The screeching screen door, dabbed with bolls of cotton from the nearby field—to keep out the flies—was not shut tight enough. In a flash, a fuzzy, blue blob nosed his way into the kitchen. Que relajo! What a mess! Clattering hooves, bleating cries for milk. The quiet of a normal Sunday morning shattered.
“Pete, quita ese travieso escuincle desde ahí!” Doña Amalia scolded, but, exasperated, did not insist. What she called the “tricky imp” was not booted out. Pete defended his blue lamb:
“Pero, amá, tiene hambre. He’s hungry, amá. Déjalo.” Pedro wrapped protective arms around the rare creature.
Doña Amalia rolled her eyes: “No lo déjes cerca de la estufa; se va a quemar... do you want to burn him up?”
Señora Moreno was less afraid of him setting the lamb on fire than she was setting the house on fire. Don Américo just laughed at the commotion. He knew his opinion didn’t matter anyway; she ruled the roost. He repeated what he always said about such a thing:
“Siempre tengo la última palabra: ‘Sí, mi vida.’ ” I always have the last word: Yes, Dear.
The wood burning stove was flaming hot. Tortillas she had prepared by hand were about to be turned over. They smelled wonderful, flour, as most norteños preferred, not corn, more common in southern Mexico. They were slightly charred, as they should be, but, no face of Jesus. She deftly turned them with bare hands.
Pedro (“Pete” to his family and friends) grabbed a tortilla from the stack and the bottle of warm milk he had prepared, grabbed his pet lamb and ran with it outside. Azulito was a bright blue. Pete had turned him blue. Pete was brown, but not like his Aztec ancestors, more like beige. His family and others around the rancho were a richer color--café con leche.
Pete was happy with his skin and in his skin. Siblings were various shades of tan, even aperlada. Difficult to describe, translated “pearlized,” a glowing hue of a natural ocean pearl. Some of Pete’s friends were, unnecessarily, irritatingly, too proud of their whiteness.
“Porqué? Why?, Pete asked. “They didn’t do anything to earn it. Who chooses their parents?”
He got along well with Whites, could use “gringo” with close friends (not as an insult). But, according to some of Pete’s less tolerant Mexican American brethren (only half in jest) the “Gringo is an Anglo-Sangrón”—sangrón, instead of Anglo Saxon, a pun for someone who is quite uptight, even vindictive.
Gringo forebears had already conquered the Valley politically. Some had even stolen land in the early days, then used Mexican labor to dig the canals to water the citrus orchards. Things were better today. Pete’s county was Corralón; his kin identified more by county, some as large as Delaware, than by town. There were only three or four percent Anglos in the 1950s, in deep south Texas.
Anglos boasted greater numbers in neighboring, more populated Caballero County. In In the 1950s, deep in the corazón of Texas, many of them—the Kings, the McAllens, the Klebergs, and lesser ranchers--lorded it over the Mexicanos (Pete’s people). Memories of Texas Rangers and their dirty deeds were not too distant.
Way down in the “Valley” (no mountains, just a river), during Pete’s youth, things hadn’t changed much since the turn of the past century. Some things were good: the green-apple green of the spring-blooming Mesquite trees; the answering challenge from the profusely flowering golden Huisache; the echoing yellow flowers on the tunas; the sweet, crunchy treats the plentiful cacti provided. Even the glorious Esperanza seemed to be, well, esperando, that is, hoping to touch the beckoning Mimosa, waiting for them on the other side of the dusty lanes that crisscrossed Pedro’s and other ranchitos.
But flowers alone can’t cover all the prickly problems. Some very bad things persisted in the Valley—old and new racist attitudes, against Mexicans of yesterday, immigrants of today. Fortunately, the worst of attitudes and most overtly bad behaviors have vanished. They had to. Mexican Americans also had changed. Government helped; more money had helped. Pete’s family, though humble, hard-working, was not poor, yet could empathize with poorer Mexican Americans in the colonias of the larger towns.
Nowadays, typical “long, tall Texans” learned to be more circumspect; many have inter-married. (Perhaps Love conquers all?) Tejanos themselves grew in number. And they grew in pride and assertiveness. Many called themselves Chicanos. But Pete’s mother was not comfortable with “Chicano.”
“Pero, Amá; It’s just an apodo, a nick-name for a proud ‘Mexicano’.”
