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"My advice to those who are about to begin, in earnest, the journey of life, is to take their heart in one hand and a club in the other." Josh Billings, 1818-1885 American Humorist
From the beginning I thought my first name was bastarda. That name seemed to carry a negative connotation but to me it was my name. Later on when I entered school on the North Side of town my name changed to wetback. And when my teachers tried calling me by my given name Graciela they mispronounced it so badly that my classmates giggled and pointed for most of my early school years. It's possible that this burden and the first inklings of the rabid abuse within el barrio of Mexican-on-Mexican inside the family as well as outside begin the germination of the idea that I would leave Taft. I, in an effort to make my life easier in America, changed my name to Grace. Those early beginnings are likely what made me such a keen observer of the, so called, human nature. So that's how it all started for me, an endless search of who I was and why I was here and how I would make life for myself different from that available in el Barrio.
In 1946, the year I was born, Taft, Texas, was bursting at the seams economically. It had been that way for my hometown since the days it had been known as the Taft Ranch, which was established in 1879. During the summer months, the rich, black soil of Taft produced some of the largest cotton crops in Texas, boosting profits for the Anglos who owned the land and even in the poorer South Side where the residents were of Mexican heritage. At harvest time, out-of-towners came, nearly doubling Taft's population, to help pick the cotton that would ship nationally and internationally, becoming the town's biggest cash crop of the 1940s and 1950s. The cotton crop of Taft dressed many a man, woman, and child from Texas to Italy. A handful of second and third generation Europeans also held stakes in the gas and oil trades, which contributed to the overall well-being of the local economy. Even during America's Great Depression, Taft's farming community might have suffered some low commodity prices, but there weren't any soup lines crawling down GreenAvenue, nor were any of Taft's business owners jumping out of their office windows. No sireee Bob, the black land of Taft made it possible for every resident, black, brown or white, to be a part of the town's economic boom.
But it wasn't just the town bursting at the seams; so were the wives of the soldiers that returned a year earlier when World War II ended. The sex-starved soldiers were welcomed by equally sex-starved wives with open arms, and a year later the population boom hit Taft like so many other towns throughout America, with an explosion. In my case, I was probably in that handful of babies born in 1946 whose fathers hadn't served in the military during the war. But never mind that, the Census Bureau, when it came collecting information on the American population, didn't ferret out those children whose fathers served, so I, deservingly or not, became a member of the baby boom generation.
But before I tell about my journey through the black land, allow me to take you back to the early days when the land of my birthplace supposedly sat at the bottom of what is now known as the Gulf of Mexico.
During my early childhood I spent many an evening listening to Buelito's cuentos. Buelito was the primary source of the knowledge I acquired early on, so when I heard that Taft had once sat at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, he was the first person I approached for the answer.
"Buelito es verdad que Taft estuvo estuvo cubierto por agua?" I asked perplexed.
"Si, es possible," Buelito answered matter-of-factly.
His casual response left me even more confused. How could it be that the property our house sat on actually had been nothing but sand and water at one time?
The story was as strange as the Spanglish exchanges I observed between Amá and her best friend, Roque.
"Cata, vamos a tomarnos unas beers with our hombres?" It was interesting to hear Spanish and English intermixed so fluidly in conversation, but it was in this way that I, and most Mexicans in Taft, learned to speak; the mixture of Spanish and English—Spanglish, represents the necessity to learn the English language, and the reliance on our native Spanish to help us through that transition.
As history played out, the flat mesquite-and chaparral-filled land of my birthplace had sat lonely for centuries. During the mid 1500s, when the Spanish conquistadores found their way from Mexico into south Texas, they found a land flatter than a Spanish omelet and so filled with mesquite trees that they took to calling the land of my future hometown Mesquital, Spanish for mesquite. But there were at least two known bands of Indians already living in Mesquital, the Coahuiltecans and the Karankawas.
The Coahuiltecans were said to originate from the Mexican state of Coahulia and could be found roaming anywhere from San Antonio to northern Mexico. History tells us that the Coahuiltecans were living in Mexico and Texas as far back as the 16th century, but of course they could have lived there much earlier. It's been said that they might have been related to the Paleoindian peoples who came from perhaps the Pyrenees to the area of northern Mexico more than 13,000 years earlier. Interestingly, not much of the Coahuiltecan culture was left after they ceased to exist in the late mid 1800's but one item of their culture remains. The word mitote, which they called their religious ceremonies is a word loosely used in south Texas today to refer to either a festival or some kind of an uproar.
