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King of the Chicanos
By Manuel Ramos
Wings PressCopyright © 2010 Wings Press for Manuel Ramos
All rights reserved.
GROANS AND WHISPERS
Las Trampas, New Mexico 1999
On another dry, hot summer day in the last year of another century, Pancho Arango stood in line by an open casket in a packed, abbreviated version of a church in northern New Mexico. The good and religious people of Las Trampas had resurrected San José de Gracia from ruin. They had patched the crumbling adobe, reinforced the ceiling and walls, and painstakingly applied a thick coat of sealant to the wooden floor that covered graves dating from the eighteenth century. Although he tried to lose himself in the heavenly mythology of the torpid funeral mass and the somber throng of mourners, he found himself reflecting on the secular life and times of a man he had loved and hated, feared and pitied.
He had promised himself that he would not attend the funeral of Ramón Hidalgo. The promise did him no good. He failed in the same way that he failed when he had tried to erase the part Hidalgo had played in his life. When the time came, Arango broke the promise without understanding what it meant. He had to be present when Hidalgo received his peace and his place in history and thus he broke his promise without hesitation, without calculating what the cost would be, what the price for attendance had to be.
The sunburned farmer ahead of Arango in the viewing line wore an ill-fitting black suit that exposed frayed cuffs of a shirt that once had been blazing white and an inch-and-a-half of gray socks that once had been midnight black. The man's bushy, gray eyebrows, full head of gray hair that hung over the frazzled shirt collar, and the glassy, yellow eyes shielded his identity for several minutes, but just as he moved away from the coffin Arango recognized the scar — the mark of the man who had stood next to him while policemen jabbed heavy metal batons at both of them, who had run with Arango when an errant missile of tear gas landed at their feet and exploded in the faces of the policemen.
Hidalgo's dark, waxen face, surrounded by silk and velvet, glowed with serenity. Arango's dulled senses strained against the uneasy peace that tried to overwhelm him. The inert body in the lustrous coffin, the deep-eyed, gravely-voiced priest, the somber, medieval church, the tense mourners: these images served their orchestrated purpose and what should have been a loud, wild celebration of a wild, demanding life was only another church funeral, one more procession of grief and prayer and fear. The fiery, glowing eyes were closed and the half-smile beneath the thin mustache betrayed the irony that even in death Hidalgo understood.
Arango found his way to a pew and sat on the hard wooden seat. Summer burned the wild flowers and weeds and heated the earth but inside the cool air of the adobe building comforted all. A panel of brightly colored, vividly detailed retablos framed the altar. San Isidro smiled ambiguously as a sweating angel plowed his fields. San Francisco stared off to the distant right, a skull in the background. San Miguel brandished a sword that dripped blood. The black San Martín de Porres lovingly cradled the Christ child, and The Little Flower clutched her heart and cried the tears of martyrdom for those who refused to see the beauty and power of the one true God.
Swallows twittered along the outside rim of the ancient building. A dog barked and growled near the massive doorway and Arango remembered the stories told by his grandfather about the dog that escorted souls to the underworld. He also remembered that many years before, the dead man's wife had adopted such a dog.
The priest droned solemn entreaties and rhythmic refrains and the assembled crowd answered him with beautiful, resonant verses scripted for them by apostles and prophets.
Mi alma está alejada de la paz,
he olvidado la dicha.
Dije: Ha concluído mi vigor,
y la esperanza que me venía del Señor.
Recordar mi miseria y mi vida errante
es veneno y amargura,
Recuerda, sí, recuerda,
y mi alma se abate dentro de mí.
They prayed in Spanish and made the sign of the cross in Spanish and they kneeled in supplication in Spanish but Arango could not help but imagine that Hidalgo's inanimate ears transformed the words into songs of praise and glory, into a patois of English and Mexican slang, into blues and jazz and tejano music that lifted his casket with the spirit of his life. The mass should have been punctuated by the sounds and colors of Hidalgo's life. The loft should have echoed with gritos from a choir of angry protestors. The paranoia-inducing background noise of police riot-squad mobilization should have filtered from behind the altar. Young men and women wearing bandanas across their foreheads and huelga buttons on their faded denim shirts should have crowded the priest off the altar so that they could make speeches that demanded justice, revenge, y que viva la raza! Outside the church, a mass of swaying humanity, arms linked in a sign of perpetual resistance, should have been singing the verses of De Colores.
What Arango heard was something else and there was no way for him to know which sounds were real. Over the drone of the priest and his prayers, the groans and whispers of ghosts of penitentes begged their God for mercy and peace and forgiveness before they silently, humbly marched to the morada and the whip and the pain.
