Daniel Cano labloga.blogspot.com
|Los Unidos, circa 1940, Connie Saenz, bottom row, third from right|
We talk to family and friends and begin reminiscing about the old days,
grandpa, grandpa, uncle Narciso or Aunt Stella. The stories pour out, and
often, before we know it, we are in the past, reliving our history. What we
often don’t do is think about the stories, what they mean, or tell us about the
person under the microscope, like why Demetrio Reynoso drank so much, made everyone
laugh, and made a fool of himself, or why crazy Aunt Yvette saved every
penny, lived like a pauper wearing old, worn-out shoes, and lived in the same old wood
house her entire life.
Unless we ask, we may not know, Demetrio saw terrible fighting in the
Pacific during WWII and lost a lot of buddies, one dying in his arms, or Aunt
Yvette hated the idea of renting, her parents back in Mexico instructing her to
only rent until she could afford to buy a house of her own, and even if was a
shack, it was her shack, bought and paid for.
Demetrio and Aunt Yvette aren’t in the history book. Nobody will write songs
about them. You won’t find their names in libraries. Like native American
cultures, ours is an oral culture. Our histories live because we tell the stories, passing them down from generation to generation, or as native American writer N. Scott Momaday warns, “…one generation away from extinction.”
Today, many people don’t read, not even the Bible, though many seem to talk about how much
they love Jesus, yet have never read his entire story. The Old Testament? Forget about it. People barely watch the news on television, except for the cable station that fits their politics, a real limited access to knowledge. Today, we are glued to the mobile phone or computer screen and are satisfied with snippets of information, anything to keep from reading.
Yet, the power of the oral tradition, talking and listening to each other’s stories, survives. It’s what set me on the road to visiting my parents’ oldest and dearest
friends. As a kid, I grew up with them, heard them laugh and tell their stories, some, heartbreaking, others hilarious, and many insightful. As a child, I admired these men and women, the WWII generation, the men with long, flowing hair, combed back in ducktails, the women, graceful as Hollywood royalty, the first Chicanos and Chicanas.
I’m glad to have known them, if only to give me some breadth into their past, my past, our past. They helped me understand their and their parents’ roles in building my community.
back, I told George Saenz’s story to La Bloga readers. Now, here is a taste of Connie’s story, his wife.
Sadly, both have now passed. I tell their stories in the
present tense, for that’s how they live in my mind. I encourage La Bloga readers to talk to their older relatives and friends, before losing a valuable look into the past.
Connie Saenz could pass for a Nebraskan or Kansan, light skin and hazel
eyes, and not a hint of an accent, in ether English and Spanish, so I was surprised
when she told me her family hailed from Oaxaca.
Today, Mixtecas and Zopotecas from Oaxaca do much of America’s heavy-lifting, mainly in agriculture, hospitality, and childcare, truly, work most Americans prefer not to do. In the 1920s, when
Connie’s family arrived in the U.S., most Americans hadn’t heard of Oaxaca.
U.S. employers, back then, recruited Mexican labor from central and northern
Mexico, and they answered the call, in large numbers, mostly mestizos seeking relief from the ravages of the Mexican Revolution, the first major revolution of the 20th century, preceding both the Chinese and Russian revolutions.
In Latin America, as in the U.S., skin color is no small issue, and its
residue doesn’t easily rub off. We prefer not to acknowledge it, but we are products of our
past, and the color or shade of one’s skin matters, even today.
In her book on the South American, Simon Bolivar, Marie Arana describes
why. In Latin America, to control the populace, the Spanish created a system of
domination based on birthright and skin color, the light skin Spaniard at the
top, their American born children, creoles, next, then the pardos, mixed-breed,
part white, part Indian, followed by the mulatto, a mix of white and black, the
sambo, a combination of Indian and black, and the black slave at the bottom.
Arana writes, “As in most slave societies, labels were fashioned for
every skin color…. For each birth, a church registry would meticulously record
the race, for there were concrete ramifications for the color of a child’s
skin. If he were Indian, he would be subject to the Spanish tribute, a tax
imposed by the crown. If he were unable to pay, he was forced to meet his debt
through hard labor. Indians were also subject to mita, a period of compulsory
toil in the mines or fields. Many didn’t survive it.”
