Aureliano and Esther

Aureliano Valdovinos is walking under the October moonlight. The dirt road is full of shadows, but he is not afraid. He can feel his gun at his waist, moving with him. He’s been walking for more than one hour. Once he gets to the crossroad, he will catch a bus to Sahuayo; a second bus drops him off in San Pedro Caro, Michoacan, where he is now living. With each step he takes, he is leaving his old village, Jaripo, and his girlfriend of several years, Esther. The cluster of adobe huts, illuminated only by petroleum lamps, gets smaller by the minute.

Men have been leaving Jaripo for years. This small village in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, along with many other villages across the country, sends its working age men to the United States, to work legally as manual laborers under the Bracero program, an agreement the two countries entered in 1942. Thousands have left with contracts, for months at the time. They return home for some weeks, just to depart again with a new contract. Yet, poverty is not the reason Aureliano is walking away from the place where he was born.


It was August 15, the day of the Virgin Mary. Just after 6:00 pm. People were gathered at church for a rosary in honor of the Virgin. The sweet smell of flowers, and candles burning, mixed with the murmur of prayer. At the altar, a statue of Virgin Mary, dressed in a blue and white outfit, stared at devotees with an almost human expression of kindness and compassion.

Nobody knows why Moices Salceda pointed his gun at Rafael that afternoon. Rafael was sitting on some steps leading to the plaza. Later, they said Moices threaten to kill Rafael for no reason, other than feeling like bullying someone he knew unarmed. The two had never had any problems before. Antonio, Aureliano’s younger brother, happened to be standing nearby. He saw Moices pointing his gun at Rafael, a close relative, and ran to find a gun for himself, snatching it from one of his uncles. Antonio came back yelling for Moices to leave Rafael alone, and to come resolve whatever the problem was, now that he too was armed.

The two men ended up face to face. It all happened fast. Antonio fired first. One bullet hit Moices in the head. Moices lay dead on the street; 18-year-old Antonio was in shock. Revenge was law in town; it wouldn’t be long before armed men from the Salceda’s family stormed the plaza. Aureliano heard the commotion from inside the church. When he realized Antonio was involved, he rushed to his brother, who was still unable to move.

“Let’s go!”

Aureliano kept repeating.

“We have to go!”

Antonio started to move. He slowly bent over to pick up his hat and then took off running across people’s backyards.

Nobody else died that day in Jaripo. The gun battle that followed between the the Salcedas and the Valdovinos left only one wounded man on the Valdovinos’s side; but nothing was ever the same. Most of the Valdovinos clan had to move to another town. Aureliano’s family home and his father’s land had to be sold. Aureliano missed his friends, and working on his father’s fields, but more than anything he missed Esther.
Esther was a pretty, quiet girl, with long, dark, wavy hair and dreamy eyes. They met in elementary school, and remained friends until he asked her to be his girlfriend in their early teens. That’s why now, after the troubles, he kept coming back every week or two. He would only see Esther for half an hour or one hour each time. She pleaded for him to stop visiting. A few years had passed since Moices was killed. Nobody had bothered Aureliano during his visits, but is was impossible to say it would never happen. His gun was always ready; Esther was always on edge.

Esther’s family liked Aureliano. Her mother made tortillas for his mother for a small fee. They noticed the handsome, hard-working young man early on, and welcomed the relationship once they learned about it. The couple had talked marriage but nothing was decided, until one day Esther accepted Aureliano’s proposal in a letter. Aureliano paid for the wedding with money he earned as a bracero, pruning beets in Idaho, harvesting peas in Minnesota and corncob in Delaware. The newlyweds settled in San Pedro Caro. He was 24-years-old, Esther was two years younger.

For the next several years they were often away from each other. Esther, like many other Mexican women at the time, was giving birth and raising kids almost on her own. Aureliano always sent money home when he was away, working in the United States. He enjoyed bringing back gifts for the kids when he returned. But he always left again, sometimes with contracts, sometimes working independently. Esther would find out she was pregnant and write to her husband with the news. In spite of the money coming reliably in Aureliano’s letters, it was tough being a single mother to seven children. The day little Carlos died of stomach flu, which often killed poor babies. Aureliano was working in the United States. He didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to his son.
Every day, at exactly 12:00 pm, the women in the neighborhood took out their chairs and sat in front of their houses to wait for the mailman. Sometimes he passed by a house without stopping. That meant no letter for them. They picked up their chairs and went back inside, hopeful that tomorrow would be different. Sometimes letters came with no money orders. The husband or the son would explain that frost had made it difficult to harvest the tomatoes or the asparagus. They had to wait. Yet the mail remained the most expected time of the day.
San Pedro Caro was a town of fisherman, farmers and migrant workers. By the beginning of the sixties running water was a privilege for few. Women and girls washed clothes by hand at the public “lavaderos,” or even at the edge of a canal, also popular with boys for swimming. Neighbors with wells in their backyards, opened their houses for the community. They endured the constant coming and going of people carrying buckets of water. Nobody had to pay, only patiently wait for their turn and follow the rules, like using only the rope and bucket already at the well to get the water out.

