Tex-Mex Border — 1947
Growing up at the Tex-Mex border after WWII was exciting with the world working to reconstruct itself after almost four years of war punctuated by two atomic bombs. Because our town, Nuevo Laredo, was a gateway into Texas, there was little that happened on either side of the border that we didn’t see. The words “New World” filled the air and when ballpoint pens came out, they were duly named “plumas atomicas.” The word atomic described anything new that replaced a slower model.
People spoke of “coches atomicos,” atomic cars that could reach unheard of speeds, and a super hero, “el hombre atomico,” competed with Superman for a while. But my small town was not atomic; Nuevo Laredo still had horse-drawn milk wagons and horse-drawn ice vendors, and not all houses had electricity throughout the house. People itemized, “We have light in the living room now.” It was a transitional town creeping into modernity.
Neighborhoods were distinctly arranged according to people’s income, but everyone worked to present their homes as best they could. Sidewalks were swept with wet brooms each morning and whatever flowers could grow in our searing heat—usually bright-colored, potted geraniums—decorated the steps, porches, or doorways. The border crossing led to Avenida Guerrero and through it to a downtown anchored by its traditional plaza with swarms of Mexican curio vendors; the main streets were lined with hotels, jewelry stores, restaurants, and movie theatres that sold first-class tickets with second-class seating in the balcony.
We lived in the upscale end because Father was a successful businessman who made a fortune on the war and he and his compadres pretty much ran things in town. His name was Hector. Father was a handsome, wild man, in love with my mother, the bullfights, and dominoes. If he stayed out late with his friends playing dominoes, he would appear in the predawn hours with mariachis and, in his smooth Irish tenor voice, croon Pedro Infante love songs like “Tu Solo Tu” underneath Mother’s bedroom balcony, and all would be forgiven. Neighbors applauded the serenades and, sometimes, if he had been lucky at dominoes, he would invite the mariachis into the house to serve them drinks, but this often ended up with silverware and other household items missing, so Mother put a stop to that.
Father appropriated me, his oldest daughter, and wanted me to be a bullfighter like the female Peruvian Conchita Cintrón, who fought bulls in the traditional Spanish way and in the Portuguese style, riding Arabian horses. During the bullfighting season, he and my uncle, Doctor Hugo Escalante, would pull cousin Victor and me out of school to follow the circuits of the leading matadors to Monterrey, Chihuahua, and even Mexico City. As a result of our extended absences, Victor and I kept flunking first grade, but we were privileged to see the great Manolete and the graceful Silverio Perez bullfight. We were spoiled nine-year-olds who never had had to pay the consequences of any misdeeds because our fathers cleaned up after us. Meanwhile, at home, I had weekly bullfighting lessons from Father, but to balance that, he allowed Mother to enroll me in Madame Duclois’ ballet studio.
Father was the man of the house, and, with the help of my nana Petra, who had been in our family so long she had actually helped raise him, our lives followed his dictates. Victor and I had performed poorly in school, and, no matter how much our fathers donated to our schools, we would not be advanced to second grade until we could do the work. I had just finished first grade for the third year. I was described as useless and they were right. The maids did everything for me; consequently, I was unable to read, write, braid my hair, tie my shoes, and, most importantly to my mother, speak English.
“The future belongs to those who speak English,” she argued with Father. He did not disagree but begged her to be patient, promising that pretty soon he would move the entire family to Los Angeles, California, where Mother had grown up. To Victor and me, Mother described her hometown in picture-perfect words with orange trees and swaying palms. In Texas we had shrubs and cactus. Mother thought our town was ugly and said so and wounded Victor and me so much that we took a blood oath never to move. We showed Mother our sliced wrists and she sat us down and explained that if we stayed in Texas much longer, our imaginations would die. “Die, do you hear me? Die!”
Quelling this conflict was the visit of my first cousin Pitri, Miss Chihuahua. She was twenty years old and had a six-month-old son. She, her husband, Pedro, and baby Pedro were making a tour of all family members who lived along the USA-Mexico border. Grandfather had made sure that he had an offspring at each border. Pitri’s family was scheduled to go from Nuevo Laredo to Juarez to Nogales, Mexicali, and Tijuana. Grandfather, a rich, powerful general of the Mexican Revolution, was financing the journey. Overcome with pride because his granddaughter had won the title of Miss Chihuahua in the city and state of the same name when she was eighteen-years-old, he ordered that all his daughters and sons honor her and her family when they came to visit. I was tickled that she was Miss Chihuahua from Chihuahua, Chihuahua, but could only laugh about it with Victor. Grandfather decreed that Father, his oldest son and godfather to Pitri, would be the first to host Miss Chihuahua’s visit.
