here working alongside a migrant family and talking to people. But yesterday I only wanted to look around mainly for things that were here when I was last here. I did not really want to talk to people, although it turned out to be inevitable.

I started in Johnstown, a sliver of a town alongside the Burlington Northern Railroad that looks as if it’s getting ready to close up shop and die. It’s probably been looking this way for a long time. The roofs of a couple of underground potato sheds, built partially beneath the ground to keep the potatoes from freezing in the winter, or collapsing.

It was near here, about half a mile down the small road that intersects County Road 1, the town’s Main Street, that we came for a number of years after I was born. There are 12 houses here, in addition to three vacant mobile homes, and the only business establishment is the combination grocery store/guest station/bar/post office in the center of town. 

In the last year the town lost three residents, but it gained three new ones, so I guess it’s still hanging on. We used to get our grocery stores, gas and mail at the store, which was built in 1886, the year the town was founded.

My father got his beer (Hamm’s or Grain Belt) here, although originally they thought he was an Indian and refused to sell him any alcohol. One of my earliest memories is of going into town with him and waiting patiently while he drank at the bar. He bought me candy to keep me happy. When he finally decided he had enough, we got in the truck and drove back home, but not before he gave me thrills by weaving in and out of the ditch is on each side of the road. 

At the end of the town there used to staid a red-brick two-story schoolhouse that generally houses only two classrooms and five grades, except for the fall when too many migrant kids enrolled and they had to call in a substitute teacher to handle a third class.

I have a good memories of that school: of trading my peanut butter sandwiches for the tomato sandwiches of a local kid named Raymond; of the clean smell of the soap in the basement lavatory – and new word for us; and of getting permission to walk down to the store right before lunch to get my bottle of pop, another new word .

The store is now run by Denise Bigelow, a 32-year-old divorcee, who waited on three customers who entered the store while I was there. One of them, a new father, came to check his unlocked mailbox – half of the 44 boxes were unlocked; it had been that way for a number of years, said Bigelow – and she told him a package for the baby had arrived with the day’s mail. The man walked behind the counter and retrieved his package.

“I suppose you could say we stay open mainly as a public service,” she said “We sure don’t make a profit, but it’s family.”

Bigelow says there isn’t much work around Johnstown anymore. For years farmers planted sugar beets but the soybeans they now grow required no hand labor. Not a single Mexican has come by to rent a mailbox this year. The government’s new payment-in-kind grain program that encourages farmers not to grow wheat has thrown others out of work. 

People are moving to town – Grand Forks – or out of state, she said. 

What kind of people live in area, I ask. 

“Oh, people don’t change,” she said. “It’s still the same stubborn, bigoted, opinionated people, people whose grandparents grew up here. These prairie people don’t travel much and they kind of have their own opinions and keep them forever. They have all this new technology but none of the modern ideas.” 

Bigelow said the last passenger train, which used to bring the mail every day at noon at 5 p.m., ceased running 12 years ago, and Burlington northern has notified the town the freight train will be discontinued this year. I drove down to see if I could find the McCartons, on his farm my family worked for a number of years.

Bigelow had told me their daughter, Mary Ellen, and her husband ran the place, so I was afraid the McCartons might not even be alive. They are. Although retired, they still live on the farm and their daughter’s family lives in the mobile home where the migrant crap used to be. If Bigelow was right about the type of people who live in the area, she was wrong about William and Elfrieda McCarton.

Actually, this is the first time I’ve known these people’s names. We always knew him as El Pelón – the hairless one – because he was bald, and her as La Pelona, even though she had plenty of hair. Of course, they remembered Domingo, my father, and the rest of the family, they said 

He was a hard worker, they all were.

They invited me in and offered me lunch over soup and sandwiches. They talked about the old times, both good and bad. About “John” – Juan Arroyo, the farm foreman for many years and a good friend of my family’s – and all the wonderful things he and the other Mexicans did for the farm. 

“There were many times I would have traded three whites for one beat laborer any day,” said William McCarton.

Added his wife, “If farmers could get the dedicated help we had, the farming situation would be different. John was like a mother to all these beets.”

William McCarton had a stroke several years ago and his hearing and memory are failing him, so she did most of the talking. When he talked, it was about the windbreaks, – or shelterbelts – the long rows of trees – cottonwoods, evergreens, ashes and plums – planted to keep the soil from being blown away. The McCartons had been awarded several soil conservation plaques for his work and he showed them to me. He was pleased I had inquired about the trees.

