March 27th, 2011 § Leave a Comment
On February 26, 1935, Ernesto Rodriguez was exposed to his first dose of violence. A killer storm spawning tornados in its path roared through the tiny south Texas hamlet of Quemado where he had been born. The violence that slugged his family that day was perhaps a harbinger of the man-made violence that was to mark his life for the next forty-four years, more than half of which he was to spend in prison.
At dawning, the day had shown no hint of its later dangers and Florencio Rodriguez, known as “Lencho,” departed with his oldest son Juan to work in the kaffir corn fields and to clear mesquite stumps on neighboring land. Jesusa, Lencho’s wife, would have her hands full that day cooking and caring for her five younger children. By midafternoon huge clouds began to pile up on the western horizon and by dusk, when the storm hit, it was almost as dark as night. When she sensed danger Jesusa dragged out a straw mattress and wrestled it onto the top of their old wooden table, thinking her children would be safe under it. Soon, large hailstones bombarded the corrugated metal roof of their small adobe house, creating a fearful din that almost drowned out the sound of the shrieking winds and torrential rain.
For the beleaguered family the end seemed near when the entire metal roof was ripped from their house, exposing them to the winds, rain, and hail which almost instantly extinguished their feeble lanterns. They were in total darkness, the children were crying, and somehow in their near panic and fear the infant Ernesto had been misplaced and couldn’t be found. Jesusa, locating him by the sound of his cries, picked up the bundle he was wrapped in and handed him to Sulema, her oldest daughter.
“Go quickly,” she ordered in Spanish. “Take your brother to the shelter.”
Then turning to the others, she told them to follow Sulema to an underground silo which Lencho had dug and roofed in for just such an emergency. Its roof supported with strong beams and mounded with dirt, the silo would protect them, but why, Jesusa wondered, hadn’t she moved them all there sooner. “Madre de Dios!” How could anyone have expected so much violence to come so fast? She had been caught by surprise.
As Sulema, carrying her baby brother, prepared to depart she braced herself for the elements, expecting the worst. But nothing could have prepared her for the sight that greeted her when she opened the door. There at her feet were the remains of a neighbor woman who had come to the Rodriguez home for shelter, a shelter no longer needed when the roof flying from the Rodriguez house had cut her in half. Too shocked to respond, Ernesto’s sister rushed out into the darkness in search of safety.
Sulema ran into new troubles, her trials not yet over. The outhouse, the privy, between their living quarters and the underground silo had been blown away and the flooding water, whipped to a froth by the hail, concealed the hole over which the outhouse had rested. It was into that cesspool that the girl and her baby brother plunged and once again Ernesto was temporarily lost, to be recovered this time by his brother and sisters who were following Sulema. Jesusa soon joined her five children in the shelter and the drenched, shivering family huddled together and waited out the storm as best they could until Lencho and Juan were able to join and care for them. Ernesto’s first days were dirty and dangerous ones, prelude to much of what was to follow.
Florencio or Lencho Rodriguez, Ernesto’s father, was born in Eagle Pass Texas, in 1903 to Isabella and Porfirio Rodriguez who, from Ernesto’s description of him, was probably Indian or part Indian. The grandson remembers Porfirio as a very old man who braided his white hair and lived in small shack behind Lencho’s home in Eagle Pass, the self-styled “Spinach Capital of the World” on the north bank of the Rio Grande River. Lencho, still alive at this writing, grew to become a wiry, very tough Mexican who, when macho was passed out, was standing at the front of the line. Mixing courage and guile, he drew deeply upon his Spanish and Indian ancestry. Uneducated, Lencho’s writing skills didn’t go beyond simple Spanish and for all of his married life he had to hustle for every buck that passed through his hands. He learned how to raise chickens, pigs, and cattle, grow and harvest crops, grub out tree stumps, find water, dig wells, rehabilitate sick horses, weld, cook, mix drinks, peddle blocks of ice, and whatever else it takes to support a wife and seven children if one is an uneducated Hispanic. He was a renaissance peon with a short temper who later became greatly concerned about his four daughters’ virginity.