“No digas este palabra tan vulgár; yo no soy “chico . . . ano!” She thought the term vulgar; but it did not mean, as she alleged, separating the word into two, chico and ano, “little asshole.”
Actually, Pete felt himself part of three cultures—Anglo, Mexican, and Mexican-American. He also became a citizen of the world; later, as a teacher he traveled to Houston and New York . . . and to Europe. He was perfectly comfortable with the high and the low. To his students Pete celebrated the facts of being enjertado, spliced or hybrid, in nature and philosophy. (However, year of exposure to English had changed this term to “encartado”—stuffed in an envelope—which made no sense.) To his conservative Anglo friends, and to his credit, he stood up for Mexicans.
“Mi raza? Yes, my people are distinct. But we are completely American. And we and other Latinos across all the Americas are the happiest people on the planet. I read that in a recent scientific survey. Don’t tell me we don’t belong.” He could throw facts in their faces. But he could also speak in clichés: “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us. “
But Pete’s story is not really political. It is personal. Pete is brown and proud. And, yes, he is special. And yes, he did have that blue lamb. His name was Azulito, a new mascót born when Pete was about eight years old. Azulito wasn’t born blue, of course. South Texas is not that different. He confessed:
“I dyed him blue—dunked him in the bluing my mother used for the wash.”
He kept him blue and refreshed him when it would fade, as colored blue lambs on a small, dusty ranch tend to do. For himself, too, Pete always favored bright colors and vivid fashion statements. He knew who he was, what he was, even as a child. He even added jewelry in later years and loved grand entrances. Before all that, Pedro Moreno worked hard, in early years and through later years on that ranch. But, when he was fifteen, it was all too much. He ran away from home, complaining:
“I’m not going to stay and be an indentured servant, a goat herder.”
To this day, Pete can’t tolerate sight or smell of lamb, Easter or not, nor cabrito, (baby goat). Roasted on a spit, it is very popular with Mexicans, Mexican Americans and the occasional “snow bird,” or winter visitor from the mid-west. They head to Nuevo Progreso, across the border, for dentists, shopping, Viagra, Margaritas and Mexican food--the exotic cabrito. Pete loved jalando el pelo, pulling the legs of his Anglo, winter visitor friends, when they spied the goats, roasting over a pit: “It’s collie dog. Care to try?” Actually, they did. A few might try the whole head, even eye-balls. But not Pete:
“I can still smell the goat pens.”
But, goats aside, the blue lamb was, briefly, a soothing ray of sky bright light, a mischievous creature, a comfort in Pete’s predictable, demanding, rural life. However, since that fateful, inevitable time Azulito was served on the dinner table, Pete couldn’t stand mutton either. Yet, he labored like a man; much of the labor was with animals, of whatever variety.
“Life was hard. We were far from poor, but work? That was all I knew.” Inside, duties for a youngster always called. Pete remembered having to rush to bring all visitors a drink of water. He would then stand motionless, arms folded like an Arabian court eunuch, until the guest finished it. slowly, gossiping between each tedious sip. He asked his astonished Tia Isabela, “Tia, aren’t you finished yet? I want to go outside to play.” He was slapped for his impertinence. Outside, the passing of a Mexican Whistling Tree Duck seemed to mock him (or them).
But usually, outside, life was harder. In the corral or fields, the brown boy tended goats, chopped mesquite for the fire to make pan de campo, picked cotton, and helped mind the small “Mom and Pop” store attached to the ranch. He received meager pay—a few dollars for a movie at times. And, Pete received, he thought, too little demonstrative love. Perhaps that’s why he loved Azulito so.
“I was lonely most of the time. But I loved the local culture. I still do. I remember neighbors from nearby San Ignacio. They would visit us, using the old caliche road, stopping for javelina crossing in front. I remember, it was sequía—drought.” He hummed some of their traditional songs, pasando la Virgen, for nine days. They hoped the image would bring rain, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe—la Vírgen Morena. They carried her around the county to all the houses in her crystal, be-flowered glass box. They sang devout prayers asking for her help . . .
“O, María, Madre mia . . . ampáreme . . . . “
Sometimes it did rain, reinforcing the belief in her power. Maybe the succor of religion also supplanted the absence of family love. Pete fondly remembered and treasured those times. Other Mexicans—from Mexico—looked down on that same culture, thinking they had risen above it—Mexican Pharisees?
“Pochos,” cultural half-breeds,” some would say. Many Mexicans would often sneer at Mexican Americans.