I told him I remember waking up in our car one autumn morning, before dawn, and seen all these strange lights bobbing around in the dark that later turned out to be workers as they harvested the sweet sugar beets by the illumination of the minors lights he had brought for them to wear on their hats.

“We had to do that,” he said. “There was snow and rain coming – everything– and we had to get these beets out of the ground.”

After lunch they invited me to join them in their car for a tour of the farm .

We drove the block or so to their daughter’s mobile home. The very white, very blonde little girl I remembered was still very white, but her hair had darkened a bit. She was as friendly as her parents and remembered me – or at least she said she did – and my sisters and cousins. They then took me to his family’s “homestead” and said one day Mary Ellen and her husband would build their farm there.

I drove on to Forest River, about four miles away, a town I was more familiar with since we were there after I had grown up some. A sign at the towns entrance said it was the home of Mrs. North Dakota, Rosemary Dakkan.

Gone was the depot, the post office-hardware store and the old restaurant. A new metal building now houses a post office and a restaurant. I tried to talk to the postmaster but he didn’t have much to say. 

The small barber shop was closed, but the River Tavern – where my father used to spend hours while I waited outside in the car – was still there, and next to it with another bar, Tom’s Lounge. The community hall where the Catholic Church held mass and school for the migrants is now the American Legion Hall.

The grocery store where we used to get our food, on credit, was no longer more. Moorewood’s Grocery – Eli Moorewood, the previous owner, died several years ago – is now Norwood’s Grocery. It also now has half its shelf space unused. “No credit” signs were posted on every wall and an unfriendly teen-aged boy sat behind the counter. I bought a soft drink and corn chips and walked across the street to a bench in a small park.

I realized I had absolutely no emotion about Forest River. I remembered it as a cold, less-than- friendly town and I sensed it hadn’t changed at all.

I had one more stop. Halfway between Johnstown and Forest River is a road that leads to where the migrant camp where we lived for about seven summers, along with other families from Crystal City. I wanted to see what was left of that.

Almost nothing was. It’s all been torn down, even the windbreak that used to extend behind the seven houses for half a mile. Only 10 trees have been left standing and, from a distance, the only sigh that people once lived there was a solitary telephone pole, its lifeless wires sagging towards the ground, and a gutted meter peering out towards the rows of sugar beets in the adjacent field.

A new row of trees had been planted. Scattered among them, half buried in the black dirt, I found some artifacts from the lives of people who once called that home: an old pink plastic shampoo bottle, a lump of coal, and a piece of dark brown glass from a Clorox bleach bottle that might have been one of the ones we used as water jugs.

I found, also, a red-white-and-blue plastic “Loopy Ball,” long ago punctured and deflated yet still boasting, “I’m different – throw me and see what I’ll do.” I remembered that ball. It would bounce funny, never ending up where you expected it to.

From two of the remaining trees hung a rusted, sagging wire. At one time it was taut and clean and held its share of a week’s washload.

But the largest, most visible reminder of our having occupied that piece of land was the bottom portion of an old Speed Queen washing machine – lying on its side with its legs sticking out from among the knee-high grass.

It stood out like a tombstone, assuring that that yes, there had once been life there.

I decided I’d had enough. Originally, this trip was going to take me to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and other places where my family had worked but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. 

I didn’t want to see anymore old washing machines.

Speed Queen, North Dakota

Halfway between Johnstown and Forest River, 

a gravel road leads to where the migrant camp 

once stood. Almost nothing remains: the seven 

crumbling cottages, summer homes for our

extended clan, long ago razed; the weathered

walls and roofs now part of el dompe – a mile

up the road – whose moldy mounds we once 

mined for toys. A windbreak stretching half 

a mile behind the seven shacks is gone, 

except for a few trees, a solitary telephone

pole with flaccid lifeless wires and 

a gutted meter gawking at the rows of sugar 

beets in nearby fields. Half-buried in 

the black earth, I come across a few 

of the things we left behind: 

A plastic Prell Shampoo container 

A shard of dark-brown glass from 

a Clorox bottle. 

A deflated red-white-and-blue 

“Loopy Ball” boasting, 

“I’m different, throw me 

and see what I’ll do.” 

A rusty wire hanging between two 

of the trees, at one time

taut and clean and strong

enough to hold a week’s

load of wash flapping in

the southeasterly breeze. 

A smooth lump of coal, as rock-hard 

as it was the day it was 

delivered to be fed to

the cast-iron wood stove.

