Book Review: A harrowing 9-week trip, alone, to ‘La USA’

Solito, A Memoir, by Javier Zamora (Hogarth, 381 pp)

By Juan R. Palomo

[Note: this review is being published by “Voices de la Luna,” a San Antonio literary magazine]

AS A YOUNG boy growing up in his grandparents’ home in La Herradura, a Salvadoran fishing village, Javier Zamora dreams of flying over mountains. His destination: a land where everything is new, garbage is collected by trucks, water comes out of silver faucets, and it snows the whitest snow.

In his dreams, he joins his parents in “la USA,” where they show him their living room, swimming pool and other American luxuries. He pictures himself cuddling between his parents in clean sheets, and he dreams of eating orange sherbet. 

He also has bad dreams, including one about growing a beard with his parents still gone.

Zamora’s father and mother are in Northern California, two of the thousands of Salvadorans who made their way north in the aftermath of the bloody U.S.-funded civil war of the 1980s. His father left when Zamora is still a toddler and he has no memory of him; pretty much all he knows about him is that he sounds nice over the phone, his voice soft “like a sharp stone skipping over water.”

 “There was a war and then there were no jobs,” is how his aunt Mali explains his parents’ absence to Tontito, as his grandmother calls him. It’s a word he likes because it sounds “like rain slipping through holes in our roof.”

Zamora’s fear of growing a beard before seeing his parents does not become a reality. In 1999 – four years after his mother had made the journey to California to join her husband, promising the 5-year-old Javier she would be back for him – Zamora begins his own journey north in the care of Marcelo, a family friend, and Don Dago, a coyote.

The plan was that it would take them a couple of weeks to travel – with other Don Dago clients – through El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, and that he would cross the border at Tijuana, where his parents would pick him up. 

But plans do what plans often do – they change – and he ends up crossing instead in the Arizona Sonoran Desert. On foot. Three times. And by the time the 9-year-old is at last reunited with his parents, nine weeks have gone by.

Zamora, whose 2017 book of poems, Unaccompanied, garnered widespread acclaim, has no idea how harrowing his journey will be, nor how long. His mother had told him about her own relatively quick trip to cross the border. Her use of the word cruzar, invokes in his mind images of a fence made up of hundreds of little crosses.

In his new book, Solito, A Memoir, Zamora provides the account of his experience that Unaccompanied, because of its format as a book of poetrycould only hint at. It fills in the blanks.

Long before Zamora is finally picked up by his parents at a Phoenix safe house, both Don Dago and Marcelo have disappeared and he is left to fend for himself. Until he hooks up with three fellow travelers: Chino (whom Zamora comes to regard as the older brother he never had), Patricia and her daughter Carla. These three are to become Javier’s traveling family, providing assistance, companionship and compassion. 

ZAMORA DEDICATES the book to his temporary family. 

“I wouldn’t be here without you,” he writes. He probably wouldn’t, for the book is replete with account after account of how his adopted family helps shepherd him along when his quest seems utterly hopeless. 

Solito offers many stories. Some are humorous:  the Salvadorans’ awkward attempts to speak like Mexicans (“practicing my Mexicanness”) to avoid the Mexican hostility towards Central Americans; learning the meaning of a new English word that sounds like faak; and Zamora’s amusing himself by naming trees in the monotonous desert based on their looks: Lonelies. Spikeys. Fuzzies.

Some are moving. A Latino U.S. border patrolman takes pity on the group and, instead of detaining them, drives them back to the border, where he releases them, allowing them to try crossing again a few days later. And there’s the touching scene of Chino carrying an exhausted Zamora on his back during one particularly treacherous desert hike.

The most harrowing passages describe the group’s being held up, at gunpoint, by Mexican soldiers, and the hikes across the unforgiving desert, lost, without water or food, and constantly on the lookout for snakes, la migra, angry ranchers ­– and angrier bees. 

More than anything, this book is about family: family left behind, family waiting at the other end of the line, and the family that sustained Zamora along the long journey.

In one of the most poignant passages, Zamora describes the early-morning departure of his “pretend family” for Virginia after they finally make it across the border: 

“I think I watched them leave. The room was dark, a lot of people standing up with their backpacks, waiting in line. Patricia kissed my forehead. Chino combed my hair. ‘The van is here,’ they both said. ‘Salú,” Carla waved at me. Then they each hugged me one by one. The door closed, and I closed my eyes and slept. I thought it was a dream.” 

For seven of the nine weeks he is on the road, his family does not hear from Zamora, nor of him. Everyone fears he is dead and so relatives at both ends pray for his soul. The fear of death is always constant on the journey, as is the fear of being jailed, robbed or killed by men with badges on both sides of the border. Zamora describes his brief time in an Arizona immigration jail as like being in a cage, “a monkey with at least twenty-one other monkeys.”

Yet, there is also humor, even in the direst of moments, offering temporary relief from reality.

“Rest,” a coyote tells Zamora’s group as they stop to rest before crossing the border. “Tomorrow you’ll be gringos.”

The author describes his unforgettable journey in intricate detail. This is a fascinating book; one readers will find it hard to set aside. And it might force them, as it did me, to look with a different perspective at stories of immigrants found dead in the desert or in unvented trailers, for Solito reintroduces the human factor that is often missing from the immigration saga as it has become just one more political football. 

ZAMORA IS FIRST and foremost a poet and his talent shines through in practically every page. For instance, in describing the riveting scene of the immigrant party’s cramming into a van for the final trip from their desert pickup point to the safe house, Zamora writes:

                                    We look like a matchbox

                                    Sticks on top of each other.

                                    A human cake.

When the reality that his long saga will soon be over hits Zamora, he becomes concerned that without Chino, Patricia and Carla as witnesses, no one will believe what he went through. 

“No one else will understand the bees in the desert,” he thinks. “The flying fish, that fried fish in Acapulco, getting dragged out of the bus, learning what faak means.”

