March 27th, 2011 Comments Off on Chapter Three
Life for Lencho and Jesusa Rodriguez in 1945, the last year of the war, went as others had in Galveston, they lurched from crisis to crisis. Sulema, the oldest daughter who had been married in Sugar Land, had joined the rest of her family in Galveston, while she waited for her husband Rudy Aranda to receive his army discharge. From the sound of it, life in the Rodriguez family was more dangerous than being in the service. Pauline Gonzalez and Maria Vargas, Paco’s and Jose’s wives respectively, joined the other Rodriguez’ at 309½ 23rd and Tremont Street, where the families jammed themselves in to make room for paying boarders. The new neighborhood was better than the one on Post Office Street, but not much.
Lencho and Jesusa were now operating their third business in Galveston, one named Romani’s Café, Las Palomas and, as had been the case with previous cafes, the children ate all their meals there rather than at home. Both parents assisted with the cooking and Romani’s, like the others, was connected to a bar which another family operated. The parents worked long hours and the children fended for themselves.
Furnishings in the various Rodriguez home were minimal, never moved from one city to another, and they were purchased by Lencho in second-hand stores. If room dimensions didn’t fit the family’s need for privacy, such as they were, curtains were made from beer bottle caps strung on twine which hung from ceiling to floor. Beads cost more than beer bottle caps.
Lencho rented extra apartments at 309½ for forty dollars a month to sub-lease to single men, several of whom were clustered in small cubicles where they slept on narrow steel cots provided by Lencho. For bathroom and cot privileges they paid the Rodriguez’ five dollars a week, which included credit on meals at the café. To keep track of the food he dispensed to his tenants Lencho issued them cards which were punched when he or Jesusa served them.
As they were in most Mexican-American homes, a crucifix and other sacred objects d’art were prominently displayed in the Rodriguez home.
“My Mother was a fanatic about fixing up a corner in a house wherever we lived. We had a crucifix, a framed picture of San Martin Caballero, and a statue of the Virgin Mary.”
“We had the Virgen de San Juan. She’s always been very popular in our family. She has a big wide dress with roses on it, and real long hair. There’s a big half moon. Real pretty, y’know. But my mother’s favorite thing in her corner was San Martin Caballero. The picture showed him on horseback, cutting his cape so he could give half of it to a naked beggar. Mother always kept candles with her things, big ones, little ones, sometimes burning them twenty-four hours a day. She still has a little place like that in her bedroom.”
Neither Lencho nor Jesusa were religious in the sense that they attended church regularly, but whenever they moved into a new house Lencho would always stop what he was doing if Jesusa asked him to fix a little place for her sacred objects. Or when They were driving and Jesusa saw a church or a shrine she wanted to visit he always drop her off long enough for her to pray, but he never joined her. His job, he thought, was to hustle a living, and her job was to pray.
After Lencho’s lucky recovery from his knife fight, things went smoothly for a while and he managed to stay out of major arguments. But outspoken, contentious, and abrasive as he was, trouble followed him. He was a Mexican lightning rod.
One day, getting up before dawn, Lencho pulled on his clothes and headed for the café, where it was his job to get the day’s food cooking in time for the first customers. Jesusa would be along later, after she got the younger children off to school. Women’s work. When Lencho left the house he took along a hand gun his son Ernesto had found in an alley the day before and had brought home to show to his father. Completely useless, the old hexagonal barreled revolver’s hammer was broken. It couldn’t fire a shot. Perhaps to get it out of the house, Lencho stuffed it in his back pocket and stumbled sleepily the three blocks to the café.
To let himself into the restaurant he had to first enter the building hallway onto which the door faced. In the corner of the hall, hidden in the shadows, an armed man was waiting for Lencho and watched him fumble for his keys.
“I don’t know who the guy was,” Ernesto chuckled, remembering the episode. “Never did find out and the only way I learned about it was from listening to my old man tell about it in a bar, telling another man.”
“When my father was putting the key in the lock the other man put a gun in his back and said, ‘I’ve gotcha now, you son-of-a-bitch! I’ve been waitin’ for a chance to get even with you for a long time,’ Words to that effect. Dad turned around and started arguing’ with the guy and the bastard says, ‘I’m gonna blow your god dam brains out, gonna kill ya!’”
“So my old man said, ‘Look, if you’re gonna kill me, you might as well take my money too. You want my money?’”
“‘God dam right I want your money,’ the guy says. ‘I want your money before I kill ya.’”
“My old man says, ‘Here take every god dam nickel I’ve got, you son-of-a-bitch, and have fun after you kill me.’ The other guy thought he was reaching for his wallet and my dad pulled out his bullshit pistol that didn’t work and he says, ‘All right, you arrastrado (lazy bum) let’s shoot each other.’”
“The guy said, ‘Wait a minute,’ and they got to talkin’. He didn’t want to get killed. And my old man said, ‘No, I want you to shoot me, because I’m gonna shoot you. The guy said, ‘Put your gun down, Mr. Lencho. I was just jokin’.’”
“‘Joking huh?’ my dad says. ‘Gimme that god dam gun!’ So he takes the guy’s gun away from him and runs him out the doorway. ‘Don’t ever let me see you around here again,’ he yells after him. And he never did. That’s the kind of man my father was–tough.”
Ernesto was ten years old when “Galveston’s finest” hauled him into the police station. It was one of the few times in his life he didn’t deserve it. A gringo had accused the young boy of breaking the windshield of his car with a BB gun, a ridiculous charge because the gun lacked the power to do the alleged damage. It was far more likely that the long crack in the man’s windshield had been brought about by a Galveston pot hole than by Ernesto’s spring-driven, low powered toy. Having his air rifle confiscated was a blow to him because he and his friends engaged in contests of marksmanship and pigeon shooting, a profitable pastime. If they were lucky enough to hit a fat pigeon and bring it down, they could sell the bird to the black ladies in the neighborhood for ten cents with the feathers still on it, or for fifteen cents plucked.
Ernesto had been at the wrong place at the wrong time and to this day the memory of the police taking away his Roy Rogers BB gun, his favorite possession, troubles him. He was punished for something he didn’t do, a rather unusual occurrence in his life. Perhaps because he had often watched policemen roll drunks for their money, they weren’t very high on his list of authority figures anyway, but it became even more difficult to respect the cops after that.
Rosa was thirteen years old in 1945 and like her ten year old brother, Ernesto, a bit on the precocious side. Attractive and rebellious, she preferred going her own way at an early age. When Lencho and Jesusa were working at the restaurant Sulema Aranda, the oldest daughter, looked after Rosa, or tried to anyway.
On one especially memorable day in Ernesto’s life, Sulema had spent the morning cooking up a batch of tortillas and when she had a big pile of them ready she asked Rosa to run them over to Romani’s Café, where she knew her parents would be waiting for them. It was only a few blocks away and she’d have more of them ready when Rosa returned. But Rosa didn’t return and Sulema, overcoming her initial irritation, soon began to worry. Where could that brat be, she wondered.
Quite sure that Rosa wouldn’t have left the immediate neighborhood, Sulema decided to look for the young girl, but after checking out all the most likely places without success she was forced to return to the house, irritated and worried. There, the sound of running water in the bathroom greeted her and she went immediately to investigate. Sulema found Rosa hard at work trying to wash blood stains from her dress, stains that covered the entire garment, front and back, top to bottom. Her little sister claimed that there was nothing wrong and that she had been caught by surprise when her menstrual period had begun earlier than usual, a story Sulema didn’t believe for one moment, not with all that blood on the upper back of her dress. The kid had lost her virginity, maybe’d been raped, and that was Jesusa’s business, not hers.
