Here I will learn about work, and I will learn about fathers, though I do not know it then, for I am a child, and all I know then is that every weekend morning and every morning of summer vacations mi apá will enter my room and announce, “Mijo, it’s five. Get up. It’s time to go to work.”
I will learn to dread those words, even be angered by them; I want to sleep, not work, so I will moan and complain, shield myself with blankets and pillows, stall, attempt to squeeze in another five minutes of dreams, pretend we never moved to the Central Valley from Los Angeles, where I used to spend Saturday mornings watching The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, playing soccer at Salt Lake Park, zapping ghouls on my latest Nintendo game.
In Los Angeles, mi apá worked as a fabric cutter in the garment industry. For over fifteen years he hauled rolls of denim and rayon and polyester blends on his shoulders, spread the fabrics across long wooden tables, made precision cuts by guiding the sharp blade of a machine he oiled every evening before clocking out. He shaped the fabrics into patterns sewn into evening gowns or dress shirts or coats, then ironed to a crisp, bagged, and shipped to department stores across the city.
In Los Angeles, the clothing factories lined the streets of downtown. There was always work, and mi apá always worked. The mercury on a thermometer could reach 102 degrees but that would not matter. Mi apá would work through sweats, coughs, cuts, and aches. He believed in work like others believed in God. He would relinquish vacation time for more pay. If a last minute order reached the desk of the foreman late in the afternoon, he would answer yes to the extra shift. He would answer yes to Saturdays. He would say yes to Sundays.
In fact, those first ten years of my life, I do not see him much. Mi apá appears in snapshots. At a birthday party of mine, he arrives with bags of cheeseburgers from McDonald’s, then stands on our red-tile roof tugging on a rope so a piñata could dance circles around me. On a Saturday when he does not work at the fábrica, he stands on the sidelines of a soccer field, cheering. On a lazy Sunday, during the years he flirted with becoming a radio disc jockey, I see him in the living room wearing large earphones, enunciating vowels into a microphone, introducing singers and bands from vinyl records that play on his turntable and serenade the house. Other times, mi apá exists more as a spirit of fear, his authority residing in his absence, hence invoked by mi amá and abuelita when I misbehaved. Mostly, however, I picture mi apá with a black lunchbox in his hand leaving for work and the same black lunchbox in his hand coming back from work about an hour or two before my sister and me go to bed.
But in the Central Valley, for someone like mi apá, whose education ended at second grade, whose knowledge is cotton and silk and gabardine, there is no work. There are only fields and orchards and packing houses, migrant work, unstable work, seasons of strawberries and oranges followed by seasons of uncertainty.
So mi apá turns to what he knows best—clothing. If he cannot make it, he will sell it. He returns to the garment district of Los Angeles and stocks our family van with dresses for little girls and pant suits for little boys. He converts our Ford Econoline into a swap meet machine, removes the back seats, builds a wooden platform with compartments and rows of metal poles to hang the clothing. For the following seven years or so, he will work the swap meet circuit of the Central Valley, and I will be dragged along, reluctantly.
“This is a family business,” mi apá will tell me. “Plus, I think it’s time you learn about work.”
Soon, I will learn the days of the week could be named according to the Central Valley towns which host swap meets. Saturday means Fresno’s Cherry Auction. Sunday belongs to Fresno’s Sunnyside Drive-In. Monday is Hanford’s Flea Market. Tuesday is back to Cherry Auction. Thursday is Visalia. Friday, Earlimart.
From these Central Valley towns, I will learn about the hunger of a summer sun, how it devours the blackness of a T-shirt and spits it out grey, how wearing a black T-shirt is foolish on a hundred degree day, how this same sun wraps around the metal poles we use to construct our swap meet stand, how contact with this metal means stinging hands. I will learn about sweat, how it burns the eyes, how it rings a t-shirt way below the neck line, how it drips from strands of hair. I will learn this sun loosens the dust of the fields where we set up shop, and therefore, the first task upon arriving is packing the dirt, hosing down our twenty-by-ten foot patch of dirt as if it is a garden. Mostly, our efforts will be futile, since the sun will dry the land, setting the stage for a possible mini-disaster, a dust devil ripping through our stand, transforming our metal poles and tarps into a giant kite, the dirt particles clinging to our merchandise, slashing our profits. So I will learn to read the sky, to detect spirals forming in the horizon, to grasp our metal poles upon hearing a fellow vendor warn, “Ay viene! Ay viene!”