Zamora needn’t worry. Countless news accounts have made us way too familiar with the horrors undocumented immigrants endure in their quest for a new life in this country. This evocative, skillfully crafted narrative is all the witness he needs.  

Juan R. Palomo is a former columnist for The Houston Post and USA TODAY. His poetry chapbook, Al Norte, was published in 2021 by Alabrava Press. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Alienation

THE FIRT TIME I ever went to Eagle Pass, Texas, I was a third-grader. I joined all the other students from my school who’d tested positive for TB on a school bus for the 45-mile trip to an old hangar in an abandoned Air Force base. There, a giant X-ray machine (at least it seemed that way) would scan our small bodies and decide if we had TB or not.

Getting on that bus was the loneliest action I had ever taken. I felt like an outcast. If I had known then what a leper was, I would have felt like one. If I had known then about the Holocaust, I would have felt like a Jew being shipped off to a concentration camp aboard a rail car. I felt worse than what I imagined the students who periodically were found to have lice on their heads and treated with a white powder on their hair.

That I was with about 30 or 40 other students mattered little. I was still an outcast. It was likely that I felt that way because nobody else in my immediate family had tested positive for TB, but at that point in my early life, I wasn’t into analyzing the emotions that gripped my heart.

I was already feeling bad — different – because, as I wrote in a previous post, that year was the first year I had been required to go to the El Campo school. That was not the name of the school. It was known as Airport 2 School, because it was near the airport (why bother coming up with a real name for a school attended by Mexicans?), but we called it that because the school had it’s beginning as one of several schools built during World War II in a camp for the Japanese-American and German-American kids who had been forced to move to South Texas with their families (some of the Japanese families were from South America).

When the war ended, the government turned over the camp — including it’s airport and schools — to the city and school district. This particular school became a junior high school until the late 50s when a new junior high was built and the school became another elementary school for Mexican kids, particularly those from migrant families.

The school I felt I should be attending was Grammar School, which was about four blocks from my home. That was where my two sisters (one and three years older than I) went to school and that was the school I always assumed I would attend after I left DeZavala, the school for first and “pre-primer” grades. Pre-primer was like kindergarten for the Mexican kids who did not know English when they turned 6. It was the grade during which we were supposed to learn enough English to enter the first grade.

Grammar School was also the school that housed all the Anglo elementary students. Each grade got a certain number of teachers at the beginning of the year and as the Mexican migrant kids from our neighborhood returned from the northern states, they were allowed to enroll in a class at Grammar until each class filled up. In the second grade, I was lucky enough to be one of those students who were able to get a place in one of the Grammar classes (Mrs. Busby was my teacher).

But when we returned from North Dakota the next year and I went to Grammar, fully expecting to join one of the third-grade classes, I was turned away. I would have to go to the Airport School, the all-Mexican, mostly migrant school at the other end of town. It was a traumatic rejection for me. It meant that I would be separated from my sisters and most of my neighborhood playmates and would have to walk more than a mile each day across town.

Even at that early age I recognized that Airport was an inferior school. Unlike the solid brick building that housed Grammar, the Airport classrooms were in drafty wood-frame buildings. The playgrounds were either a desert of bare dirt or a sea of sticky mud.

To make matters worse, that year was the year that school officials decided there were too many students at Airport and they had to send some of us to the old junior high, which they now called Airport 2 (the other became Airport 1).

So I was already feeling like an outcast. I — who had always been the good boy, who had always followed the rules, who had never caused any trouble — was now somehow being punished, sent into exile far, far from my home.

I’m happy to report that the feeling of being an outcast didn’t last very long. It was only a matter of time before I became inured to the idea of getting up earlier than my sisters so I could get to school in time, to not being able to go home for lunch, to walking and running across a muddy (or, more often than not, dusty) field filled with thick mesquite brush, to try to get to the high school in time to hop on the bus that hauled the rural kids to their homes  before it departed for its next stop, Grammar School. Getting on that bus meant getting home at least half an hour earlier, and about a mile less walking. I didn’t always succeed, but I always tried, and every time I hopped on that bus, driven by Don Chema (who was also the high school janitor), I would have done a high five had high fives been invented back then.

I made friends at Airport 2. There was a kid named Raul Reyes, who lived about six or seven blocks from my home and became sort of my best friend. He was a stud, even in third grade. He combed his hair like Elvis and he would sing You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog and Blue Suede Shoes at our class parties, complete with the hip swivels and snarling lips. The girls loved him and the rest of us envied him. His family eventually decided to stay in Wisconsin year-round and I lost track of him. There were others. Dora Mata, who dressed and acted like some girl out of “Grease,” and who was very popular with all the boys but not so popular with the girls. There was Olga Guerrero, a tall, tall girl. She didn’t care about fancy dresses or girly hairdos and thus she was treated as a weirdo.

Dora and Olga were rivals. They were always getting into fights and vowing to meet each other after school to duke it out. The word would get out and as soon as the final bell rang, throngs of blood-thirsty students from every classroom swarmed around Dora and Olga as they headed down the dirt road towards town. I don’t remember there ever actually fighting, but the excitement of a possible fight was all we needed.

I liked both girls, but I was  partial to Olga. First, because she was a Guerrero, daughter of Juan Guerrero, who took his family every summer to the same town in North Dakota to work in the sugar beet fields. As such, Olga was like family. Secondly, because Olga, in her gangly, unsexy way, was seen as an outcast, and nowhere near as popular as the flirty Dora. Even at that early age, I was always – always – for the underdog.

One day, somebody drew a picture on the blackboard of a monster-looking character while Mr. Davenport, our third-grade teacher (funny: for years, I have not been able to remember his name until now, as I am writing this, his name pops into my head). We all found it funny. Then Dora yelled, “Olga,” meaning that the monster represents Olga. Immediately, Olga replied in an equally loud voice, “Dora.”

The next time Dora called out Olga’s name, a few more voices joined her. When Olga responded, it was only her voice that was heard. And each time the routine was repeated, more voices joined Dora until it became a boisterous chorus shouting, “Olga,” and only a defiant Olga declaring, “Dora.”