Sulema did the right thing, Ernesto thinks. “She called my mother and mother came right home. She took one look at Rosie and had it all figured out. Rosie tried to give her the same bullshit about her period and all, but my mother didn’t buy that.
“Turns out Rosie and some guy had gone at it in the park or between some buildings–I don’t know which–and they had done it on the ground. There was dirt and blood all over her clothes. But she sure as hell wasn’t going to tell anyone who had taken her virginity. No, sir.”
“Later I found out he was a married man–had three kids–but Rosie wouldn’t tell anyone who he was. We was arguin’ about it when my old man came in, that meant big trouble and Rosie knew it, yeah.”
“As soon as Dad found out what had happened he pulled off his belt and let Rosie have a hard one, slashed her right across the face with it. Mother was horrified.”
“‘Don’t you ever hit one of my daughters in the face!’ she screamed and she was on him like a god dam cat. She was as big as he was. Got him by his shirt collar and slapped him like a light punchin’ bag, drove him back right out of the room. I never saw her so mad, never. The old man was lucky to get outa the room alive. She could be mean as hell when she lost her temper.”
Lencho was caught up in his own macho. Virginity, his daughters’ most prized possession, was to be defended at all cost, while on the other hand, because he wanted his sons to be macho, they were expected to be on the consistent prowl for the virginity of another man’s daughters. The irony of his conflicting values escaped Lencho entirely. Somehow if his own daughters weren’t as pure as the Virgen de Guadalupe it reflected adversely on his own sense of macho.
“About six months later–in 1946 I believe, because I was eleven years old–Rosie got into trouble again. The old man got a call from a woman who had a two story house at 23rd and Post Office Street. She said she thought Rosie was upstairs in one of the bedrooms.”
“My dad told the woman he’d be right there, put on his pants, and was out of the house like a god dam shot. I mean he really moved.”
“I went with him to the house where they said Rosie was. The guy she was with went out the window, jumped on the first floor roof, and disappeared. Rosie was lying naked on the bed. That did it I guess, because my father wasn’t about to let her become a prostitute or anything so he had her committed. She was sent to a convent up in Houston run by Catholic sisters, a pretty good place.”
“She got out in 1948. It was one of those places that gave you merits if you behaved. Then when you earned enough merits, they turned you loose. Rosie wasn’t the kind to earn any merits, but they let her out when a Puerto Rican man promised to marry her. He was thirty-five years old, and no bargain for any woman, believe me.”
“I think it was a deal my dad cooked up. The Puerto Rican had some money. Maybe pushed dope. With that money he must have persuaded the sisters he was good for Rosie. My old man had already decided he wanted to get out of Galveston and that we oughta try migrant farm work up north in Nebraska. Rosie’s hands could help in the fields. So he worked out a deal with the Puerto Rican, see. But Rosie she just wanted to get out, and quick as she was she told the guy she wouldn’t marry him if he was the last man on earth. She was out. That’s all that counted.”
(Ernesto’s description of a home for wayward girls in Houston as a Catholic “convent” was not intended to be disrespectful to the church, rather it showed a quite Remarkable misunderstanding of the type of background from which aspirants, novices, and nuns are recruited. Later, when he checked it out with Rosa he discovered that despite all the praying that went on there it was a detention home, not a convent.)
Ernesto remembers well Lencho’s reaction to all the scrapes, big or little, that the children got into, remembers them clearly. “My father was always too busy hustling a livin’ to go to school and argue with the teachers about what was happenin’ to me. Like they would send him notes and he’d say, ‘Ah, bullshit!’ He’d tear the note up and say, ‘Go on back to school and if they don’t want you there just come on home.’”
“That’s the way he was with the police and everything else. He just didn’t give a damn. He wasn’t goin’ to take time out to talk to anybody about our problems.”
1948 was a rather uneventful year for Ernesto, uneventful in the sense that he avoided any brushes with the law. To be sure, he continued with petty larcenies and made a few bucks from drunks when he was able to beat the police to their wallets, but he stayed out of trouble. The biggest event of the year was Lencho’s decision to take the family up to Bayard, Nebraska, where the whole family could work in the fields. The decision to get out of Galveston stemmed from Lencho’s obsessive fear that his three daughters still at home, Rosa, Carmen, and Angelita, might turn out to be whores. Perhaps Rosa’s already demonstrated interest in sex would be shared by her two younger sisters. On that chance, Lencho decided it was best for them to get out of town. Maybe people didn’t feel so sexy in colder climates.
In 1948 The Great Western Sugar Beet Company paid nineteen dollars a head to a trucker for each migrant worker he drove up to Bayard from the border states. The transportation business flourished. There was no shortage of stoop labor and there would be none until the advent of the Korean War and later the Vietnam War, when the supply of legal migrant workers failed to keep up with the farmers’ needs. Much of today’s farm machinery for harvesting was only just beginning to become available and it wasn’t until after the Rodriguez family worked the Nebraska fields that most of the mechanization took place. Later, when the labor shortages became acute, so, too, did the flow of illegal aliens entering this country begin to increase, but by then it wasn’t an above-the-board deal in which temporary labor permits were issued. Rather, the trucker himself became the boss, he was paid by the worker–not by the factory or the farmer–and no questions were asked by the employer. Most of the workers couldn’t speak English anyway.
Those truckers were later to become known among the Mexicans as lobos, or coyotes, and they charged as much to deliver the peons to their destination as the desperately poor workers were able to pay. Holding the illegal workers hostage, they used their economic and linguistic advantage to the fullest extent possible. It was most often a case of Mexican profiting from Mexicans and, as the reader knows, the trickle of yesterday became today’s flood of illegal aliens from south of the border. There are still lobos and coyotes.
Lencho and Jesusa, accompanied by their four youngest children, left Galveston in March of 1948. Exactly what plant it was Lencho thought could be weeded or otherwise helped grow in Nebraska at that time of year is not known, but he and his family crowded onto the tarpaulin covered bed of a GMC two ton truck and headed north. Along each side of the truck bed were long wooden benches for the families to sit on. To protect them from the miserably cold late winter temperatures and dust the truck was equipped with flaps which could be tied closed. There were nineteen Mexicans in the back of the truck and crammed in between them were all their worldly possessions. Bouncing and swaying along the narrow, bumpy dirt roads of the period, the truck took two days and two nights to make the seventeen hundred mile trip.
In Texas, especially, Mexicans were not welcome in the restaurants. They were told to go to the back of the building, where food was passed out to them And when they made grocery store stops only one Mexican would go in to buy the imperishable food, or such food as sausage or other snacks to go with the tortillas they had brought from home. When they ran out of the tortillas they bought bread. Along the way there were few restroom facilities available to them and because of this the shrubs and bushes along the roads took quite a beating, The thing Ernesto remembers most vividly about the trip was his sore butt from the bouncing he and the others took.
Ernesto believes that the migrants of his time were the inventors of the modern “rest areas” of today. He remembers approaching farmers for water and was told to get off the land. Then he noticed metal barrels along side the roads, frequented by migrants, for them to dispose of their trash. These were followed by wooden picnic tables.