And the tub of a rusted Speed Queen 

washing machine – upside down, 

its legs poking out from 

knee-high Johnson grass.

Like an abandoned tombstone, 

the Speed Queen assures me, yes,

here there was once life. A summer 

community existed. Families 

interacted. White smoke floated 

from stovepipes as the aroma 

of carne guizada, frijoles and arroz

wafted from behind screen doors. 

Mothers brought newborns here from 

the hospital in Grafton. Baptisms were 

celebrated with a keg of Hamm’s Beer,

cheese enchiladas and the tinny sound 

of Juan Guerrero’s accordion. News and

gossip arrived on the noon or 5 o’clock train.

Faraway deaths were mourned with a sob 

or a sigh. At dusk, grown-ups treated 

drained bodies to blessed rest after 

12 hours with a hoe as children played 

hide-and-seek – squealing, scurrying, 

seeking sanctuary behind trees or 

in the still-green fields of wheat. 

I smell the smoke, savor the food.

I hear the accordion and the slap-slap

sound of sore hands shaping tortillas. 

I see Tío Adrián’s turtle-shaped Pontiac

and a child, shoulders sagging 

under the weight of two silvery buckets 

of water from the rat-infested well. 

I feel their weight as I pick up the lump

of coal and slip it into my pocket.

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Twenty-five tips for being a good writer of opinion pieces

Sometime ago I was asked to speak to a class about opinion writing. This is what I told them:

  1. Have something to say and don’t force the reader to wait until the last paragraph to find out what it is.
  2. Decide who you are speaking for. (Yourself? A group? An institution?)
  3. Decide what you want to accomplish. (Educate? Entertain? Motivate? Change minds?)
  4. Don’t take a poll to decide what you’re going to say
  5. Don’t take a poll to decide how you’re going to say it.
  6. Feel strongly about what it is you want to say, but not so strongly that you let your emotions overrule all other instincts.
  7. Don’t be afraid to show how strongly you feel about what it is you want to say, but be aware that a person who yells all the time is very likely to be tuned-out by most people.
  8. Say what you want to say in a way that touches people’s hearts and souls.  
  9. There is no better way to touch the readers’ souls than by baring your own soul.
  10. You can persuade by reason, but you can only motivate through emotion.
  11. Talk about your personal experiences but only to help you get your points across.
  12. Be willing to make a fool of yourself but, for heaven’s sake, don’t make it a habit.
  13. Don’t be afraid to antagonize enemies or friends, but do it for a good reason, not just to antagonize.
  14. Beware of facts: they are a good opinion writer’s worst enemy and a mediocre opinion writer’s best friend; they should be used sparingly and with caution.
  15. Quoting other people is good if it strengthens your argument, but bad if you quote others to keep from expressing your own thoughts.
  16. It is not your job to comfort the powerful; it is your job to inflict as much discomfort on them as possible.
  17. Your goal should never be to embarrass or cause pain to private citizens, no matter how stupid they may seem.
  18. Don’t let yourself believe that politicians, entertainers, sports figures, etc., are your friends.
  19. Be passionately in love with the language and don’t be afraid to show it.
  20. Keep it simple.
  21. Each sentence should logically follow the previous sentence and each paragraph should logically follow the previous paragraph.
  22. Reading a column should be like following a trail from the starting point to the end. It should be a smooth and simple path, free of obstacles, detours and roadblocks.
  23.  When you are wrong, acknowledge it right away and apologize profusely and sincerely.
  24.  Mejor un loco y no dos. Always strive to be the voice of reason, the voice of maturity.
  25. Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it; there are plenty of others who want to do it.

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Something about her was familiar

[Going through some old papers, I came across this column I wrote for The Houston Post in March 1985, more than five years before I got my long-held wish to be a columnist for that paper, and about six years before my mother died. I was working in The Post’s Washington bureau at the time.] 

WASHINGTON – This morning, as usual, I walked from my apartment to the subway, a couple of blocks away, on my way to work. As I rounded a corner, I noticed a woman sitting on a short stone fence near a bus stop. 

She was Latina, short and slightly built. Something about her seemed familiar. But I couldn’t quite figure out what. Then I walked right in front of her and saw that, as she sat there patiently waiting for her bus, she held in her hands a rosary. 

She was praying. 

I knew then what it was about her that was so familiar. It was her posture. I have seen that posture so many times: the slight stoop of the rounded shoulders, the right leg draped over the other, the two hands resting on the lap, caressing and massaging each bead as the lips form the words of the Padre Nuestro and the Dios te Salve

I have witnessed that scene many times in my life, at home. I couldn’t count the number of times I walked into my mother’s bedroom to find her sitting on the edge of her bed, silently saying her rosary. For years she’s been doing it at least once a day. 