In his youth, when he was only twelve years old, Lencho had hustled a few bucks by guarding a cemetery with a .22 caliber rifle during an era when the Texas medical schools were paying an exorbitant price for slightly used cadavers. As he told his son later, he never believed in ghosts because most of the strange noises he investigated as a guardian of the dead were those caused rabbits, cats, and armadillos. When he wasn’t working at the cemetery, Lencho worked part time at the border crossing in Eagle Pass Texas, for the immigration service by assisting U.S. officials with the fumigation and cleansing of Mexicans who had been granted a visa to enter the United States. In those days our government theorized that Mexicans who didn’t wet their backs crossing the Rio Grande River posed an unnecessary health risk to U.S. citizens.
In 1922 when Lencho married Jesusa Rodriguez—not a relative—he met his temperamental match. She may have been a very desirable young woman, a beautiful dancer, and many other things, but she was tough as hell. Jesusa was the daughter of Juliano Rodriguez, a captain in Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army, a man who lived the bullet and died by the bullet.
On the day of his death in 1910 Captain Rodriguez returned with a company of men to El Remolino, a small town forty miles south of the border. being a careful man, the captain posted sentries to warn them if the Federales, the government troops, approached the town. Whether a sentry went to sleep or not is not known but, without warning, the Federales stormed El Remolino. Juliano was resting peacefully in bed with his wife when he heard the shots and yells of his attackers. Caught with his pants down, he struggled into his clothes, slung his bandoliers over one shoulder, and dashed out to the big horse he had tethered in the backyard. Galloping around the corner of his house out onto the street, Juliano was shot out of his saddle. Antonia, his wife, and eight children were witness to his death, and when his body was recovered they buried him at the foot of a giant Saguaro cactus that stood silent guard in their backyard. Weary of the violence and killing, Antonia Mesa Rodriguez packed their belongings and found refuge in Eagle Pass for herself and her children of whom Jesusa at age five was the fourth oldest.
Within both Rodriguez families, Lencho’s and Jesusa’s, hot tempers were the rule rather than the exception and when Lencho married his young bride a clash between Jesusa and her new sister-in-law, Simona, wasn’t long in coming. Every bit as feisty as her brother Lencho, Simona Rodriguez was a holy terror who enjoyed nothing so much as a good fight with Jesusa, or, for that matter with anyone else, as her two husbands were later to learn the hard way. What started out as bickering, unsolicited advice, and exchanged insults soon slipped into a more physical form of self expression. During the course of one of the many disagreements between the two sisters-in-law Simona unloaded a haymaker that caught Jesusa flush on her pregnant belly.
Lencho and Jesusa were living in a small place he had built in his parents’ backyard, only a few short steps from Simona’s bedroom. Furious when he learned of the nasty fight between his wife and his sister, Lencho got even with Simona by burning down his own house. He wasn’t going to put up with Simona anymore and if they moved to another place, which he planned, he wanted to be sure Simona didn’t move into the house he had built. Jesusa, unfortunately, became so mad at her husband and his sister that she decided to visit her own relatives in El Paso until the dust settled.
Jesusa, who has never learned to speak English, and often spoke in parables, describes those early days when she lived too close to Simona as, “Un arrimado es como un muerto; a los tres dias apesta.” (A live-in person is like a dead body; on the third day it begins to stink.) Living too close to Simona not only bred contempt, it was down right hazardous to one’s health.
To understand Ernesto Rodriguez it might help to know more about his Aunt Simona, and the environment in which he was reared. Special emphasis need to be given to some of the examples set by his mother and his father. As the twig is bent, and so forth.
Aunt Simona and her brother Lencho shared a few family characteristics which were quite likely passed on to Ernesto. When challenged, all three of them were very likely to fight back and press their attack with fearless vigor. Traveling through life as they did, alert for the slightest affront, they never lacked provocation. Simona first.