Arriving in beautiful downtown Bayard, Nebraska was, of course, a relief for the half frozen Mexicans. With a population in those days, as Ernesto recalls, of about twenty-four hundred souls, the small agricultural town was a few miles from the north fork of the Platte River and thirty miles east of Scott’s Bluff. And about five miles to the East, stood the magnificent landmark, The Chimney Rock, on the old Oregon Trail.
The truck load of migrant workers were dropped off at a two story red brick structure outside of town which had formerly been a P.O.W. camp. Built in the shape of a “U” the building’s long corridors were flanked by rows of small rooms into which the Rodriguez family squeezed after they had been issued Army cots and blankets. The only plumbing in the building laws down on the first floor in the kitchen and their hot and cold water could be drawn from the taps. Toilet facilities consisted of rows of outhouses outside the building.
“For bathing we used tubs, old tin ones with wooden handles on each end of the god dam things. We made do okay with them.” That was the only thing, besides clothes, the migrants never took along with them. The cooking utensils and other stuff fit in the tubs. “Yah, we traveled light,” he said, grimacing at the remembrance. “We never took more than we needed when we went some place. No furniture. It was enough.”
“Mother’s holy objects fit in one corner of the tub,” Ernesto smiled. “Always room for them.”
The red brick house, the old P.O.W. camp, was where all the local farmers came to choose the families they wanted to work their fields, their choice being predicated on the acreage to be worked and the number of pairs of hands each family had. The fact that all except Jesusa in the Rodriguez family spoke English was a distinct advantage for them but did little in March because there was no work to be done in the fields. Determined to find some way to buy food until field work became available, Lencho looked around for part time work until the whole family could pitch in. Fortune smiled because Lencho and the thirteen year old Ernesto soon found work at the Great Western Sugar Beet factory where they broke limestone boulders into small rocks, which were somehow used in the refining process. It was the sort of backbreaking pickaxe work often associated with prisons, but it paid enough to keep them going until the crops began to sprout.
The farmer who eventually selected the Rodriguez family was a man named Walter Vanderbort, a kind, hard working man who had no sons, a hell of a lot of beets, and a deserted farm house for the Rodriguez family to live in three miles from the main farm.
Vanderbort taught Ernesto how to operate a tractor which, considering the boy’s impetuosity, was quite an act of trust. Given the job of plowing a thirty acre field with the John Deere tractor, the young boy soon became impatient with the speed. It was too slow and he couldn’t accelerate, not with all the earth he was turning over. To solve the problem he raised the plow a few notches which increased the speed, and soon he found himself zipping back and forth across the field, pivoting on one wheel when he reached the end of a furrow. He was having a great time but when Vanderbort inspected the work the boy had done he explained the field would have to be entirely re-plowed, that a furrow less then eighteen inches deep was a useless as teats on a boar.
The deserted farm house the Rodriguez’ moved into provided protection against rain and sun but little else. The rotting screens, where there were any, slowed down the flies, mosquitoes, and bats but didn’t discourage them. Mice, of course, had an I-system of their own and welcomed their new grocers. The water system consisted of a hand pump on a rusty pipe over a dug well located between the house and the barn, with the well water so little used it was barely potable, one drop clinging hard to the next. To be safe, Jesusa boiled it.
In the late spring when the migrants arrived from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California the town of Bayard became a mad house, engulfed by Hispanics who greatly outnumbered the locals. To a motorist sound more like a transplanted barrio than a Midwestern town. Missing only were a bull ring, beaded curtains, and the ubiquitous day-glow tapestries.
The crops the family worked were beets, potatoes, peas, beans, and alfalfa, listed in the order of their difficulty to harvest. The peas, beans, and alfalfa needed only to be pitched onto wagons–not as easy as it sounds–but the kneeling, stooping, and bending over involved in topping beets and bagging potatoes, young Ernesto like least.
When the blades of the farmer’s machinery uncovered the beets, he and his father moved along the row, going down on one knee, shaking the dirt off the beets–some of which were over six inches in diameter–and, using a machete , whacking the green tops off the beets which they rested across their upright leg. The beets they topped themselves were thrown into a wagon, but they also made piles thirty or so feet apart of untopped beets for Jesusa and the girls to top. That way the women could sit around a pile while they worked and the finished beets could be tossed into a wagon later. Ernesto and Lencho did the toughest labor and their hours were from sunrise to sunset, six and seven days a week. The food and the water were taken out to the fields.
Bagging potatoes was the work that did most to build up Ernesto’s arms and shoulders, which are, even to this day, impressive. The father and son walked slowly down the row of potatoes the machine pulled by the tractor had exposed. Both males wore a wide webbed belt onto which in the back were attached two long hooks, each designed to hold ten empty potato sacks. A wide wooden board the width of an open bag was attached to the front of the belt with a hook on either end which held open the bag being filled and freed the migrant’s two hands for picking up the potatoes. With the board fitted just below the worker’s crotch, he had only to bend over, shake the earth off the potato, and flip it into the open bag. Working stooped over most of the day in the hot dusty fields, the migrants made their way slowly, laboriously down the rows.
Without the strength the thirteen year old Ernesto developed in those Nebraska fields his win/loss record in various subsequent brawls would probably have suffered. He was beginning to take on the body of a man, and pictures of him at that time make him out to be an attractive, well knit youth. With his oval face, black curly hair and well formed white teeth the name Romeo might have suited him better than Ernesto.
That summer the Rodriguez family made what was for them quite a bit of money. When he had a little money put aside Lencho bought a 1935 Ford that had no first gear from a farmer for three hundred dollars. But before they left Bayard for the long trip that year he traded it in for a 1938 Ford that was only ten years old and had a much better chance of getting them back to Texas. On the way back south that fall the whole family stopped at Paducah, Texas, for three weeks to pick cotton, and as nearly as Ernesto can remember they arrived back in sinful Galveston early in December. Accommodations were no problem because they moved into a house at 1614 Mechanic street which the oldest boy in the family, Paco, had rented.
Relationships within the family were far from harmonious, especially the one between Lencho and Jesusa. As Jesusa told Lencho, he was a god dam bully and when the children were old enough to take care of themselves, she’d clear out. She’d had enough of his macho and short temper, to say nothing of his suspected infidelities. He worked his butt off–that she conceded–but there was more to family life than that.
At the age of thirteen, Ernesto, was a precocious young boy endowed with enough street smarts for a regiment of boy scouts, but still a virgin, a condition hard to reconcile with the macho image he wished to project. To be truly looked up to by his peer group two obstacles had to be overcome, one was his sexual innocence–to be able to say that he had had a woman–and the other was to have done time in the reformatory. All the real street heroes could brag about both, there being an undeniable cachet to each experience. It didn’t take Ernesto long to remedy either of the gaps in his curriculum vitae.
At the time he was dating a girl his age named Dolores Del Rio who lived in a nearby multiple-family house. Leaving her apartment one day after a petting session, he chanced to meet an older man in the hallway whose first name, Ernesto recalls, was George. George and his wife had lived in the same building with the Rodriguez’ at 309½ 23rd Street and the man and the boy had been on friendly terms. The older man was a heavy drinker and during the time the Rodriguez family had been up in Nebraska, George and his wife had separated.
