It is a strange feeling seeing your own grave. I came back to see my family, but they won’t know me. They’ll simply see an old man with a slight Spanish accent. It is only a slight accent because although I am fluent in English, I still held onto my beautiful Spanish language. Language is a key in preserving our culture, but we were told that we must assimilate to be successful.
I continue wandering around the memorial park and suddenly I see my family. My heart is overwhelmed with grief and awe. They are having a service remembering my wife who outlived me by twenty-four years. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren will remember her, but only the first five grandchildren met me. I look at their faces and want to embrace them, but I know they won’t see me because they don’t know me. I want to ask them what they remember about me. I want to know what they think about the family. Do they know and keep our traditions? Do they care? Do they hide it whether consciously or unconsciously? Do they embrace any part of our Mexican heritage? My eyes fill with tears because I want to know them, and I want them to know me. Then I see my son’s eldest child and I know I can talk to her. I watched her grow up and I know she will talk with me even if she doesn’t know who I am.
My mind wanders back to a long time ago. A fog falls softly over the graves and my mind drifts to a place in the past. Silao, Mexico means “place of the dense fog”. That is exactly what it seems like when I think back to my childhood. It seems hazy as if there were constant misty memories floating around in my head, but I will tell you what I remember.
I was born on a hot summer day on June 1, 1916. My Mama and Papa were very proud to have a son. A boy in the family meant someone to carry on the family name. It meant they could carry on the legacy of their family. The boy must be loyal, hardworking and do better than their family before them. My father named me Jose Ascensión Arzola and thus, I started my journey in this big world.
My parents loved me very much, but times were tough especially for my Papa. We lived on a farm that grew varieties of maize. My Papa worked out in the hot sun all day long and was so tired by the end of the day. He always managed to pat my head and said, “I love you, My Son!”
My Mama was a wonderful, gentle woman. She had a long brown braid and soft brown eyes. She took care of things around the house, but she was always tired. As I got a bit older, I would help Mama make tortillas with the masa brought to our home. I liked watching her as she mixed the masa with hot water. Sometimes we had yellow tortillas and sometimes we had blue tortillas. The color of the tortillas depended on what kind of corn we got that week.
We always ate lots of tortillas, beans, and rice. Mama always made sure she had a few fresh peppers on the table in the molcajetes. Sometimes, I would smell a special treat cooking. I didn’t know the ingredients at the time, but I knew the distinct smell of roasted fruit, chili pepper, nuts, black pepper, cinnamon, or cumin. That was a special time when Mama would make mole. It was extra special if we had boiled chicken and then ate it with the mole coating the plate. I did not like it if my Mama got it too spicy though. She loved spicy things, but my face would start sweating and I would tell her, “Mama, this is too spicy for me!” Later in my life, my grandchildren would grin at me for ordering a cheeseburger at a Mexican restaurant. I just couldn’t bring myself to have Mexican food that wasn’t my Mama’s or my wife’s cooking. I also never liked eating spicy foods and passed that down to my son, Rudy.
Once a month in the summertime of the 1920s, we visited the market and got fresh watermelon. I wanted to eat watermelon every day, but Mama said, “No, Mijo. We don’t have a lot of money. We cannot buy a lot of watermelons. Only one watermelon each month. That is enough.” Later, I vowed when I got older that I would always have fresh fruit and vegetables. I liked beans and rice, but I loved the fresh things too. When they were paired together it was heavenly for me!
I played with our neighborhood boys. I remember asking my Papa if I could have a kite like Fabian’s. He said, “I’m sorry Mijo. I don’t have money for a kite right now.” I could tell he was saddened by this, but he also seemed angry too. I hoped he wasn’t angry with me, but I didn’t bring it up with him again. Instead, I boasted to the boys and said, “Someday I will fly! Just like my name! You’ll see”. In the meantime, they were kind and let me play with their kite.