During winter, I will learn about fog, its thickness, its dangers, how its whiteness envelopes the landscape and the view of the road as our van makes its way to the swap meet at the cusp of dawn, how mi apá speaks to the fog, says, “Híjole, no me dejas ver nada.” I will learn about coldness, how it weasels through my nose and pierces my lungs, how it seeps through the soles of sneakers, how it makes my steps heavy as if my feet were entombed in concrete, how a breakfast burrito wrapped in foil and stuffed in a thermos is no match for the cold; the tortilla will be wrinkled, its insides flavorless. I will learn to work without gloves because they are clumsy, though I will also learn to regret working without them. Every once in a while, the elastic bands with plastic knobs we use to fasten the tarp to the metal poles will slip from my hand and the knob will crack a numb knuckle. Then I will learn the meaning of “Chingue su!” Around midday, when the winter sun finally pokes through the haze of the sky and warms the swap meet, my fingers and toes will plump and burst like sausages on a grill.
Every morning, when we unload the merchandise from our van, my job will be to crouch inside and hand mi apá armfuls of dresses and pant suits. I will learn to work quickly, mechanically, twisting and contorting my body until the van is an empty belly, a skeleton of wood and metal. Though I will work at my family’s swap meet stand from the ages of ten to sixteen, each time I help unload I will stop for a second and be amazed that all of our merchandise and foldable racks and wooden tables fit in that van. Then I will help decorate our stand until it is a jungle of lace and taffeta, lush with fluffy dresses in pink and yellow and lipstick red. I will organize the dresses and pant suits by size. I will learn their prices by memory, be able to add the prices without the aid of a calculator or a pen and paper. And I will learn to guess a child’s size by simply looking or asking for an age.
The latter will prove to be a useful skill, for often, a man in worn jeans and a flannel shirt will wander into our swap meet stand and peruse our selection of children’s clothing. He will relate a common story. He will tell me he left his wife and children to follow rumors of work, stories of American work. He will have found work in the agricultural fields of the Valley, doing the kind of work that makes a back hurt good but not good enough to pay for the border-crossing of his family. He will tell me his daughter will be celebrating a birthday or a first communion, and that he wants to buy her a dress, something really nice, something she could show off to her friends. After he picks a dress of his liking, I will ask, “How old is she?”
Sometimes, the man will respond without hesitation, and I will suggest that he buy one size bigger because that is the safe bet. Other times he will only provide a range of ages or lift his hand to his torso and signal the possible height of his daughter. And then there are the times when the man will be speechless. I will see him search his memory for an image of his daughter, the look of her eyes, the color of her hair, a face he knows should come naturally, but doesn’t. Instead of his daughter’s presence, I will see his work flash in his mind, his picking of lemons and grapes, his pruning of peach trees, his life condensed into work followed by more work. I will see him wondering if he has written or called home lately, wonder how long it has been since he has traveled back to his old hometown, wonder about time itself, how rapidly it happens, how it keeps working and working without notice. And I will see questions plunge into his chest: will his daughter remember him? When that dress reaches her hands, when it slips down her body, will she think of him? When she sees herself in a mirror, when eyes scan the dress from bottom hem to neckline, will she recognize his features? Will she understand?
Here, in the swap meets of the Central Valley, the flea markets, the pulgueros, the tianguises, the remates, the open-air marketplaces relegated to the margins of towns and abandoned drive-in theaters, I will remember mi apá because we will share work. We will share the swap meet sun, the winter cold, the wrinkled burritos, the dust devils, the van rides through fog. We will share walks through the aisles of the swap meets, buy cherries in small plastic bags sold by the fruit vendors, eat tacos de asada from the taco truck, argue about prices with customers, worry about a slow business day. Here, out of metal poles and a tarp, we will build a home away from home, a place to share our lives, a place where a son will learn about his father.