“Hey, Ernesto,” George smiled, “Come on in and have a beer. How’ve you been doing? Haven’t seen you around in a long time.”
As Ernesto tells the story, “We were sitting there in his room having a beer and this woman was laying on the bed, naked all the way down. You know how hot it is in Texas. She must have been about twenty-four, nicely shaped. Drunk, looked like she was sleeping hard.
“We was sitting there and he was telling me how he divorced his wife, y’know, I was just a kid and I thought when you saw a woman in a room like that that they were married. I got embarrassed looking at her naked and said I was going to pull a sheet over his wife.”
“He just laughed and said, ‘Ah, don’t worry about her. That’s not my wife. It’s hot in here and that old drunk’s just gonna kick the sheet off again anyway.’”
“I guess George and I had three or four bottles of beer and all of a sudden he just conked out on me. Went to sleep right in his recliner. I started to leave but when I looked at that naked woman stretched out on the bed I said to myself, ‘God dam.’ I was already horny from all that petting and rubbing Dolores and I had done. So I let my pants drop down to my knees and pulled her over to the side of the bed. It didn’t take long, but when I was cleaning myself up I got excited again. So I took my pants and shoes off and jumped on her another time.”
“I was screwing her when she woke up and said, ‘What are you doing?’”
“I said, ‘What do you think I’m doing?’”
“‘Where’s George?’ she wanted to know. ‘He’s over there,’ I nodded, ‘sound asleep.’”
“‘Where’d you come from?’ she asked, wrapping her legs around me.”
“We went at it two or three more times and finally she patted me on the ass and said, ‘Little boy, get your clothes on and get out of here before George wakes up.’”
“My little girlfriend Dolores had been peeking through the window and when I came out she told me, ‘I saw what you did. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’ That was one thing about Dolores, she had high standards.”
Now it was one down and one to go. Ernesto needed only time in the reformatory to achieve full manhood inl the eyes of his colleagues. Unfortunately, he didn’t have long to wait.
Late one night in early March, 1949, a few days after his fourteenth birthday, Ernesto and a friend of his, Danny Perez, attended a dance. The busses in Galveston stopped running at midnight and it was almost one o’clock in the morning by the time the two boys arrived in front of Danny’s house. Danny, who was attending barber college, was one of the best dancers and sharpest dressers in town, both qualities which made Ernesto greatly admire him. Because many of the Perez family were asleep at that hour Ernesto waited outside on the street when Danny went in the house to pick up something he wanted. It was a quiet residential street and Ernesto was standing outside the Perez house when a police car drove up and the officer asked the boy what he was doing in the neighborhood at that hour.
“Waiting on a friend of mine. He’ll be right out,” Ernesto explained to the officer.
Frowning, the policeman announced, “I’m going to drive around the block and when I come back I don’t want to see you here.”
“Just as Danny was coming out,” Ernesto remembers, “his father drove up and said, ‘Danny, before you leave I want to see you in the house for a minute.’ Had something to tell him.”
“Wasn’t long and that cop was back again. He was looking for trouble.
“The officer made me get in the squad and asked for my wallet. First thing he did was go for the money section. So I asked, ‘What is this? A shakedown?’ He hauled off and hit me on the nose and I called him a whole bunch of names, a dirty bastard, ones like that. He pulled his gun out, called a spic bastard, and a lot of other shit. I told him if it wasn’t for his gun I’d kick his ass, y’know. He threw me in the city jail, in the tank with the winos.”
“I’ll never know what was in that idiot’s head. I think he was pissed because I didn’t have no money. Probably figured he could pick up a few easy bucks.”
Considering his unprotected life, Ernesto may not have been quite as shocked by exposure to the winos’ tank as other boys his age might have been. The tank enclosure consisted of two barred cells separated by a narrow corridor with both cells capable of holding ten people. Both cells that night wee jam packed. In each of them the only plumbing available was a drain in the middle of the concrete floor, which made for easy hosing down before the next batch of drunks or felons was picked up. Anticipating the anti-discrimination laws by more than twenty years, the jailors kept the prisoners in the same cells without regard for race, religion, or sex. If the inmates felt the need to relieve themselves, they squatted or stood, depending on their gender, over the floor drain in the midst of their fellow unfortunates. The prisoners didn’t raise their hand and wait for a jailor to escort them to a toilet. And because muscatel cost only thirty-six cents a quart in those days the tank was usually full around the clock.
One member of this charming group Ernesto remembers best was a woman who had accepted fifty dollars in advance from an older man in return for two acts of oral sex. When she had completed the first she ran away with his money as soon as she discovered that he was incapable of the second. She was yelling her head off in the cell that she wasn’t going to spend the whole god dam night doing that, and that he had no business calling the stupid cops.
When Lencho was told that his son was in jail and being held in the winos’ tank he raised hell, claiming the police had no business putting his little boy in a place like that, but his complaints were to no avail. He was told the boy would appear before the judge in the morning. As promised, the young Rodriguez, flanked by the arresting officer, was led before the judge in the small Galveston court room when his name was called. It is difficult to imagine Ernesto being contrite at any age.
“Ernesto Rodriguez?” the judge frowned, looking down at the boy from the bench.
“Yes, sir” Ernesto answered.
“You are charged with vagrancy. How do you plead?”
“Your honor, you can’t charge me with vagrancy. I’m only fourteen years old and I live here in Galveston.” Ernesto pleaded correctly.
“If you are fourteen years old,” the judge announced, looking at the husky youth, “my name is Napoleon.”
Ernesto, who had quite a sense of humor, snapped back, “Well, Napoleon, why don’t you call my mother and father and check for yourself?”
“That will be twenty-five dollars and court costs. Thirty-eight dollars. You want to go to jail for seven days or pay the fine?” the judge inquired, ignoring the boy’s flippancy.
“I don’t have any money. I’ll go to jail.”
He was moved to the juvenile section of the jail and put in a cell by himself on the second floor. There were bars on the windows through which he could see and talk with members of his family when they came to visit him from the other side of the broken glass topped concrete wall. He hadn’t been there very long when the charges against him were changed to truancy, a much more serious offense in Texas. Truancy was an easy rap to get him on, thanks to Lencho’s taking him out of school the previous March, and I doubt that Judge Napoleon objected to the change.
Rosa, more often than others in the family, visited with him outside the window when she came to bring him a pie, milk, or some snacks he preferred to the corn bread and beans served in jail. His mother never came to visit and when Lencho did it was to encourage him and to talk about the lawyer he had hired to get Ernesto out.
Thanks to his family, Ernesto built up quite a store of food in his cell, but the peace didn’t last long. Four white boys his size and slightly older were put in the cell with him one day and immediately the subject of the conversation turned to the three pies and other snacks the young Rodriguez had accumulated. Ernesto, always the genial host, offered them each a slice of his pies, but they got smart.
“Nah,” the biggest of them announced, “we’ll eat as much as we like.”
“Oh, no you won’t,” Ernesto warned then politely. “If you touch those pies, any of my stuff, I’ll whip your asses!”
“There are four of us.”
“Makes no difference,” Ernesto grinned, getting his sucker punch and his foot ready.
It was a classic case of four boys talking when they should have been listening, as Rodriguez set about the task of ruining their appetites, among other things. Mommy never told them jail could be like that, and by the time the two guards arrived the fight was virtually over. As a reward for defending his food, the big jail matron moved Ernesto, pies, milk and all to a single occupancy cell next to those of two crazy inmates, one a black man and the other a completely barmy woman.
