I grew up in Monterrey about three hours south of the Texas border raised by my grandmother while my mother, a U.S. born citizen resettled in Corpus Christi. Born in Laredo, her family like many others would come north to work at the turn of last century, a pattern that was altered by the great depression of 1929.
During the following ten years, the US government saw Mexican labor as a burden on the economy and implemented a Repatriation program by which hundreds of thousands of families including their US born children ended up in Mexico. She grew up and got married in Mexico until she decided to return to Texas claiming her U.S. citizenship where coincidentally met and married another repatriado raised in Guadalajara.
Despite inherent limitations in Monterrey, our standard of living would float up every other week when a ten dollar check arrived by certified mail from across the border. U.S. remittances after all are a key factor in the Mexican economy and our working class “colonia” wasn’t the exception. At least for a few days our grandmother turned our barrio life into a first-world quality existence. After paying off everything she had bought on credit, Guela Pepa would spend the rest on food only common on middle class tables or diets. I’m talking about steak, fresh fruit, salads, licuados, cake, ice cream and hot cakes along with the customary northern Mexican dishes. We were poor but we never went hungry.
I do not remember being a specific time of the month when the check would arrive but Guela would make it a special day. Just in case, she was ready with a tall, ice cold glass of lemonade and a big tip for the mailman when she was asked to sign for the certified mail. Thinking back, I bet the entire circle of her close friends would in one way or another find out or even benefit from the periodic stipend. It was customary in such a close knit colonia for women to share food with their neighbors.
My grandmother was the kindest soul ever but just the same, she could display a terrifying temper that was as loud as a thunderstorm. This domestic psychosis I realized in time is common when a single parent plays both parental roles.
My friends would say “when Doña Pepita is angry even the sun hides behind the clouds”. She knew all the boys I hung out with and although she had her favorites, she liked most of them.
I can look back and recall more than twenty names and characters I knew in my early teens. We mostly hung out and spent time together, played soccer, baseball, went swimming, camping and try to entertain ourselves in any other way such as going to house parties, school activities and the like.
I’ve noticed in some of the novels from the first half of the 1900’s that chronicle or romanticize on organized youth culture, point to the systemic use of nicknames or pseudonyms as part of the group membership. Such representation or identification would point to geographical origin (norteño), physical appearance (skinny), mannerism (pachuco), occupation (mechanic) and or an animal reference (cat, horse). I suppose an entire thesis can be written on the cause or reason for the use of pseudonyms but the case is that we never or seldom used them in our group. The closest were nicknames such as Chuy for Jesus, Lino for Marcelino or Polan for Froilan. If we had no use for pseudo-names, I would have to go back to our psychological stability as a social group.
Only that if you’re left-handed, there’s no way out of being called “zurdo” (lefty), especially because you’re automatically associated to an innate sports skill or aptitude. Such was the case with El Zurdo Yañez, of whom I only knew his last name, had indeed a great arm for baseball and his built made him a great defense in soccer.
He was all muscle, big and husky and to a small kid like me he appeared like a gentle giant. He could be funny and witty but I often thought I’d feel sorry for anyone who found himself opposite to him in a fist-fight. I always thought of el zurdo as someone who tried to escape, someone who tacitly looked for a way out as he carried a book in his back pocket. Ironically what eventually put him down was not any physical rivalry but in trying to get away he tried religion and booze and eventually succumbed to a lethal combination of evangelization and alcohol.
Unlike el zurdo, I didn’t have a back pocket book but a long range plan to come north knowing that eventually I would join my mother in Texas. This was reinforced by occasional visits to Corpus. I also remember growing up into a love-hate image of the US and what it represents. It’s like a schizophrenic reaction to the ever presence of the northern propaganda machine from the marketing of commercial products, the I Love Lucy type television programs to the top forty rock and roll filling our minds and senses along with the full awareness of being colonized culturally, economically and politically. I remember immersing in the sounds of rock but at the same time joining preparatory school students protest marches to the US Consulate chanting “Yankis no, Gringas si ..!!!”.
Indeed the US. Mexican War, an armed conflict by which the United States claimed ownership of one third of the Mexican territory left a permanent scar in the two countries’ history. The signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848 that legalized the Rio Grande as the international border might have ended the war but not the conflict.
One could say that The Rio Grande is for Mexicans what Waterloo is for Napoleon. What for some is a border marker for Mexicans is a scar deeply embedded in their ethos. It’s no wonder some refer going north to “ir al otro cachete” which literally translates into “going to the other cheek” turning the infamous river as a major butt crack.