On that first day, it will be dark out still, the sun hiding somewhere else in the world. All he will see is the Mexican moon. All he will smell is the coffee from the local harvests brewing, its aroma slicing a slight morning chill, urging everyone to their feet, to their day of work. And all he will hear is the cacophony of roosters. Once up, he will take two buckets and tie them to the ends of a wooden stick. He will walk to the river and fill the buckets, balancing them as best he can for the trek back.
Here, in this village tucked in the mountains of the Agua Fría in Guerrero, he will be harvested from the land; he will learn from the land. On this first day of work he will be six years old; he will be on a horse with his stepfather. They will stop in the middle of a field of frijol, the field surrounded by hillsides, by hillsides and nothing else, really. He will know this because when his stepfather turns the horse and rides way, leaving only water and instructions to clear weeds, he will scream and cry, and no one will come investigate the tantrum he is throwing. He will scream and cry until his throat turns hoarse, until he is too exhausted to create sound or tears. The truth is that first day, and the second, and the third, and maybe all week, he will do no work. He will be too busy being afraid of the vastness of the land, of being alone, of being six years old and alone, of being six years old and expected to be a man. Then, that next week, he accepts this life of a campesino, fills his days and evenings toiling the fields, covered in dirt and sweat, at least for now. And soon, he will learn how to wield a machete, how to dry coffee beans under a mountain sun, how to plant frijol. He will become pretty good at that. During planting season, his stepfather will hire him out to landowners throughout their village. They will say he has a hand of gold, that when he plants their fields, their harvests are plentiful. Some days he will work twelve hours, from the first light of day to the last. He will walk home hunched because he has spent all day back-bent, and walking home upright will be too painful. Some nights he will sleep knees to his chest.
Every once in a while, he will escape to be a child—dip his body in the river, catch shrimp lurking under rocks, make toy cars out of matchboxes and soda bottle caps, play marbles, chase iguanas for meat he will one day tell a son tastes like chicken. Come sunset, in this village of his, there will only be the lights of the moon and stars, of kerosene lamps and candles, of fireflies floating in the air, all dancing to the muffled gargles of the river nearby. This will be his simple life, where mules and horses kick up dirt on the roads, where he will learn about work.
From books he will learn little, because by second grade his stepfather will say there’s no need for them. He will say what a man learns from the land is all he needs to learn. A few years later, given all of their work, including his stepfather’s and mother’s, they will have accumulated enough wealth to own parcels of land, and he will not only be a campesino, but foreman as well. He will command the respect of men four to six times his age, delegate duties for a day’s work, increase the harvests year in and year out. He will learn to live in a nice home stocked with food.
But here, he will learn money does not always bring out the best of a man, that money can be lost far quicker than it can be made, that tabs on alcohol multiply, the heaviness of those debts landing on his prepubescent shoulders and those of his mother. He will learn his stepfather is more stepfather than father, that the biological sons are just that, his sons, whereas he will be a son with a prefix. He will be more worker than son, actually. Maybe, even, he will be more machine than worker.
And he will learn that his stepfather is not much of a husband either. He will learn to not expect him home on weekends, learn that he will disappear for days on end, only to reappear with empty pockets and a hangover. He will tune out the ensuing arguments between him and his mother, call the name of his German shepherd, Castel, and take long walks into the mountains or to the river, find comfort in the land that once seemed so lonely and fearful.
Eventually he will learn where his stepfather goes. When he finds him, he will say, “My mother says we need money,” and his stepfather will dig into his pockets and toss him coins as if he was a beggar, and with his free arm he will be embracing a woman he will learn is one of his mistresses at a place he will learn is called a brothel.
About his mother, he will learn to love her regardless of it all, to love her because she will be the only one who will love him back, because he will learn that a woman is susceptible to some of the worst suffering, especially in that time and place of México, in that world of machismo that looks too much like a caricature, and especially when a woman is madly in love. As he grows older he will tell himself this must be something like love, as unhealthy and ugly as it is, as illogical and abusive as it is, because if it is not love, the blinding kind of love, he will not know what to make of this childhood of his. After all, was this mother not the same woman who left his biological father many years ago, who one morning told this biological father she was going to buy bread, but never made it to the store?