I had kept quiet throughout until I felt I couldn’t sit by any longer and the next time Olga said, “Dora,” my timid voice joined her. And it continued that way, two against thirty or so, until Mr. Davenport came back.

Dora never held it against me. I think she understood. Olga never said anything about it.

I STARTED THIS by writing about a bus ride to a strange town to get find out if I had tuberculosis. You should understand the significance of TB at that time. It was still very much a public health threat. One of my father’s younger brothers had died of TB in the mid-1940s, leaving his wife with six children to feed. In the mid-50s, one of their older children was found to have TB and he was taken from his family to a sanitarium in San Angelo, where he spent I don’t know how many years. Several years later, his youngest sister was also taken away.

So you can understand why it was a terrifying disease: not because I had any idea what it did to one’s body, but because I feared that if I turned out to actually have the disease, it was possible that I too would be hauled off to a faraway hospital for years and years, away from my family and my neighborhood and my school.  Of all my siblings, I was the only one who ever tested positive whenever those TB patch tests were administered, and it was only I who would have to be X-rayed to prove my innocence.

I often wondered what would happened if I were sent to San Angelo or some similar place. My cousins would send home pictures of themselves in the hospital, wearing pajamas and robes. I had never owned a pair of pajamas in my life (underwear and a T-shirt was all I ever needed; why waste good money on pajamas?), and in a way, I envied them. I fantasized about living in a world with indoor toilets and no working in the fields every summer, a world where I would wear pajamas and a robe – and I would try to convince myself that maybe it wouldn’t be that bad.

I’d soon snap out of it, though, because I thought of my mother and thought about how her heart would be totally, completely, irrevocably broken – shattered — if I were taken away from her. I often wondered how my aunt was able to go on with her life with two of her children far away, unable to visit them except maybe once or twice a year. I loved my aunt and was close to her, but she was a stoic, solid person. She never betrayed her emotions. At least not to me. I never asked her.

So, if you’ve read this far (and I thank you for that, if you have), you’ve pretty much figured out that this post is about the fear of alienation, about being scared of being torn away from family and community. And you’re probably wondering (I know I am), if this dread is such a major part of me, why is it that I have spent most of my adult life tearing myself away from family and communities of friends?

The hell if I know. (One of the first columns I wrote for The Houston Post was about this. I’ll try to dig it up and post it here.)

(The first few paragraphs of this post were written in November, when I went home for Thanksgiving and I joined my sisters and various nieces on a trip to Eagle Pass for a movie. I was in the back seat of a car, looking out the window and suddenly the memory of that first trip to that town came to me, and so I took out my iPhone and started writing. Thank you, Steve Jobs.)

Note: I wrote this 11 years ago but I posted on an earlier blog. I thought it would be a good idea to migrate it here, where it belongs. If you’ve read this far, thank you.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

May: Saying it with flowers

 

THE MONTH of May summons many images. Mother’s Day. Cinco de Mayo. Graduation. But any Catholic will tell you the real significance of the month: May is the Virgin Mary’s month.

During May, Catholics gather – in their churches, at people’s homes – to recite the rosary in honor of Mary. It is an especially big deal among Latinos, who revere Mary almost as much as God Himself. 

When I was growing up in Crystal City, my sisters and I would go to church every weekday evening for the rosary. It was supposed to be voluntary, and I guess it was, in the sense that paying taxes is voluntary. If we didn’t go, we had to answer to the nuns and to our parents.

When she was alive, my grandmother Manuela insisted we attend the rosary, sometimes at her house, but after she died, I don’t think my mother ever forced us to do so. We were all so caught up with the many mysterious rituals of the church that we would have gone without any pressure. And it was a beautiful ritual, involving many sounds, smells and sights. The burning candles and the flowers provided the smells. The sounds came from the chant-like recitations of the prayers that made up the rosary. “Dios te salve, Maria…,” the priest would begin the first part of the Hail Mary prayer.” “Santa Maria, madre de Dios…,” we responded with the second part. After 10 of these, we’d recite the Gloria followed by the Lord’s Prayer. We then begin another set of 10 Hail Marys, except that this time the people said their first part in the priest responded with the second. 

The praying itself could get terribly monotonous and much of the time most of us kids paid little attention to what we were mumbling. Often what emerged from my mouth with mere gibberish. This was particularly true at the end of the Hail Mary when “now and at the hour of our death” – which in Spanish is, “ahora y en la hora,” often came out sounding like a never ending rumble: “orainalorainlaora…”

Because the building was not air conditioned, its doors had to be left open, allowing bats to fly in. They fluttered back and forth from one end of the church to the other period. We would watch them, much of the priest’s consternation, our heads swaying in unison as we followed their paths through the air.

As we recited our Hail Marys, we were supposed to keep track on the rosary beads we’d received when we made our First Communion, but I was never able to concentrate. No matter how hard I tried, I was always one or two off.

WHILE THE praying itself was monotonous, what came in between the misterios – the sets of 10 Hail Marys – made everything worthwhile. That was when we kids marched up the aisle with a handful of flowers and deposited them at the foot of the statue of the Virgin. As we did this, the congregation sang one of the various songs dedicated to Mary.

Ofreciéndole flores a la virgen, we called it – offering flowers to the virgin. Each of us was responsible for bringing flowers from home. We carried those precious flowers proudly as we walked toward the church, and we beamed when the neighborhood ladies, sitting on their front porches, oohed and aahed over their beauty, and marveled at our devotion to the Virgin. At first, we were allowed to carry those flowers to Mary. Later, however some do-gooder nun got the bright idea of pooling all the flowers into one big pile, from which we were each handed a handful as we begin our procession up the aisle.

The scheme was intended to ensure that all the children, even those whose mothers didn’t have gardens, would have flowers, but my sisters and I thought it was grossly unfair that the beautiful roses my mother had carefully cut from her precious bushes ended up in some other kids’ hands while we had to settle for oleander or other ordinary flowers. 