A few years after her falling out with Jesusa, Simona married young Jose Herrera, whose nickname in the family soon became “Papa J.” A man brimming with macho, Jose had a sharp eye for a neatly turned ankle and a provocative derriere, a trait which in his case was more suitable for a bachelor than the father of the four children who soon blessed their marriage. A year or so after the fourth child was born Simona, exhausted from her maternal chores, decided to take a break and go north to visit relatives who had migrated several years earlier to Gary, Indiana. Jose was sympathetic with her need for a change and even looked forward to the peace and privacy that would reign if Simona and their four children went up north for two weeks. He’d make do.
Simona, a restless, energetic woman, was like a cat; she always wanted to be some place she wasn’t. After three or four days up north she tired of visiting, and returned a week earlier than planned. Unfortunately, instead of surprising Jose she surprised herself because when she entered the house what should she find but José reeking of tequila, snoring up a storm, and naked as a jay bird in bed with a woman similarly occupied and clad.
To a Rodriguez, catching one’s spouse inelegant required no deliberation because Simona had the perfect cure in the kitchen where she kept her knives and cooking materials. Moving swiftly in the other room, she picked out a suitably sharp knife and grabbed a handful of ground jalapeno peppers. Back in the bedroom, she pulled off the sheet and cut off her husband’s huevos, his testicles. She then forced the jalapeno grindings into that part of the other woman’s body her husband had recently occupied. As the howling response of her victims certainly suggested, her revenge was complete by even the most rigorous Rodriguez standards.
The social activities of Simona’s second husband were also drastically reduced when she caught him, too, in a moment of indiscretion. But this time eschewing the huevos, she went for the principal part, his verga, and succeeded in reducing it by half, despite a quick backward movement by her husband when she took the matter into her own hands. Simona, from the looks of things, was a tigress who never even thought of hiring a lawyer.
Many years later, in 1980, when Ernesto left prison for the last time, he and his cousin Charlie, Simona’s oldest son, went to visit his auntie in South Chicago where she lived until her death. When Ernesto knocked on her apartment door, Simona shouted, “who is it and what in the hell do you want?” and when she opened the door, Simona was pointing a .38 police special revolver at him. She was an old, frail woman and was deeply touched by his visit. Mellowed by the passage of years, she was devoted to her family and knew a real Rodriguez when she saw one. When she died, they found her gun under her pillow.
Tears running down her cheeks, she hugged Ernesto to her and sobbed, “Neto, you have always been my favorite nephew.”
Back now to Lencho. When he made his move away from Eagle Pass he decided to avail himself of a U.S. government decision to open up the land in the Quemado valley located a dozen or so miles up the Rio Grande. He struck a deal with P.D. Anderson, the man in charge of the project, in which he, Lencho, would be paid three dollars for each acre he cleared of mesquite, stumps and rocks. If he could clear enough land he would be able to buy ten acres of land at very favorable prices. And getting labor to help him was no problem because for fifty cents a day and food he could hire all the “wet backs” he needed and still make a profit.
When Lencho persuaded Jesusa to leave El Paso and join him in Quemado she found herself living in a tent until her husband had the money to put up something more permanent. But if their living conditions were crude, their diet was a robust one, thanks to the necessity of feeding the men who worked for Lencho. They feasted on government beef which had been slaughtered to feed the impoverished settlers and there was an abundance of wild turkey, lamb, rabbit, and the ever dangerous wild pigs known to the natives as Jabalinos.
Rattlesnakes skins, if they were long enough to make belts, were cleaned and sold to raise extra money. For windbreak and shade purposes Lencho planted palm and mulberry trees, but only the mulberry survived the vicious storm that followed Ernesto’s birth. In Quemado, best of all, Simona and Jesusa were separated by miles, not feet.