The black man was a paranoiac who claimed to be a veteran of a mysterious war and that certain people were out to kill him. Complaining that the jail wouldn’t mail them for him, he slipped sealed notes to Ernesto, telling him to mail them when he got out. “But don’t open them, don’t open them.” he warned.
The woman in the cell next to Ernesto’s was tragic. She spent most of her time peering into the key hole of the lock on her metal grated window pleading, “We’re going to eat the bull first, the bull that killed my daughter. We have to sacrifice the bull and then we’ll have a big party. We’re going to eat that bull and after that my daughter will be all right.”
When Ernesto asked her why she was in jail she told him she had to be there because somehow she was responsible for letting the bull kill her daughter, and that by sacrificing the bull she could cleanse herself. In between her plans for the ritual killing she carried on a running conversation with her dead daughter.
The punishment for truancy, as Ernesto learned after languishing in the Galveston jail for some time, was time in the boys’ reformatory in Gatesville, Texas, about fifty miles west of Waco. A grungy place not listed as one of the state’s major institutional achievements, the Gatesville reformatory has since been closed and its sensitive, fun-loving guards dispersed. Upon his arrival there, Ernesto was assigned to Company A, a unit reserved for the larger Mexican boys.
Nothing, if not rebellious, Rodriguez soon managed in his own inimitable way to attract the unfavorable attention the guards. He can’t remember for what infraction it was but he was soon assigned to the “Bull pen”, as it is known in Texas jargon, but which in other states’ prisons are known as “the hole,” or segregation. The bull pen at Gatesville consisted of three unconnected, fenced-in enclosures, each holding fifteen or twenty boys. Built in three squares formed into a “U” shaped pattern, the cells were supervised by a guard who positioned himself next to a wood stove outside the cells, but in the center of the “U”. each hour on the hour the guard instructed the prisoners to sit or stand. Up or down every hour and the boys were not allowed to use their hands for pushing themselves up when they switched from the seated position.
The food was hearty and plentiful at Gatesville and second helpings were permitted. The fare consisted for the most part of corn bread, beans, fatty side-bacon, milk, and hot chocolate but there was plenty of it. Although the beans created a somewhat sumptuous atmosphere in the institution, there were few complaints about the food. And, of course, everyone knows that Mexicans like beans.
Ernesto’s stay at the reformatory was made easier by one of the Galveston pals, a youth named George Reyna who later went on to fight professionally. Like chickens in a coop, prisoners have their own pecking order and Reyna passed the word along that Rodriguez was a friend of his and not to be touched. Both young boys had been interested in fighting and in Galveston Ernesto had worked out with George Reyna in the little gym that Reyna had equipped back of his parents’ restaurant. What made the gym an unusual one in the city was that its weightlifting equipment and other apparatus had all been stolen by the young Reyna. During Ernesto’s stay his friend was sent to Dallas where he appeared on a fight card matched against a white man. Broadcast live by radio, the fight was listened to by his Gatesville cronies with rapt attention. Unfortunately, Reyna lost but the radio announcer, the Dallas audience, and all the inmates at the reformatory thought this time George had been robbed.
Ernesto’s least favorite guard at Gatesville was a man named Hodges, a short, squat sadistic bastard whose favorite attention getter was a hard, open handed blow on the prisoner’s ear. In the morning it was his custom to enter the bull pen, walk among the boys, and pop a brutal shot on the ear of any inmate who was scheduled for release from the bull pen that day. He had to get in his last licks while they were still his wards. When he entered the cage the boys always rose to their feet, all of them, that is, except Ernesto, who was by now developing a strong distaste for organized authority.
“Why aren’t you standing, Rodriguez?” Hodges would yell. Then pop! Ernesto enjoyed baiting him.
Lencho finally arranged to get his son out of Gatesville by persuading the officials to give Ernesto an out-of-state parole if the family took the young boy up to Nebraska to work in the fields. Lencho needed his son’s hands. It was late May or early June–beet thinning time–when Lencho, Jesusa, and the three youngest sisters rolled up to the Gatesville entrance in their 1938 Ford and picked up the truant lad, his school days over for good. He had finished fifth grade, which was perfectly acceptable to his father and his mother who spoke no English.
This year the family worked for a farmer named George Goss. Bayard, Nebraska was the same as it had been the previous years, inundated with migrants, some of them “pretty tough characters,” as Ernesto describes them. Aside from quarrels he had with his father, the summer was in many ways a pleasant one for him, one that saw him climbing Chimney Rock, the famous landmark on the Oregon Trail, four or five miles east of town, and when time permitted, fishing in the evening with several local farmers. On occasion, he would even pot a pheasant or two with a .22 caliber rifle. To him, of course, pheasants were born in season.
The most important event of the 1949 migrant season was Ernesto’s growing infatuation with a pretty young Mexican girl from Monday, Texas, near Fort Worth, named Guadalupe Guerra. Guadalupe was two years older than he, her lips resembled those of Sophia Loren the movie actress, and, like the local bird dogs, Ernesto went on a full point. Young women were of considerable interest to him, a preference–thanks to his enormous macho–never dented by the many years he was to spend in the homosexual environment of various prisons.
One event that took place that year which is still especially clear in Ernesto’s mind involved the purchase of a 1948 Mercury, the newest automobile Lencho had ever bought. To help pay for the car Lencho took seven hundred dollars from Ernesto’s savings account, justifying the action by telling his son that in return for the use of the seven hundred Ernesto, himself, would be allowed to drive the car. A very enticing prospect, as Lencho knew.
Not long after they had the new Mercury, one of on its tires went flat and Ernesto, the household “gofer” boy, was told to go out and change it, that his sisters wanted to run the car into town before dinner that evening. Ernesto pulled on the emergency brake, jacked up the car, and changed the tire without difficulty. At dinner that night when the whole family was sitting around the table the girls told their father about the trouble they had had with the new car. Paco, who was staying with them for a few days, having recently driven up a load of migrants in his two ton truck, listened silently to the story.
“As soon as we left here,” Carmen explained, “the car started to smoke. Smelled like something was burning. So we took it to the garage as soon as we got to town.”
“What was wrong with it? How much did it cost?” Lencho asked.
“Somebody had left the emergency brake on and that’s what made it smoke,” Carmen explained.
“Goddamit!” Lencho exploded. “Who left the brake on?”
“I did,” Ernesto explained, “I had to pull it on when I changed the tire. The emergency brake should always–”
Ernesto never finished the sentence. Lencho, who was sitting next to his son at the table, lashed out at him, hitting Ernesto so hard in the mouth that the boy and the chair tumbled over backwards. Vintage Lencho.
“Come on, kid,” Paco said, helping his youngest brother. “You come with me. Dad shouldn’t have hit you. You did the right thing. I’m going to Billings, Montana, with a load tomorrow. You come with me.”
But respite from Lencho’s temper was always temporary. No one knew it better than Jesusa.
Trouble often occurred in the beet fields. Fourteen year old Ernesto, next to his father the hardest and fastest worker in the family, often hurried down when he thinned or topped the beets, hoping to rest when he reached the end of it.
‘Ernesto!” his father would yell, the moment he saw him idle. “Go back and help your sisters!” Or, “Get some water for your sisters!”
