Wednesday, May 21

North American Journeys, 11

"Jesús and his wife wintered every year in their hometown in Michoacán. Like thousands of other couples drawn north by conditions of soil and climate, then south by family ties, they drove the very same three thousand miles, valley by valley, twice a year. Jesús simply pointed the pick-up like a TV remote control and, zas, a century and a half of history came and went across their windshield.

"They went back to a ranchito, an antique way of life, a scrap of the nineteenth century held in place by stubbornness and poverty. Cobblestones, tile roof, it was picturesque as hell. Nopal cactus ten feet tall, stone fences, it made for an isolation so dense that cowboys still enlivened a pail of fresh milk with Swiss Miss and grain alcohol in the morning, and flat-footed the thing, and rode off to work all day. But what did they call that beverage? Jesús had to think. Nowadays people called it a toro prieto. Though Jesús could remember his grandfather saying that, back in the 1890s, people called it a palomillo.

"It was in the time of Jesús's grandfather that Mexican Central Plateau life underwent a trauma. Everybody in Michoacán agreed with that. Historically, it resembled the trauma Yakima County underwent when the Northern Pacific arrived, providing an outlet for Columbia Plateau wheat. The twentieth century caught up with Michoacán when private interests bought miles of swampland and drained it. Out of nowhere appeared guys who talked like books. They cleared their throats, reached in a paper bag that had writing on it, and extracted the twentieth century in the form of a new kind of seed corn. When they stuck that stuff in the ground, it yielded fat, heavy kernels that right away became what people wanted.

"With so much acreage in corn, with tractors eliminating the need for labor, country boys like Jesús's grandfather wandered off to the United States to work in railroad construction. The migrant flow kept swelling during the twenties, only to shrink with massive deportations during the Great Depression. But it was the Bracero Program, during the 1940s, which truly began the modern era of mexicano life in the U.S. Northwest. Whole trainloads of men journeyed up from Mexico City to harvest crops.

"And yet, despite the high wages, mexicanos never really trusted life in the north. From one of the early bracero trains--legend has it--half the passengers emptied out in Irapuato because of a rumor: the gringos meant to get them across the border, and then send them off to the front in World War II. After the war millions of young men rode trains north without even paying. Traveling fly-style they called it. The famous comedian Cantinflas--according to another legend--wanted to give the Mexican government two million pesos to let those poor people along."

--Philip Garrison

fr. Because I Don't Have Wings: Stories of Mexican Immigrant Life (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 2006)