At night, and regardless of her complaints about the lack of help to buy new batteries, Maria Gil would take her radio out and put it where all could hear the soap opera. Women and kids alike surrounded the neighborhood’s only radio.

Esther was not very sociable, but it was difficult not to become part of the communal routines. People shared more than radios and water, and more than the sounds of kids playing on the streets; they shared the absences of loved ones, and the hope and loneliness that came with it. They shared the hardships for the lack of social services and the heartache of seeing babies die. But most also shared a dream, the dream of one day setting foot in “El Norte,” joining their husbands, fathers and sons.

Every time Aureliano returned home from the United States, he found work in the fields of well-to-do families in town. Even if he only had weeks to be with his family, he didn’t rest. One morning when on his way to work, while hauling farming equipment with his horse, tragedy struck. The horse got scared and threw him. The heavy piece of farming equipment trapped and crushed one of Aureliano’s arms when it fell on him. Some surgeries later he had improved but not totally recovered. For several years he was unable to return to work in the United States. He continued working on whatever jobs he was able to handle, but with more mouths to feed – now a total of 11 – for the first time since they got married, Esther and Aureliano’s family experienced hunger.

The economic situation was so bad that the oldest kids had to drop out of school to help. By the time Aureliano’s mobility and strength returned to his arm, some of the kids were young adults and teenagers. It was now their turn to look North. They left one by one, the way it always happens. At the beginning of the seventies, Aureliano made once again the trip to the United States to reunite with his sons, in Los Angeles, California, sending for Esther and the younger kids a couple of years later. The two oldest daughters had already married and stayed in Mexico.

For Esther “El Norte” was nothing like she had imagined. The two-bedroom apartment where she and her three kids landed, was infested with rats and roaches. The space was already home to Aureliano, three of their sons and two other male relatives; one son had already moved out and had a wife and a baby. The apartment complex was in the heart of East Side Clanton 14 St territory, one of the oldest gangs in Los Angeles. The two adult sons liked to party and were often out late at night. The teenager was ready to follow in their footsteps. Drive-by shootings and gang violence were frequent.

Esther had no friends to talk to. She had to clean and cook for ten people. She and her two girls often pushed a shopping cart full of dirty clothes to the laundromat. She always made sure to get the sand from the beach out of the seams and pockets of her son’s pants. She imagined the beach, and all the nice places in California she had been told about in stories. So far, she had not seen many.
During the week, with the kids at school and the man at work, in a dilapidated living room and surrounded by old furniture, she often buried her face in her hands and cried. Esther and Aureliano had grown distant from years of separation. Aureliano couldn’t understand why she was unhappy. It was true they didn’t have a car, they didn’t go places. It was ten people in a two-bedroom apartment. She was alone for long periods of time, unable to get around on her own, but was it really that bad? Why couldn’t she just be content?

As months and months passed, sadness and hopelessness took a hold of her middle age heart. She finally had enough, returning to Mexico with Aureliano, and their two younger daughters in the early eighties. Sadness went home with her. Depression never really left after those years.

Settled back in Mexico her daughters had what they needed, but when it came time for them to go away to college, Esther couldn’t let them go. Universities were several hours away, in Morelia and Guadalajara. It was better they returned to Los Angeles, there at least they had their brothers.

Luz Elena, the youngest daughter and the one that used to run to Esther with tissue for her to dry her tears, back when they lived near 14th Street, was the last one to leave the family home in Mexico, and move back to the United States. Once again, Esther found herself in an empty house. Aureliano always had an easier time adapting to the changes. In San Pedro, he enjoyed cock fights and sitting at the plaza with his friends. Esther walked to church and to the market alone most of the time.

Esther and Aureliano returned to the United States many times, they stayed with their son’s and daughters in the houses they purchased in the suburbs of Los Angeles: South Gate, Huntington Park, Downey. They welcomed many grandkids and then great-grandkids over the years. She told stories of how much she had worried and how difficult those first years in the United States had been. When shopping at the mall with Luz Elena, she picked nice shoes and nice clothes for herself. Don’t I deserve nice things, she would ask no one in particular. A picture from that time, of her, Aureliano and her two daughters, shows her standing in front of a water fountain at Macarthur Park in Los Angles, her lips tight and her eyes looking far into the distance.