She prayed when she was young and busy with work inside and outside the home. Now that she’s retired with little to do but watch her Mexican soap operas on television, she still prays, often while watching TV. I’ve often wondered how God feels about time-sharing with a soap opera. If he resents it, he hasn’t made his feelings known yet. I doubt he’d dare, since he’s given her enough suffering in her life justify a few more of her eccentricities.

When she was younger, her strong hands exerted clear control of the rosary. Today, after almost a decade of suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, the beads rattle a bit as she holds on. Those trembling hands – hands that were strong enough to pick cucumbers in the hot sandy hills of Wisconsin and sturdy enough to top sugar beets in the freezing rains of North Dakota’s Red River Valley – today can barely hold onto a string of beads weighing but a few ounces. 

Yet she prays. She prays for me. She prays for my brother and sisters and their kids and their kids’ kids. She prays for her sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces and in-laws. 

She prays for politicians and the pope. 

She prays for rain for the farmers and the starving Africans and peace for esa pobre gente in Nicaragua, El Salvador, in Lebanon and other lands, though she has no idea where most of them are. 

And when she does, she appears to be completely at peace.

So did that woman I saw at the bus stop. While other commuters impatiently looked to see if the bus were coming in, others worked their crossword puzzles and still others read reports or briefing papers or whatever work they had brought with them, this woman sat quietly, serenely enveloped in her prayers. 

And for a brief moment, as I hurried to the subway station, I was home, and I was rushing away from my mother, as I have done so many times before. 

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Really, Really Quick & Easy Enchilada Sauce

CHEESE ENCHILADAS is one of my favorite dishes, and I (of course!) like them the way my mother prepared them, by dipping a warm corn tortilla in the hot chile sauce she had made with red chile powder, then briefly dipping it in a pan of hot lard then placing grated cheese and raw onions in the center and rolling the tortilla into a tight tasty burrito (any rolled up tortilla is a burrito in my book). She never smothered the burritos in sauce, or even poured a bit of sauce on them. We ate them with a simple salad of lettuce, tomato and onions. Nothing fancy at all.

Over the years, I’ve made lots of enchiladas and, because I’ve become a food snob, I had this stupid notion that I had to make my enchilada sauce from scratch – using whole dried chile peppers. Some of my sauces have been excellent, some have been disasters. Recently, though, I decided to go back to my mother’s way and I made the sauce using chile powder made by McCormick, with chiles anchos, from a jar I bought some time ago.

I posted a picture on FaceBook and I was surprised by the number of people who wrote that they never make their own sauce, that they instead buy it in cans. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you have a busy life and don’t want to spend all your time in the kitchen. But if you want to be able to make your own sauce, here’s a recipe I’ve created. It doesn’t take longer that 10 minutes, and it’s a lot cheaper than what you buy in cans. Try it.

Ingredients:

1 tsp    oil

8 oz     hot water or broth

2 tsps  flour

1 tbs    chile powder*

½ tsp   salt**

½ tsp    garlic powder

Instructions:

  1. Heat the oil in a skillet under medium heat
  2. Heat the water or broth
  3. Gradually add the flour and stir rigorously until flour is completely dissolved
  4. Slowly pour the mixture into the pan with the heated oil.
  5. Stir while adding the chili powder.
  6. Continue to stir, adding the garlic powder and salt, until it starts to boil. (If the sauce is too watery, continue to heat until you have the right consistency.)
  7. Turn off heat.
  8. That is all.

This will probably make enough sauce to serve two people (about 8 enchiladas).

* Any brand; I prefer McCormick Gourmet Ancho Chile Pepper, which you can get online if you can’t find it at your grocery story) 

** If you use this sauce with corn chips instead of tortillas, cut the amount of salt by half. 

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Tasty Reading: Denise Chávez’s ‘A Taco Testimony’

I JUST FINISHED “A Taco Testimony,” by New Mexico novelist Denise Chávez, a perfect read for this time of year when the memories of the holidays and all their warmth linger and still pull us back to the things that sustain us, food, family and culture – even in these tragic times.

“A Taco Testimony” is a perfect book to read while you wait for the March release of Houstonian Adán Medrano’s excellent film, “Truly Texas Mexican.” They are both about the love we share for comida, familia y cultura. 