That is about all of what I remember of my foggy days in Mexico. I was still young when my family packed their few belongings and decided to move to Texas. I remember my Papa sitting at the table one night and he said, “Mijo. You must be a brave son. We have to leave our home. Your mama isn’t feeling well and I need better work. Things are not good here so we must leave.”
“Where will we stay? Where will we work? What will our new home look like?”
“Mijo, so many questions. No more tonight. Let’s go to bed.”
I didn’t realize at the time, but later learned how much the Cristero War impacted our area. I am glad I didn’t live to see the horrible ways it hurt our homeland. My parents were devout Catholics and there was talk about imposing state atheism. At the time we left, the tension was escalating and my father had the wisdom to move before we were caught in the crossfires. My mother shared this information with me when I was a bit older and I cried when I saw the final construction of the Cristo Rey.
I vaguely remember packing my things in a tablecloth and tying them up. I had very few things. Some clothes, marbles, and a small ball. I was ready for the new adventure. When we crossed the border, I remember my mother holding my hand so tightly that it hurt. I said, “Mama, don’t hurt my hand!” She looked surprised and said, “I’m sorry, Mijo. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but you must stay close to me and very quiet.” When we got to the border, my Papa answered a lot of questions and showed the guards his papers. They looked very stern, but they let us through. I didn’t realize at the time, but this was a turning point in our lives. My Papa had cousins that lived in San Marcos so we made our way there. It all seemed so simple compared to time now.
We stayed with cousins for a while until my Papa found a small house for me and my Mama. It was good he found a small house, because my Mama was very tired and resting a lot. She was so tired because I would soon discover I had a new sister that my parents named Natalia. A few years later, I had another sister and they named her Savera.
I acclimated to the new school. It was hard for me because sometimes I forgot I needed to only speak English in the classroom. My teachers would get angry with me and say, “You must speak English here!” I tried not to mess up and disappoint them because I didn’t want to have them upset my parents. I loved laughing and made friends quickly. Life became normal again. We had more money now so I could eat some vegetables with our beans, rice and gorditas. My Mama and I planted a garden so we could continue having fresh produce. It took a while, but she learned some tricks and I learned from her.
As I got older, I realized I needed to do something to make my family proud. It was now the 1930s and I’d always wanted to do something different. It was my responsibility too especially because I was a boy. They were overjoyed when I graduated high school and joined the US Army. I worked hard and soon I was realizing my dream of flying! I became an Airman and just in time because the Army was needing all the help they could get since World War II had broken out. The country was in the middle of the Great Depression.
There’s a lot that went on when I was in WWII. I don’t want to talk about those years right now. What matters in the end is that I did my best to serve my new country and I made my family proud. I was not proud of everything I did though. After the war, I decided to move back home. One of my friends was killed in combat. His name was Rudy, well Rudolph Barrera. I went to visit his family and met his sister, Olivia. She was ten years my junior, but we fell in love in the 40s. I married her and we had a mostly happy marriage for forty-three years.
When Olivia and I married in the summer of ’48, I worked as a manager at a gas station and Olivia worked cleaning houses. Eventually, we had four beautiful children – Joe (named after me), Sylvia, Rudy (named after Olivia’s brother) and Patricia. The 50s were mostly happy years, but I was saddened by the loss of my Mama. She stayed with us for some time and we tried to take care of her as best we could. She got a cough and started coughing up blood. Even though I was in my mid-40s by this point, the thought of losing my Mama terrified me. I didn’t want to see her suffer. She lived a good life though. She saw me take care of my family. Our last family memory is a photo of us surrounding her at Christmas while she holds Rudy on her lap. I didn’t know that picture would be a fond memory while also haunting me later.
Towards the end of the 60s, my knees started giving me trouble. I guess it was bad arthritis or maybe from poor nutrition during my developmental years. I didn’t let that keep me from doing yard work or maintaining our garden. I also built onto our house so that when our children had children there would be another room for them to stay. Life was sometimes tough, but it was good. We spent our days working, eating, and laughing together. We loved football and our cousins would crowd together with us to watch the game on our TV.