Esther died in Downey, California at the age of 78.

Aureliano will soon turn 90. He remembers the beauty of her long hair and her blessings every time he started back down the dirt road, back in Jaripo, back when they were young.

Blue Serpent

I was born and raised in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, in a region known as La Cienega de Chapala. The house I grew up in sits on land given to my paternal grandparents many years ago, when President Lazaro Cardenas redistributed the large haciendas, taking the properties from their rich owners and dividing it among peasant farmers.

Much of the country’s agricultural land was in the hands of a few hundred hacendados, or “bosses,” with farm workers living in near slavery conditions.

My grandparents got word of land being distributed in Michoacán. At the time they resided in a little town in the state of Jalisco, called El Pedregal. They began their journey following the edge of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico. Grandma Natalia and her three young children were on a wagon pulled by oxen. Grandpa Chon was on foot herding their pigs and goats. They camped at night under the wagon, their animals nearby.

After several days on the move, they finally made it to the place that was to become our hometown, Cumuatillo. There, they were told to choose a piece of land as big as they needed to build a house and corrals. They also received title to some very fertile soil; parcels gained from Chapala at the beginning of last century, after rivers were diverted and 20 kilometers of levees created, exposing 50 thousand acres of arable land.

Their first house they built out of reed and tree branches. In time they replaced it with a house of adobe. They had no running water or electricity; nevertheless, this became home. My dad was the sixth of nine children; his name is Antonio Fernandez. He and his siblings had big responsibilities at a very young age.

Around the time father turned 12 years old, he was put in charge of the goats. The herd was taken to the hills, far away from my grandparents’ home. There they spent days grazing. Dad was left alone on the hills with the herd sometimes. At night he cried with fear hearing coyotes howling in the distance, having to endure rain and cold under a poncho, a dog and the goats his only companions. He didn’t like school much and dropped out of third grade; that meant he had to go back to work in the fields and care for the animals. As a teenager he took tailoring classes but found it was not his calling.

After he married my mom, he inherited part of my grandparents’ back yard to build his own house, as well as a few acres for farming. In 1973, around the time I was born, he started taking courses by mail to become an electrician. He hung the diploma on the wall in our house. He was, by then, the town’s only electrician. He also learned the plumber trade to have more work and he farmed year round.

Our house was the first house in town to have a doorbell. It came handy as many people stopped by looking for dad. They needed electric and water services for the houses they were building, or transistor radios, pressing irons and Christmas lights repaired. After having dinner every night, he went in his workshop and stayed there for several hours. In town, he was well known and respected for the quality of his work and for being a dedicated farmer.

The last time I saw my father standing on his own, tall and handsome, was a Sunday at the end of January 1980. He combed his hair neatly, put on cologne and his gold ring. He left on his shiny black motorcycle that he used to get around. He didn’t tell mom where he was going, nor did she ask.

Around 9:00 pm that Sunday, a taxi pulled in front of our house. The driver was looking for Antonio Fernandez’s relatives. He had been in a collision with a car and was in the hospital. A donor for his blood type was urgently needed. Mom left that night in the taxi. My cousin Mina and I ran out to find her father. As I kept running down the dark streets, I don’t think I understood what was really going on.

One month later, dad was back home, his left leg amputated. Many scars now covered his face and his front teeth were missing. He was a totally different man from the one I saw going away that Sunday. I remember him falling as he entered his workshop for the first time in weeks. He stayed on the floor for a while, crying his heart out.

The family had no insurance to cover medical bills. Dad was very depressed, sometimes he would throw dishes around, mad over little things. He scared me and made me wish he went away. He was only 30 years old, mom was 26, my older sister had just turned eight, I had two younger sisters and a new baby was on the way.

Our doorbell went quiet. Only kids returning from school rang it and ran away laughing. Mom never complained about father’s outbursts. I don’t remember seeing her cry. She told me once she didn’t want her baby to be born sad. She continued washing clothes by hand, cooking, cleaning and even tending to our few cows and pigs.

Dad spent time in the fields. He sometimes walked around the patio on his crutches, sad and desperate, like he was looking for something. My fear turned to compassion during these days. I missed the strong tall man that built the large green kite for my sister and me. He ran with it, offering the reed and plastic kite to the wind. It was too big and heavy and it never elevated.

One day someone offered dad some work.

