MY BROTHER Alejandro put it best: Ya comenzó a desgranarce la mazorca (the cob has begun to shed its kernels).
He was talking about the significance of the death last Sunday of my sister, Delfina García, in her California home. Fina represented one of the granos bonded ever so tightly to the Palomo mazorca for a long time. For more than half a century, in fact: the last time we lost a sibling was in 1966, when my brother Norberto (Beto) died in a car accident.
Given that all of us are getting old (I’m the youngest and I will turn 73 in July), we’ve all known that sooner or later one of us would be the first grain to push off from the cob – the first autumn leaf to let go of this tree we call life. But knowing is one thing, experiencing a loss is quite another. No one and no experience can ever prepare you for the death of a loved one, and so Fina’s last breath was, and is, painful.
But I don’t want to dwell on the pain and the sense of loss. Today I want to tell you about Fina, the third of the nine children produced by the marriage of Martina López and Domingo Palomo. (Manuel, the second oldest, died when he was seven years old.) Still here are María Luisa (who will turn 90 in June), Alejandro, Mariana, Dora, Carmen, and me.
FINA WAS A hustler, a fighter and a protector. As a young tomboyish girl, she ruled over the neighborhood, fiercely defending her brothers from real or perceived bullies.
“What I remember most about her was how she would love to play with us kids back in our days of our youth,” recalls cousin Mike Palomo of Harlingen.
“She was a ringleader,” he says. “Most of the time she would decide what game we were going to play. She was very athletic; she could outrun any of the boys and I suppose she could’ve whupped ‘em too if she wanted to but that never happened, thank goodness.”
Actually, it did happen. One of the favorite family stories was of how Fina beat up and sent home crying a neighborhood kid named Tomás because she thought he was picking on my brother Jando. (That kid’s last name was Rivera and he went on to become a famous Chicano writer and chancellor of the University of California, Riverside.)
“She protected me, always,” Jando told me a while ago. “In her eyes, I could do no wrong, so she was always there to protect me.”
As Mike points out, she was athletic. She could beat most everyone in the neighborhood at most childhood games and pastimes, from canicas (shooting marbles) to trompos (spin tops), huilas (kite flying) and shooting slingshots and BB guns. (Even in her older years, after she retired and moved to Texas with Pedro, her husband, she would keep a BB gun near her at all times so she could scare off any stray cat or dog who dared come into her yard to poop.)
Fina was a doer of things she wasn’t supposed to do. As a child she once found out that someone had given my grandfather a box of cigars so she started sneaking into his house to smoke a cigar, one a day until they were all gone.
One day she went with a friend to Longoria’s, a nearby grocery store, where the friend took items from the shelf and told the owner to put them on her grandmother’s tab. So Fina started doing the same thing, buying stuff and charging them to her friend’s grandmother’s tab, until the grandmother noticed all the extra charges and complained to Longoria, who had assumed Fina was the old woman’s granddaughter too.
Years later, Fina offered a rationale for her actions. She explained that my grandmother had asked her once to walk to Longoria’s, about a mile away, to buy a pound of carne the puerco. When Fina asked Longoria for the pork, he replied, “Sorry, we don’t have any pork, we just have carne de marrano.”
So she went home to tell abuelita there was no pork at the store.
Mi hijita, she said, puerco, marrano, es la misma cosa!
So back to the store she had to go. I think any of us Palomo kids would have wanted to screw Longoria after that. Only Fina had the guts to actually do it, and feel perfectly justified to do it.
“That is why I stole from el viejo chingao,” Fina explained. Porque era muy malo!
Because she and Luisa were among the oldest of my grandparents’ grandkids, and because we lived next door to the old folks, they were called upon almost daily to walk to Longoria’s or other merchants to pick up things, from groceries to ice to kerosene, regardless of the weather.
(During all those years, Fina dreamed about having a little red wagon she could use to haul the stuff. She never got one. But many years later, after she’d retired, she saw one at a store and bought it so she could have the wagon she could never have as a kid. She was proud of that little red wagon.)
FINA QUIT SCHOOL after the fifth grade then she and Luisa lied about their ages to get a job at the new Del Monte cannery that had just opened up in Crystal City. They made 40 cents an hour but the money they earned was more than our family had ever seen.
Not long after, Luisa led a drive to bring in a union to represent the workers and they staged a strike. They were all promptly fired, so Luisa and Fina and several of their friends, walked to the other side of town where they got at jobs at a smaller cannery.
The money they earned became particularly useful because it was around that time that my father quit his steady job with the railroad, took up drinking and pretty much abandoned his paternal responsibilities.
