One Man’s Familia
My grandfather quit school after the fifth grade to go to work. He wanted to give us a better lifeand that's what he did.
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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 of times, never considered any form of public assistance. The machismo mentality of his generation and his own work ethic made this option unthinkable. When my relatives discuss those days, “We never took handouts” is a common refrain.
In 1947 El Paso was in the throes of a severe post-war housing shortage, and the Rodriguez family was exhausted from constant relocations. So with the help of all the children and a few compadres, Grandpa built his own house in the Second Ward, or el Segundo Barrio, as it was called by its residents (everyone else in El Paso called it “the Mexican side”). Painted a powder-blue, the new house had three bedrooms and was considered quite luxurious for a family of nine.
In the interest of accuracy, Grandpa’s family should probably be described as “nine plus.” He and Grandma were extremely gregarious and thought nothing of inviting the entire block over for tamales. Their house was a nexus for the neighborhood, and the front door was never locked. (Or the back door, for that matter: My grandma once lost both sets of house keys during a dust storm, and no one ever bothered to replace them.)
Sometimes people came over and never left. When he was a teenager, for instance, my cousin Efrén, who lived down the street, was having trouble at home. Grandpa found Efrén a job at the foundry where he was employed part-time, and they rode to work together in the mornings until one day Efrén simply moved in. Another cousin, Rafaél, slept over one night and then also took up permanent residence. By way of explanation, my mother once remarked casually, “Well, his parents had too many kids.”
I was aghast. “But Mom, Grandpa had seven! Were these other children adopted?”
“Was Grandpa a foster parent?”
“Of course not. We had never heard of such a thing back then.”
“So wasn’t that a little weird, all these people just moving in?”
“Raul,” my mother said pointedly, “this is a Mexican family.“
Because Grandpa’s own schooling had been limited, he understood the value of education. “My father respected learning, and he had us reading a lot, so in that sense we were privileged,” my aunt Lola said. “Growing up, we didn’t have a radio, let alone a car, but we had all the Charles Dickens books, the Brontë sisters. I wore hand-me-down clothes, but after reading Anna Karenina, I felt like a countess.” None of my aunts and uncles can recall receiving anything other than books from Grandpa on their birthdays. Sometimes his yearning for a better life for his children was almost palpable. “During the war, we ate beans and rice at every single meal because money was tight,” Lola remembered, “but there I was, taking piano lessons. And we were the only family around with a piano.”
Later Grandpa was proud to send all of his children to the University of Texas at El Paso, where their majors ranged from education (Aunt Emma) to history (Aunt Lola) and English (my mother). “Your grandpa didn’t understand all of my course work,” Aunt Lola told me, “but he was always interested. He discouraged us from working, even part-time, so we could participate in school activities. He wanted us to have a true university experience.” So while Grandpa worked harder than ever, Emma was among the first Latinas on UTEP’s varsity tennis team, Lola earned a master’s in social work at Tulane, my mother got a master’s in school administration at Pepperdine, and Lela flew off to Uganda to be the governess for the British governor’s children.
Because he lacked “papers,” Grandpa was always self-conscious about his illegal status. Nearly fifty years after arriving from Mexico, he sought out a lawyer named George McAlmon, who helped him obtain his green card using his extensive work history as proof of residence. McAlmon charged Grandpa a total of $35. (He would subsequently achieve a measure of local fame by taking an immigration case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and winning.) Grandpa took and passed his citizenship test in 1965.
Eventually, after their graduations and marriages, my aunts and uncles would all make the trek westward to resettle in the suburbs of Los Angeles and pursue their careers. My mom married my dad, Adolfo Reyes, in 1960, and after my two brothers and I were born, in the mid-sixties, our family also relocated to Southern California. When my grandmother passed away, in 1970, Grandpa was alone in a sprawling house that had not known a quiet moment for decades. Yet as far as anyone could tell, he was never troubled by loneliness. “No te preocupes (Don’t worry),” he would say with a calm smile when anyone asked how he was doing. “I have a lot to do. Estoy contento.”
When I was growing up, my mom and her siblings and their families made frequent trips back to see Grandpa, and these visits were the highlight of my childhood. Don Lupe, as he was called, was mostly retired then, although he still worked occasionally on his bakery delivery route. When we needed his assistance or his company, whether to chaperone us to the five-and-ten-cent store or to fix our roller skates, he was always available. He took us to the Mexican National Rodeo in Juárez, taught us how to sail kites high above the house, and doled out money for popsicles on El Paso’s scorching summer afternoons.
Most often, though, Grandpa could be found reading the paper at his place at the dining room table or watching the fights on a small black and white TV in the dining room. His tranquil nature carried great weight in our large family, prone as it was to melodramatics and emotional outbursts. Whenever I went running to him with some tale of sibling rivalry or injustice, he would take a deep breath and then exhale slowly, making a “hmmph!” sound with grand resonance. The rest of the time, Don Lupe was a fleeting presence, ducking out the back door of the kitchen to do an odd job or heading off in his battered yellow pickup for a quick run to the hardware store. No one ever noticed his disappearances until the screen door would slam noisily behind him. Then someone would say, “Where’s Grandpa?” and we’d all look around blankly.
When I was in grade school, Grandpa encouraged my studying by letting me stay up as late as I wanted as long as I was working on school projects or reading. He taught me about recent events by using the Encyclopaedia Britannica and an accompanying Rand McNally World Atlas as study guides. Vietnam, he explained, was a small country in Southeast Asia and “a very sad place.” When I searched in vain in the W volume for “Watergate,” Grandpa told me it wasn’t in the encyclopedia. “Watergate is—” He sighed. “Pues, Watergate means—people in the White House did bad things and got caught.” I wanted to ask more, but he looked disappointed, so I let it drop. When the phrase sin vergüenza (“without shame”) was used around our house, it meant that one of us kids was misbehaving and dishonoring the family. President Nixon, Grandpa said solemnly, was “sin vergüenza.”
In junior high I loved it when Grandpa and I would sit in the dining room reading side by side all afternoon. By then he was working his way through Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization series while I was usually absorbed in my social studies book. Occasionally we would happen to turn a page at the same time, and these minor moments of synchronicity gave me an immense feeling of contentment. Reading at Grandpa’s side, I felt loved and protected and just like him. We were connected without speaking a word. Best of all, if I was involved in my book, Grandpa would keep everyone else (including my mother) at bay, with a stern glance if necessary.
My happiest time with Grandpa was when he came to my graduation from Harvard, in 1985. Of course my whole family was proud of me, but I had no idea how much my being in the Ivy League meant to Grandpa until he embraced me after the commencement exercises. He looked so alive and vibrant that day, and as my mom positioned us for pictures together, I saw tears in his eyes. “I was an illegal alien, de veras?” he said softy. I handed him my diploma—which, in keeping with my alma mater’s reputation, was enormous. “And now, aquí estamos . . .” He clutched my certificate and his words trailed off. There was a look of wonderment on his face, and for a moment we were in sync again as we both reflected on our family’s journey from the Chihuahuan Desert to Harvard Yard.
As we embraced that day in Cambridge, I wondered if Grandpa had ever imagined how far his efforts would take us. Possibly. This is a Mexican family.