All About My Mother

All about my mother Three daughters, two countries, one life, no regrets.

February 2003By Comments

SHE WAS AS THEY SAY in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, del rancho, from one of the scrappy ranches on the outskirts of town, which should have meant she was so shy she wouldn’t even eat in front of strangers. But the boys she met at the dances in the city were always surprised to learn that she had been raised on a ranch, because she wore the most fashionably daring clothes and liked to converse and go to the movies.

He was 23. He didn’t know too much about her, only that he wanted to dance with her that night. You see, he was from a ranch too, but from a real one farther down the same road, where agriculture had paid off in big wads of cash that were traded for gaudy furniture. Although they had attended the same elementary school, their backgrounds had set them worlds apart. It wasn’t until he was a young man with a trim mustache that he would watch her across the aisle of the bus from town. He was so smitten with her that when she got off, he would take the spot where she had sat, just to feel what was left of her. Sometimes, when he drove by Rancho San Pedro on his way home, he would honk in case she was sitting by the window or wandering about outside and might turn to look.

But she was oblivious. She had promised herself that she would not date any of the young men from the ranches, whose small-town ideas about the world frustrated her. She had grown up admiring the city lights. From her family’s property, she could see them winking in the distance if she walked far enough into the fields, and they stood for all the things that couldn’t be hers on that little patch of dirt. There, for six years of schooling, she had squeezed an old rag late at night through the top of a petroleum can and lit it, devouring the facts and numbers she had printed as her teacher dictated them aloud, because too many of the schoolchildren couldn’t pay for textbooks. She rose to the top of her class and even got to carry the Mexican flag once during an end-of-year assembly, decked out in her cousin’s pink quinceañera dress since she couldn’t afford a school uniform like everyone else.

Then it was over: no free education after the sixth grade in her country, and the young women—especially las del rancho—had to get a job or help watch their younger brothers and sisters. But she kept on daydreaming, thrilled when she sat by the radio and listened to it murmur of all the great things man did, like walk on the moon. On infrequent trips to the hospital in Matamoros, she would idolize the nurses in their crisp white uniforms. One day, she believed, she too would live in the city and wear a white uniform—maybe a chemist’s lab coat. All she knew about her future was that she wanted to discover new things.

So naturally, when this young man offered her a goofy, hopeful grin from across the dance floor that night in 1969, she didn’t understand. And she didn’t really care for it either, despite his good looks and his reputation as a charming guy. What could he want? she wondered. To dance, he confessed. She hesitated. But then—who knows why—she said yes.

“I LIKE THE WORD ŒWI-DOW,'” my mother told me recently. She was speaking in Spanish, the only language she knows well, but she allowed the precariously pronounced English word to teeter on the tip of her tongue. Then, aware of the stigma of being a woman alone, she added, almost defiantly, ” I’m not ashamed. It gives you personality.”

She had slipped on her black-rimmed glasses to inspect the naturalization certificate she had just received. At the age of 53, she had finally become a citizen of the United States. Always on the fringe—that had been her biography. I had thought about this as a solemn woman opened the ceremony with a dramatic rendition of “America the Beautiful” and the robed judge thanked the inductees for representing the very best of this country. Even though I, an American citizen by birth, have in some ways become jaded about the meaning of U.S. citizenship, that morning I found myself swelling with pride for my mother. She herself had been a little distracted during the ceremony, flustered by the way everyone raced through the Pledge of Allegiance. But when the vocalist took the microphone one last time and filled the auditorium with glass-shattering strains of “God Bless America,” she blinked rapidly and began to fan herself.

It wasn’t until we were outside, walking toward her silver pickup under the warm South Texas sun, that she began dabbing sloppily at her red eyes. For the first time, she told me that when she was about eight, she had briefly attended an elementary school in Brownsville, just across the Rio Grande from her Mexican hometown. She wasn’t supposed to be there, of course, a child whose family had tiptoed across the border sin papeles, “without papers.” She and her parents and her little brother, Raul, had squeezed into a one-room, rat-infested shack. At the American school the students had sung “Ten Little Indians” and “God Bless America.” She was crying now because the song had brought back bittersweet memories of how tough things had been then for that bony, dark-skinned girl who didn’t belong.