IT WASN’T fair, of course, but by then we had learned never to question the actions of the nuns, or anybody in authority, and we had learned to accept that fairness and religion often don’t coexist. Besides, in our hearts we were certain the Virgin Mary knew who brought those beautiful roses, and that was what really mattered.

(This piece was published originally in The Houston Post May 13, 1993)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Lenten season memories of my grandfather

THE LENTEN SEASON never fails to evoke strong memories of my grandfather. My father’s father was a big man. At least that’s the way I remember him. He had dark skin and white hair. He sported a broad, drooping mustache.

He didn’t drink or smoke cigarettes, although he did enjoy a cigar every once in a while. When he was not working, he would read the newspaper or pray, using his prayer book or his rosary. Alejandro Palomo was a carpenter. He built his own house and then built a house for each of his children, working alone, with only occasional help for his sons and grandsons. He didn’t own a vehicle, so it was not unusual to see him walking from the downtown lumber yard, about a mile away, carrying several two-by-fours on his shoulder.

He was not the easiest person to work for. He demanded perfection, and he ridiculed us when he feared joining him on a rooftop. He muttered obscenities under his breath when we bent a nail or hit our thumbs with the hammer. His biggest thrill was to ask us for a particular tool and have us hand him another tool (we never could remember their names), giving him another opportunity to ridicule us. 

“Muchacho tarugo,” he would always say. I never knew what the tarugo meant, but I knew it couldn’t be good. He lived in a small house behind Tío Adrián’s, which was next door to ours. He lived alone after my grandmother died in the early 1950s. Every morning, we kids were expected to go over to pay our respects, which consisted of saying, “buenos días,” and kissing his leathery brown hand. 

In addition to his carpentry work, my grandfather was also a caretaker of the local church. One of his duties there was to tug on the thick rope hanging from the steeple to ring the bell that would signal all over the town that mass was about to begin. He did it 30 and 15 minutes before mass, and the final time at the allotted hour period that meant he had to be there every morning at 6:30 or for the 7 a.m. mass. 

Late in the afternoon, he’d walk back to the church to lock it up. On his way back, he’d come to our house and sat down at the kitchen table where my sister Dora (he always asked for Dora) would serve him a cup of coffee with lots of sugar and milk. He’d drink it quietly then walk out. “Cierren la puerta porque hace frío,” he’d tell us. Or, if it wasn’t cold: “Porque hay zancudos.”

DURING LENT, Dora, my other sister Carmen, and I would go to daily mass as part of our seasonal “sacrifice.” Because it was dark at that hour, my mother insisted we walk with my grandfather, even if it meant we had to leave home more than half an hour ahead of time. We had to be prepared to leave when he was, because he did not like to wait. After we got the good mornings out of the way, we said nothing we simply followed him, single file, all the way to the church, about a mile away.

We must have been quite a sight. There were no paved streets or sidewalks back then, not in the Mexican part of town, so we’d raise a huge cloud of whitish dust as we stumbled in the dark (there was no streetlights either). While we made little noise – it was usually too cold to talk talk – the dogs along the way greeted us with loud barks and that caused those who were already awake to peer out their windows to see what was happening. I often wondered what these people thought of us, of this old man in the three young children trudging along down the dusty streets.

 When we got to the church, he would grunt something that I interpreted to mean, “OK, I brought you here, you’re on your own,” and went about his business. After mass, we’d go off to school and he’d stay behind. And we’d repeat the scene every day until the end of lent. 

MY GRANDFATHER never joined the migrant trail with us. One summer, however, my aunt decided to go to California, and she talked him into going with her family. They were all picking plums in an orchard outside San Jose when my grandfather reached for a tree, grasped it, then closed his eyes and died. He’d had a heart attack. 

We were in North Dakota that summer. I remember we were lying in bed when Tía Ester came to our door with the news. Tío Adrián, her husband had gotten the call from California. Nobody said anything after my mother thanked her. We stayed in bed. There was no point in getting up. Besides, we had to get up early for work the next morning. The only sounds of mourning I heard were a few almost-silent sobs coming from where my mother lay. 

They buried him in California.

The next Lenten season, we started our daily-mass ritual anew. We were old enough to walk to church alone by then. And we didn’t have to leave that early anymore. We should have felt better, but it was never really the same. When we were about halfway to church, we’d hear the clanging of the church bell and we were reminded that it was somebody else pulling on that rope. Alejandro Palomo lived a simple life dedicated to his family, his community and his God. He is a good man to remember during the season of selflessness.

(This was first published, in a slightly different form, in The Houston Post March 10, 1992)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Remembering a strong, strong woman

On this day, 122 years ago, my father’s oldest sister was born near San Luis Potosí in Mexico. She died in 2003, at the age of 103. I wrote this about her 28 years ago:

Her eyes closed, she sat in her wheelchair outside her room.

“Tía,“ my sister said, tapping Tía Benita on the shoulder.

“Look who’s with me,” Luisa added in Spanish when Tía opened her eyes.

“Emilio?” Tia asked, an understandable mistake, given my resemblance to Luisa‘s son.

Once I embraced her and told her who I was, the confusion disappeared and Tía Benita spoke in a strong voice. Of how glad she was like taking the time to visit her. About how she was asleep because she’d had another sleepless night.

Benita Palomo Alfaro was born outside San Luis Potosi on April 3, 1900, which makes her 94. Even as kids, all of us were intrigued by her birthyear, and how easy that would always be for us to remember her age. But we never imagined she’d still be alive as the millennium approaches, that we would actually be contemplating having a 100-year-old aunt.

When Alejandro and Manuela Palomo gathered their children in the middle of the night and fled the hacienda where my grandfather worked, Tía Benita, their ninth child, was the oldest. Eight others had come before her – all had died.

Today she is the sole survivor. By the time the Palomos waded across the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass on a cool April day in 1920, the two youngest, Cirilo and Isabelita, had also died. 