The country was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, money Lencho had spent for seed had been lost in the terrible damage wrought by the 1935 storm, and the Rodriguez family was hurting for money in 1936. It was a vicious circle; without money he couldn’t buy seed and without crops he couldn’t make money. And adding to their burden was the discovery that their seventh child was due in early August.
From talking to Uncle Lupe and Sara Rodriguez, other relatives and friends, Lencho decided his best bet was to join the throng of migrant Mexican farm workers who would be harvesting the 1936 crops up north in Michigan. Through them he had the necessary contacts to find a job. The day after Angelita was born on August 7th the Rodriguez family of nine piled into their second hand 1932 Whippet four door powered by a straight eight engine and headed north. Little Angelita, or Pinque as she became known in the family, was carried by her own fast food outlet and thus few stops except for gasoline were necessary. Food for the others was packed before they left because they knew that white-owned American restaurants were not serving Mexicans or any other minorities and traveling migrant workers were not treated kindly.
The Rodriguez family arrived in Croswell, Michigan, about twenty miles north of Port Huron and immediately found work at a farm owned by John Link, who grew sugar beets and cucumbers on his land. Soon there would be money and credits were offered against the harvest.
In Michigan there were laws governing child labor and school attendance for the children of migrant workers but they were, for the most part, overlooked or scrupulously ignored by the employers in those days. If a kid was strong enough to pull a beet from the Michigan earth or pull a cucumber from its vine, he or she was old enough to work. After Labor Day when the schools opened, all children twelve years or older were, by law, supposed to be in school, not in the fields. Enforcement of this statute was lax, if not non-existent, because it was a rare thing for a state inspector to leave his car, walk out into the field, and check the workers’ birthdates. And, of course, there was little incentive for the migrant family to comply with the law because the family—as a unit—was paid for how many acres it harvested. Every pair of hands helped. As Ernesto has been told by his older brothers and sister, Juan, Jose, and Sulema, the Rodriguez family was paid by sharing the profits of the acreage they harvested, an amount which varied between two dollars and fifty cents and four dollars an acre. It wasn’t very much for a family of nine, but it was a great deal more money than they would have been able to make in Texas.
On one day that Sulema recalls particularly well she had been complaining to Lencho, her father, that she was too young to pick beets and that as a twelve year old she should be in school, Lencho, worried because the family, as a unit, was running behind his harvesting expectations, blew his top in anger at his daughter for suggesting that she shouldn’t be doing her fair share. Swinging at her with his hoe, he caught her on the left hand, breaking the bones of her little finger. He must have severed a tendon, too, because to this day Sulema is unable to straighten out her finger.
But the crisis wasn’t over because while Jesusa was trying to staunch the flow of blood by wrapping Sulema’s finger with a rag, Lencho spotted what he believed to be an inspector’s car park at the edge of the field and its driver get out and head toward them.
“Quick,” he ordered his daughter. “Get back to the house. I don’t want you to talk to him.”
Sulema’s bones were never set, and when the man left the field she returned to work. Lencho never did put much store in his children getting an education. After all, look what he’d been able to do without one.
After the 1936 crops were in, the Rodriguez family returned to Quemado, and Lencho resumed grubbing around for every dollar he could find. He raised a few animals for sale, tried to nurse sick horses back to health, and did whatever else came along. It was a tough place for a family man to scratch out a living and he looked forward to returning to Michigan the next summer. Back-breaking as the work was up north, at least it was regular.
Whenever Lencho came across a rattlesnake he was reminded of when he had been a young boy and he and his brother Jose had been hunting snakes. Jose had brought a snake over to show Lencho and succeeded in draping the huge reptile around Lencho’s neck. Forgetting that Jose always pulled out the rattler’s fangs before he handled it, Lencho thought he’d be killed. It was a lousy practical joke and Jose’s laughter didn’t last long because the two brothers got into a violent fight that neither would forget. It was a long time before they spoke to one another again.