My son, Rudy, graduated in May of 1974. He gave me his college money for my knee surgery. One night, he’d found me crawling on the floor because I didn’t have the strength to get up. He said, “Dad. Come on. Take the money. I will join the military like you and they can pay for my school.” I relented. It was a blessing in disguise. God was somehow still watching over us in the middle of things. I don’t know exactly how, but I felt like God was somehow present in our lives. I still prayed to God every day and attended Mass on Sundays. Olivia was raised Presbyterian, but she always went to the Catholic church with me.
I got a phone call from Rudy saying he had tuberculosis. He’d gone to the medical exam for the Navy and they found a quarter sized whole in his lung. They asked if he knew if he’d been around anyone with TB and he said his grandmother had died from it when he was younger. I couldn’t help but feel guilty about this, but I was thankful they caught it in time. Rudy stayed in the hospital for weeks. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to join the military. He decided to move to the Dallas area where his cousins lived. I hated seeing him go, but knew he had to make his own way in the world.
The next decade would bring me the greatest joy. My children started having children. First, my daughter, Sylvia, had two daughters. Then in the mid-eighties, we received a call from Rudy. He told us his daughter was born! She wasn’t due until Valentine’s Day, but Noelle arrived early – on January 1st. The doctors must have miscalculated the due date because Rudy said she was 5lbs and healthy. Olivia and I showed up at their apartment the day they came home from the hospital.
I held my granddaughter and I was amazed at how tiny she was. People tell me there is a pride that comes from having grandchildren. As the firstborn from my son, I knew she was going to be a special person. I spent nine years getting to know her before I flew to my heavenly home.
One of my favorite memories was putting a penny on top of the wet cement blocks I laid for the back porch. I said, “Ah! Look Mija! There’s a penny for you!” She would reach down and try to pull the penny out of the cement block and look so confused. I gave her some real change for her to keep. She smiled and laughed when I stood on my head for her. We played copy-cat games and I taught her how to open the Post Toasties box with a spoon so she wouldn’t get a paper cut.
I loved working on carpentry projects. It made me happy to figure out how to build things and see things coming to life. I finished the cuartito (it means “little room” in Spanish) and I stocked it full of canned goods and supplies like candles, flashlights, jars of coins, etc…You’ll never know when we might have another Great Depression and I wanted to take care of my family. My family laughed so hard when they opened the dryer and found it stored with bags of chips. They said, “Grandpa! Why are there chips in the DRYER?” I said, “Olivia hangs clothes outside to dry. This is a good storage place.” They rolled their eyes and laughed at me. I didn’t get to see the time though if they needed it. My heart gave out in the mid-90s.
Now, it is 2015. I see Noelle and head over to her. I wonder if she will recognize me at all. Probably not. I hear her tell Olivia’s Presbyterian pastor that she loved her grandma very much and she still missed her grandpa. Pastor Esperanza asked, “How will you keep their memory alive?”
Noelle’s eyes filled with tears and she smiled.
“I write, Ma'am. I keep all this in my heart and in my journals. I plan on telling our boy about it,” she says.
“I don’t want to forget about what my grandparents did and how they were. They helped shape our heritage. The world is filled with so much strife right now. In the end all that matters is how much we care for and love one another. It makes me sad that I can’t find anything like letters or journals from the past. I only have a few family photos and memories. I’m breaking the family tradition of not preserving things. I’m going to continue with the legacy.”
My heart is happy to hear these words. I suddenly feel someone holding my hand. Olivia said, “Let’s ascend Joe.” We leave together. Our hearts hurt when our family forgets where we came from. It wasn’t all that out of the ordinary, but it is our heritage and I want them to know that we wanted to leave them with a culture and a legacy. I hope we succeeded. Yes, we must all learn to fly on our own, but we must always remember where we started our journey.