Mother accepted the challenge with furor. It was August, and despite the baking heat, she repainted and redecorated my bedroom for Pitri, baby, and Pedro. The entryway also needed painting and the weather-scorched plants outside the house needed replacing, as we would have company from all over town coming to meet Miss Chihuahua. Petra said we now had someone famous in the family and our house had to be improved to be worthy. “Since this house is the first they will visit, we must represent ourselves properly,” Petra said. Victor and I wondered how someone twenty years old could be important, especially if they weren’t singers or baseball players. Petra said, “She has beauty. That’s worth more.”
I had to give up my bedroom three days before Miss Chihuahua’s arrival, so “it will be fresh.” I slept in my baby sister Cristina’s room with Petra—three beds in one room. Victor and I were summarily ignored, replaced by plans for matching juice glasses, new sheets, pillowcases, towels, and extra floor fans to “keep the baby cool.”
Finally, they arrived. What was most remarkable about Pitri was the demeanor with which she carried her tall, slender body. Back straight, she moved smoothly, as if she had no joints. She glided. And though people around her were moving out of the way to bring her flowers, water, or a shade umbrella, she did not alter her tempo. It remained even. Her smile was wide but did not reveal her teeth. It reminded me of the Virgin Mary’s, which I had studied through my holy cards with Mother, who had explained that “to show the Blessed Mother’s teeth would make her too human and she was, after all, Jesus’ mother.” To me, that only made Miss Chihuahua more important, more mysterious.
Long lashes—top and bottom—surrounded her widely set, almond-shaped dark eyes and her hair was shoulder length, thick, shiny, and worn in a pageboy. In the evenings, when Pitri and Pedro left their bedroom door open to let the air circulate through, I could see her brush her hair and hear her count the strokes to 100. Then she would take her baby and rest him on her chest and together they would fall asleep. Later, Pedro would unlock her fingers from around the baby’s back.
She was friendly to Victor and me. She placed her hands on our heads when she spoke to us about playing jacks in the sun on the sidewalk in front of the house. “You’re going to be sick later on,” she said, concern in her soft voice.
Victor watched her walk away. “She’s like a whisper,” he said. We went inside, more out of fear for her being in the sun than anything the sun could possibly do to us.
Father held a reception for her at the fancy Hotel Prado. For this one event, he invited twenty-five of his and Mother’s closest friends and announced that for the rest of the week our house would be open to visitors who wanted to meet Pitri, Pedro, and the baby. “Please, tell your friends to stop by for drinks, appetizers and a chat.”
On the evening of the reception, Pitri expressed a desire to look through the various stalls and curio shops in the Plaza. Seeing Miss Chihuahua move through downtown with her husband, Pedro, was an exciting event. “We’ll walk over to the hotel,” she explained to Father. Suddenly everyone—including Victor and me—decided to walk to the hotel, too. Miss Chihuahua and Pedro moved through the Plaza with more than a dozen of us following them. At one point she gave up trying to look at the curios (people crowded over her shoulders to see what she found interesting) and decided to walk directly to the Prado. Exasperated, she said she would return the following day to shop for silver earrings from Taxco for her mother. That was the only time I saw her being cross.
The following morning the town newspaper was full of pictures of the event at the hotel and Pitri, Pedro, and baby looked like the happy celebrities they were. And, if I doubted that anyone would come to the house the rest of the week, I was certainly wrong. After the day’s heat and before the sun began its descent, countless visitors came for drinks and appetizers. Our living room, dining room, and hallways were crammed full with company that spilled over into the front yard.
Some guests had never been to the house before and they were looking at the artwork on the walls asking the worth of paintings Mother had bought on a trip to Mexico City the previous year. Victor and I mingled among the guests and listened to Pitri explain that she did not want to make movies. She only wanted to take care of Pedro and her baby. Pedro stood next to her the entire time and when she tired of repeating the same words, he took up the refrain—then Mother, then Father.
Bored, Victor and I went upstairs to what had been my room. Despite the hubbub in the house, the baby was dead asleep, wrapped in a blue blanket. Like his mother, he had long upper and lower lashes. I put my ear to his mouth and heard his exhale. His breath was sweet. I picked him up, waiting for him to fuss, but he continued sleeping. I offered him to Victor and he took him and carried him out of the room and started down the stairs. I hurried in front of Victor so no one would bump into him and possibly knock the baby out of his arms. Once at the base of the stairs and without thinking, I led Victor with the baby out through the kitchen to the backyard. In our neighborhood all the backyards were connected, separated by weak fences or gates.