Had it not been for Fina and Luisa, we would have never had the large house I grew up in, which was one of the largest in the neighborhood. Fina and Luisa designed the house and bought the material and paid my grandfather to build it. And Fina helped him, even climbing onto the steep roof to help lay shingles.
Fina loved working with her hands, whether it was gardening or building and repairing things. In her retirement, she owned her own tools, from table saws to drills to sanders and screwdrivers and hammers. I have no doubt that if she’d had to, she would have been able to design and build a house for her family. I also have no doubt that if she’d had access to an education, she could have become a fine engineer.
When she and Pedro moved to Texas after they retired, they rented a house that had a linoleum-tile kitchen floor. Fina stripped the linoleum tiles and replaced them with Mexican tiles, by herself.
AFTER FINA AND Pedro eloped, they moved in with his family into her in-laws’ house, which was way too small to allow for any kind of intimacy. So the young couple would take a blanket to a secluded clearing in the countryside, where they could be alone. One day, as they lay on the blanket after their moments of bliss, Fina heard a rattling noise and quickly sat up to find a menacing snake just a few feet away.
Pedro was afraid of snakes, so it was up to her to deal with it as Pedro retreated to their car.
Pedro was drafted shortly after they got married and she joined him for a while in Oakland, where he was stationed, until he was sent to Germany and she had to take the bus, alone, to Idaho, where Pedro’s family was working in the sugar beet fields.
Fina gave birth to their first child, Margarita, who was followed in quick succession by Elsa, Gina, Peter, Michael and Ileana. Much later came María Luisa. It was a rough time for the growing family, with Pedro switching from job to job often. For a while he was a lechero, delivering dairy products door-to-door from a van. Fina would often join him in his early-morning runs, driving the van while he walked the milk bottles to people’s doorsteps.
Times were tough but Fina was resourceful. One Easter, there was not enough money for Easter baskets for the kids. Fina convinced my siblings and I to get together to make baskets out of old shoeboxes that we covered with crepe paper and filled with fake grass.
Eventually the young family moved to Ohio where Pedro could hold down a year-round job, but even there, there was a lot of hardship, and they moved to California where Fina and Pedro worked in the fields and packing sheds until they both landed steady jobs at the garlic processing plant.
When they retired they moved back Texas and lived in the house where my parents had spent their final years. Fina kept the house in immaculate shape and the yard looked like a Garden of Eden.
SHE WAS AN excellent cook and could whip up a delicious meal in minutes (while Pedro sat in front of the TV watching old cowboy movies and cooking shows). Last summer, when two of my Texas sisters and I went to California, we stayed with Fina on our last night there. Fina made a batch of chorizo, the best chorizo I’ve ever had, and a stack of flour tortillas. The next morning, we had chorizo for breakfast, and whatever was left, she used it to make tacos for the road trip. We ate the last of Fina’s tacos somewhere in New Mexico.
In Texas, Pedro and Fina would often get in their pickup truck and ride around on the county roads, listening to music from his CD collection. There is not a whole hell of a lot to see on those roads, but they loved it. They called it “country riding.”
Fina could cuss up a tempest, in both languages, and she rarely cared who heard her. Often her harsh language was aimed at Pedro or her kids or sons-in-law, even her grandkids, but it was rarely in a malicious spirit.
I’m sure her children would tell you she was often a difficult parent, but their love for her was immense, as demonstrated by how well and lovingly they took care of her in her final years, especially Margie, who lived with her, and Elsa and Gina, who lived nearby.
As with most marriages, Pedro’s and Fina’s relationship was far from perfect, but there was never any doubt that the two remained in love all those years.
After Pedro died, their children insisted she move back to California, so she moved in with her oldest daughter, reluctantly. But her desire was always to move back to Texas, and she did so briefly until health complications caused her children to once again insist she move back to California.
She loved to travel and explore. She joined me and other siblings on a camping trip to Big Bend once and loved every minute of it. She visited me in Washington, and she, Margie and Gina would periodically rent a van and drive all over the West and Midwest, stopping to play the slot machines wherever they found casinos. She loved to gamble and she was often a winner.
One of her unfulfilled wishes was to take a driving trip into Canada and all they way to Alaska. She became intrigued by Alaska after watching a TV news show that featured a family that had moved there from Mexico and opened a Mexican restaurant. She wanted to go eat at that restaurant.
Fina smoked cigarettes most of her adult life, but she quit cold turkey when she retired. Whenever she could, though, at the end of the day, she would go outside and sit by herself, smoking a cigarillo or other small cigar.
I’M A SKEPTIC when it comes to an afterlife, but if there is one, my image of Fina in that life is of her, sitting alone and content in her garden – a hoe or a shovel nearby (or a BB gun) – puffing on a cigarillo.