While Chávez is not a Texan, we can still claim her as ours: her mother was born and grew up in West Texas! 

And while there have been many a heated debate over the differences between Texas and New Mexico food, at heart, they are the same, really. As my mother used to say, “Es la misma gata nomas que revolcada.”

If you’re not familiar with Chávez, it’s not too late to get to know her. Her best novel, to me, is “Loving Pedro Infante,” a beautiful story that I’ll probably re-read soon because I loved it so much. (I reviewed the book for the old Houston Post when it came out, but I can’t find a copy of the review.)

“A Taco Testimony,” is not a novel. It is, indeed, a meditation on family, food and culture, as the book’s subtitle claims. Yes, we get recipes of everything from tacos to “capirotada sin vergüenza,” but we get a lot more.

“It’s about the living and the dead and the eternal nourishment that come from being part of a community,” Chávez writes in her ‘Dear Reader’ section. “This is a memoir of food. As such, it is funny, sad, merciful and full of prayers.”

WE LEARN a lot about her family, particularly her patient and saintly mother and her alcoholic father, but we learn a lot more about the generous and forgiving daughter that Chávez is.

The strongest, most moving part of this book is found in the chapter towards the end titled, “Culture with a Capital C.” In it, Chávez bemoans its disappearance. By culture, she means that which allows us – encourages us – to seek to learn about the differences in food, customs and traditions. 

“The lack of culture in contemporary society is manifest,” she writes. “It drives people to be intolerant, unsupportive and offensive. It allows people to hurt, maim and kill one another without reason.” 

BUT DON’T worry: Chávez is not a scold. Far from it. Her book is filled with humor and levity and warmth. You will feel good when you come to the end, just as you feel after feasting on a plate of tacos. And you will wish there were more.

You can order the book from Casa Camino Real in La Cruces, NM.

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2020: Ubo pedo en el baile!

Chona was my mother’s next-door neighbor on Highland Circle in my hometown of Crystal City in South Texas. My mother called her Chonita. 

Chonita was one of my mother’s most frequent visitors after our family moved from our old neighborhood on the other side of town after Urban Renewal decided it would be a good idea to run a street through my bedroom. Chonita was the source of family and neighborhood gossip. 

Anything that happened in Chonita’s family – hurt feelings, spats, outright fights – my mother would hear about it. When things got real bad, Chonita would precede her story with the phrase, “Ya ubo pedo en el baile, Martina!”

Loosely translated, the phrase means, “Things have gone to hell,” or, to put it more colorfully, “The shit has hit the fan.” 

More literally translated, it means, “Shit broke out at the dance (last night),“ although a pedo is a fart, not shit.

The dance reference is not a casual one, for dances meant a lot in the life of small South Texas towns such as Crystal City. Aside from church (and, later, sports events, the weekly dances at El Campestre or La Placita, were the only places where people could socialize in large numbers, where young people could meet and court each other under the watchful eyes of their parents, tíos and tías. 

And because young people could hold each other while dancing and show affection towards to each other, jealousies were bound to be aroused, which meant that sooner or later a fistfight would erupt. Maybe two. Maybe more. 

The fights would all eventually be subdued by friends and relatives (no need to call the cops for these family spats, and security guards? Whoever heard of security guards at dances back then?) and the dancing would continue until the conjunto began packing up its equipment.

The next day the talk of the town would be about the dance. Who danced with whom, who was seen sneaking out to the parking lot with whom, and what poor fool paid the $5 entrance fee only to stand on the sidelines all night because he was too damn timid to ask the pretty girls to dance. (You guessed it: that shy Palomo boy!) 

But the titillating talk was about the fights. So much so that eventually the most common response to the question, “Como estubo el baile?” was, “Muy bonito – nadie se pelió!” (It was beautiful, there were no fights!).

All this to tell you that my reaction to the last 365 days on this the last day of the year is, “Ubo pedo en el baile.” 

It was not a pretty dance. Far from it. The conjunto didn’t know the difference between a bolero and a cumbia and people kept stumbling over each other and falling as they tried to figure out the beat. Meanwhile, the orange-haired lead singer kept insisting the group’s music was nothing less than a big, beautiful sound – the best ever, anywhere. 

And whatever discontent there was would all be over soon, he insisted. It wasn’t, of course, and the dancers finally got together to select a new band, only to have the orange fool charge the vote was rigged and refuse to vacate the stage. 

And that’s where we find ourselves in the last few minutes of this dreadful dance – donde ubo un gran pedo.

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