Gertrudes died of tuberculosis in the late 1940s, leaving behind a young widow and six children. My grandmother died in 1951 and her husband died 17 years later (he is buried a few blocks from where Tía lives). Domingo, my father, died in 1984 and Adrian, the youngest, died a few years after that.

Although still strong of mind, body, and spirit, old age, arthritis and other ailments have for several years conspired to deny Tía the use of her legs, so she spends most of her time either in bed or on her wheelchair in the San Jose, California, nursing home, where she’s lived the past several years. 

That does not mean she’s been inactive. Far from it. Until the home‘s kitchen changed directors, for instance, she would often help prepare the meals. 

Not long ago she talked her granddaughter into taking her to Mexico to visit her birthplace – for the first time since the family left that country 74 years ago. 

Tia Benita spoke about the departure for the hour or so we were there. I’ve heard some of that story before, from my father and others, but she provided much more details.

All the versions I had heard earlier had my grandfather fleeing Mexico because he was in on the wrong side of the revolution, or something equally romantic. It turns out it was nothing of the sort. It was a death of a mule that led to the Palomos’ becoming Texans.

It was not just any mule, of course. It was a prized mule, one of the two that perform specialized tasks at the ranch. A mistake by my grandfather led to its being run over by a railroad car. Fearing retribution from his boss, my grandfather quickly organized the great escape. 

It was a hard trip. They had no money and almost no food. They traveled by night and hid in the mountains during the day. The final indignity came when a friend who’d been paid to drive them across the Rio Grande pocketed the money, forcing the wo wade across instead. 

They settled in Crystal City and lived in nearby farms, among them the Holdsworth Ranch, owned by a man whose daughter married a guy named Howard E. Butt, founder of HEB. It was in Crystal City that Tía Benita met MelecioAlfaro, a labor contractor who would become her husband.

It was Melecio’s relative affluence that helped our family survive during the Great Depression. And it was the Alfaros who kept our family alive in 1938. That was the year my mother almost died after giving birth to her sixthchild, and my father nearly lost his arm to gangrene after a job accident. His bosses didn’t believe it was a work-related injury and refused to pay for his treatment. Finally it was the Tía Benita who lent my father the 50 cents he needed to visit the doctor when he could no longer take the pain – and it was she, along with Luisa, who saw to the care of my brothers and sisters. 

It seemed fitting, then, that it was with Luisa‘s help that Tia was now telling me about that life so long ago. 

“Fué una vida my dura, hijo,“ she concluded. We agreed. How could it be classified as anything but a difficult life? Later, as we prepared to leave, she mused: “¿Por que me habrá dejado Diocito vivir tantos años?“

She obviously didn’t expect an answer. But if she had, I might have said maybe God intended her to live so long to bring us all a dose of humility.

Her eyes closed, she sat in her wheelchair outside her room.

“Tía,“ my sister said, tapping Tía Benita on the shoulder.

“Look who’s with me,” Luisa added in Spanish when Tía opened her eyes.

“Emilio?” Tia asked, an understandable mistake, given my resemblance to Luisa‘s son.

Once I embraced her and told her who I was, the confusion disappeared and Tía Benita spoke in a strong voice. Of how glad she was like taking the time to visit her. About how she was asleep because she’d had another sleepless night.

Benita Palomo Alfaro was born outside San Luis Potosi on April 3, 1900, which makes her 94. Even as kids, all of us were intrigued by her birthyear, and how easy that would always be for us to remember her age. But we never imagined she’d still be alive as the millennium approaches, that we would actually be contemplating having a 100-year-old aunt.

When Alejandro and Manuela Palomo gathered their children in the middle of the night and fled the hacienda where my grandfather worked, Tía Benita, their ninth child, was the oldest. Eight others had come before her – all had died.

Today she is the sole survivor. By the time the Palomos waded across the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass on a cool April day in 1920, the two youngest, Cirilo and Isabelita, had also died. 

Gertrudes died of tuberculosis in the late 1940s, leaving behind a young widow and six children. My grandmother died in 1951 and her husband died 17 years later (he is buried a few blocks from where Tía lives). Domingo, my father, died in 1984 and Adrian, the youngest, died a few years after that.

Although still strong of mind, body, and spirit, old age, arthritis and other ailments have for several years conspired to deny Tía the use of her legs, so she spends most of her time either in bed or on her wheelchair in the San Jose, California, nursing home, where she’s lived the past several years. 

That does not mean she’s been inactive. Far from it. Until the home‘s kitchen changed directors, for instance, she would often help prepare the meals. 

Not long ago she talked her granddaughter into taking her to Mexico to visit her birthplace – for the first time since the family left that country 74 years ago. 

Tia Benita spoke about the departure for the hour or so we were there. I’ve heard some of that story before, from my father and others, but she provided much more details.

All the versions I had heard earlier had my grandfather fleeing Mexico because he was in on the wrong side of the revolution, or something equally romantic. It turns out it was nothing of the sort. It was a death of a mule that led to the Palomos’ becoming Texans.

It was not just any mule, of course. It was a prized mule, one of the two that perform specialized tasks at the ranch. A mistake by my grandfather led to its being run over by a railroad car. Fearing retribution from his boss, my grandfather quickly organized the great escape. 

It was a hard trip. They had no money and almost no food. They traveled by night and hid in the mountains during the day. The final indignity came when a friend who’d been paid to drive them across the Rio Grande pocketed the money, forcing the wo wade across instead. 

They settled in Crystal City and lived in nearby farms, among them the Holdsworth Ranch, owned by a man whose daughter married a guy named Howard E. Butt, founder of HEB. It was in Crystal City that Tía Benita met MelecioAlfaro, a labor contractor who would become her husband.