I opened the gate to the next yard and we entered their house through the kitchen. No one was home. The neighbors and their servants were at my house eating and drinking. Their house was cool and quiet compared to my noisy, smoky house. With one finger, I motioned Victor to go upstairs and led the way. He followed with the still sleeping baby. We tiptoed up the stairs and went into the main bedroom, which had the same floor plan as my house. I knew that their main closet was very deep, with two sections—one behind the other. I pushed the clothes in the first section aside to make room for Victor and the baby. He stepped forward, careful to gently lower the sleeping baby in the space between the sections.
Wordlessly, we left the closet and retraced our steps back to my house, where the party was getting louder and louder. Victor and I separated, each going to our parents and standing next to them. Father had ordered a trio of musicians and people were calling out their favorite songs. This raised the excitement volume. Late afternoon became evening and finally the crowd thinned enough to hold everyone inside the house. People visited with each other and someone asked Pitri about her baby. Thrilled, she said, “I’ll go get him.” That’s when I remembered what Victor and I had done. We exchanged glances but said nothing.
From upstairs, Pitri yelled, “Pedro!”
Pedro raced upstairs two stairs at a time.
The entire party froze. Standing in the middle of the stairs, Pedro, face pale, lower lip trembling, said, “He’s missing. I checked each room.”
“Missing?” Father asked. He turned to Ignacio Gonzalez, his close friend and Chief of Police, who had been there all afternoon with his wife. “Close the block,” Father said and ran upstairs. When he came downstairs, he was wearing his shoulder holster.
Ignacio wasted no time. He walked to the telephone and ordered patrol cars to block the border to the USA and circle our neighborhood. Within minutes we heard squad cars race toward our house. They parked at either end of the block. Policemen got out and knocked on neighbors’ doors. No formalities, no niceties. They barged in through the front doors searching for the baby. My stomach was twisting itself into knots. We had caused a lot of trouble. If the police continued working the block, I figured they would find the baby soon enough. This made me relax some.
I caught Victor’s eye and motioned him over to the dining room. He looked calm and I wondered if I was worried for nothing. I knew where the baby was, knew that it was all right. My parents were not all right. A weepy Mother held Cristina pressed to her breast and Petra held Mother. Father conferred with Ignacio as to a possible ransom. Two detectives had arrived and been instructed to write names, addresses, and phone numbers, and to cite people who had come and gone since the baby had gone missing. All were ordered to remain at the house until told they could leave.
Finally, Pedro led Pitri downstairs with his arms around her shoulders. She was not crying; she was staring straight ahead, collapsing into him. People moved out of the way for the couple. He guided her to the couch and gently shepherded her down. The musicians stood against a corner; everyone lowered their drinks. The only sound was that of people giving information to the detectives. Father and Ignacio conferred in a corner.
My uncle, Doctor Escalante, rose to take Pitri’s pulse. He sat next to her and asked her some questions, which I could neither hear, nor could I hear her answers. Pedro pressed closer to try to understand what Pitri was saying. Then my uncle raised her arm and dropped it, then he did the same thing with the other. He looked deep into her eyes and directed her to follow his fountain pen left, right, up, down. He held up his fingers: one, two, five. Pitri mumbled something.
“Ignacio,” said my uncle, “send for an ambulance. Make sure we have a police escort to the border. I’m taking Pitri to the Mercy Hospital on the American side. She’s had a stroke.” He spoke calmly but firmly. “Pedro, stay here in case there’s a ransom call. I will stay with her all night and call you every hour.”
Stunned mute, Pedro nodded and stood by his wife’s side. He placed a hand on Pitri’s shoulder and bent down to whisper something to her. She had no response. The whole room stood in silence, watching, waiting.
Finally we heard the sound of the ambulance as it came closer to the house. My uncle and Pedro guided Pitri in her soft walk outdoors. Every person I had ever seen loaded onto an ambulance was lying down; Pitri and my uncle sat in wheelchairs in the ambulance. Pedro waited until the vehicle was out of sight before coming inside.
Ignacio addressed his detectives. “You have everyone’s contact numbers?”
The detectives nodded affirmative. The Police Chief told people they could go. Some friends and neighbors stayed behind to help clean up glasses, plates, and ashtrays strewn all over the place. Victor and I exchanged glances: this was the right time.