“Oh, they speak such bad Spanish,” huffs the upper class shopper in the malls on the U.S. side. The disdain was and still is reciprocated. The possible unity, sadly, is broken.
Pete experienced some of these put-downs. They resulted in a strange little dance. The Mexican American would often strike back with the occasional retort:
“Se creen que son bien buenos”—they think they’re hot shit.
But the reality is that Mexican Americans on the Texas side of the border are a real “raza cósmica”—truly a cosmic race, sons of Spanish Kings and Aztec Emperors. They are tri-lingual: English, Spanish, and Tex-Mex—add some Anglo blood, especially in Corralón County. Pedro Moreno learned when to switch, when to use the appropriate idiom. With Pete’s mother, however, it was puro Español. Neither she nor Mr. Moreno spoke English willingly; they understood and spoke when necessary, at the family business.
After leaving the ranch (not large, by Texas standards, but sacred to them, part of an old Spanish land grant) Pete reflected on his surroundings, his experiences leading to becoming . . . well, whatever he would become. Azulito had come and gone. The bittersweet memories remained. Mother was now gone. But Pedro’s memory of helping her cut the fresh, young nopalitos from the cactus, packing them gently between boughs of mesquite so any remaining thorns would not pierce them, remained dear.
But, while still on the ranch the chores called, relentlessly. The fields called, without mercy, especially the cotton. Oh, the cotton. And the adventures. Pete had his first taste (literally) of sex, with sturdy fellow workers in those fields. Others, a few cotton rows down, often felt the same need. The fields were alive with the sounds of first initiations (and seconds). Sr. Moreno delivered fewer bales on those days. But testosterone will out.
Later, there was a brief encounter with the young priest at Holy Family, Father Sebastián. It was not a negative experience. Pete initiated it and the young Padre, in need of human company, of love, flesh, did not resist. Nor did Pete spend much time agonizing later. He still doesn’t, though most would not accept his rationalization.
“I didn’t see it as abuse, but something natural, fun and fulfilling. My faith remains. Thinking back, I see the irony. There in deep macho south Texas, deep in the cotton fields, I was shielded by those high, white tufted plants. Then as an altar boy, I was shielded, initiated again, even blessed, as I see it.”
A bit rougher trade were the football players in high school—many more than one would imagine. Machismo melted away at the relief that came from an eager but discreet mouth, or another semi-willing orifice. One result--mutual satisfaction and celebration . . .
“Ah, dame tu sieso; déjame dársela en el ojete. Ay, sí, papi.” Gratification, if not love.
Pete opined: “all you need to do with jocks is grab their balls.” The sport continued later, with Sheriff’s deputies, city police, married políticos—but he always remembered the field workers.
“Tu sabes, Junior. You know, the fantastic thing is that the workers and jocks think they aren’t queer, as long as they are the pitcher, not the catcher.” And his happy friend, Junior, agreed—órale, Pedrito, tienes razón”-- you are right, as they laughed over the crazy, but accurate Latino logic. He found it true all over Latin America, in his extensive travels.
He was never punched out. Many machos were, indeed, macho menos, as Junior put it. They were willing, or, if conflictingly embarrassed, made a joke and declined, rather politely: “no, muchas gracias; quisás mas tarde?”—later, maybe? It was a mutual understanding. It could be called a matter of ask but don’t tell.
On the other extreme--Pete’s confidant, “Junior” Jackson. Enjertado or “spliced,” as in agricultural experiments, from an Anglo father and Mexican mother, he lived on a nearby ranch. He was more “out” than Pete, even less inhibited. He retorted to the outraged admonitions of his father, a leading patrón in Corralón County:
“What do you want me to do? Sew up my butt?”
That encounter came after word of Junior’s escapades at the local citrus and fruit packing sheds. Pete had given Junior a lift to ironically named “Los Machos Produce” in a borrowed truck. By that time, Pete had moved to a larger town. Later, he worked his way through the rest of high school and college. But that wild evening was etched in his mind.
Junior was in full drag, make-up, even boa, sequined blouse. stiletto heels—and, improbably, his Pancho Villa mustache. He often appeared, enticing the late-night melon packers into close quarters—he didn’t ask for nor need money. The watchman knew him, spied him, chased him. Junior rushed around the barns and trucks, arms waving, gleefully taunting in a high voice:
“A ver, qué me piscas?” Catch me if you can.