If he was at the safe distance from his father, he’d call back, “I’m not going to. They are older than I am. They can do their own damn work.” Or, “They can get their own damn water.”
On days when Lencho was too hard on him, when he was bone tired, Ernesto simply ran away for the rest of the day. After dark he’d return, sure that Jesusa had talked some sense into his father.
In late July when the Nebraska crops needed little tending and the beets and potatoes weren’t yet ready for harvesting, the ever hustling Lencho packed his family into the car and headed for Traverse City, Michigan, to harvest the cherry crop. Working on a thin strip of land jutting out into the bay between the Leelanau Peninsula and the Mainland, they stayed in accommodations own by an orchard man named Robinson until the work was completed.
Packing up again, they headed south to a “pickle station”, as it was called, in Notawa, Michigan about twenty five miles north of the Indiana border. There they picked cucumbers. At the pickle station, which was attached to their living quarters, a machine graded by size the cucumbers that the Mexicans and the local Amish farmers brought in from the fields.
When they returned to Bayard in the late summer of 1949 they arrived in time for all the hardest work, topping the beets and bagging potatoes. The days were getting shorter and often Lencho and Ernesto worked under headlights in the field, heaving the sixty-five pound potato sacks up onto the wagon. Friction between father and son continued.
For reasons Ernesto never understood, Lencho directed all his anger at him and never at his sisters, no matter what they did or didn’t do. Paco and Jose had somehow survived their father’s brutal anger and now they were grown and on their own, out of harm’s way. Perhaps Lencho had learned something when he had broken and disfigured the finger of Sulema, his oldest daughter, with a hoe in Michigan and since then had resolved to treat his daughters better, but Ernesto doubted it. He still remembered Lencho and Rosa. It was just the way his father was, that is all. Jesusa knew and so did his children. When he got angry, which was often, he did something about it.
The end of 1949 and the winter of 1950 were, by Ernesto’s standards, relatively uneventful. About the only thing of note he remembers that season in Galveston were the gangs of tough Mexicans who came down to Galveston from Texas City after the devastating explosion that destroyed so much that community. A ship loaded with ammonium nitrate had blown up and, judging from the influx of Mexican teenagers, the explosion must have leveled the Mexican dance halls in Texas City because the gangs that came down from there disturbed what roughly passed for peace in the Galveston dance halls. Through no fault of his own, I’m sure, Ernesto managed to avoid any major fights. He was probably saving his strength.
The 1950 crop season found the Rodriguez family working for a farmer named John Siltowitz. Again the town was knee deep in migrant workers of every description, including American Indians, who were mostly Sioux. The Indians, rather than seeking shelter of the variety favored by the Mexicans, brought their own tents and pitched them on the farmer’s land. The Mexicans, most of whom had Indian blood of their own, mixed well with the northern Indians, as did Ernesto, who on one occasion found himself briefly in jail for buying three gallons of wine for his Indian pals. who wrecked seven cars driving drunk on their way out of Bayard. In those days, in Nebraska, it was a ten-year felony to purchase for or sell liquor to Indians–as unusual, he learned the hard way.
Ernesto was only fifteen years old at the time but he didn’t have any trouble buying liquor.
“It was easy,” he recalls. “Served you right in the bars. They never asked about age. No. There were three bars in one block Mexicans used to hang out in and the one I remember best was Guy’s, the middle one. Had a hell of a fight there land it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do a damn thing.”
For once Ernesto was innocent. The other man courted trouble.
“I was in Guy’s. There were just three of us at the bar and this one man says to his partner, ‘I’m going to get the guy next to me and I want you to watch my back while I whip his ass.’ I didn’t see anybody else in there he could be referring to.”
“‘Are you talking about me?’ I asked.”
“‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘You came in here a little while ago and you pushed me, said you wanted to fight.’”
“‘I never said anything to you or touched you,’ I told him.”
“‘Yes you did,’ the guy kinda snarled at me, ‘and I’m gonna whip your ass.’”
“The guy wasn’t a Mexican or nothing, just a big White bastard, one of the local tough guys. I learned later from someone that he was an electrician who fixed stuff all over town. I’d guess in his middle twenties and big into weight lifting. He got off the bar stool and I had the bad habit of putting my hand in my pocket where I kept my knife. He hauled off and swung on me, but missed–I ducked–and I forgot all about my knife. I was a pretty good little boxer by that time because I’d been training and boxing in the Galveston gyms and sometimes in the small gym they had in Bayard.”
“We got to boxing and I only remember him hitting me one good one, a shot in the right eye that damn near closed it. Most of the time I was working over his body, his head, and kicking him in the balls.”
“I didn’t do no cutting; nor nothing.” Ernesto laughed, “But I sure used my fists and my feet on the dumb bastard. I knocked him down a few times and at the end I was on top of him and giving it to him on the nose. I remember blood squirted all over hell. The bartender got my attention and told me, ‘Don’t hit him any more. He’s had enough.’ That was the end of the fight.”
“Later, when I got home and my dad saw my banged up eye he said, ‘What the hell happened to you?’ So I told him.”
“‘Did you win the fight?’ he asked, and I said yes. ‘Then that’s all right,’ the old man announced. He didn’t care about my eye. That is the way he was, didn’t care if I lost an eye just so I won the fight.”
“I saw the guy later in one of the other bars in town. He had a cane on one side and was using a crutch on the other. All bandaged up. Yeah. He was propped up on a bar stool and I walked over to the guy and asked, ‘What caused you to want to jump on me anyway?’”
“‘I just don’t like Mexicans and I felt like whipping your ass.’”
“‘I didn’t do anything to you.’”
“‘I know. I felt like fighting,’ he told me.”
“‘Well, I hope you’re over it now.’”
“‘Oh no. As soon as I get well, I’ll find you and we’re gonna go at it again.’”
“‘You want another ass whipping like the last one?’”
“‘Sure, why not?’”
“‘Well look me up when you are ready,’ I told him. He was one of these guys who just did not like Mexicans, I guess. One of these weightlifters who thought he’d gotten hold of a piece of cake. He did not know I’d been boxing and kicking people in the nuts ever since I’d been old enough to walk,” Ernesto laughed, thinking about that weightlifter.
No young man, including Ernesto, can spend as much time in the manly art of self defense as he did without suffering an occasional setback. As was so frequently the case, Ernesto’s troubles were spawned in a a dance hall, where one of his sisters had refused to dance with a man she didn’t like. When Ernesto and his sisters left the dance that night the spurned man, thirteen of his friends and cousins, piled into two cars and followed the Rodriguez’. At some stop–perhaps an arterial stop sign–the Rodriguez’ automobile was rammed from behind by one of the pursuing cars, and young Ernesto found himself badly outnumbered.
As he describes it, “They beat the shit out of me. I guess I cut up a few of them, but I ended up in the hospital for stitches all over my head.”
That summer the Rodriguez family again traveled to Michigan during the slow season in Nebraska. On the way they stopped by Gary, Indiana, to visit Lencho’s sister, the intrepid and unforgiving Simona. Staying with Aunt Simona was her son, Charlie, who had recently finished his Army service in Korea and who had been lucky enough to get out of there before the heavy fighting began. Charlie was a loud dresser, wore purple suits, chased the girls, and avoided all work whenever possible.