In the summer of 1937 the Rodriguez’ returned to Michigan, this time going to Deckerville, a town about twenty miles north of Croswell where they had been the first year. Several of the children became sick that summer and they decided not to return the following season. They had, they thought then, worked enough beets and cucumbers to last a lifetime.
The solution to the Quemado problem and the money problem was to move to Sugar Land, Texas, not far from Houston. Jose Rodriguez, Lencho’s rattlesnake brother, had a brother-in-law named Theodor Alvarez who lived in Sugar Land where, according to Alvarez, there were jobs to be had. To help the Rodriguez’, the Alvarez family would put them up until the newcomers could find quarters of their own.
For once, things worked out as hoped. Lencho traded his ten acres and abode house in Quemado for a new car and a cow, and then traded the cow for money to buy enough gasoline to get them to Sugar Land. After one or two moves the family found suitable housing and both Lencho and his son Juan found work with the Marshall Canning Company, where Lencho ended up in the shipping department and Juan worked as a laborer until he left to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, the C.C.C. Working for the canning company was a good set-up for Lencho because there he was able to pick up rejected cans of peas and feed their contents to the few pigs he raised. In the nick of time things began to look up for the family because the children were getting bigger and more expensive to feed.
It was in June of 1942 that Ernesto engaged in the first fight he can remember and what better occasion could there be than his oldest sister Sulema’s wedding to make the occasion memorable? The Rodriguez-Aranda nuptials were cause for celebration, laughter, and best clothes. Ernesto, who had once been accidentally dropped in the outhouse hole by Sulema, was designated ring bearer by the bride, an honor which, of course, required that he, too, be dressed to the nines.
Wearing a white suit with long pants, and a white shirt decorated by a black leather snap-on bow tie, he was more dressed up than he had ever been in his life and much fussed over by the women.
“Don’t let him get dirty,” Jesusa cautioned all the other members of the family.
Outside the large wooden dance hall where the wedding ceremony and the festivities were to take place there were several small concession booths, one of which was operated by Lencho, the bride’s father. In his booth Lencho, hustling a buck as usual, served hot dogs, hamburgers, soft drinks, and raspa, a shaved ice doused with colored sugar water.
Between his booth and the others a variety of food ranging from American style to traditional Mexican delicacies were available to all who could pay. If there were enough guests or Sulema’s wedding on that hot, humid June day, Lencho could recover a few of the wedding costs.
Only a civil engineer or a sociologist would have scheduled a tour through the Mexican section of Sugar Land. There were few paved roads, and muddy, stagnant water filled the innumerable pot holes pocking the streets and the bare earth surrounding the dance hall. On the white side of town it might have been a bit easier for the seven year old Ernesto to keep his spotless white suit clean until the priest and the wedding party arrived. But fate ruled it otherwise.
Little Ernesto, leaving his father’s booth near the front of the dance hall, decided to go to the other building to check out the activities there. He was tired of hearing all the grown-ups warn him not to do this or that. But to get to the dance hall from the booth it was necessary to cross a string of 2 x 12 inch planks that had been spread across an almost pond-sized puddle separating the two buildings, an easy feat for a seven year old who could walk on a railroad rail.
As he was walking across lthe narrow planks covering the huge mud hole he had the terrible misfortune of meeting another boy his age who, while not wearing the finery Ernesto was, had also been warned to keep clean.
“You’ll have to go back,” the other boy ordered.
“No, you’ll have to,” Ernesto countered.
When the two boys came face to face, without enough room to pass one another, Ernesto said, “What are you going to do?”
“Get off the plank, or I’ll throw you off.”
“No. I’m not going to,” little Ernesto announced, not willing to truckle.
And the battle was joined when the ring bearer in the wedding forgot his vows to stay clean, and unloaded a swing at the bully boy facing him on the plank. Seconds later—on a matter of principle—the two boys were splashing and rolling around in the viscous muck beneath the plank. It was the first but not the last of a long line of sucker punches—the first punch—Ernesto Rodriguez was to unload on his adversaries throughout the course of what, by most standards, has been a very violent life.