Indeed, for most of her life my mother has been only a partial member of her own world. She was taught how to be a woman in rural Mexico during the fifties and sixties. As a daughter, she was expected to shoulder responsibility without questioning. As a wife, she was expected to serve without resenting. As a mother, she was expected to sacrifice without looking back. Soon it was difficult for her to remember the days when she had indulged in making plans, in thinking about what might make her happy. Only in recent years has my mother begun to make sense of how life changed her and then brought her old self back. Only in recent years has she begun talking to my two sisters and me about herself—not about who she is in relation to anybody else, but about who she is, plain and simple.

I’M NOT SURE WHEN Mami’s dreams vanished, but they must have fluttered out the window on one of those 45-hour drives on Interstate 10 to California. Maybe it was the time she rode a Greyhound alone because she was utterly pregnant with twins and didn’t fit on the passenger seat of our uncle’s pickup yet would have been equally uncomfortable in the back camper. She still cries when she remembers how—three days into the trip and not far from the city where my father and five-year-old sister, Cristina, were waiting to meet her—the bus stopped for a two-hour layover in Oakland and she walked around aimlessly on swollen feet under miserable skyscrapers.

Antonia Hinojosa and Cristóbal Ballíhad begun dating after he asked her to dance that night in Matamoros. He and his first wife had ended their marriage some time before, so he ran off with this improbable ranch girl and married her. His father, a Mexican American who had chosen to make a life on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, had planned to leave his ranch to him, but my dad was irreverent and reckless and lost his inheritance to an older brother who worked harder. Now that he was ready to settle down, he was forced to begin from scratch. He filed for American citizenship, rented a small house in Matamoros, and was driving city buses in Brownsville when my mother bore a beautiful baby girl.

Once Cristina turned one, he and my mother decided to cast their lot with the migrant workers who made seasonal pilgrimages to California, where there were fields of ripe tomatoes to pick and few labor laws. In fact, when César Chávez and his people came by urging the workers to demand an eight-hour day, my mother wouldn’t hear of it. Every extra hour under the sun was an additional brick on the house she and my dad would build when they settled back in Texas. In Davis they tracked down some cousins and rented a tiny two-bedroom in the same migrant camp. It had no living room or air conditioner, but it cost just $60 a month. They figured the sacrifice would pay off in a few years.

She did not fully know yet how to be a woman in Mexico, much less in the United States. But my mother was determined to do her part to make her family’s life better. Antonia Hinojosa de Ballí became Antonia H. Ballí, and she tried not to think much about the ranch back home, instead putting blind faith in the idea that raising a good family and working hard in a strange country would get us all somewhere. For the most part, it did. Papi was soon hired to drive a big truck that hauled tomatoes to other cities, which paid far better than hoeing and picking them. And our mom eventually became a cook at the migrant camp’s preschool, where she could keep an eye on Celia and me, her toddler twins. They saved every penny they could and watched their three daughters grow.

IN 1981, WHEN I WAS five, the trips to California finally ceased. Back in Brownsville, we moved into a small wood-frame house in the Las Prietas subdivision while our mother and father built our brick one. There was no contractor involved. Don Lencho, an old carpenter friend from Matamoros, put up the towering frame, and a couple of hired hands helped lay the beige-colored brick. Soon we were living on Clover Drive, across the street from Perez Elementary School, where Celia and I would begin kindergarten and where Cristina, who was ten years old by then, would finally be able to sit in one classroom all year long. Mami took a job cooking for a nursing home, and Papi bought a used 1973 Crown Victoria and painted it egg-yolk yellow, proudly stenciling his cab number—a bold, black “15”—on the front fenders of his new business.

For my sisters and me, household chores consisted mainly of doing homework. Though our mom could not help us with it, every evening after dinner she would wipe off the dining room table that doubled as a desk and often slip us a favorite snack as we worked out long math problems. When the local grocery store offered a cheap encyclopedia in installments, she carefully timed each trip so that she wouldn’t miss a single volume, bringing home some eggs and milk and another $2 book full of knowledge. After 31 weeks of patient shopping, the full set stood in our living room bookcase, looking rather dignified. And she never missed the school’s open-house nights. She might have barely understood some of our teachers, but she made sure to smile and nod her head as we translated how we were doing in school: “Dice que soy muy buena estudiante.”

