Las hijas de Juan: Daughters Betrayedby Josie Méndez-Negrete
Las hijas de Juan shatters the silence surrounding experiences of incest within a working-class Mexican American family. Both a feminist memoir and a hopeful meditation on healing, it is Josie Méndez-Negrete’s story of how she and her siblings and mother survived years of violence and sexual abuse at the hands of her father.
Méndez-Negrete was born in Mexico, in the state of Zacatecas. She recalls a joyous childhood growing up in the midst of Tabasco, a vibrant town filled with extended family. Her father, though, had dreams of acquiring wealth in el norte. He worked sun-up to sun-down in the fields of south Texas. Returning home to Mexico, his pockets full of dollars, he spent evenings drinking and womanizing.
When Méndez-Negrete was eleven, her father moved the family to the United States, where they eventually settled in California’s Santa Clara Valley. There her father began molesting his daughters, viciously beating them and their mother. Within the impoverished immigrant family, the abuse continued for years, until a family friend brought it to the attention of child welfare authorities. Méndez-Negrete’s father was tried, convicted, and imprisoned.
Las hijas de Juan is told chronologically, from the time Méndez-Negrete was a child until she was a young adult trying, along with the rest of her family, to come to terms with her father’s brutal legacy. It is a harrowing story of abuse and shame compounded by cultural and linguistic isolation and a system of patriarchy that devalues the experiences of women and girls. At the same time, Las hijas de Juan is an inspiring tale, filled with strong women and hard-won solace found in traditional Mexican cooking, songs, and storytelling.
“Las hijas de Juan is a searching and searingly honest portrayal of struggle, survival, and corage! This is a woman’s story that has lessons for the entire community.”—Louis Gerard Mendoza, author of Historia: The Literary Making of Chicana and Chicano History
“To tell this story took an inordinate amount of courage; to have survived it makes me marvel at the power of the human spirit. As a reader, one feels deeply grateful for the privilege of being granted into its confidence. Josie Méndez-Negrete writes that the healing is not in the telling, but perhaps it resides in us, the listeners. May this story, then, travel far.”—Sandra Cisneros
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Las hijas de Juan: Daughters Betrayed
By Josie Méndez-Negrete
Duke University PressCopyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMéxico lindo y querido
Dearest and beloved Mexico
Hijas de la tisnada
Never knew my father. The only memories I have of him are tied to abuse and violence.
Soy una hija de la chingada because I was born female.
For this accident of life, I am still trying to make redress.
As I continue to become whole, picking up the pieces like Humpty Dumpty to put myself together again, the frayed and mismatched edges leave gaps in my soul.
Exposed. These raw sites of pain never let me forget what I have experienced-the life I have had.
Keep me mindful of the hurt.
Serve as life guides. Don't let me forget.
Yagas and scars of life remind me not to hurt others because I have been hurt. That's how I try to live my life.
Huele de noche, the sweet and spicy scent of the "smells-at-night" ivy, lingered like morning dew in the bright yellow and red colors of the sunrise. In that placid space, the madman's actions were out of place, capturing a vision of insanity. The only ones that seemedto notice were the caged birds whose song warned of doom.
He pulled her long, raven tresses toward the ground, as she hung on for dear life. She knelt next to a tree trunk, anchoring herself to its foundation. He cursed her for the delusional sins she had committed against him. Eyes bore the look of someone who would soon meet her demise.
As he paced up and down ranting and raving about this and that, he warned her not to move. For effect, he waved his ax in the air, slicing and dicing imaginary targets, threatening to chop off her head.
Feeling he had made his point, he stood erectly above her and lifted the ax to strike. But an invisible force stopped him.
He walked away, with no evidence of regret.
Faded into the landscape, leaving the woman he had promised to honor and to respect shaking with the knowledge that she had almost lost her life.
When he was finally out of her sight, she came undone.
Alejandrina, not yet my mother, cried tears I wouldn't see again until our family broke apart years later. Her sobs rocked the earth and made the winds blow-they screamed her pain.
I have lived thinking I had made up the story.
"Did he try to cut your head off?" in a scared, three-year-old voice I asked. I didn't expect a response, but one came.
Her face turned an ashen white, the blood draining from it. Her contorted grimace confirmed my memory, as she asked how I had learned about the incident.
"Who told you? Nadie sabía! How did you find out?"
"No one told me. I saw the whole thing with my own eyes," I answered, hoping that the horror had been a figment of my imagination.
"You couldn't have. You weren't even born when that happened. I never told anyone."
With that story I finally learned why we came into each other's life. She came to care for me and to love me and I to love and to protect her.
Flor de nopal: The Courtshipn
We were supposed to live happily ever after, but el destino had other plans for us.
All who knew them swore that there was no love greater than the one my parents had for each other. Juan, my father, and Alejandrina, my mother, had been novios from across an arroyo that separated the properties of the Méndezes and Barrones. Their love flourished and grew with the waterfall that draped the limestone bridge that separated them. However, until they were married, all they could aspire to was conversation. Yet, like the creek, the novios also would have a path to follow.
