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 New Mexico roots back to 1744. Together they would have seven children; the youngest girl was also born on December 12 and also named Guadalupe—my mother.

I never really knew that much about Grandpa’s early years because they were muy duro, as he put it, very hard, and he didn’t like to talk about them. Like most Americans, the Rodriguez family suffered through the Depression, when work of any kind was scarce. The difficult times forced them to move from place to place in El Paso because they could not compete with the more affluent for housing. As if the continual uprooting of their large family was not enough, in one particularly humiliating instance my grandparents were actually evicted. “And we never even liked that place anyway!” my grandmother used to say indignantly. When I asked my aunts and uncles what they remembered about Grandpa from their childhood, they invariably said that he was constantly working yet always seemed to be around for what today would be called quality time. He supervised the construction of my uncles’ go-carts, carved wooden toys for my aunts, and taught my mom to ride a bike. He was the unofficial neighborhood driving instructor too, though it was hardly to his credit when my aunt Emma hit the gas pedal instead of the brake one day and crashed his truck into the side of the house. Emma cringed while Grandpa examined the huge cracks in the wall. “Mmm,” he murmured. “ Pues, it’s summer. Maybe we’ll get a breeze inside now.”

My grandpa was nothing if not industrious, toiling over the years as a baker, a deliveryman, a butcher, a carpenter, and a mechanic. He took his role as a provider seriously, so six-day workweeks, long hours, and scrupulous saving were the norm for him. “He never stopped off for a beer after work like everyone else’s father did,” my mom told me, “and he never went to the races, even though Ruidoso Downs was nearby. He was too focused on getting us out of the underclass.”

The poverty issue of nearly sixty years ago still divides my family today. According to my aunt Lela, the eldest, “It was dreadful back then! You wouldn’t believe how we lived. The filth! The cockroaches! The rats! Your gramps did everything he could to get us out of that damn barrio!” When I mentioned these comments to my mother, however, she hotly disputed Lela’s recollections. “No, we were poor, but our house was never filthy. And though we didn’t have a lot, my dad saw to it we had everything we wanted.” Her voice rose a little defensively as she went on. “I had lots of books, birthday parties, and a dollhouse big enough to walk in!” The opinions of the rest of my aunts and uncles range between these two perspectives; obviously, life with seven kids was no walk in the parque. But everyone agrees that Grandpa, even in the worst

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