Ernesto remembers, “Aunt Simona told my father, ‘Take this boy and put him out in the fields to work. Take him out of Gary because he ain’t doing nothing but monkeying around with a bunch of old whores.’ So we took Charlie along to Notawa where we had stayed the year before.”
It was there in Notawa where new troubles arose. The Rodriguez family was stretched out on the grass after work one afternoon, drinking beer and enjoying the summer with family friends. Rosa was sitting next to a young migrant who was touching and fondling her in a way Ernesto thought showed great disrespect for his father, who was certainly close enough to see what was going on. One didn’t do that right in front of a girl’s parents, or at least not in front of Lencho.
“I didn’t say anything then,” Ernesto explained. “I waited ‘til the next morning when we were out picking cucumbers in the field. I was near the guy who had been with Rosie and we were a little distance from my father. I went up and told this individual that I thought he had not given my father enough respect, that if he wanted to pet on my sister he could have gone somewhere else. I did not ever want him to do that again in the presence of my father. I told him that my father was an old man and wasn’t gonna say anything to him, but I would.”
(Ernesto has never suggested that his mother’s sensibilities might have been offended, too.)
“Because I was young in age the guy thought I was some kind of pushover. I guess. He said, ‘Get the hell away from here, little kid. I don’t want to hear your bullshit.’”
“I grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up real close. I had my knife with me and put it up to his belly. I told the son-of-a-bitch, ‘I meant what I said and if I catch you doing it again in front of my father I’m gonna cut your god dam guts out and wrap them around you neck!’”
“He started screaming, ‘Don’t cut me! Don’t cut me!’ And then my sister Rosie got all hysterical, went to my father, and told him one of the biggest damn lies she’d ever want to tell. She told him I pulled a knife on him, kicked him, and told him that I didn’t want him going out with my sister, that I did not like him.”
“That afternoon my father called me in to see him, started screaming he wanted me to give him the knife I carried. I had two others in my duffle bag. He figured there were more in the duffle bag and when he tried to grab it I pulled it away from him. He yelled, ‘Give me those knives or get the hell out of the house!’”
“We argued while we were walking around to a grassy spot on the other side of the house and I finally told him,‘Look, enough is enough. Now get off my back.’”
“‘Goddamit!’ he screamed. “I’m gonna whip your ass and I’m gonna whip it good.’”
“‘This will be the last one,’ I warned him, ‘because I’m swinging back.’ I wanted to tell my father what the fight had been all about, that I’d been sticking up for him, that Rosie had lied, but I could not get it out. But I did want to tell him. He pulled off his belt and swung it at me, but I grabbed the end of it, pulled him forward, and kicked his legs out from under him. He fell flat on the ground. He got up and said, ‘I never thought I’d see the day when you’d raise your hand against your father.’”
“He came at me a couple times more and I pushed him down each time he did. About the third time I put him on the ground I said, ‘Don’t get up no more. If you get up again, I’m really gonna swing. I’m getting tired of this shit, you are slapping me in the mouth for things my sisters do, and it is gonna come to an end right now. If you try to get up, I am goona bust you on the lips.’”
“‘Get the hell outa here,’ he yelled, ‘and I don’t want to see you again as long as I live. Get outa my sight!’”
“My mother was crying and screaming, all the sisters were screaming, carrying on, you know, and finally my mother gave me a twenty dollar bill.”
“Then Charlie, my first cousin, said, ‘Let’s go back to my house in Gary. I don’t want to work in these fucking fields anymore.’ Armed with a twenty dollar bill, we headed out of town on the railroad tracks. I was damn glad to get away from old man.”
When they arrived in Gary, Charlie and Ernesto stayed at the house of one of Charlie’s friendly whores who lived not far from Aunt Simona’s basement apartment on 27th and Jefferson Street. Ernesto visited his aunt frequently and they became fast friends, thanks to their mutual interest in defensive weaponry and Aunt Simona’s willingness to trade her switch blade for the straight razor her nephew had brought with him in his duffle bag. Simona Rodriguez’ genes were amply shared by her nephew.
Ernesto claims Charlie wasn’t pimping for the whores with whom Aunt Simona accused her son of associating. Ernesto didn’t think he was but he may very well have been wrong because two of them, mother and daughter, sold food as well as their bodies, neither of which cost Charlie a penny and both of which he used. To the two women Charlie, with his dark good looks, purple suit, and pencil-thin mustache was the nuts. As a consequence, he and Ernesto ate many of their meals at the ladies’ restaurant, where the price was right.
Time, as Ernesto discovered, had not mellowed Aunt Simona. Papa Jay, her first busband, the one whose huevos she had removed, had also moved to Gary and he came around once in a while to drop off money. Whether it was alimony, child support, or conscience money is not known. But Aunt Simona never let him in the house, telling him to take his fleas elsewhere. She was short on forgiveness.
One night Ernesto remembers well, he and his aunt were at a small, all-night restaurant in the toughest part of town on Jefferson Street. It was the 27th and Jefferson Street area where he seems to recall most of the city’s shootings, knifings, and narcotic pushing took place. Aunt and nephew were sitting at the booth of El Barco de Oro, sipping coffee laced with whiskey made available illegally by the proprietor who did not have a liquor license, when Aunt Simona’s attention was drawn to a quarrel taking place in one of the booths. A male customer seated in the booth was giving a young waitress a very hard time.
As Ernesto tells it, “Aunt Simona felt sorry for the girl–it may have been a lovers’ quarrel–and walked over to the booth where the man was sitting. ‘You don’t hear very well,’ she told him. ‘Why don’t you do what the girl tells you, leave her alone?’”
“The damn fool said, ‘Who the hell are you?’”
“‘You don’t know who I am?’ Aunt Simona yelled, like he was supposed to, and pulled out her razor. It was open so fast you couldn’t believe it, and she cut him across the ear. He jumped up against the wall and tried to climb over the back of the booth and while he was trying that she was cutting him on the ass, on the arm, and a couple of more times on the ears. He was running out the door and she was right behind him, whacking away at the cheeks of his ass. There was blood everywhere!”
“‘My name is Simona Rodriguez,’ she called after him, ‘and if you ever want any more, come on back, I’ll be in the area.’”
Earlier in that visit–before Ernesto had traded his straight razor for her switch blade–Ernesto and Simona had visited a similar spot, that also sold whiskey and beer from under the counter, but it was run by blacks, not Mexicans.
“My Aunt Simona and me, we talked a lot when we went out. Somehow she didn’t seem like my aunt. We talked about a lot of stuff. She talked about my father and her family, how she knew he’d never be any good for me, and that she should have taken me away. I was her favorite nephew, that sort of stuff. And she told me about the man who had had sex with her ten year old daughter–he was still in town–how he lived in holy terror of her. Lots of different things.”
When they finished their drinks that night they left by the side door, which entered onto an alley. From the side door it was necessary to walk about forty feet to reach the street, but their path was blocked by a large black man, who seemed to appear out of nowhere.
“‘Can I have a dime for a cup of coffee?’ the man asked us and the next thing I knew the black man was screaming and running backwards and Aunt Simona had pulled out her knife and was jabbing at his nuts.He had jumped out to surprise us and ended up being surprised himself.
“‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘What are you doing?’ and Aunt Simona said, ‘Whether you know it or not, that son-of-a-bitch was getting ready to rob us. He didn’t want no cup of coffee. Don’t ever get caught in an alley like this. You’re better off to stick him and ask questions later.’”