Instead, a taxi cab waited a few blocks away. They drove hundreds of miles to a small city in Guererro. There, they rode horseback for hours into the Agua Fría in the mountains of the Sierra Madre. If his mother wanted to make sure she would never be found, she had picked the perfect place. Amidst the simplicity of campesino life, she and her son could be lost; she could keep her vow to the Virgen de Guadalupe that her husband would never see their son again.
Why his mother fled, why all the secrecy, and why she did not also leave his stepfather sooner than later, he will never completely understand. He will simply try to convince himself it must have something to do with love and the craziness of such things.
Still, throughout his life, he will ask about his biological father, and he will receive bits and pieces—trucker, master mechanic, older man, family’s lineage from Spain, family well-off, had a previous marriage and two daughters, became involved with his ex-wife. He will receive bits and pieces and some times they will change and some times they will not and some times he will stop caring but mostly he will not. He will harbor inside a yearning for a father. Years later, when he has a son of his own, when the two of them are driving down the 99 to Los Angeles to restock merchandise for the family swap meet stand, in that long stretch of road that gives way to conversation, he will relate that not knowing your father is like not having a past. That people desire to understand their origins. That people want, need a history. That not having this sense of beginning makes you feel lost, makes you feel like there is no identity behind the face you see every morning. And that if you’re lost, you constantly wonder where you’re going.
But back over here, here at the Agua Fría, as he approaches his teenage years, he will learn to dream, to believe there is more to the world than working the land. He will realize he was not born into this world of machetes and hoes. He will hear the other campesinos call him chilango, a native of México City. Once he will ask a campesino what is behind the massive mountains encircling them like the arms of a god, and the campesino will say, “Out there is the land of your birth.” Those words will turn and tumble in his head, young as he is, and he will digest them as prophecy; he will tell himself that one day he will be back to this Mexico City. He will tell himself this every time he looks at those mountains.
But first the hurricane.
From the force of wind and rain, he will learn more about the river, that river where he fished and caught shrimp, where he bathed, where the woman washed clothes on stones. He will learn how a mad river swells, how it bursts and spills through the village streets dragging everything in its way—the crops of bean and coffee, the cows, the chickens, the trees, the homes of stone and brick, the fences, the wooden chairs, the tables, the cots, the homes and livelihoods of the people, the hopes of the people, the people themselves. He will learn that even the mighty hillsides have a breaking point, that they too succumb under days and nights of pounding wind and rain. He will watch a hillside split, sliced as if a cake, sliding down into a neighboring village he will later hear was devoured entirely. All of it.
Luckily, when the hurricane hit, his home will be spared, for it sits high enough on a hill to survive the onslaught of rising water. But as the rain and wind subsides, from atop, he will see his world flooded. See the kids with dead parents roaming aimlessly. See the adults with no work or food. Hear the cries and moans of the living grieving their dead. See the campesinos and landowners alike, with no land. See his future like the land—ravaged.
And so, here, he will learn that he must go. He must go. Go.
At the age of thirteen, about a year or so after the hurricane, he will board a bus to México City with only a duffle bag and an address in his back pocket, the address of a family friend given to him by his mother who will follow as soon as she can.
On a Sunday afternoon, many years later, he will tell that son of his about a biting cold waking him on that bus as it cruised down a mountain and into the valley of central México. He will tell his son the story because as he and his son are waiting for customers at a swap meet in California, a song called “Como Te Extraño” will be blasting from the stand of a music vendor. He will say that same song was playing when he first laid eyes on México City. He will say that whenever the song plays he remembers waking up on that bus, and the fear. Mostly, he will say he remembers the fear. He will say he felt as if he was six years old again, on that first day of work in the middle of a field, alone—alone and scared. He will say that he had never seen so many lights in his life. That compared to the occasional flickers of a village night, the city lights could consume him, like the waters of the hurricane he had survived. That the sight of the endless lights of México City is one of the scariest things he has ever experienced.
And he will say that somehow, lodged in a remote corner of that paralyzing fear, there was a sense he could make it, that he could survive whatever was coming his way, that the rest of his life awaited him, because he knew one thing for sure: he had learned about work.
“So, you see mijo,” mi apá will say, “All I can teach you is work, because my life has been work. I don’t know much about being a father. I never really had one. But I can teach you about work.”