Almost instinctively, she knew that she wanted our lives to be different from hers, yet it took time for her to figure out just what that would require. Because she had been brought up in another culture, where being a child meant something else, at first she wouldn’t let us indulge in activities she considered childhood frills, like going to friends’ slumber parties and volunteering after school as crossing guards. But we pushed as far as we could. We had to convince her, for one, that extracurricular activities were important. When the troop leaders at an informational Girl Scout meeting began discussing expenses, her under-the-table pinches urged us to leave, but Celia and I held back our tears and refused to get up. In the end, our mom worked out a compromise with one of the troop leaders; our Aunt Letty, who made beautiful wedding gowns, stitched our Brownie dresses with fabric that was only half a shade darker than the official uniform. Trial and error—that was the way my sisters, our mother, and I forged our relationship in the early years of my life.

THE CANCER WAS EATING HIM up, chewing him from head to toe like an impatient dog. His hair was the first casualty. The chemotherapy left it lying in clumps on his white pillow, so much that you could soon see his pale scalp under the few sad strands that remained. Gone were the days when he would spend hours before the mirror gelling it all in place, even though he would be spending most of the day sitting under a palm tree next to his yellow cab as he waited for customers. The tumor was lodged behind his nose, and all the radiation on his face had made him extremely weak. Now our dad used the mirror to watch himself as he performed the daily jaw exercises the doctor had ordered, forcing him to make exaggerated, contorted faces. Plus, something was rotting inside him, we were convinced, because his disease made him smell very bad. Every morning in the hallway, my mother would have to coax me, quietly so that his feelings wouldn’t be hurt, to walk to his bed and kiss him good-bye, as my sisters and I had always done before running off to school.

Two years after we had settled in Brownsville, after our father had turned 36 and his sinus problems had grown increasingly worse, we made that fateful trip to a Harlingen clinic, where the doctor announced that he was seriously ill. Our parents received the news together, and though they said little, they understood that in too many cases cancer meant death. “So much for building my credit,” Papi muttered as they walked out glumly. When he saw his three daughters, though, he tried to appear cheerful, and since fast food was considered a special treat, he announced that he felt like eating a really big hamburger.

In reality, he was devastated. He was immediately given a dose of radiation and then went to Houston every few months for checkups at M.D. Anderson, where he could get free treatments. In between, he drank himself to sleep and laughed in cancer’s face. “El cáncer me hace los mandados,” he would brag. It was the cancer that took orders from him. Once, on his way to a bar after he had been drinking at home, he lost control of his car and took down the fence of our elementary school. He would curse and slam doors and throw things when he felt like it, then try desperately to make amends the next morning. It was his way of coping with his downfall, with the fact that, deep down, he understood life was cruelly slipping away.

For five years our mother bore it all stoically, calmly even. She made the long trips to Houston with him, spending hours embroidering Mother Goose pillows for us while he slept. She was forced to quit her job, leaving us with no income at all. But she tried to stay focused on helping our dad feel better, especially since the doctor told her that he cried when she wasn’t with him. One day, when he said he wanted some caldo de pollo, she rode the only bus route she knew to a Mexican neighborhood on the other side of Houston, where she found the chicken broth he was craving. “The patient prefers Spanish foods,” the doctor had noted in his file. By the time she returned, four hours later, the patient had fallen asleep.

As he lay dying, he wept regretfully and pleaded for forgiveness. Then he was gone, just moments before my sisters and I arrived to see him. A few hours later we were riding back to Brownsville in the darkness, my mother embracing me silently as we nodded in and out of sleep. She asked the mortician to dress him in the only suit he owned—the brown one he had bought at the Salvation Army store he often rummaged through to kill time on his trips to Houston. Though she wept a little, she made sure to greet the many people who came to the funeral home to pay their respects. Even when she closed the coffin, she was surprisingly, almost embarrassingly, composed.

It was weeks later, when she was home and we were off at school, that she cried, letting her pain fill the walls of her empty brick house. She cried for the times the nurses had poked him blue in search of a vein, cried for the days his anxiety attacks had gotten so bad he had sworn his flesh was falling off his bones. In those tears went the long nights by his hospital bed, the hot trips to California, the evening he had asked her to dance. Seventeen years later it was just her, her and three daughters and an undetermined future. No husband. No job. No guarantees. She was so young to be left alone, so old to be starting her life. She was 38.