Beyond the creek, under the watchful eye of Uncle Nacho; a fierce chaperone, her older brother and family patriarch, stood watch in the cactus garden that surrounded his property, keeping vigil over my father's intentions, acting like a sentry and a barrier all at the same time, protecting what was his. Uncle Nacho was like the nopales, with leaves and thorns that attracted and repelled those who wanted the harvest of his hard work. He hoped it would scare those who courted his younger sisters away. Uncle Nacho tended to his sisters and the nopales like the children he never had. He hoped his grouchiness and the cactus garden would protect his sisters' virtue. Everybody feared and respected him. Most young men would have stayed away.
For my mother the cactus garden was something altogether different. Its array of greens soon came to represent her feelings of hope for her growing love. Inspired by the eruption of yellow, red, and white flowers, which yielded delicious prickly pears, tunas, my parents' love grew more intense with each day that passed, blossoming with each of the petals of the cactus flowers that unfolded to yield their precious fruit.
My mother was known for her beauty. She had green eyes the color of the flesh that first peeks out when peeling an avocado and lips the color of a red prickly pear, perfectly shaped like an angel's heart. She was a Mexican Madonna like her grandmother Milani, who came from Italy. Her skin was the color of peach mother-of-pearl, her face crowned by soft waves of long, black hair. With a body that lined up men as pretendientes, she was shaped like a tango dancer draping the backdrop of the dance halls in Gardel's movies of yesteryear. With her voice froggy like Maria Felix's-the Doña of Mexican cinema-which they could detect even before she was in their midst, most people anxiously awaited mother's arrival. And, without fail, those who didn't know her often inquired if she sang. Many suitors in the region wanted her as their wife. She was the catch of the rancho. But it was my father with whom she fell in love.
Their noviazgo followed the script of a traditional text. My mother, restricted by conventions of chastity and virtue, kept her distance from my father. He, on the other hand, relentlessly wooed her with cartas de amor. Juan José, the macho child of Apolonio Méndez, who had been presidente municipal, was an excellent writer of love letters and a coveted catch by standards of wealth and prestige-los Méndez estaban muy bién colocados. His family had status in their community.
Mi madre venía de buena mata-she came from a family who was known and respected, from good people who were deeply rooted in that community. Her brothers and sisters were hardworking peasants whose communal lands had been in the family for generations. The Barrones were not poor; their hard-earned cosechas, livestock, and thriftiness kept them going from one season to the next.
Several harvests passed and the waters in the nearby arroyo ebbed and flowed. The end of their plaso-the waiting time imposed by Uncle Nacho when my father asked for her hand in marriage-finally came.
The day finally arrived. With a very formal wedding at Villa del Refugio Catholic Church, Alejandrina and Juan became marido y mujer in 1945.
Everything was expected to go well for them. But their marriage didn't start out that way. My mother had difficulty getting pregnant, casting doubts on her husband's virility. Some claimed it was then that he started abusing her. Others blamed her for her inability to conceive.
Women around town were heard talking about my parents' difficulties, as they paraphrased my mother's words: "No dejaban de llevarme con curanderas, doctores y especialistas porque no podía concebir."
One of the comadres in the pueblo, recalling my father's frustration with the delay of my mother's pregnancy, emphasized, "Yep, they wouldn't stop taking her to healers, doctors, and specialists. But she couldn't get pregnant, so they had to do something. ¿Qué no?"
"When are they starting a family? Didn't they get married to have children? What are they waiting for?" others queried as they involved themselves in things that were not their affair.
¿Qué les importaba? It was none of their business.
Talk didn't come just from the folks in town, however.
Some say that my father, in his eagerness to prove his manhood, started and spread these rumors. Many claimed that he boasted, "Marriage is for two things: to have boy children and to be served."
Finally Father Time gave way to Mother Nature, despite my father's frequent bracero absences. Con la voluntad de Dios-through God's goodwill, Alejandrina became pregnant.
I was born in 1948. Delivered in the home of my ancestors, I first saw the light of day in Tabasco. Soon I would become the smallest migrant in our family of three. However, it wouldn't be until much later that I would have to contend with the insecurity and pain of moving from one place to the next. That usually happened when the season or Juan's madness took us from one strange place to another with just the clothes on our backs.
Tía Luisa, may she rest in peace, told me that after crossing the border I almost drowned. According to her, my mother was carrying me in her arms when she tripped and I fell into a water canal. Tío Magdaleno fished me out of the irrigation ditch. Tía claimed this was a sign that I was destined to live a long life in el norte. I, la mojadita, would forever be tied to the United States.
They say I was made in Texas but born in México. My family claims I was conceived during my mother's earliest visit to Weslaco, deep in the Valley of South Texas along the U.S.-Mexico border, when my father worked as a bracero.
Certain I would be a firstborn son, people claim that when my mother was eight months pregnant, my father sent her back to México to have me. A true nationalist and a patriot, he wanted el primer hijo que nunca tuvo to be born in Tabasco, Zacatecas, the place of his birth.
"Tú padre siempre deseó un primer hijo," one of my tías would often volunteer, reminding me that I had not been his first choice for a child.