The mass ended and pallbearers whom Arango did not know carried the casket to the hearse. They might have been relatives; they could have been men from the village. Bodyguards and attendants often had escorted Hidalgo during his life. They were dark, burly men who kept to themselves and answered to his whims and phobias. Now older, more fragile men accompanied his body with far less ceremony than he had been accustomed to, and with far less urgency.
Arango sat in a rented car and waited patiently for an opening and then pulled in line for the long, hot, dusty drive to the weedy cemetery where the priest said final prayers in Spanish, then whispered his condolences to the few who lingered around the open grave after the prayers were finished.
Sad-faced, chipped angels hovered on an archway over the worn rut at the entrance to the cemetery. A rusty, broken iron fence enclosed the group of mourners and the small gathering of newspaper and television reporters from Albuquerque. The fence served as a sardonic symbol of futility, a reminder that, for now, everyone had destinations, other places where they could take up space but that, eventually, the final space was reserved behind that rickety yet immovable fence.
The tombstones carried the names that had etched themselves on the New Mexican landscape: Baca, Griego, Hernández, Martínez. Pancho believed that it was not right that Hidalgo was buried in the beautiful state of New Mexico. He had lived out the last years of his life where someone had chosen to plant his bones, but he belonged elsewhere. Maybe Texas, where he was born, or so he had boasted many times. Or California, where his myth had been nurtured in loud, agitated meetings on college campuses on the brink of violence. Or Colorado, where clamoring crowds of the poor had raised his silk-screened portrait as well as their fists at the nervous figureheads of their oppression.
No, not New Mexico. He belonged where his triumphs had been direct and personal; where he had staked his claim so many years before when he had called everyone's bluff and bet against overwhelming odds that paid off in defeat and death. He should have been buried where he had emerged victorious in a halo of glory and legend. The truth, however, was that the place no longer existed for him. He had lost it, as he had lost everything else, as Arango had lost it, as an entire generation had dropped that magical time and place and never would pick it up again. Hidalgo had to be content with beautiful but lonely New Mexico.
Arango shielded his eyes from the sun and squinted at the faces he recognized and, yet, did not know. They were faces from another time, another existence, and the details of their importance teased him, out of reach of his awareness but dancing at the edge of his consciousness, fading in and out of his sight as they had done over the years, through all the times and places Hidalgo and Arango had journeyed together.
The man with the scar along the border of his face had not come to the cemetery.
Arango could not hold back the rush of emotion that slammed him as the coffin was lowered into the hole in the earth. His tears fell and were sucked into the dust the same way that Ramón's physical remains were sucked into the dark void of the grave. A few of the others noticed Arango's emotion, assumed wrong conclusions about him and what he was doing there, and one or two even nodded in recognition. Despite the crowd, the buzz from the television camera and the rolling sway of the earth caused by the burial of a man who once had been a god, Arango stood alone, as tall and straight as he could manage under the weight of all he knew, all he had witnessed, and he convinced himself that only he among all of them had a right to be there. He had been the one who had truly listened to Ramón when all the others heard only blasphemy, who talked, shouted, cursed at him when he failed to respond, and who walked out on him when it was much too late for such drama. Pancho Arango made himself believe that he, alone, knew the story.CHAPTER 2
WINTER OF MUD
Unnamed Colonia, East of Crystal City, Texas 1929
"You have to take the boy. It has to be. I can't. ... Now that María's ..."
His throat constricted and he could not complete his message. His language had more than enough words, phrases and inflections to convey the complicated concept of death — he was Mexican after all — with the mixed and excited blood of the Mexica, the Yaqui, and the French flowing through his arteries and veins, but the tools of vocabulary failed him and he lost the words he needed to speak about his young and delicate wife, now gone from him forever. His body folded against itself as his wounded brain worked on forming the sounds that would ease the ache. Legs and elbows punctuated the air, while the red-rimmed eyes pleaded with his listener. His arms moved rapidly, his slender, gnarled hands emphasized the words that finally gushed from him, the words that meant more than the simple message he had to deliver, the words that summed up his life.
"I'm going home. Screw this wretched country! I'm finished with it. María wanted her child born in the United States, and he was. She wanted so much for him. His birth in this damn land killed her. I'm begging you, Consuelo. María was your sister. You have to take the child."
The quick, staccato cadence of his words betrayed his insecurity about what he needed to say. The rhythm of his language seeped into the sleeping child's dreams, where it soothed and caressed, where it forever replaced the singing voice of the mother he would never know.
The Texas winter cut through the meaningless walls of the shack. Mud, cold and darkness surrounded the hovel and its occupants. The death of the child's mother required such a world, and now the man's heart had frozen in its grief, had turned into the mud of the land that he hated because it had taken her from him and left only the dimming radiance of her memory and the child with glowing black eyes and a broad, flat nose — his nose and her eyes. He did not want to hate the child but he knew it could happen, that it would happen unless he did what he had no right to do.