It was a system that lasted centuries, well into the 1900s, and the presidency of Mexican
dictator Porfirio Diaz , who shipped Sonora’s Yaquis off to the sweltering jungles
to work plantations in southern Mexico. Many never returned. It’s no joke when
a relative would call the darker skin child in a family, “Mi prietito, or la
negritia.” Though it was said with affection, the word categorized the child, different from the favored, the consentido, “Mi, guero” or “guerita.”.
I recall my mother telling me how she and the darker skin Mexican children
saw the Anglo teachers favoring the lighter skin Mexicans, and she said it matter-of-factly,
as if that’s the way it was.
In the early 1900s, Connie’s grandfather left Oaxaca for Mexico City
seeking a better education for his seven children, five sons (of which Connie’s
father was one) and two daughters. In the Mexican metropolis, Connie said her
relatives all earned degrees, at a time when formal education for the working
class in Mexico was rare.
I found this point intriguing since most people I spoke to said their ancestors
migrated north looking for work. Connie was one of the few who said her
family migrated to seek a better education for their children, especially during
those early years.
Her parents met in Mexico City, married, and soon after, migrated to the
U.S. Connie didn’t know why they left Mexico City or anything about her
father’s life in Oaxaca. Since she doesn’t show a hint of Zapotec of Mixtec
blood, there must be a story of how the family settled in Oaxaca, home to many
more Indians than whites in the eighteen-and-nineteen-hundreds.
Unlike other first-generation Mexican immigrants who worked the most
undesirable jobs in the U.S., Connie’s parents found work and took up residence
in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Irving Miller, a wealthy Bel-Air couple. She
recalled Mr. Miller was a nice but “very quiet man.”
Connie’s mother cooked and took care of the house. Her father
chauffeured the Millers and maintained the estate. She doesn’t remember anything
about the Millers children. Maybe, they were all grown and gone. Either way, Connie
became the child of the house.
She said, “Mrs. Miller’s maiden name was Dukie. y Hablaba espanol muy bien. She comes from
a family of attorneys in
Connie remembered how each Sunday Mrs. Miller would take her to the newly built St.
Paul’s Catholic Church in Westwood. It would serve the local community
and the new University of California campus.
Connie remembered snuggling at Mrs. Miller’s side during the mass.
“I used to pick at the loose skin on her arm. I guess she must have been
pretty old,” Connie laughed.
“And to this day I remember how good I had it. Whatever I wanted to
eat, I could. I wore nice clothes, and was spoiled by the little things, like I
didn’t have to fight brothers and sisters over food. I got all the cream off
the top of the Ador milk bottles to myself. I got ice-cream and fresh
This was during the Depression, when many families barely had enough food
to eat and children in poorer neighborhood succumbed to tuberculosis, dysentery
and other deadly diseases. As she looked back on her childhood, Connie
understood her luck, and realized had it not been for her uncle and aunt who
had already arrived in Los Angeles and been working as domestics “for one
of the head doctors” at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Los Angeles, her parents
may not have found their job.
When Connie’s mom and dad arrived from Mexico, her uncle told the doctor
about them. The doctor recommended them to the Millers, who liked the family
and hired them.
No one can know for sure, but maybe Connie’s family, in Mexico, had more wealth or education than even she knew. For a Mexican couple to work as
domestics in Bel-Air, they must have a certain amount of sophistication and experience.
From appearance to language and manners, domestic work isn’t something one
learns on-the-job, not at that level of society. Since Mrs. Miller spoke Spanish, that made all the difference.
Connie knew one thing for sure, “I got spoiled,” she admitted. “I
tell you. I lived ‘high on the hog’ in those days. And then I met Beatrice, ‘his’
sister,” she said, shifting her eyes towards her husband, snickering, then
laughing, as if indicating, from there, everything went downhill.
Her husband George rocked in his Lazy-Boy and smiled. “What are you
gonna do?” he said.
The Millers enrolled Connie in St. Paul’s Catholic School, an elite,
private school. “Bea was also attending St. Paul’s.”
I interrupted, “If Bea was from Sawtelle, how could her parents
afford to send her to St. Paul’s? It must have been expensive.”