It was Melecio’s relative affluence that helped our family survive during the Great Depression. And it was the Alfaros who kept our family alive in 1938. That was the year my mother almost died after giving birth to her sixthchild, and my father nearly lost his arm to gangrene after a job accident. His bosses didn’t believe it was a work-related injury and refused to pay for his treatment. Finally it was the Tía Benita who lent my father the 50 cents he needed to visit the doctor when he could no longer take the pain – and it was she, along with Luisa, who saw to the care of my brothers and sisters. 

It seemed fitting, then, that it was with Luisa‘s help that Tia was now telling me about that life so long ago. 

“Fué una vida my dura, hijo,“ she concluded. We agreed. How could it be classified as anything but a difficult life? Later, as we prepared to leave, she mused: “¿Por que me habrá dejado Diocito vivir tantos años?“

She obviously didn’t expect an answer. But if she had, I might have said maybe God intended her to live so long to bring us all a dose of humility.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Sunday in the Park

Whenever I mention the 10-year-plus long distance friendship with a guy on Texas death row (Rogelio Reyes Cannady, who was executed May 19, 2010) and talk about the numerous letters we exchanged, I’m often asked what I wrote to him about. The answer is: everything, in postal cards, long letters and short letters. About my vacation trips, about work, about family, about life in Washington DC. Here is one letter I found a while ago while going through some old files.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Estimado Amigo,

A few notes on my visit to Dupont Circle:

It’s about 3:30. I was lazy all morning and didn’t leave the house until about an hour ago. I get here just in time to listen to the last performance of a Caribbean salsa band, part of a local dance festival. There are lots of people, more than the usual Dupont Circle crowd. As I walk in search of a bench on which to sit, I notice four people dancing to the music. Four white people – two young women, one young guy and a woman in her 60s, at least. If they have any rhythm, they are doing a good job of keeping it hidden. In fact, they are the most pathetic dancers I’ve ever seen. I tell you, I think it ought to be against the law for white folks to dance Latin music. 

Thank God that is the last performance. People are gradually dispersing. Meanwhile, a lone singer, wearing sandals, a flannel shirt over a black undershirt, and a straw cowboy hat decorated with feathers, is setting up shop nearby, hooking up a battery-powered amplifier for his acoustical guitar and microphone. He’s singing mostly folk songs, but also a few other older pop songs. Some I recognize, others I’ve never heard. About the time he starts his performance, a crazy black homeless guy in green camouflage pants, black hooded sweatshirt and a black suit jacket, starts walking around in circles around the fountain, ranting loudly about white folks and capitalism, quoting the Bible and spewing words like “fuck” and “motherfuckers.”  The singer ignores him, for the most part, merely smiling tolerantly each time the ranter parades in front of him. The fact that the singer is ignoring him, and that his audience is growing with each song he sings, appears to irritate the trodder even more, and he starts hurling insults at him, calling him a white boy, in obvious reference to the black singer’s light complexion.  

“It must be hard working with all that anger,” the singer observes in between songs. “I tried that once but I didn’t like it.”

The singer’s white girlfriend sits in front of him, on the fountain steps, an adoring look on her face, and begins clapping as soon as each tune’s last note is sounded, encouraging others to also offer their applause.

It’s a beautiful day: partly cloudy, about 75 degrees. There are more than the usual number of people with cameras, shooting the singer, the ranter and everything and anything that looks halfway exciting. I find myself resenting them because I have left my camera at home. A Bible-toting white couple, trailed by a black man, arrive and slowly make their way along the benches at perimeter of circle, handing out their literature. A couple, a few benches down from me, eat heartily on a large pizza, the slices almost too big for them to handle. Another couple is sharing an ice cream bar. Not everyone is listening to the music, which is pretty good, actually. Some read – books, magazines, newspapers – while others chat and some pretend the singer isn’t there. Some write on spiral notebooks. No laptops today.

A drunken black homeless woman is now dancing in front of the singer, mouthing the lyrics, or attempting to. Her companions, two young scruffy men sitting on the steps next to the singer’s girlfriend, egg her on. When the song is over, she joins them on the steps and they begin a series of very loud conversations. The woman says something that seems to embarrass her. She covers her face with her hands, delighting her companions, both white. They all look at the singer for a reaction.

“It must have been dirty,” he finally says. “If she’s that dark and she’s blushing, it must have been real dirty.” 

This only encourages the woman more. When the singer sings the lyrics, “Give me the people that can free my soul. I wanna get lost in your rock ‘n roll,” she sings back, “Give me the people that can free my soul. I wanna get lost in your fucking roll.” Again, her companions are greatly amused. The two may not be as drunk as she is, but they certainly are high and giddy.

By this time the ranter has tired of walking around the fountain, so he positions himself about a hundred feet from the singer and continues his tirade from there. But soon he tires of that also and wanders off, muttering non-stop. Meanwhile, passers-by continue to parade in front of the singer. There’s an Indian, or Pakistani, guy in a muted yellow turtleneck, walking regally and holding a pipe in one hand and cradling book by Norm Chomsky under the other arm. An older white woman with purple streaks in her gray hair rides by on a motorized chair. Two brown-skinned kids, a boy and girl of about 5 and 6, trail behind her, with a perplexed look on their faces. A middle-aged woman, obviously a tourist, squats in front of the performer to takes his picture, then moves a bit to take another one from a different angle. And another one. Some stop to listen for a few seconds before moving on, others listen as they walk. Some ignore the whole scene. Some drop money in the singer’s open guitar case; most ignore it.

One of the two homeless young guys with the drunken black woman approaches the singer and whispers in his ear. The singer nods and the homeless guy scurries back to his place.

“This song is for Kevin and Tim,” the singer announces. “Happy anniversary.” 

Kevin – or Tim? – smiles broadly and proudly and places his arm around his companion, who blushes a bit. As the song progresses, they hold hands and take turn caressing each other’s faces. The black woman is also overtaken by the emotion of the moment and reaches out to take one of Tim’s – or is it Kevin’s? – hand. He holds it only for a few seconds before dropping it so he can concentrate on his partner. As the song comes to an end, they face each other and kiss, the beaks of their gimme caps colliding briefly, making the kiss an awkward one. It’s a touching scene, nevertheless. Somehow, I tend to imagine that homeless people don’t have relationships, but here are these two kids, acting as if they are the only two people sitting on those steps by the fountain, and that the entire world, not just the song, is theirs. They have each other and that’s all that seems to matter.

