In 1911, in a small town called Autlan, in the state of Jalisco Mexico, my Grandfather (my mother’s father), at the age of sixteen made a decision that was about to changethe course of his life and the course of our family’s history in a profound way. His name was Honorio Llamas Garcia and his father Mauricio had recently died, leaving his mother Donaciana Garcia de Alba with the burdensome task of collecting the rents from the many tenants living on their land. She was unfamiliar with the job at hand and found herself in a very vulnerable position. My grandfathers uncle Bonifacio stepped in and offered to take on the job.
Many months passed and Bonifacio failed to come up with any of the rents he was to have been collecting. My grandfather was still a boy and began to ponder how he might be able to help his mother in this situation.
As he eventually came to realize, uncle Boni had been collecting all right. But his mother never received neither money nor any whatsoever and would not stand up against Bonifacio since he was a man and much more powerful than she.
Grandfather’s brothers were not being of much help, so one day he went to Bonifacio himself and began to demand payment to his mother. Bonifacio was on horseback and lifted his whip to strike the young boy who had the audacity to threaten an elder. Picking up a rock, he prepared to hurl it at the mounted man.
But at the last minute, he backed off in fear and respect and the encounter ended without mishap.
Shamed that he was powerless to help his mother and enraged that she had claimed that there was nothing she could do, he took drastic measure and vowed that he would leave Mexico, never to return.
He left for the United States around the time of the Mexican revolution, leaving his mother and his brothers Fausto, Mauricio and Jaime who was still in seminary school behind.
I can still remember as a young boy, going to Mexico with my parents and visiting uncle Jaime in the big house. Next door lived Bonifacio with his daughter Josefina. Boni was a very sick old man by then. He had to be spoon fed and could not even go to the bathroom by himself. But this was long before I knew the story. Otherwise, I doubt I would’ve pitied the old man as I did.
MEETING MOM AND DAD IN AUTLAN
The AeroMexico flight was floating quietly south over the blue green coastline on the pacific side of mainland Mexico. We landed in Manzanillo, a coastal resort town a little more than half way down into Mexico and the starting point from where, a few days later I was to meet my parents in Autlan which was just hours away. Manzanillo is the home of the famous resort, “Las Hadas”, where the movie “10″ was filmed. I had situated myself in a relatively cheap hotel just a ten minute walk (if you know the trail) to the north side of the resort where I planned to get a picture of one of the most beautiful spots I had ever visited. A calm little cove, lined by graceful coconut trees where a wide cobblestone street met the sand. The water was such a perfect temperature and the breeze so warm a gentle that I felt this was the one place I could spend the rest of my life. Unfortunately, upon arriving at my magical spot, I noticed that quite a transformation had taken place. The solitude of the beach was gone forever. The abundant vegetation had been hacked away and was now replaced by condos. Hundreds of them. All stacked up upon each other, forming an four story complex with roads, balconies, restaurants and shops. Still unfinished, and engulfing an entire hill. Like ants, workmen were scurrying around while sunbathers splashed in front of a huge canopied outdoor eatery. Merchants had set up stalls, selling everything from fruit to bathing suits and on the far side of the beach, a couple of Federales were sitting in the shade, calmly watching people come and go. “So much for that”, I thought as I walked back to my twenty-two dollar a night hotel on the other side of the hill. I would be here another night before taking a taxi inland, having prearranged for the cab driver that had driven me from the airport to meet me in front of the hotel on the morning I’d wanted to leave. He was there on time, waiting at the front steps. I noticed some other passengers in the back seat. They turned out to be his wife, his mother-in-law and two kids. I quietly wondered why he’d chosen to leave the dog and the pig at home.No matter though, they were really very nice people and since they knew very little English and I needed the practice, I thought of it as more of an opportunity than an inconvenience. Soon we’d left the tropicality of the coastal area and began the long climb over the steep mountain range we’d have to cross. On the other side of it was a beautiful valley. Fields filler with rows of corn, lemons, cucumbers, tomatoes and sugar cane decorated the landscape that rose up to meet us. And of course the ubiquitous maguey plants, used in the making of Tequila or Mescal, which is just Tequila without the impurities taken out and the way the Aztecas used to drink it. This was always the sight that would fill me with happiness and nostalgia. From here you could see the tall stone churches that marked the center of the small town of Autlan (Ow-clan). Where, as kids, my brother and I had gone to school one summer while school was out on summer break in the states. And almost every year, our parents would bring us and later, our younger sisters, here to visit relatives. I think that one summer in particular was the time our outlook on the world really changed. We actually became a part of a town that was a world away from what we were used to. In 1960, there was more horse and donkey traffic than cars and trucks in Autlan, and in the mornings, the clatter of sometimes large groups of horses and cattle on the cobblestones would signal the beginning of the working day. Or the creaking of a battered pickup as it made its way up the narrow street, dodging large potholes and held together with bailing wire and rope. My brother Greg, and I had School at Centro Escolar Chapultepec situated on the outskirts of town. We walked there every morning through the maze of cobblestoned streets taking in the sights and smells of the early morning, occasionally stopping to throw our wooden toy tops down onto an unbroken piece of sidewalk. A very popular game at the time and almost every boy in town owned a top.
