It is only after we are parents ourselves that we come to recognize and appreciate the sacrifices our parents made when we were young and the wisdom they imparted upon us. My parents were the product of their times and of their upbringing, having been raised during the Great Depression in households governed by macho, Latino patriarchs. Felipe Ramon Martinez and Emilia Manuela Pinohad their good qualities and their bad, as we all do.
Dad was raised on a ranch on the plains of northern New Mexico near Watrous. Dad’s mother gave him to her parents when he was almost two years old because she was unable to care for him due to child birth complications when his little sister was born. Dad’s grandparents were fairly well off, and they doted on him. For three years he lived the charmed life of the spoiled grandchild. One day, about three years later, a strange man showed up on the door step of his grandparents home and dragged Dad back to the ranch, kicking and screaming.
As Dad told the story, he was put into slave labor helping his father work the ranch. My grandparents were self-sufficient, raising crops and cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, and chickens. They had no running water in the three room adobe house, so water had to be hauled by hand in pails from the creek which was a good walking distance away. They had no electricity so when darkness fell, they went to bed early or sat at the kitchen table around the shadowy light of their only kerosene lantern telling stories or playing poker with match sticks. Eking out a farm living was like trying to cultivate an orchid plantation in recalcitrant concrete. Needless to say, Dad ran away from home and headed to California when he was only fifteen years old. I often wondered whether Dad’s rough edges would have been blunted or smoothed had he been left with his grandparents.
Dad was raised in an era when “real men” didn’t cry, and they settled disputes by cracking bones and ripping flesh. He was impatient, bluntly outspoken, and set in his ways. In his younger years, he was also an alcoholic. He was a strict father and husband. His home was his courtroom, and whatever he said was the law. Rarely did anyone question his decisions. But, he also was personable, unafraid to take risks, and one of the hardest working men I have ever known.
Despite being so gruff, he taught me the importance of being fair to and considerate of others.
Despite being so gruff, he taught me the importance of being fair to and considerate of others. I remember, in particular, one year when we were visiting my grandparents. They had just sold the ranch and moved to a small home in Albuquerque after my grandfather had a series of strokes. It was late afternoon, and I was outside playing with my cousins. It was a hot, cloudless day in early July, and we were so hot and sticky from our game of hide-and-seek. Suddenly, we heard the tinkle of notes from the Snow Cone Man as he drove his little van up and down the neighborhood streets. Ahh, a glistening cherry snow cone was the perfect antidote for my over-heated body. I ran inside to ask Dad if he would buy us a snow cone.
He pulled out his wallet to hand me some money and asked, “How much do they cost?
I told him.
“How many of you are there?”
“Dad, you know there are only 4 of us,” I said.
“I know how many kids I have, but how many of your cousins are out there?”
I counted them up and when I told him how many there were, he put his wallet back in his pocket.
“I’m sorry, jita. I don’t have enough money to buy a snow cone for all of you. How would you like it if one of your other cousins bought a snow cone and you had to watch him eat it?”
That was not the response I wanted, and it did not seem fair to me at the time because that was exactly what happened the previous day. One of my aunts gave her son Danny only enough money to buy one snow cone for himself. So, the rest of us cousins watched hungrily as he ate it.
Mom was the stereotypical Latina housewife. She worked without complaint, taking care of home and hearth. She was subservient to her husband Felipe. Mom was also set in her ways and one of the most stubborn people I ever met. She needed to have the structure of rules and routines to help her navigate her life. Sunday was church day. Monday was wash day. Friday was ironing day. Saturday was grocery shopping day. She had a very difficult time adjusting to change and almost never varied from her routines. Mom also suffered from low self-esteem that was, in part, the result of her upbringing in the racially prejudiced town of La Veta, Colorado in the 1930s and ‘40s. It was also, in part, the result of being married to my Dad who was such a domineering personality. She recalled the signs, “No Dogs or Mexicans” on water fountains in the park and on store fronts in La Veta. She was very self-conscious of being so dark skinned, although her skin tone was no darker than mine. When she was about 9 years old, her home was sold to pay the tax liens, and she and her family were homeless. She loved school, but when she was 15, her parents told her that they couldn’t afford to pay the school fees, and she needed to drop out of school to help earn money to support her younger brothers and sisters.
She cried, but she did as they asked.
Growing up, I recall her taking out her books every evening and studying for the GED. Getting her GED was her biggest dream. She could have passed the GED exam with flying colors. I remember one conversation we had when she was still in her 50’s. I was on the Colorado Springs District 11 School Board and had just attended the graduation ceremonies for an alternative high school where we conferred a high school diploma on a woman who was 85 years old.