All the kids, Mexicans, Anglos, and Japanese, who lived in Sawtelle
attended the town’s two public schools, Sawtelle Avenue School (today, Nora
Sterry) and Brockton Avenue School).
“Sure. It was expensive. I went to a reunion there, would you
believe it, four years ago…no, two years ago? And of our class…I saw two girls
I knew. One of the boys in our class ended up being a…some kind of judge, Matt
Burns. You remember, George,” she asked?
“Did they have beer?” He responded.
“Yes, wine and beer.”
“I remember,” he said.
“And I saw the nuns that are still alive, in a retirement home in
Palos Verdes, Daughters of Mary and Joseph. One of them was–recently–at
away a few months ago. I think I saw it in a bulletin.”
Connie didn’t know how Bea’s family could afford St. Paul, but as the
only Mexican girls at the school, they became good friends. Connie’s parents
were strict. She wasn’t allowed to go anyplace alone, not until she entered her
early teens, and they let her to visit Bea’s house. They didn’t know about
George, who Connie remembered, “acted like a brat, a real handful, even as
a kid,” she said.
The public school, Emerson, was right next door to St. Paul’s, and Bea
introduced Connie to the kids from Sawtelle, the same kids her mom and dad probably
hoped she’d avoid.
She graduated St. Paul in the eighth
grade and enrolled in 9th grade at Emerson, where she got to know
all the kids from Sawtelle, and met lifelong friends. After graduation from
junior high, she attended University High School and joined the Mexican student
club, Los Unidos, one of the early clubs for Mexican kids on
the entire Westside, if not the first.
Eventually, Connie’s parents moved from Bel-Air to a home they purchased
in Sawtelle, near the corner of Colby Avenue and La Grange, where much of the
farmland was being subdivided to provide more housing. It was a more desirable
neighborhood than the area known as La Gara, where George’s family lived,
among Mexicans, and migrants from Oklahoma escaping the Dust Bow.
They lived in shacks near the railroad tracks along Sepulveda boulevard, where
the railroad companies often hired men and women for temporary work, mainly unloading and sorting the produce.
She didn’t know much about her dad’s job after they moved from the
Millers’ Bel-Air home, only that each morning a man drove up to her house in a
large car the people called La Baena
(the Whale). Her father would “get in and off they would go.” Maybe her father
still worked for the Millers and was given a ride each day, or, as she guessed,
“Probably, he was doing gardening. It was still during the Depression.”
George said, “I used to get a cloth sack and walk to Santa Monica
Boulevard and Colby Avenue, in the alley behind the Tivoli Theater. The W.P.A.
set up a center there, and they gave food to the families. Dried
During the Depression, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal,
the federally funded Work Progress Administration hired workers, distributed
bags of food, and began to set labor laws.
I was curious. “Did your family need it, the food?”
George answered, a puzzled look on his face, “I don’t know.”
Connie chuckled, “Well, there were enough of you. How many?”
George counted, “Let’s see. There was five…two boys and three
girls. Doris and Tina were born in Mexico, Cajorca. Once we were here, my
brother, Ray, stayed in the hospital a lot, paralysis, in both legs.
Yeah,” George remembered, “That’s one of the reasons my dad came
here, so Ray could get better treatment.”
“You know,” Connie said, laughing, “…the creencias (beliefs) people
have in Mexico. When Ray was a baby, they told Adela (George’s mom) to put him
inside the belly of a cow that had recently died, something about the cow, and
its warmth, would cure him. Well, that didn’t work.”
George said, “When he got older, if Ray wanted to go someplace, he
made his way around on crutches and went wherever he wanted. He was trained as
a cobbler, like my dad.”
Connie said, “That’s right. Ray had his own shoe shop right there
on Sawtelle and Pico. Ray could do everything.”
George said Ray even learned how to drive a car. He married and had two
kids. He could repair cars and electrical appliances. He was a plumber and
carpenter. When he painted a house, he would tie a roller to the end of two
poles tied together to reach the right height, plop down in a sitting position,
and scuttle along on his behind until he finished the job. George said,
“Almost as quick as if he could use his legs.”
“Still,” Connie said, “Poor Ray, he was born to
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