“That man took off faster then hell, yelling, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. What’s the matter?’”
“After I’d been in Gary for a couple of weeks someone wrote my old man–I don’t know who it was–and said in effect that you better come and get your son. Him and that goddam Charlie are walking down the street with a jug of wine in one hand and marijuana in the other.”
“That was a lot of bullshit because I never liked wine much. It had made me sicker than hell three or four years earlier. I’d just take a sip of it to make me look like one of the guys. But my mother and father drove down under the pretext of visiting the relatives. I didn’t want to go back and I told my father about him hitting me and stuff like that. He said things would be different and my mother started to cry. That’s why I went back.”
“Of course he didn’t keep his promise. I got the same old shit from him but stayed in Michigan with them and drove back to Nebraska to finish off the work there.”
Ernesto was eager to get back to Bayard because his courtship of Guadalupe Guerra was meeting with great success, the only trouble being that Guadalupe at age seventeen was legally able to marry, but at age fifteen Ernesto wasn’t. The two young people were passionately in love and had agreed to marry as soon as possible. Lencho warned his son that Guadalupe was probably only one of many romantic entanglements he was likely to have, that he shouldn’t treat it like his last, but Ernesto wasn’t much influenced by his father’s thoughts at the time.
Finally, Ernesto prevailed upon his father to pay a call on Mr. Jose Guerra, Guadalupe’s father. Armed with a bottle of tequila and a case of beer to grease the ways as much as possible, Lencho and son set forth to beard the lion in his den. Unfortunately the meeting went quite badly, largely because Mr. Guerra had set his sights slightly higher for his daughter’s choice of husbands–quite a bit higher, in fact–than the fifteen year old Ernesto appeared to measure up to. Lencho Rodriguez had to be out of his mind to suggest a mismatch of that magnitude.
What did he think Guadalupe was? Further, according to Mr. Guerra, Ernesto was a huerco chingado desgraciado, a worthless, good-for-nothing kid. On that unpleasant note the Rodriguez’ were asked to leave the house, and his daughter ordered to stop seeing Ernesto.
To make sure that his nubile, pretty daughter didn’t sneak out of the house when he was away working, Mr. Guerra nailed boards over the windows of his house and fastened padlocks on the doors. She was a prisoner in her own house. And she wanted very much to elope with the young man to whom she had previously offered her virginity, because in her social set it was very difficult to explain its absence to a husband not party to its surrender. Ernesto didn’t have to worry about her cooperation in any scheme he could devise. At age seventeen, the thought of becoming an old maid or a prostitute held little appeal for her, especially when she considered the young Rodriguez’ good looks, flashing smile, and strength.
Ernesto, for his part, wasn’t much worried about her father, or that Mr. Guerra had already killed one man in El Paso. All he wanted to do was to elope, to run away with Guadalupe of the beautiful lips. Mr. Guerra had told Guadalupe that if she ran off with Ernesto she would no longer be his daughter and that he would never speak to either of them again, but that was hardly worth consideration. As a matter of fact, considering Ernesto’s delight in challenge of any form, Mr. Guerra’s opposition served only to throw raw gasoline on the flames of the young man’s passion.
The following Saturday night when most migrant workers were spending their hard earned money on drinks in Bayard, including Mr. Guerra, Rosa, always interested in the consummation of love, conspired with Ernesto, Carmen and Angelita to free the former maiden from the Guerra fortress. Equipped with a heavy claw hammer, Rosa and the others paid a call on the prisoner. Prying the boards off one of the windows, they succeeded in extricating Guadalupe from the her father’s house and, after dropping off the young couple at a Scott’s Bluff motel, thirty miles West of Bayard, they drove back to Bayard where Lencho was having a few drinks with Mr. Guerra totally unaware of what had taken place. Carmen was the get-away-driver, Angelita the lookout, and Rose was the wrecking crew.
Ernesto had eighty dollars to his name, more than enough money for three days in a motel and food for two. The young lovers, besides conceiving their first child during their stay at Scott’s Bluff, agreed to get married as soon as Ernesto reached age sixteen, the following February 26th. The potato harvesting was at its peak that September in 1950 and to help his family with their work Ernesto and Guadalupe returned to the Rodriguez household, where they were welcomed by all. Mr. Guerra, for his part, kept his promise. He never spoke to Ernesto again.
Late in summer that year the young people in the family, Guadalupe, Rosa, Carmen, and Angelita drove into town for a dance being held above Guy’s Bar. Jose Enriquez, Carmen’s future husband, escorted the ladies, and Ernesto said he’d be along as soon as he could. Dancing was the family’s favorite recreation, a love passed on to the children by Lencho and Jesusa, both of whom were accomplished dancers.
When Ernesto did arrive that evening he walked up the long stairway leading to the small dance hall and seeing his sisters on one side of the room, went over and joined them. “Guadalupe was on the dance floor dancing with some guy,” Ernesto relates. “and I guess he kept trying to pull her up real tight and she kept telling him, ‘Don’t do that. I’m a married woman.’ And the guy said, ‘That’s the kind I like best.’ When he tried it again she told him, ‘I told you not to do that,’ and pushed him away. She came over and sat down with us.”
“I asked her what was wrong and when she told me I guess I went over to the guy and told him that that was my wife he’d been dancing with, that I didn’t mind him dancing with her, but I didn’t want him getting outta line. Words to that effect. He made some smart remark that made me mad.”
“‘If that’s the way you feel,’ I told him, ‘maybe we better go outside.’”
“‘Yeah,’ the idiot told me, ‘there’s nothing I like better than a good fight.’”
“We walked over to the top of the long stairs and when we got there I sucker punched him and he went ass over tea kettle down to the bottom. I followed him down, off course, to see whether there was any fight left in him, but two of my friends–one was Joe Frisco from California–were standing at the bottom and they pitched in. They started kicking him in the tail, hitting him, stuff like that. They moved out into the street and I was standing between two cars right next to a parking meter, just watching them work him over.”
“There were two old ladies–white ladies–standing there. They were probably farmer’s wives, retired school teachers, something like that. And seemed like good citizens, y’know, not migrants or anything. I noticed a policemen was coming from the left and somebody hollered, ‘Here comes a copo!’ My two friends who were beating on the guy jumped up and ran like hell down the street. I think the guy they were beating ran off behind them, trying to get away from the cop too. So I was left just standing there.”
“The policeman came up to me and said, ‘Okay, Rodriguez, what’s happening here?’ and started asking a bunch of questions.”
“‘I said, ‘Nothing officer. There was a fight and I was just standing here watching it, that’s all.’”
“One of the ladies butted in and said, ‘That’s right officer. Those men who were running down the street, they were the ones doing the fighting, not this gentleman.’ Both of them were speaking real nice and said good things about me.”
“‘Ladies,’ the policeman explained, ‘I know this man. If there was any trouble, you can bet your bottom dollar that he was involved. I know this man and I’m taking him to jail.’”
“‘But officer,’ the other lady said, ‘he had nothing to do with it. We were witnesses, we were right here, and we saw the whole thing.’”
“‘No no mam,’ the officer smiled, real polite. ‘You don’t know this man. He’s going with me.’”
“He didn’t pay any more attention to the guys who’d been fighting and just marched me off to jail.”
Ernesto laughed, remembering the episode.