But after all the sadness had been emptied and God had answered her prayers for peace, my mother’s anxieties turned into resignation—then into exhilaration. For the first time in her life, she began to feel like an independent adult, and the sensation was liberating. She knew immediately what she would do: She would work hard and take care of her daughters. That was what she already knew how to do, only now it would be on her own terms.

Slowly, she began to piece herself back together. She had applied for a job cooking in the public schools after my father died; nearly a year later, she was hired. One day she noticed a line of people outside the school district’s offices. When she asked them what the line was for, they said they were signing up to take the general equivalency diploma exam. On a whim, she put down her own name, and although she hadn’t sat in a classroom in nearly thirty years, she took the test in Spanish and received a high school diploma.

I remember when she bought her first car and posed with us for a Polaroid that would be tacked up on the dealer’s wall—four smiling women and an equally proud 1988 charcoal-gray Plymouth Reliant. Her first new car. In her name. That car was her little mobile home for the next six years, the place where she spent many hours in a school parking lot waiting for us to emerge from a late choir rehearsal or student council meeting. When we had a concert or an awards assembly, she always sat near the front, making every effort to appear interested despite the ungraceful sounds of our awkward sixth-grade band. She made only about $7,000 a year working full-time, so when I cried to her that I would be the only clarinet player at the all-state band tryouts with an old, second-rate instrument, she made mental calculations for days. Finally, she charged my $1,300, top-of-the-line Buffet clarinet on a credit card.

“WHEN YOU THREE BEGAN TO learn is when I began to learn,” my mother once told me, oblivious of the fact that the reverse had also been true. In our family, almost everything is a group project, and one person’s accomplishment belongs to everyone else. Our mom didn’t get to be a chemist after all—didn’t even get to middle school—but she has three college degrees hanging on her wall and several graduate degrees coming. And they are all hers as much as they are ours. She is a social worker, a journalist, a lawyer. Even as young adults, we continue to seek her help and her company. It is not just that her experiences help us put our own challenges in perspective; it is that they reside deep within us. It is that a little part of her is with us always, making us the women we want to be.

She has had to swallow the consequences of choosing a different life for her daughters. When Cristina insisted that she had to leave Brownsville to get a degree in social work, our mom was afraid to let her go, but she halfheartedly packed up the Reliant and drove her firstborn to San Antonio. Her heart sank when, walking into the dorm where my sister would be spending the next several years, she saw the students sitting around the lobby. The scene was painfully familiar: They reminded her of sad relatives in a hospital waiting room. Two years later she forced a smile and waved good-bye from the tiny Brownsville airport as her twins flew away to New York and California. She later told me that she had wept the night before as, for the last time, she ironed my long-sleeved cotton shirts just the way I liked them. The way my father had liked them too.

But a new kind of life, one that she had longed to know as a child, opened up to her when we left. In endless late-night phone conversations, she sympathized with our registration hassles, asked about our new friends, reminded us to eat well and sleep plenty. She came to visit me in California, where we climbed the sloping streets of San Francisco and revisited the migrant camp in Davis that had been her first home in the United States. When I spent a semester in Puebla with a Mexican exchange program, she made the eighteen-hour bus trip with me, exploring places she’d never known in her own country. She took lots of pictures, later carrying them in her purse to show her co-workers.

Then, in 1996, Celia took her to New York. She was horrified by the crazy driving and the subways where people stared, so she insisted on walking dozens of blocks at a time to see the city. On a sticky July morning, they decided to visit the Statue of Liberty. Our mom knew little about the scores of immigrants who had passed by the monument for generations, but as a child she had glimpsed it in books and on television, and it had represented the glitzy life of New York—a cosmopolitanism this little girl from the ranch had always wished for herself.

Standing there in her broken-in walking shoes, her unruly black curls dancing as the ferry glided across the cold blue waters to Ellis Island, Mami choked up and tingled all over as she contemplated that majestic woman for the first time. Miles away from the fringes of Matamoros, Antonia Hinojosa felt she had seen the world.

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