To his surprise, I was born.
He never let me forget I was a girl. He never forgave me for it.
Other relatives say that my first contact with the United States was when I was three months old. Continuing their movement back and forth, my family lived in Weslaco. This was when Tía Luisa and her husband Magdaleno came to work in the fields with my father; Mother and I returned to be with him.
The way they recall it, all crossed the Rio Bravo safely. No one was arrested. No one drowned.
South Texas became my sometimes home. Sixteen months younger than I, my sister, Mague, was born there. Tabasco became my haven.
She married him for life; instead, she became una esposa de lejos, a long-distance widow, when father became enamored with the illusion of el norte. After 1946, when he first signed on as a bracero, my father was as good as gone. It was then that his dreams became my mother's loneliness.
After life in the United States, he could no longer tolerate the life of a landed peasant. And he stayed away. He made no apologies. He gave no excuses. He had bigger dreams. Don't think they included my mother and me. From then, she had a marriage on hold that came alive only when my father showed up to rekindle my mother's lonely heart and to get her pregnant with yet another girl.
Were it not for Mother's insistence and Abuelo's pressure, Amá and I wouldn't have gone to South Texas to join him, where she stayed long enough to get pregnant and have my first sister, Mague.
Only child born when he was around was Mague. The rest of us were born in the home of his birth, away from him. Didn't care to return. Didn't want to be disappointed with the birth of yet another girl.
Soon, with a new infant in tow, he sent us back. Claimed life became too difficult. It was hard to maintain a growing family of four. Declared his dollars went further in México. As an obedient and loving wife, my mother followed his command. What he failed to confess was that not having a wife gave him the freedom to stray and to continue his womanizing ways.
She didn't seem to mind having him away, though. She accepted Father's absence as a consequence of her luck and lived with the choices she had made. Never complained.
Living near her in-laws, Mother seldom lacked for company or support, most of it from women. The only men in our midst were neighbors who were too young, too sick, or too feeble to follow the same migration path.
Many a time I heard their debates about Father's commitment to Amá. They commented on his stupidity for leaving such a beautiful and wonderful wife so far away.
"Que se cuide Méndez."
"Women like Alejandrina are hard to find."
"He should be concerned."
"Even with her girls Alejandrina would have no problem finding someone."
Because they knew her loyalty and devotion to him, few of these comments were made in her presence. But I heard them.
Mother never lost her figure. She grew more beautiful with each one of her births. Although her brood was expanding, every child she had gave her more patience and made her more attractive. She was kind. Had a great sense of humor. Loved to tease and to play around with us. Smelled of lemon blossoms. She was such a fine cook that relatives made excuses to come around when she was preparing any one of the three meals of the day. Known for her handmade corn tortillas and her roasted chile verde made in a mortar grinder, she drew them like flies to our kitchen.
A hard worker and a thrifty person, Mother made sure we never lacked for anything. And, I might add, because of her way with money, Amá made sure we fancied ourselves rich.
Mother was a loving and concerned parent who made sure all our needs were met. Because I was interested in learning, she stretched her budget to enroll me in parochial school, where I thrived. She was so proud of me; she often attended events and helped with whatever she could. She was invested in us, almost like a parent who tries too hard to fill the void of the absent father, wanting to be both.
Father's relatives accepted her as their kin and loved her. This often made him jealous. They took her in, protected her, loved her, and resented Father for leaving us behind. I assumed she suffered without him by her side, although she never said so.
Ahead of her time, she did not believe in hitting or spanking as discipline. Even Felisa, who could be a handful, found Mother's creativity and kindness when she found herself in time-out for her mischief. Mother had learned that keeping Felisa from her friends was a good way to keep her out of trouble. Mague and I were well-mannered and behaved. We gave her no problems. We loved to help her. She often said we were bién acomedidas, helpful.
Life with Mother was idyllic. Outside the everyday happiness with her, there is little else worth remembering. With Mother in our lives, my sisters and I had no time to miss our father.
No one could have guessed that her life with a dream husband would turn into a nightmare.
Pueblo de Tabasco
Leaving her husband behind and pregnant with Felisa, my mother took us girls back inside the smaller leg of el jorobado. That's what we called Zacatecas because its boundaries were drawn in the form of a hunchback. We were back in Tabasco. Life in the United States had been more difficult than my father had supposed.
In Tabasco, El Camino Real of the Spanish conquerors runs north. My ancestors traveled to San Antonio and other parts of the Southwest, searching for land and riches, just as my grandfather and father later would. Vireinato de Zacatecas supplied people and resources. Southeast is the path the Mexicas took to Tenochtitlán, once the glorious capital of the Aztecs.
Above Tabasco is Chicomoztoc, where the Mexicas began to construct the empire they envisioned after sighting the eagle perched on a cactus with the snake in its beak. Building stopped when their high priests envisioned the lake as the foundation of their city.
Excerpted from Las hijas de Juan: Daughters Betrayed by Josie Méndez-Negrete Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Josie Méndez-Negrete is Associate Professor of Mexican American Studies in the Division of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
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