It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when my taxi pulled into town.It seemed small and dusty and the cab drivers mother commented haughtily that the houses were made of adobe in this town as opposed to the wood houses they were used to living in along the coast. I doubt she realized that these adobe buildings were stronger, more practical and efficient. My grand uncle’s hacienda styled home alone, has been standing for 500 years and properly maintained remains just as strong as the day it was built. I asked to be dropped off in the center of town, mostly because I wasn’t quite sure of the street address but also because I wanted time to reminisce as I walked though the town I’d known so well as a kid. But it was unusually quiet on that particular day. As if in a dream, I turned down the cobblestone street toward the direction of my great uncle’s house. All the houses along the street were connected by a common front that twisted and turned down the long narrow street. Only colors and styles of windows and doors marked where one ended and the other began.
Uncle Jaime’s house was painted a stone gray with barred windows, bars freshly painted black and tall double wooden doors that opened into the entrance way and where all livestock used to be brought in to be led to the back corral. I knocked on the door and waited until uncle Jaime came slowly shuffling up. I could hear him unlocking the wrought iron inner gate and then slowly turn the ancient lock with it’s church style key to the heavy woodenouter door. I didn’t expect to have him open the door himself and stuttered as I managed to get some salutation out. Half in English and half in Spanish. He was old and frail now but I hugged him hard, grateful to be a nephew to the greatest man I’d personally ever known. He was both the most powerful and at the same time, the most humble man one could imagine. From being mayor of the town, congressman, and state treasurer, to being known for miles around and cities away, that if a poor man or woman, with nothing to eat or nowhere to sleep would come to his house, they would receive nourishment and be welcomed to sleep in the large entrance way until they were rested. His huge ranch was sectioned and leased off to growers from all over including Japan and the U.S. at great profits but still he lived humbly and kept just enough cows on the ranch to sell milk to the poor people for a small fraction of what they would have to regularly pay anywhere else. He indicated to me that my mother and father were having lunch at a cousins house. And indeed, as I came to the corner at the end of the block, I could hear my father’s voice above the chatter of a party going on. Or at least it seemed a party, for wherever my dad was, he never ceased to be the cause of excited conversation.
He was the moving force that brought us back year after year, even though “Don Jaime” was in actuality my mothers uncle. But Dad loved Mexico with a genuine passion. It was a place where we felt we belonged and were welcomed each year by friends and relatives as if we had returned to the place that was our true home. It felt very good being there.
We stayed about two weeks in town, during which time Dad and I painted the walls that face the garden. The garden is large and dominated the center of the house, everything else being built around it. there is a large tiled pila in the center of the garden. Filled with water and about a dozen goldfish, it’s main purpose is for watering the many plants, trees, chili’s, and herbs growing there. Since the walls and ceilings are fully two stories high, we had to repair places where the plaster would separate from the adobe, due to the humidity.
Here’s a quick tour of Uncle Jaime’s house: At the main entrance stood two ancient double doors; very tall and not unlike church doors. These opened into the entrance way where a small waiting room was situated. Quite tall and containing but two long wooden benches built into opposite walls. This is where poor people used to wait for one of the ladies of the house to come out and fill their small containers with milk. This was the cheapest place in town to buy it and it was only a service for the poor. The waiting room was separated by a large wrought iron gate. From here you could see straight down the cobbled livestock path with followed the wall separating Bonifacio’s property which was originally cut out from Jaime’s family’s lot. Right after entering the gate and turning left was the living room area; facing the center garden as was all the rooms. This area was all open and extended all around in a square shape around the garden.
After the living area and through a double doorway to the left was uncle Jaime’s study. It was a very large room with a desk in the middle. All the walls had cases or bookshelves full of books. He walked to work every day dressed in a thin white suit, a white hat and his cane. Past the study and in the corner of the first turn was a large bedroom were we used to stay as a family. There were four ancient beds and two large barred windows with double wooden doors that would open to the street. We used candles when if the lights did not come on. The beds were very narrow and very hard. The air smelled mostly like the Mosquito spray we were using and the spiders on the walls were huge; a good five inches wide and fierce looking. My brother and I would shoot them off the wall with a match and a can of hairspray.
I believe this room was probably our two other great aunt’s room at one time.