I rushed to my parent’s home and said, “Mom! Guess what? You don’t need to settle for a GED. You can actually take classes and get a high school diploma!”
Mom’s eyes lit up. “How is that possible?”
I set up an appointment for her to take an assessment test so they would know what classes she needed to complete.
The morning I came by to pick her up to take her, she said, “I am sick. I can’t go.”
Mom was so afraid of failure that no matter how much I nudged and cajoled her, I was never able to talk her into taking the classes to get her diploma. Nor did she ever take the GED exam. Eventually, the topic just faded from our conversations.
Mom was very kind, fair, and generous to others. During our most needy year, the year my Dad was in barber school, we lived in a shack by the railroad tracks, and we got commodities from the government. Hobos jumped the box cars near our house and often came to our door to ask for food. Never once did she turn them away empty-handed.
Mom was also very kind, fair, and generous to others. During our most needy year, the year my Dad was in barber school, we lived in a shack by the railroad tracks, and we got commodities from the government. Hobos jumped the box cars near our house and often came to our door to ask for food. Never once did she turn them away empty-handed, even if all she could offer was a jam sandwich and a glass of water.
When I was younger, I unfairly judged Mom as being a “totally” subservient housewife. Looking back, I realize that such a view of her was less than fully accurate. There were a number of times when Mom furtively circumvented Dad’s rules or valiantly stood up to him. But she did it only when it was necessary to protect her children. One day when I was in high school talking to Mom about life as a young mother, she confided in me that, for years, she was afraid she might be arrested.
“Mom, you are such a rule follower. There is no way you could have ever broken the law,” I said.
“When you were about two years old, I woke up at my usual time, about 5:30 to light the wood stove to cook your dad’s breakfast and pack his lunch. I was worried because you kids had outgrown all your clothes. The money your dad gave me was barely enough to buy food and pay the bills. I was embarrased to take you to church dressed like orphans.”
“Why didn’t you just ask Dad for more money or ask him to take you shopping?”
“I did, but he got mad. He said, ‘What do you think? I’m made of money?’”
“So, I worried and couldn’t sleep trying to figure out how to get clothes for you kids. That afternoon, I walked to train depot to check the mail., and there was a Montgomery Ward catologue. When I saw all the children’s clothing, I realized that this was a way I could buy your clothes. But to order from the catalogue, I had to get a credit card. So I forged your dad’s signature on the credit card application and ordered the clothes I needed. Then I then scrimped and scraped on our groceries to pay back the bill in installments.”
Mom had been sick and lethargic for most of her life. For years doctors had poked and prodded her, run all kinds of tests, and pumped Mom full of different drugs. But no one could figure out what was making her so sick. By the time I was a junior in high school, my mom’s health had deteriorated to the point of near death. The doctor said she needed a lower altitude, so right before my senior year of high school, we left Buena Vista and moved back to Colorado Springs. That year, taking care of the family fell on my shoulders. It would not be until years later, when I was in law school, that a young doctor fresh out of his residency would finally reach the correct diagnosis—Mom had a hole in her heart. Literally, she had been born with this hole in her heart and her heart had finally reached its limit and had swelled to the size of a boxing glove.
About a month before I was supposed to leave for CU Boulder to start college, I came home after working my day shift as fountain girl at the Dairy Queen just up the street from our home and began making dinner. I just finished kneading the dough for the tortillas and was peeling and slicing the potatoes when Dad got home from his job as a cadet barber at the Air Force Academy. The door from the back yard opened into the kitchen, and Dad walked in the door in his blue barber’s smock, carrying his grey metal lunch pail which he set down on the kitchen table.
He turned to me and in a low voice said, “Hita, I’m sorry, but I don’t think you are going to be able to go to college. Your Mom is too sick, and you need to stay and take care of the family.”
Stunned, I stood speechless. My throat tightened and tears began pooling in my eyes. Visions of my future without a college education flashed through my mind. Fortunately, I never had to find out if I could be as selfless as Mom had been when her dad told her she had to drop out of school, because she was the one who brought out of my trance.
Her bedroom was next to the kitchen and, although Dad had spoken very softly, she overheard him. She dragged herself up out of her sick bed and stood in the doorway. Her arms and legs were visibly trembling from weakness. Her face was pale. She had big black bags under her eyes. Yet, in a weak but determined voice, she countermanded Dad.
“No! Christy is going to college. The rest of the kids have to start helping out around the house.”