Their song over, the two homeless guys get up and walk away, leaving the black woman alone. She appears lonesome as she sits there, uncharacteristically quiet. Another homeless guy sits next to her and tries to engage her in conversation but she’s not interested. She gets up and walks away instead and finds a place a bit further down, next to couple with dachshund on a chain. She reaches out to pet the dog but, frightened, it barks loudly at her, causing its owner to pick it up and console it. Now the black woman looks even lonelier. She hangs around a few more minutes, then moves away, carrying her belongings in brown grocery store bag, a beige plastic purse and black fake leather tote bag. She once again stands next to the singer and pretends to play the guitar and sing, but it is obvious that her heart isn’t in it. 

As the performer begins his next number, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Songs,” she stops and stands still for a few seconds. She smiles at him, waves halfheartedly and walks away.

The singer continues to sing, his lips so close to the microphone that he appears to be licking it. He smiles and nods at her and sings,

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. 

None but ourselves can free our minds

Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom? 
cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

In the distance, a thunderstorm rumbles.

Un fuerte abrazo,

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The best books I read in 2021

I HAD PRETTY much finished compiling this list of my favorite books of the year when I started listening to Louise Erdrich’s newest novel, The Sentence. I didn’t think I’d finish it before the end of the year, so I didn’t include it. But finish it I did (it was so good I couldn’t put it down), and I just had to place it at the top of my fiction list.

All the top-10 books are audio books. That is how I do most of my book-reading these days. I’m a very slow reader and, besides, at my age, every time I sit down to read, I am overcome with a great desire to close my eyes and sleep. Audio books, on the other hand, I can listen to almost anywhere – while cooking and doing other household chores, while at the gym or walking, and while driving. 

Altogether, I listened to 39 books in 2021. I read four. Several, like Bless Me Ultima, were books I’d read before but felt an urge to read them again.

The top-10 list’s authors include three Latinos/Latinas; one native American; three African-Americans; one Asian-American; one Anglo-American and one Italian. Four female writers and six males.

For non-fiction, Conroe native Annette Gordon-Reed was at the very top. That list (of five) includes two African-American women, one native American woman, one African-American male and one Anglo male.

The worst book I read in 2021? A Saint from Texas by Edmund White. White was for many years one of my favorite gay writers and I looked forward to his new novels. But his last two left a lot to be desired and Saint was just downright awful.

Here’s my top-ten fiction books, followed by my top-five non-fiction books. (Unless otherwise stated, the descriptions of these books are from Goodreads (online).

Fiction:

  1. The Sentence                                                             Louise Erdrich

“Who among us hasn’t, in some sense, stolen a corpse and accidentally trafficked crack cocaine across state lines? That is a question you will ponder while reading Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence,” a bewitching novel that begins with a crime that would seem to defy “relatability” but becomes a practical metaphor for whatever moral felonies lurk unresolved in your guilty heart. … A strange, enchanting and funny: a work about motherhood, doom, regret and the magic — dark, benevolent and every shade in between — of words on paper.” – New York Times

  • The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois                          Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

“This sweeping, brilliant and beautiful narrative is at once a love song to Black girlhood, family, history, joy, pain…and so much more. In Jeffers’ deft hands, the story of race and love in America becomes the great American novel.” —Jacqueline Woodson, author of Red at the Bone and Another Brooklyn

  • Memorial                                                                   Bryan Washington

A funny, sexy, profound dramedy about two young people at a crossroads in their relationship and the limits of love. Benson and Mike are two young guys who live together in Houston. Mike is a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant and Benson’s a Black day care teacher, and they’ve been together for a few years – good years – but now they’re not sure why they’re still a couple.

  • Crossroads                                                                 Jonathan Franzen

Franzen’s novels are celebrated for their unforgettably vivid characters and for their keen-eyed take on contemporary America. Now he ventures back into the past and explores the history of two generations. With characteristic humor and complexity, and with even greater warmth, he conjures a world that resonates powerfully with our own.

  • The Five Wounds                                                      Kirstin Valdez Quade

From an award-winning New Mexico-born storyteller comes a stunning debut novel about a New Mexican family’s extraordinary year of love and sacrifice. As satisfying as her earlier short story collection, Night of the Fiestas.

  • Afterparties                                                               Anthony Veasna So

Seamlessly transitioning between the absurd and the tenderhearted, balancing acerbic humor with sharp emotional depth, Afterparties offers an expansive portrait of the lives of Cambodian-Americans.

  • Gordo                                                                         Jaime Cortez

The first collection of short stories by Jaime Cortez, it is set in a migrant workers camp near Watsonville, California in the 1970s. A young, probably gay, boy named Gordo puts on a wrestler’s mask and throws fists with a boy in the neighborhood, fighting his own tears as he tries to grow into the idea of manhood so imposed on him by his father.

  • The Lost Daughter                                                    Elena Ferrente

Ferrante’s most compelling and perceptive meditation on womanhood and motherhood yet (translated from Italian).

  • The Prophets                                                             Robert Jones Jr.

A novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.

  1. Monkey Boy                                                              Francisco Goldman

A sweeping story about the impact of divided identity – whether Jewish/Catholic, white/brown, native/expat – and one misfit’s quest to heal his damaged past and find love.

Non-Fiction

  1. On Juneteenth                                                                       Annette Gordon-Reed

Weaving together American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, this book provides a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth, recounting both its origins in Texas and the enormous hardships that African Americans have endured in the century since.

  • Bad Indians: A Memoir                                                       Deborah A. Miranda

This book leads readers through a troubled past using the author’s family circle as a touch point and resource for discovery. Personal and strong, these stories present an evocative new view of the shaping of California and the lives of Indians during the Mission period in California.