For the first two months before school and on lunch hours we played what our schoolmates dubbed “American Football” in the dirt soccer field.The boys figured that if you had an American pigskin and played it like soccer (which they called Futbol) that it would naturally be called American Futbol. I’m sure they were just trying to impress us about how much they knew about North Americans and everyone seemed to want to be our friend which was fine with us.
Our great uncle Jaime’s portrait graced a mural that included many other great Mexican historical figures and covered the entire entrance hall of the school and this may have had something to do with our popularity but we really didn’t consider it at the time. On breaks, a man came around with a cart selling jicama (a large turnip like fruit), or cucumbers peeled and sliced. Both of which had plenty of sweet limes, coarse salt and chili. Everyone had hoped, I suppose, that school would be the perfect way for us to learn a lot of Spanish but as it turned out, English was the one language that was mandatory at most grade levels. Most kids wanted to talk to us in English instead. Although we did learn, it was at a very slow pace.
On the third month though, school was out and the daily schedule took a pleasant change. We had plenty of cousins and friends to hang around with. We had a special five note whistle that was used as a signal for the gang of boys from our neighborhood whenever someone want to get together for some fun. Usually sometime after lunch, the signal would sound, followed by another in recognition of the first and another, etc. With boys from all parts of the neighborhood whistling out the code tune and gathering in the street. These were all pretty clean cut kids though and usually the plan was to go to the movies or hang out at the casino which was a big dance hall used during the fiestas. There were two clay tennis courts, some billiard tables and a huge stage with an upright piano I used to love to play. Lots of the keys were stuck or dead but I learned how to get around them and every once in a while I could hit a full chord with no dead keys and its richness would resonate off the walls of the large and cavernous room. Many hours were spent in the coolness of the casino drinking sodas and playing pool or tennis or just sitting around making jokes as we escaped the heat of the day or planned our next move.
Sometimes, Pedro, the only one with a car, would show up and off we’d go. We’d ride around town on the running boards which was a lot more fun than actually riding inside and there were no laws to prevent us from doing so. One night a bunch of us took a ride to the far outskirts of town to a destination unknown to my brother and I but not entirely unknown to some of the older boys in our group. We pulled up to the doorway undistinguishable from any other on that block and as we entered, we were greeted by a man who had almost every one of his teeth capped in gold. As we gazed around the large room I noticed a few men and some federales standing around drinking beer. Soon a very pretty girl walked up and smiled at us. Our gracious host smiled widely as he introduced her. “Twenty pesos” he said. We didn’t get it. Soon another girl came up and was introduced. “Twenty pesos” he said. I think we were beginning to get it but wouldn’t hardly know what to do with it. Just then, an extremely effeminate boy walked by, exaggerating a swing to his hips and our host pointed to him jokingly, “Twenty pesos”, he said and we all laughed as we backed out the door> Unfortunately, since we were well known as the nephews of “Don Jaime”. word got back to the house before we did and uncle Jaime had some stern words for us.
On some mornings, Tia Lupe (on terms set up the night before) would wake me up long before the sun and take me on her early morning excursions to go grocery; shopping at the mercado. The mercado was very dimly lit in the predawn hours in those early days because the power to the town was cut in half from 10pm to 7am every night. I followed Tia Lupe up and down the half lit aisles,taking in the sweet smell of slightly over ripe fruits and vegetables and exotics like brightly colored chili peppers, jicama. papayas, guavas and several types of bananas, including the large plantains that Tia Lupe would later fry in a sugar sauce and serve as a warm desert. My two favorite stops were the panaderia, two blocks away from the mercado, where sweetbread, freshly baked and aromatic, was the only sign the small shop had or needed. The other stop would be at one of several carts scattered around the mercado that sold churros.A sugar doughnut tasting tube of fried batter. Hot from the sizzling pan, the vendor would snip off a foot long piece and hand it to me in a bit of brown butchers paper. Now, some twenty-five years later, it makes me laugh to be able to buy a churro at fairs and theme parks here in the states.