Next was uncle Jaime’s room. Small and dark like the others his bed had a night stand and a cross over the headboard. Later on he had a small bathroom installed. Semi modern, it looked out of place in this ancient adobe. The next room was tia Lupe’s and was not much different than uncle Jaime’s minus the bathroom. Next was the dining room. Completely open to the garden. Large but unassuming and it was connected through a doorway to the kitchen which contained a small stove and an old fridge. Another very dark room connected the kitchen to the dish washing are. And yet another room was where mostly tortillas were made. At all hours of the day you could hear the pat pat as one of the maids busied herself forming corn tortillas for the next meal. So many tortillas were made that uncle Jaime would use them as napkins then tossed them to his two large dogs stationed at his feet. Next after the kitchen was the laundry area. No washing machine was used. Just an old cement slab, three feet high with a cement formed washboard on one sink and an attached cement rinsing sink next to it. Using water from the pila to rinse the clothes, this was the same method used as if they had been washing the clothes in the river on rocks. Across from the laundry area were two rooms where feed and tack was stored on one side and on the other side was another room which could be filled up with dry sacks of corn. In the middle between the two rooms were two immense wooden doors which led to the corral. This is where they brought the cows in for the night, maybe a few goats and a dozen chickens. Maybe even a calf, a horse or Nacho the mule. And an aggressive rooster that would chase you around the yard, threatening to peck at your legs.Also in the corner of the corral and right outside the shower room was an old water heater that would heat the bathroom water. The only way to use it was to build a fire in the lower compartment and wait for the water to boil. Then run around to the bathroom and take a short but warm shower.A side path off the corral would take you to a couple of small shower rooms. Extremely rustic, there was no hot water available. This is where Uncle Jaime would take his showers. Early in the morning, when there was still a little bite in the air.Beyond the corral was another large yard. About two thirds of an acre, it like every other wall in the property was lined on top with broken glass cemented all along the top. This yard was filled with fruit trees of all descriptions. Cactus twenty feet tall and large cement water pond about ten feet deep and filled with murky water.And yet one more yard followed that one. It was about as big and reached to the street on the other block. Here is where Jose and his family lived. If he was home there was usually a beautiful stallion tied to a tree. Saddled and read to go.
There were fiestas of some sort it seemed on a monthly basis. On one particular visit the town came alive with the weeklong celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe. With colorful fireworks displays mounted on tall structures and bands playing in the plaza. Beautiful churches were all lit up, with doors wide open as people crowded the pews, singing and reciting prayers in unison. On these balmy nights, I would stay out as long as possible, until only the sound of my own footsteps were heard as I walked the last blocks to the house.On some evenings, my father and I would just sit in the park, listening to the band that played in the plaza. Tape recorder in hand, I would sit there recording song after song at Dad’s request. He grew attached to this small brass band composed of mostly young people who played in the semi-darkness of the lamp lit walkways around the center of the square. We laughed at the drummer who after struggling with a runaway bass drum, employed a small boy to sit at its base in order to keep it from sliding away. At the highlight of the ceremonies, a young man would don a wooden shell that covered his back and head and resembled a bull with horns. Embedded in the back and head of the “bull”, were powerful shooting fireworks that would streak into the crowd. This was almost as dangerous as having a live bull loose and roaming the streets. One of my younger cousins became a casualty when he attempted to brush a stray from his back, thereby spreading the flame and burning his hand in the process. But despite the threat of these occurrences everyone, including old women and men took delight in the display and all eyes were on the young man as he disappeared around the corner, followed by a group of boys who could not get enough.
Finally, the day came when we had to leave. It was hard, saying goodbye to all our wonderful relatives and friends, for there was always the question of when we would return. We had truly come to love their hospitality and unique lust for life.
We had truly come to love their hospitality and unique lust for life.
I remember it was a crisp morning as we pulled the truck and trailer out onto the highway and headed back over the mountains and towards the ocean where we would follow the coastline. Sharing the driving more than two thousand miles back home to Los Angeles, we’d crossed the mountains and still had 45 minutes drive to go before the coast when we blew a tire. Luckily we were pulling into the very small town of La Puerta where my uncle had owned a small drugstore off the highway. He had recently died, maybe a year or so ago at the age of sixty-six and left his twenty-two year old widow and two small children to run it. He was a very lovable and loud man who always had an interesting story to tell. I remember him asking me if I wanted to join him one day, to make some deliveries to a couple of stores down by the coast he had accounts with. Halfway there we pulled over to the side of the road. He went to the back of the pickup and pulled out two big jugs of tequila, one jug of water and one empty jug. He then proceeded to water down the tequila as quickly as
possible in case someone happened by. He said no one would know the difference. I had a feeling someone eventually might. His widow, in our conversation, told us of a hurricane that was passing through on the coast and that we should use caution, especially since we were hauling a large trailer. My father was sure, from reports, that the storm would be far enough ahead of us not to cause any problems. And if not? “What the hell, It’ll be all that more exciting”. Dad was an adventurer true to heart. And although in his later years, burdened down with high blood pressure and diabetes, he still loved traveling in Mexico. Mexico seemed to lift him up. His symptoms all but vanished and he was well again.