He merrily ran away on top of the truck, spiking dozens of luscious watermelons, spoiling them one by one. The watchman determined, wisely, that the rapid diminishing of profits (and the difficulty of explaining things to the gringo boss the next morning) was worth more than catching the flirt. The workers were glad; they rather enjoyed the show, the break from their back-breaking work.
That evening, really the early morning, was full of cursing and laughter. The red melons bled blood red, but no one else did. The sex and the chase to get it had expended enough energy. One younger fellow did get lucky, a quick quickie while the others were busy searching.
It might have ended with jail time (“breaking and entering?”) if not for Frank Senior, the patrón, Junior’s father. He was friend of the owners of the packing house. The business elites protected their own. Ethnic differences faded when profit was concerned. The owners considered “Don” Jackson’s son enough of a cross to bear. Why bother the county authorities?
Pete drove his friend home. There was no remorse but appropriate release, hilarious giggling . . .
“Let’s go back and sing ‘Las Mañanitas’? O, sí, vamos.” Of course, they didn’t, for, as they recognized:
“Tonto, pero no tanto.” We’re stupid, but not that stupid.
Pete, by that time, was fully “out” there in an otherwise apparently macho society, but not as brave (or as foolish) as Junior. Their status in the community was in no way diminished. They were not stereotyped as jotos; they were multi-dimensional. They were bright students and respected by many others—a kind of early diversity. There were no sins of the sons visited on their fathers, except, perhaps, in their fathers’ eyes. Nevertheless, Pete tried to counsel Junior and others who were third gender:
“Move to Houston. Have more fun. Why risk life and limb (or other parts of you) here?”
Some heeded the advice. Gays were more comfortable in San Antonio or Houston. Pete did not take his own advice. He made his home, first in the cañada, the brushy chaparral of San Ignacio, later in other parts of the Valley. He continued to work hard to become and stay independent.
Maybe too independent? Maybe Pete took too many chances? Maybe he didn’t care enough, really, about himself? He never went to see a doctor for a checkup, for prostate or anything else. He was, he is still, so “Mexican,” that is, so fatalistic he simply refused, often voicing the old south Texas dicho
“Cuando Diós me toca, me toca”—when God calls, he calls.
Pete tutored in Spanish. He became a disciplined teacher and successful counselor. He traveled and developed uniquely, intellectually as well as sexually—to include a brief liaison with an adventurous young woman. She did not persuade him to switch.
He could empathize with most— with farm boys who hadn’t read a book beyond required texts; with tattooed Cholos who thought they weren’t smart, that they couldn’t compete with the Anglos; with gays; with wanna-be gays. He refused to use terms like joto or maricón, except to other jotos or maricónes. He was discreet, keeping his private life separate.
Pedro was a “hit” in Paris. No one there knew what a “Mexican American” was. “So, you’re a Mexican? Or an American?” Such questions, from otherwise sophisticated people at a dinner for the haughty Nureyev. Pedro ignored him, while others fawned. He was much too busy practicing his French, taught to him at the Sorbonne by, of all people, Simon de Beauvoir. How far from the cotton fields he had come.
Improbably, Pete became a de facto leader of cultural artistry (utilizing culinary skills gained in Dijon). Also, more probably, he was a leader of gay pride in deep south Texas, the third coast, perhaps before the movement even began in the U.S. east or west coast. That is, in a way, he kept Azulito in his heart--and Azulito’s flamboyant colors in his ever expanding, flaming wardrobe.
Pete remained proud and as rambunctious as a blue-fleeced lamb looking for his mother. He had creatively bonded with all genders, as he had done with other species, to savor life more, to sobrevivir or survive at a higher plane. Today, the cotton fields no longer were so alive with pulchritude, with tempting touches. Machines had taken over; drought had worsened, despite intercession of La Virgen Morena. The fields alive with wild flowers were not so abundant. But traditional thoughts and phrases remained. Pete’s stubborn words to his mother as he gave succor to his blue borreguito, Azulito, echoed in his mind, across the decades:
“Tiene hambre. Yo lo daré comida.” He is hungry. I will feed him.
Proud, brown Pete found love in that lamb. So did Azulito, with Pedro Moreno, at least temporarily—until he fulfilled his destiny. Both destinies, both urges, both beings were important--they happened, they mattered. Brown boy, the color of earth. Blue lamb, the color of sky. They became a part of the colors of this special spot in south Texas, a unique fusion, enjertados, mingled within this part of the human landscape.