The Karankawas were a band of unusually tall, semi-naked Indians who are believed to have come from the Caribbean around the 1200's. They mostly roamed the south Texas gulf coast and were known as "Karankawas," but later as things commonly went in my culture on the South Side of Taft, they were given a nickname, the "Kronks." There was one tale after another about the Kronks' cannibalistic ways. It's been reported by historians and archaeologists alike, that the Kronks ate the flesh of those enemy warriors they captured. They didn't eat the flesh as part of their dietary needs but rather to get the magic power of the dead. However, there is one particularly gruesome story told by A.J. Sowell an early south Texas settler that leaves one to suspect the Kronks were more than just casual tasters of human flesh. Sowell told about a Karankawa raid on an Anglo settlement near the Brazos River where they killed the entire family and took off with the youngest child.
"After going some distance, they camped, killed the child and proceeded to eat her, first splitting open the body, then quartering it, and placing the parts on sharp sticks and cooking them."
While they feasted on the youngster, a band of white settlers surprised the Kronks, and killed them all. Buelito and his friends incorporated talk during evening sessions about los indios that lived in south Texas muchos años pasados. They laughingly reasoned the Indians were the reason so many potential settlers had stayed away from south Texas for so long.
During the western expansion of America in the 1800s, the Kronks were eliminated by the force of mostly Irish and German settlers along with help from two unsuspecting but determined Indian bands, the Comanches who came from Wyoming and the Lipan Apaches who came from western Canada. For a very long time south Texas belonged to these Indian bands. They attacked the Irish, Germans, and other European settlers during their early attempt to settle in south Texas. The Comanches were especially brutal and vicious—scalping and skinning their white enemy at will. They kidnapped many a white settler including their famous captive Cynthia Ann Parker who became the mother of the last Comanche Chief, Quanah Parker. The Mexicans and Texans didn't fare any better. They fought at times as much with each other as with the Comanches and Lipan Apaches during Texas's struggle for independence from Mexico in the early 1800s. It was only after Texas became a state on December 29, 1845, that the settlers along with the Mexicans, in a unified effort, began to eliminate the Indian threat. By 1850, the Comanche world barely existed.
But back to the rich black land of Taft that initially belonged to Youngs Coleman, Thomas M. Coleman, John M. Mathis, Thomas Henry Mathis, and George W. Fulton. In the early 1800s those five men formed a partnership known as the Coleman-Fulton (C-F) Pasture Company to raise and sell cattle. During the era of the "Big Drive," where cattle were driven from Mexico and the lower Rio Grande Valley to the slaughter houses in the Midwestern part of the United States, south Texas begged for a cattle crossing station. The CF-Pasture Company established such a crossing while at the same time building one of the largest cattle ranches in Texas, which became known as the Taft Ranch.
By 1885, the vast majority of the ranch land in south Texas was owned by a handful of second generation Europeans. Among those ranches were; the Taft Ranch which owned 32,000 head of cattle on 170,000 acres, and the nearby King Ranch which owned 40,000 head of cattle on 640,000 acres. The Taft Ranch land was mostly acquired by the purchase of adjoining property from original land grantees and through awards of Headright, Bounty, Donation, and Script certificates from the Republic of Texas.
The King Ranch was founded by Captain Richard King a poor Irishman from New York. Captain King worked on steamboats during the Mexican War, then came to south Texas in the mid-1800s and bought many Spanish land grants. Captain King's ranch spanned most of the land in south Texas, making his the largest privately owned ranch in the world. King's initial land holdings (15,500 acres) were acquired through the purchase of grants from the family of Juan Mendiola of Camargo. He went on to purchase more land from willing grant owners who either didn't care much for the desolate area or simply needed the money at the time. It is well documented that King went to great lengths to insure his land acquisition was legal and above board. To be fair, another view is held by many that the massive ranch lands in south Texas were gained through force and intimidation.
The Taft Ranch sat on some of the richest and fertile soil in America, which allowed it to expand its business beyond cattle. The Taft ranch owners were luckier than the devil. They benefited from the crossroads that General Zachary Taylor and his troops built in the County of San Patricio, where the CF-Pasture Company had most of its roots. San Patricio County was established onApril 18, 1846, and named by its predominantly Irish settlers for Ireland's patron saint. It came into existence with the accidental help of General Taylor who was sent by President Polk to keep order in case trouble broke out between Mexico and Texas over Texas' decision to annex from Mexico. A year before, General Taylor had been looking for a direct route to move his troops from Corpus Christi, where they were camped, to his headquarters in San Antonio. The area he chose is now part of the Artesian Park in Corpus Christi. By establishing the much-needed crossroads, General Taylor transformed San Patricio into a busy traveling artery, which in turn helped the Taft Ranch several years later, become a major agricultural business operation in the United States.
Settlers from Europe but mostly from Ireland began their long journey across the Atlantic Ocean to be a part of the ranch. The famous phrase G.T.T., "gone to Texas," was heard from Dublin, Ireland, to the Taft Ranch.
It wasn't long after the rush of European settlers began to arrive in south Texas that Anna and Charles P. Taft of Cincinnati began selling the Taft Ranch in the early 1900s. The larger parcels of land were bought up primarily by Irish and German settlers, while the smaller plots went to mostly Mexican-Americans and newly arrived immigrants from Mexico. The land that was left of the Taft Ranch led to the establishment of the town of Taft in 1920, the year myAmá and her family came to America. Its rich black soil earned Taft the nickname "Blackland" throughout Texas. In later years Taft, with its continuous enormous cotton crop, became known as the "friendliest cotton-picking town in Texas."
From all that I can remember, nothing about Taft particularly captivated me. If I had had any say, it would not have been my first, second, or even third choice of places in which to spend the first eighteen years of my life, never mind the rest of my life. However, as Taft is where my journey began, it was from there that I navigated and set off on the path before me.
Taft is located just 18 miles north of Corpus Christi and the gulf coast, and as a result it suffered from year-round strong gulf winds that nearly blew the roof off of our house. There seemed to be dust devils swirling all the time on our street that we blamed on the strong winds from Corpus. My friend María, whom we called la Bolilla because of her fair skin and yellow hair, always warned, "Chela, ahi viene el Diablo!" Her warning had me racing down West Pecan Street for my very soul, convinced that if the twirling cyclone caught me, I would be swirled away down to hell in a cloud of dust and gravel.
The hot, sticky weather suffocated Taft most of the year except during the welcoming cooler months of January and February. During the summer the heat was so intense that when the sun's rays kissed my olive skin it was instantly baked to a dark bronze color. I should have been happy with a year-round suntan, but my glowing dark skin only served to have the Anglos call me a "dirty meskin" and to have my brother Enrique call me, la Negra fea.
Hot, humid south Texas was a prime breeding ground for revolting insects of all shapes and sizes. At any given time, we could find ourselves nourishing pesky mosquitoes, or swatting at black flies the size of my thumb; it was not uncommon for my Amagrande to rescue these giant, tropical nuisances from the large aluminum pot filled with caldo de res with a huge wooden ladle. But no insect was more encroaching than the illustrious cockroach; no matter how many times we had our tiny house exterminated, those dark, nasty critters crept into the most concealed of crevices, and multiplied and mutated into larger and more disgusting pests. Soon there were thousands of them; evidenced by the endless trail of droppings left upon our dinnerware, framed photos, clothing, and whatever else they could find their way into. The more we tried to kill them, the more food they seemed to find, and so the more they grew, and the harder they became to kill. The entire process seemed a bit like a dog chasing its own tail.
In 1952, Taft was prosperous—with a population less than 2,000, the town had two banks and a street full of busy stores selling everything from automobiles to toy telephones. I remember the first day I went to el pueblo with Amá, The hot burning sun beat over us like an inferno and walking made it even worse. The trip from the South Side to the North Side of town seemed to take forever and I could only wish we had owned a car. As we walked across the railroad tracks, and onto Green Avenue, I anxiously reached for my Amá's hand. I was afraid of the unknown more than I was of los Americanos or los Bolillos, as we Mexicans called the Anglos, who, Amá warned, didn't like Mexicans.
Amá said the street we walked on was named for a very important man. That man was none other than Taft Ranch Superintendent Joseph F. Green, who had incorporated the town. I was overwhelmed and a bit frightened at the sight of the simple, square, brick buildings lined up in rows on either side of the avenue; they seemed gigantic and new to me, though they were only one and two stories high, and had been built during the 1900s.
Excerpted from A TALE OF SURVIVAL by Grace Flores-Hughes Copyright © 2011 by Grace Flores-Hughes. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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