In silence, we went upstairs, got one of the baby’s pacifiers, and then retraced our steps next door. Going up the stairs I could hear baby Pedro bellowing. I slipped the pacifier into his mouth, picked him up, and eventually he quieted down. Whatever he had done had soaked through the blanket.
“Check downstairs,” I said. “Is it clear to the sidewalk?”
I waited, holding the wet infant. Eventually, I heard “Andrea! Come on!”
I hurried downstairs. Victor held the front door and screen open. He walked a half block down the empty street. “Now!” he called.
I raced the baby out to the curb of the sidewalk. The sun had set, but it was a light summer evening. I placed the baby down. Baby Pedro was pacified. We returned to my house by way of the neighbors’ house. Once inside, we separated. He went to stand by his mother; I went upstairs to my bedroom. Eventually, he came upstairs.
“Time to find the baby,” he said. “Father just called Pedro from the hospital.”
I rose and meandered toward the front of the house, making sure that Petra and Mother saw me inside. Victor followed me. We strolled outside waving to Mother where we would be. She nodded in assent.
Once outside, we turned right and headed for baby Pedro. Victor picked him up and I ran ahead toward the house yelling as loudly as possible, “Mamá, Papá!”
More than half the living room rushed out. I pointed to Victor, who looked all heroic carrying the baby.
“Where did you find him?” asked Father. He raced to Victor, took the baby, and handed him to Pedro, who was crying uncontrollably with relief.
“A man took him out of his car and put him down,” I said, as vaguely as possible.
“Now? Right now?” asked the Chief of Police. “What color car?”
“Blue,” I said.
“Andrea, it was green,” Victor said.
“I know my colors,” I said to Victor angrily.
“Blue or green. Old or new?” asked Ignacio.
Intuitively, Victor and I agreed that it was a new car.
Ignacio raced back to the house to get to a phone. Pedro was surrounded by people cooing at the baby, who was by now filling the block with his screams. Pedro handed the baby to Petra. “Please, change him. I have to call Pitri.”
We arrived at the house with the screaming baby and found Pedro sitting on the couch with a wet handkerchief over his face. Ignacio said his farewells and raced off to search for the blue or green new car. Petra took the baby upstairs; Mother went to heat a bottle for the baby.
“I spoke to Doctor Escalante,” Pedro said. “He said he would tell Pitri. He’s not sure she can comprehend the message, but he said that maybe tomorrow I can take the baby to her and let her hold him.” He wiped his face with the handkerchief. “Dear God, let her be all right.” He looked at us, pain all over his face. “This has no end.”
Father sat next to Pedro. “Have dinner. Lie down with your son. When he’s asleep, I’ll drive you to Mercy Hospital to be with Pitri.”
Pedro nodded and did just what Father said. The next day, he did just what my uncle said. And so it went for almost a week while they ran tests and more tests on Pitri. The pretty, young couple that had arrived in Nuevo Laredo so full of promise a few days before was gone, replaced by a tired husband and convalescing wife. The big break in the painful monotony came when Pitri smiled at her son and recognized him. She still couldn’t talk, but they said she smiled and pressed him to her breast. My uncle said the stroke had caused a form of Bells palsy. One side of her face was paralyzed. Half her mouth and one eye drooped down. At night she had to wear an eye patch to keep the eyelid down.
Grandfather called long distance every morning and evening asking for updates. He did not openly blame Father for the disaster about Pitri. In fact, he wondered if former political enemies of his since the revolution days might not have wanted to hurt him by hurting his granddaughter. “I made such a big escandalo bragging about Pitri,” Grandfather said to Father.
He wasn’t the only one to wonder. Chief of Police Ignacio Gonzalez said someone had seen it as an opportunity to embarrass his department by staging a kidnapping when he and his wife were at a social event.
Father went through his business transactions and tried to figure out who might have wanted to get back at him for an unhappy business deal. I went into his home office where he sat with a stack of receipts. “It could be any of these three,” he said, tapping invoices. “Do they hate you?” I asked. “Hate?” he responded. “No, but they may have resentments. I got the best of the deal.” He looked at me crossly. “People don’t hate your father, Andrea. Go play.”
Pitri and family finally came home. It was a very different coming from their first. No fanfare. Mother and Petra had packed their clothes. The house was free of visitors. A light dinner was prepared for them and lots of food had been prepared for their overnight train voyage back to Chihuahua. Pitri’s face was still crooked. And it hurt. Aspirin and warm face cloths eased the pain.
Mother had had a talk with Victor and me to prepare us for how different Pitri would look. “She needs to receive treatments. Your grandfather will find the best doctors in Mexico and the United States for her.” Mother’s eyes were red from crying. “She will recover,” she said, patting my and Victor’s heads.
Victor’s father said it might take as much as one, maybe two, months to recover. “We worry about her spirits,” he said. “She was a celebrated beauty.”
Father and Pedro loaded the car with our visitors’ belongings. Petra went with him to the train to make sure that all the food was easily accessible for Pedro to feed Pitri. Father had ordered a double suite compartment so Pedro could walk around. I could see that somehow Father blamed himself for what had happened. Mother fared no better. She too felt guilty.
As they loaded into the car, Pitri reached out to us and gave us a strong hug. I was afraid to hug her. Her voice had not fully come back. She mumbled something soft. For unknown reasons, Victor hugged her and burst out crying. Then he raced off upstairs. Pitri looked at Pedro and shook her head in wonder. We waved and blew kisses at the parting guests.
With everyone gone and just Mother, Cristina, and me in the house, I went upstairs to talk to Victor. He lay sideways on my bed. His nose was runny.
“Are you feeling bad?” I asked.
“I hope God punishes us,” he said, his voice shaking. “We did a bad thing.”
“We hid the baby for a tiny while. It was all right.”
“Pitri could have died. I heard my father tell my mother.”
“She didn’t die. She will be all right. Your father said so.”
“I heard more. He told mother Pitri’s face won’t come back all the way.”
“Grandfather will find better doctors. Your father doesn’t know everything.”
Annoyed, Victor sat up, pressed his palms to his wet eyes. “Father said beauties like Pitri suffer when their beauty is damaged. We damaged her beauty, Andrea.”
That summer changed many lives. Father lost interest in Nuevo Laredo and hurried us off to Los Angeles, which was exactly as Mother had promised, full of orange groves and palm trees. I was put in boarding school and finally learned English.
My uncle, Doctor Hugo Escalante, received a huge promotion as head diagnostician of the Centro Medico in Mexico City. He moved his wife and Victor to the nation’s capital, where they enjoyed continued successes. My and Victor’s friendship suffered a break as the result of the Miss Chihuahua debacle. At one point he wanted to talk about it, but I wasn’t ready, and then when I wanted to vent, he said he had “made his peace.” Our childhood remained haunted by Miss Chihuahua. The magic of our first years together was as tainted as Pitri’s beauty had been by the Bells palsy.
The following year, Pitri and Pedro let Grandfather relocate them to Los Angeles, where no one knew Miss Chihuahua and she was just another girl. When they arrived, Mother prepared a huge gift basket of crackers, cheeses, jams, fruit, and salami. We hurried over to welcome them, baby Pedro, and Paulina, their new baby girl. Father had checked into trade schools for Pedro, who had decided to train as an elevator mechanic so he would “always have work.” Grandfather was paying for Pedro’s schooling and supporting them while he went to school full time and worked part time in a gas station near their apartment.
Pitri’s face did not come back all the way. Anyone who had known her earlier would have looked at her and thought: almost, not quite, but almost. And when she walked, she no longer glided. She walked like a person working to keep her balance. When she crossed the room, Pedro’s eyes followed her every step. Pitri laughed softly and said, “I’m getting there, Pedro.”
Grandfather and my parents spent hours on the phone wondering what more they could do for this hapless couple, both of whom were in the process of working to get their lives on a solid track: he with school, she with recovering from a stroke in the bloom of her life. Remorseful, I felt a deep need to jump in to help, to offer something more than good wishes.
I began by taking a bus after school to Pitri’s house to help with Pedrito and Paulina. Then, I started going over on Sundays after Mass to help put away the week’s groceries and on Mondays to help fold the laundry. That was enough for a while, until Pitri had Lucy, another baby girl, and then I recalled the work that Petra and other nanas did for me and my sister, Cristina. So I learned how to care for their babies and was rewarded with hugs and kisses. I was surprised to learn how much that meant to me. And so it went until Pedro finally finished school and began fixing elevators and purchased a home for his wife, son, and two daughters.
Soon I was walking Pedrito home from school. The only catch were the quiet moments when Pitri and I were folding baby clothes and she would look at me, her face full of gratitude and affection, and ask, “Andrea, why are you so good to me?”
Once I saw Pitri’s face, an important issue was settled: I would be her and her babies’ chauffeur. And so it was for over forty years.