The woman extended her arms for the delicate bundle. She was much shorter than the man and she had to reach up for the baby. Her skin matched the darkness of the night, a purple blackness that only years of hard labor under the torture of the sun could create. The leathery face and thick hair surrounded the sleeping child, her cracked and thin lips involuntarily formed sounds created centuries before to ward off the demons that stirred sleeping children, that conjured nightmares and visions that forced sleeping children to pierce the night with cries that revealed their existence.
She stared at the infant, sleeping quietly, at peace and oblivious to the act of abandonment that played out around him.
Stark, yellow light from a dusty bulb swaying on a thin frayed cord framed the man and woman. Tin and tarpaper rattled in the night. Greasy, stained linoleum with curling corners tried and failed to cover the hard-packed dirt floor, and the stale air smothered all color and sound.
In his grief, the man did not realize what he asked. The shack already housed too many children and not enough food. It served as the starting point for the family of migrants, some related only by circumstance, and always was referred to, without affection, as the little house, la casita, by its inhabitants who roamed thousands of miles for a few dollars, for the right to abuse their bodies and minds while they harvested one numbing crop after another. The boy would have to go hungry, he would suffer disease of the body and the crippling of the spirit, and he would endure the agony in his bones that comes from days of unrelenting labor and nights filled with the crying and shouting of poor desperate people, and the quiet moans of death.
The man understood all that, but that night, in the Texas winter of mud, he could not accept it, and so he had asked her to assist him with his sin.
"What's his name, Alberto? Did you give the child a name?"
"María named him after your father. She said that before ..."
Consuelo kissed the baby's forehead.
The man walked into the night. He heard a dim sound, the beginning of a song. Somewhere, someone played a recording of a family of singers, the Cuarteto Carta Blanca. The scratchy music floated across the cold darkness. A rough-throated man sang about the sadness of losing his home and his young daughters echoed the lament with high, immature voices. Not even a wall was left of the little white house, only four corn fields, cuatro milpas. And yet, he had his brown woman and that was all that mattered. That, and the memories of their happy home.
The woman drew the baby to her breast. "Hello, Ramón Hidalgo. Bienvenido a tu hogar, y que Dios le proteja."CHAPTER 3
Palisade, Colorado 1939
The camp was an amazing place for Ramón. There were kids in every cabin, all ages, and everybody worked. The growers' trucks came for the workers before the sun rose and he didn't see the camp again until after the weighing of picked fruit and balancing of workers' accounts were finished, and by then it was dark.
The nights were warm and clear with classic Western sunsets and a moon that lit up the camp. The people congregated in loud groups, talking, laughing, arguing and singing. They were old friends or relatives in large, extended families. Cooking smells floated around the camp. Viejitos played Mexican songs on guitars while clusters of young men roamed the camp looking for trouble or girls. The boys were showered and wore fresh clothes, their dark skins burned from hours in the orchards. They mixed English and Spanish, and Ramón saw shiny metal crosses hanging from silver or gold chains around their necks.
Ramón's work was basic to the harvest. The pickers called him a boxer. He dragged wooden crates to the trees ahead of the workers and he fetched boxes for the pickers who needed more. The workers were paid by the box, and Ramón saw himself as an important cog in the process. He had to stay ahead of the pace. If he was slow, or couldn't find a box when it was needed, the worker wasted time and lost money. His cousin Marina emphasized his responsibility and pointed out that his pay was added to the family's total, that's how important he was. Ramón earned every penny of his five cents an hour.
Peach fuzz covered his clothes, stuck to his hair and crept down his throat. After the first few days he didn't notice it and he quit scratching. It lay like fine, white dust on his skin.
Ramón learned who among the workers were friendly or slow, and who needed more boxes than others. He sweated with the pickers, laughed at their jokes, and relished the lunches Marina made for him. He sat in the shade of a tree picked clean and ate tortillas stuffed with beans or gulped water from a burlap bag hanging on a branch. His skinny frame filled out and he took pride in the hardened muscles in his arms.
One day, during a break, he told his cousin, "I'll buy a cross when we go home so I can wear it to school."
The boys and girls with whom Ramón had grown up in the hundreds of camps, shacks, and broken-down pickup trucks of his farm worker youth were referred to as cousins, but the actual bloodlines were irrelevant. The children of his Tía Consuelo were cousins, but so were the other children who had been picked up along the way, deposited with Consuelo by women or men too tired to carry on, too broken to try to feed another mouth, or too desperate to risk another infant's death.
Excerpted from King of the Chicanos by Manuel Ramos. Copyright © 2010 Wings Press for Manuel Ramos. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
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