  • Memorial Drive, A Daughter’s Memoir                             Natasha Trethaway  

At 19, Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother. Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted the twin pulls of life and death in the aftermath of unimaginable trauma and now explores the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became.

  • A Promised Land                                                                  Barrack Obama

The first installment of the former president’s White House memoir.

  • A Carnival of Snackery                                            David Sedaris

Sedaris being Sedaris

Here’s the rest of the fiction books I read:

Martita, I Remember You                                          Sandra Cisneros 

Afterlife                                                                      Julia Alvarez

The Shadow of the Wind                                            Carlos Ruiz Zafón

La Sombra del Viento                                                Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Remember Me                                                            Mario Escobar

House Made of Dawn                                                 N. Scott Momaday

The Prisoner of Heaven                                              Carlos Ruiz Zafón                  

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemmingway                 Ernest Hemmingway

The Sun Also Rises                                                    Ernest Hemingway

The Angel’s Game                                                      Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Bless Me, Ultima*                                                      Rudolfo Anaya           

Songs for the Flames                                                  Juan Gabriel Vasquez

News of the World                                                     Paulette Jiles

Cathedral of the Sea                                                   Ildefonso Falcones      

Give My Love to the Savages                                    Chris Struck

The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You                Maurice Arles Ruffin

La Tregua                                                                   Mario Benedetto

A Star is Bored                                                           Byron Lane

Less                                                                             Andrew Sean Greer 

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter                Erika L. Sanchez

A Saint from Texas     Edmund White

And non-fiction: 

A Moveable Feast                                                       Ernest Hemmingway

Horizontal Vertigo (Essays on Mexico City)             Juan Villoro

The Best of Me David Sedaris

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

From a column a meeting, from a meeting a friendship

IN 1992, NOT long after I had started writing a column for The Houston Post, I received a letter from a reader named Michael Dale, who was very much in disagreement with something I wrote. Unlike most of the ranting and often profane letters and calls I got (this was before email and social media) from right-wing readers, the letter struck me as a sincere person’s sane plea for dialogue.

So I responded, as I often did, by inviting him to join me for a meal, a cup of coffee or a beer so we could discuss our differences. He was clearly surprised but he accepted and we met at a restaurant not far from the Post building. 

We became friends. That friendship lasted even as I moved to Washington and back to Houston while he moved to Atlanta and New York, Baton Rouge and, finally, Austin, where he died early Wednesday morning. 

Cancer.

IT WAS AN improbable friendship. Michael was white, straight and middle-class, a son of the South (devoted fan of University of Alabama football). He was reared in the Southern Baptist Church. 

I was the gay son of Mexican immigrants, a former migrant worker who grew up Catholic and had become disenchanted with the whole organized religion thing. And I never was into college football. About the only thing we had in common was that we were both Astros fans. 

I can’t claim we were close, close friends. I never met his family or other friends, for instance, and he never met mine. We never hung out together, but over the years, he always reached out to me, and we’d get together for a meal if we could manage it. We even went to see the Astros play at Yankee Stadium once.

When he moved to Austin a little more than a year ago, we talked about meeting more often, but the only visit we managed was getting together for coffee once soon after he learned of his cancer diagnosis. 

While hopeful about his prognosis, Michael made it clear it didn’t look good. But he was not about to let his situation get him down. He had recently married, his job and financial situation were good, his family was supportive. And, above all, he still had his faith, which would not be shaken.

FAITH WAS probably the Number One topic of conversation in our chats, emails and text messages – faith, and politics and how the two had unfortunately become entwined in recent decades.

 “I call out these so-called ‘leaders’ for not teaching the gospel yet driving fear and loathing among their community,” he wrote once. “That is not who we are called to be. I have my convictions based on the faith delivered once for all and they do not include political power. The good news I have been given I want to share with others, then let God do the work, not the state!!”

Many of today’s right-wing Christian leaders are “charlatans, very wealthy ones at that, who will be judged harshly,” he said, adding, “I pray they fade into oblivion quickly!!”

Michael detested Donald Trump, calling him a creation of FOX-News, someone who is willing to exploit the sense of victimhood among middle-class and lower-income whites. He never voted for him.

I never ceased to be wowed by Michael’s insights and his ability to express his thoughts, and I often told him so.

“I find myself struggling to string together the words needed to formulate a response to your amazing email,” I wrote to him once. “At a time when shouting is the accepted form, when finger-pointing and the airing of grievances have replaced deliberate debate, you present me with this very sane, provocative and well-written share airing of ideas, concerns and – yes – anguish. That you chose me as your audience filled me with a deep sense of gratitude and humility.”

Though heartbroken about the state of today’s politics, Michael remained optimistic.

“Biden will be inaugurated,” he wrote a year ago. “Life will continue, families will enjoy their time together, people will get married, children born, some people will leave this earth yet through it all, God is sovereign.”

That, he said, “brings me such comfort, especially recently.” Meaning: since his cancer diagnosis.

That coffee-shop meeting was the last time we were to get together. He mentioned perhaps sharing a meal at an outdoor venue on one of his next trips here, depending on what the situation was with Covid.

After that, there were only a few text messages. Among them was this from September 20: “I ask you forgive me if I ever harmed you over the years. Never my intent.”

To which I replied: “I can’t think of a single time, my friend.”

I REGRET I did not take the opportunity to ask for his forgiveness in return. Typical self-centered me. Maybe I’d not done anything that would require forgiveness, but I should have been as generous as he was by giving him the opportunity to decide that. 

I am so sorry Michael is gone. I am sad I will not be able to listen to his calm, soothing voice of reason and sanity and Christian love. I am sorry I never got to see him together with his new bride (his eyes beamed whenever he talked about her!).

I once told him I was glad he had reached out to me that day in 1992, and that he continued to reach out.

And I am so happy I wrote a column almost 30 years ago, the one that raised Michael’s ire enough to write to me.

I will miss his kindness, his decency and his goodness. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

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. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments