One Man’s Familia

My grandfather quit school after the fifth grade to go to work. He wanted to give us a better life—and that's what he did.

It is the fall of 1997, the first time I have returned to El Paso since my grandfather’s death, ten years earlier. Standing in front of his house, on Tularosa Avenue, I am shocked to see the heart and hearth of la familia looking so forlorn and shabby. The sidewalk and driveway are crumbling, trash is strewn in the side yard, and the narrow patch of grass in front of the house is dead. Glancing down the deserted street, I realize that the whole neighborhood looks run-down. “Was it always this way?” I wonder. The late-afternoon wind blows hard around me, and for a moment I feel a childish impulse to run inside the house to get warm. But Grandpa is gone, and the house was sold years ago. These days two families live here, I’ve heard, young couples with children, though there is not a soul in sight . “And they certainly aren’t knocking themselves out keeping the place up,” I think bitterly. I don’t take pictures of the house, as I had planned. Instead, I turn up the collar of my jacket, get into my rental car, and drive to my hotel without looking back.

In hindsight, I don’t know what I was looking for that day. Maybe I was looking for Grandpa. Or maybe I was just trying to reconnect with his legacy, as intangible as it is powerful. In his lifetime he weathered adversity with dignity. Despite decades of hard work and mostly physical labor, he was never beaten down. And through his accomplishments, he set a standard for success for our family that endures to this day.

My grandfather Guadalupe Rodriguez was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1904, the son of a miner and the eldest of five children. His birthday fell on December 12, el Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico; so like most Mexican children born on that day, he was given her name and thought to be a child of good fortune. But the Virgin of Guadalupe could not protect his family from the violent winds of change. By Grandpa’s tenth birthday, the tumult and upheaval of the Mexican Revolution were sweeping across the state of Chihuahua, and because my great-grandfather had once been a business rival of Pancho Villa’s, the family’s position was particularly vulnerable. Back then, immigrating was not difficult. So, fearing for their lives, the Rodriguez family fled north to Texas—”starting all over with nothing,” as Grandpa once said.

In El Paso, Grandpa attended school only through the fifth grade, when he went to work to help support the family. He was a grocery store clerk and then a Western Union messenger boy, and he used part of his earnings to engage an English tutor for his younger siblings so they wouldn’t fall behind in their new schools. Because Grandpa held down several jobs concurrently, working straight through his adolescence, his brothers and sisters were able to finish their education. At 23 he married my grandmother María Sierra, whose family could trace its

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