“I think you can do it,” said the man. “You can take your time; it’s not urgent.” Dad was doubtful but accepted, as we needed money. The doctor that operated on him the night of the accident was not a surgeon. He saved my father’s life but he amputated his leg at the wrong length. A prosthetic caused him tremendous pain and made it difficult for him to get around. At job sites, he sometimes opted for jumping on his only leg to move faster. If working at ground level he used the strength of his arms to drag his body from place to place. He had to do this a lot when working in the fields because his crutches got stuck in the mud.

Little by little he gained confidence, finding his way with his changed body. People started trusting him with work. He once again became the town’s main plumber and electrician. It took him longer to finish jobs and money was not enough for the family’s expenses. Mom managed as best she could.

A short kid with a face full of freckles, nicked-named “the Roll” loved bullying me since I refused to become his girlfriend. The Roll wouldn’t forgive the rejection and always found reasons to make fun of me or my family. Together with “Churro Guy,” he picked on the way Dad used a piece of cord as a manual accelerator for his 1965 Volkswagen.

They called my father “Thousand Uses,” referring to the fact that he would take almost any honest job he was offered. Yet the town was good to us. Debt was being paid and the family was recuperating.

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, my hometown had been the land of Nahua people, Aztecs.

During rainy season, the water overflow from Chapala and rivers nearby inundated the area. Several small islands emerged from the water every year. Cumuatillo used to be part of Cumuato Island; an important place because of its higher ground, with roads and canals that remained full of water even during the dry period, making it easy to use canoes for the transportation of people and goods.

As little girls my sisters and I used to play with small clay figurines we found on the ground. Lots of dark glass like, edge sharpened rocks, shimmered under the morning sun. Broken pottery served us as fake currency to purchase the large green leaves we used as tortillas for our games. Dad told stories of bones and human skulls uncovered during the digging of trenches for the footings of new walls. As kids, he and his brothers used to place the skulls on fence posts and throw rocks at them.

One day my dad and uncle unearthed a full human skeleton from our back yard. Jade, gold and shell ornaments were still on its wrist and neck. Beautiful pottery and sharp obsidian spears had been carefully placed to his sides.

Dad placed all the artifacts in a box and stored it away. In spite of being so proud of his find, one day we helped him put this box in his car and off he went to find a man named Jose, a dealer in jewelry among other things. He sold all the artifacts to him. Jose didn’t pay him much, but the money helped us get by for some days.

Much later, Jose and Dad had a conversation about that transaction. “If you find more, don’t touch them,” Jose told him. He described an inexplicable illness and hallucinations he experienced, which were, according to him, all related to the pre-Hispanic pottery and jewelry he had been dealing with. It was likely our backyard relics were not the only ones he had purchased and sold. He claimed he was cured after he stopped his dealings in these objects.

Over time, the family adjusted to the many changes after the accident. One summer, with the proceeds of a good harvest, my parents purchased a popsicle shop. It was another source of income and more work for mom. All sisters and brother also helped the family by selling popsicles and working in the fields. As a teenager the oldest daughter, Leticia took a job as an operator for the town’s public telephone.

In 1992, Leticia, married and immigrated to the town of El Monte, California. I followed one month later, arriving in nearby South Gate, California. My sister, Teresa, took over Leticia’s job. Eventually the youngest sister Cecilia would also alternate between this job and college. Antonio Junior, also known as little Toño, had been helping dad work since he was four years old.

Little Toño was a fixture next to dad when he wasn’t in school. He had become an extension of Dad’s capabilities and a relief for some of his limitations.

After finishing high school, Toño was awarded a small grant from the government to continue his studies. He moved to the state’s capital to start in the engineering program at Morelia’s Technological Institute. My parents supported him to complement the grant. After graduating he moved to Queretaro.

My father continued farming, ignoring my mother’s pleas for him to slow down.

One night, mom and dad noticed a surreal blue shape climbing one of the walls inside the house. This shape resembled a small serpent. They looked around the room trying to find a source for what they were seeing. Nothing. When it appeared to them a second time they panicked a little more.

“It wants to show us where the other treasures are,” said my mom. But my dad was not about to start digging for treasure after what Jose told him. So the third and last time they saw it moving up the wall, they just ignored it.

If the blue serpent wanted my dad to unearth something she was many years late. My parents have enough to support themselves. They are alone in this house with the magical backyard, where four sisters and one brother used to play and thresh corn. No need to look for treasures now. Maybe the blue serpent understood this and that’s why she stopped showing itself to my mom and dad.

Father thinks, and I agree, that there is more to be uncovered. Yet we now embrace the idea of ancestors sleeping under the empty beds of the house we grew up in.

By now they know my dad is sorry for disturbing them.