The Day that Urban Renewal Made Strangers Out of Two Women Who Had Been Like Sisters

[This is part of a column I wrote sometime in the 1970s for the Hays County Citizen, with some edits.]

BACK WHEN URBAN Renewal first came to Crystal City it decided that it was going to put a road right through our yard. Because my bedroom was in the way, El Riniú decided that our house would have to be torn down and we would have to build one somewhere else.

Our house was old and it evidenced the scars of termites that had invaded several years earlier. The white paint job it had received in the 1950s was mostly gone by then, and its floors were warped from the numerous floods that over the years had periodically slowly crept up from the bayuque – or bayouqui, as the white folks called the low-lying area to the west of town. But it was one of the better homes in the neighborhood – and it was ours. We didn’t owe anybody any money for it.

It was one of those homes that you read about that begin with a single room and a kitchen and, as the family grows, it gradually becomes larger, with rooms being added as they are needed. By the time it was torn down, it had four bedrooms, a living room-dining room area and a kitchen, all large rooms. The only thing it lacked was an indoor bathroom, which was somewhat inconvenient – especially in very cold or very hot weather.

My grandfather had built it for us. He was not a fantastic carpenter but he knew what he was doing. He never used blue-prints or any other kind of plans. All we had to do was tell him in very general terms what we wanted and he would build it.

I guess that if anybody should get any credit for that house, it should be my two older sisters, who quit school while they were still quite young and lied about their age so that they could get a job at the local Del Monte cannery.

It was María Luisa’s and Delfina’s hard work – and their unselfishness – that built that house. And, of course, it was the rest of us and our parents who maintained it and added the last two rooms.

And yet, when Urban Renewal came along they told us it was worth only $4,000. As a piece of property it no doubt was worth only $4,000, but as a home – our home – to us it was worth a lot more. Not only could $4.000 not pay for a new home and a new lot, it could not ever purchase the memories of the good times and the sad times that were created in that old house.

I can imagine what it must have been like for my mother, in particular: except for me, who was born in North Dakota, all of her children were born into that house and all of us grew up there. Her second child died there when he was seven years old and she herself lay there for weeks near death while a quack doctor told her there was nothing wrong with her and my oldest sister, only six years old at the time, took care of the other children and the household. It was to that house that my two older brothers came home from the service in the middle of the night for happy, tearful reunions.

But there was not much we could do about it. You couldn’t fight Urban Renewal. We settled for the $4,000 and arranged to have another house built clear across town for some $10.000. It was a much smaller house but that’s all we could afford. That may sound like very little money today, but back then – the mid-1960s – it was a lot, especially for two people who were about to rely solely on Social Security for their income.  

The thing that kept bothering me as we moved our stuff from the old house to the new one (I was the only one left at home by then, everyone else having gotten married) was the fact that if it hadn’t been for Urban Renewal, there would not have had to be that need to go into debt to purchase a new house. Probably for a little over $1,000 we could have added the bathroom and repaired it enough to make it livable for a lot more years.

But even more important: there would have never been the scattering of Palomos all over Crystal City. Before Urban Renewal, all three Palomo families lived within shouting distance of each other. Tío Adrián and his family lived next door while Tía Chavela, my other uncle’s widow, and her family lived just across the street. Other relatives and close friends also lived close by.

That last day in our old house, as we were loading up the last few of our possessions onto a truck, only Tía Chavela was still holding out against Urban Renewal. Among all the commotion and confusion of packing and moving, we had somehow forgotten to tell her that we were moving on that day, and when she looked out the window and saw us loading the truck she slowly made her way across the street. She stopped by the truck and, as my mother emerged from the house, she said, “Mujer, por qué no me habías dicho que ya me ibas a dejar sola?” (Woman, why hadn’t you told me that you are leaving me alone already?)

Tears were streaming down her face as she spoke. My mother dropped whatever she was carrying and went to her and, the two women embraced and cried together, their bodies shaking. Watching them, I could do was curse El Riniú and all it stood for.

It was one of the saddest scenes I had ever witnessed. There they were, these two grown women, related only through marriage, crying their eyes out because they would no longer be neighbors.

They had lived near each other for so many years. They had worked side by side in the fields of North Dakota. They had enjoyed the good times together and consoled each other through the bad times, and they had helped each other out through periods of poverty. They had watched each other’s children grow up. They had helped each other as their children got sick and they had held each other when they both lost children to illnesses. They had come from different regions and cultures in Mexico but they became like sisters.

And now they could no longer be neighbors because Urban Renewal had decided that they would be better off in new houses with indoor bathrooms, and because Urban Renewal decided that a street should run right through my bedroom.

So they now both have good houses with indoor bathrooms and with floors that do not creak as much and walls that do not shake as much and windows that do not rattle as much. Except that one is at one end of town while the other is at the other end.

They do see each other occasionally, when their children can find the time to drive them for a visit. They talk briefly after Mass or at the church bingo each Sunday evening and they converse over the phone every once in a while.

The rest of the time, they sit in front of their television sets and watch their historias, soap operas on the Spanish channel as they patch together a quilt for the latest grandchild.

And when there aren’t any good telenovelas to watch, they stand there, leaning against the walls that do not shake as much and looking out the windows that do not rattle as much, hoping to see one of their children coming to visit.

And the children do come, but they can only stay for a short period for they have their own lives to live. And so, when the children leave, they stand out on the porch and wave goodbye to them as they drive off. They hold back the tears until the children have turned the corner are out of sight because they don’t want their children to be hurt or to feel guilty.

Then they cry until there are no more tears left in their tear ducts. And they go back to their television, and to their quilts – and to staring out the windows.  

But they have good houses in which they can cry and do those other things old people do. If it hadn’t been for Urban Renewal, they would only have old, “sub-standard” houses. And if it hadn’t been for Urban Renewal, they would also have their friends and neighbors nearby to talk to and share their loneliness.

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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1 Response to The Day that Urban Renewal Made Strangers Out of Two Women Who Had Been Like Sisters

  1. Ann Chapman says:

    So moving. Thank you for sharing.

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