In those days, uncle Jaime had many horses and cattle on the ranch and sometimes we would ride in the cart with Jose to pick up canisters of milk to bring back to the house.
The cart was wooden with truck tires fitted to it and creaked quietly on the rutty road, Jose usually fell asleep at the reins, tilting his hat over his eyes. “Don’t worry” he would say, “The horse knows the way”. Jose was uncle Jaime’s head ranchhand and had worked for him since he had been a young boy. Born from a poor family, uncle Jaime took him in almost as if he’d been his own son and Jose proved to be very worthy and helpful on the ranch. Often times, he would show up early in the morning on a freshly broken horse. Causing such a racket in front of the house while the struggling animal slipped and slid on the cobbles stones (since paved over), reluctant to enter the doorway to the house. One afternoon, Jose took us out to a field where we scouted out an iguana sitting in the crook of a tree about fifteen to twenty paces away.
Jose put the butt of his rifle on the ground and proceeded to pour powder and a lead ball down the barrel. My brother and I stared at each other as he tamped the ball down tight. He licked his thumb and wet the sight, took aim and shot a hole right between it’s eyes. On the way back he handed it over to the ranch hands who skinned and roasted it over the fire and ate it with tortillas along with their regular meal.
He licked his thumb and wet the sight, took aim and shot a hole right between it's eyes.
During the trips we made to Autlan for the fiestas, held in February, my parents usually kept us in the thick of the festivities, for my mother’s uncle was obviously one of the highest ranking and most prestigious persons in town. Besides owning some of the main buildings in town, he also owned 50 percent of the stock in the hospital and substantial shares in other various utilities. Banquets and dances would held in the casino every night. Bands and carnival rides filled the large square in the center of town and at about four in the afternoon, a parade would begin there, with what seemed like the whole town walking the way to the bullfight ring. Sometimes a mariachi band would play as some of the best singers (or most drunk) would croon valiant songs of ranch life, love. and heroic deeds. Other times, the music would be provided by two old men. One playing a crude flute while the other beat on an old weathered snare drum, these later two musicians were a staple of the fiesta scene and seemed to reflect an old traditional way of celebration. In the bull ring, other bands played, adding to the excitement of the already electric atmosphere in the crowd in anticipation of the coming event. They would introduce the matadors with fanfare and welcomed the debutantes from the surrounding town and villages, come to vie for the title of queen of the festival, The Spanish, French, and Indian influence here produce a handsome and intelligent race and needless to say the beauty contestants were something to see. They rode in with their escorts on the hoods of shiny cars until one by one, covered with streamers and confetti, they took their seats in the section adjacent to the town officials and the rich ranchers dressed in their finest charro outfits and wide brimmed sombreros. My father used to buy a new car every year and he was often asked to loan it out for the affair. One year though, his 58 Buick Century proved to be just too wide to fit in the tunnel that led to the ring.
Confetti filled the air and everywhere vendors sold beer, soda, shots of tequila and such delights as churros and chicharones (chee-cha-rone-es (pig skins)). They carried chicharones in huge sheets three to four feet tall and two to four feet wide, just as they do today. Breaking off big or small pieces depending on how much one had to spend. They also provided chili. Others sold paper cones filled with pieces of jicama, papaya and orange, topped with chili, lemon juice, and coarse grain salt. The band would fanfare and begin a march as the parade of toreadors, picadors, clowns and charros on beautiful stallions, twirling their lariats and doing rope tricks, would fill the ring. These proud people were here to perform amazing feats of courage in front of a powerful and fearless animal made even more fearsome by the systematic probing and piercing it would receive during the course of the fight. Finally the bullring was cleared and the players took their places behind wooden barriers placed at intervals around the perimeter. In an outer circle immediately in back of the barriers, a relatively safe place to perform other minor duties was provided.
Still it was common for the stronger bulls to jump the six foot retaining wall protecting that space and scatter its occupants over the wall and into the ring which at this point was now the safest place to be. From the bull pen, the bull would be chased down a dark runway and after the huge double doors were thrown open, the beast emerged into the sunlight of the ring. Sometimes a bull would need coaxing from its shyness by the picadors and the doorkeepers with long sharp poles. Other times it would come charging out, already mad as hell and looking for something to kill. An unmounted man being the perfect target.