Posts Tagged ‘South Texas’

The Bell

Posted: February 19, 2013 in Fiction
Tags: ,

“It’s not the act of death that bothers me,” she said, “it’s the unanimity.” And she laughed as she said it. Sure, I thought it a curious place for a laugh and I told her as much. But she shrugged her shoulders in that familiar form and the irony of what she had said fell off of me like a meaningless insult. I went on telling her the story:

There is no real concept of hell in the Old Testament. It’s a rather ambiguous place called Sheol. It’s there the Patriarchs went after they died. When the Nicene creed reads Jesus descended into “hell” it probably doesn’t mean what we think it means.

She thought for a moment and asked, “so it’s kinda like when we say the underworld?”

Something like that; yes, I replied.

“Do you think maybe the Hebrews got the idea from the Egyptians; you know when…”

Just then, a knock broke the intensity of our conversation. We stared at each other, almost as if we had been caught doing something wrong; or perhaps it was that we hadn’t heard a knock at all. Then the jolting sound of the doorbell followed by a distant knock echoed through the hall into my room. It was the front door we finally surmised. I was halfway to the door when I realized it was a Fed-Ex delivery.

“Something from Amazon.com for you, sir!”

He was a tall pale fellow, rather lanky. His hair was styled to be messy and jet-black almost as if he had colored it the night before and the true color hadn’t taken just yet. Considering the myriad tattoos covering his arms, I thought it quite fitting. It seems early 90’s ‘grunge’ has yet to die out, I thought to myself.

As I signed for my parcel, it struck me that his jovial nature and the excitement with which he had presented himself was at odds with his styled look.

“Last name?” he asked.

Oh, Al-va-rez I retorted.

“Is that with an ‘S’ or a ‘Z’?”, he clarified.

With a ‘Z.’

“Cool man, thanks!”  he said, jogging away.

And before I could say anything in return he was in his truck and off to his next delivery. As I made my way back to my room, Ariana called out: “I’m over here”

I stopped mid-step and turned over to where she stood.

“What are you doing in the kitchen?” I asked.

“I figured I’d make us tea, what do you think?” she inquired, already knowing the answer.

“Sounds very refreshing!”

“Is that the book? Huh, Huh. is it…IS IT??” she inquired playfully.

“Yes, yes, yes and yes it is. It’s finally here!” I said matching her silliness.

It was a book of photographs I encountered while browsing Amazon.com. Very specific pictures. It was a collection of black and whites of two 3rd century catacombs from Jerusalem and Rome. Early Christians used the underground necropolis for burying their dead. Some say they also took refuge. Some say they even had fellowship there; that the earliest expressions of the Eucharistic Mass took its form in that underground world.

Whatever the case, they left their mark in wall carvings and in frescoes and mosaics. What was of interest to me was the specific manner in which they depicted Jesus, the miracle worker. Whether it was Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead or Jesus multiplying the loafs and fishes on the Mount of Olives, invariably these early images placed in Jesus’ hand a thing which can only be described as a magician’s wand.

I had become interested in the correlation of Jesus and magic after reading a paper called “Magic and Meal.” In it, the author, a former Roman Catholic Priest, expounded upon the sociological difference between a “miracle worker” and a “magician.” He had come to the conclusion that there really was no substantive difference between the two. It was a matter of semantic nuance.

His analysis across many societies had persuaded him that the only real difference, in whether a person was called a miracle worker or a magician, was the difference between official and unofficial religious practice. That is to say, within an official accepted religion the harbinger of wondrous deeds was called a miracle worker and within unofficial and unaccepted religious practice, the harbinger of wondrous deeds was called a magician. Or as he put it: “we” practice religion, “they” practice magic. “We” say prayers, “they” cast spells.

With the dark smell of brewing tea hanging in the air and the gurgling cadence of percolation breaking the silence of the room, I tore open the package. The book was not of an impressive size. A sure clue that the photos within were not heavily laden with text from an editor’s hand. A chamber from the Roman catacombs of St. Callixtus adorned the cover. The frescoes that bordered the ancient loculi were small given the size of the book but enough was revealed to tantalize. Seeing my excitement and taking advantage of my inattention, Ariana grabbed the book from my eager hands.

“LET ME see it!!” she barked as she ran off in a giggle.

Annoyed, I gazed at her making sure she noticed the offense.  But it took only a moment for me to realize, yet again, that such attempts at passive aggression were futile. She had always found ways to cast them aside by rolling her eyes, like a moody teenager.  But this time she perked up and looked back at me square in the eyes.

“What?” she asked with utter bravado.

“This book will always be with you; but me you may not always have,” she said as she turned again toward the book.

Then she halfway looked up again, and through her hair she flashed a muted smile, wanting to know if I had picked up on the gospel allusion. In fact, I had.  As I approached the sanctum of her remark, I noticed she was paused on a certain page. And gazing at the picture of the Cubicle of the Sacraments she asked pointedly:

“Isn’t it more important to study what they said of themselves rather than what we say about them? Of all the images they could have used to commemorate their dead, why these? A Shepard, a communal meal,” and she trailed off, quietly looking through the book.

As she pointed to the frescoes which surrounded the four loculi hewn into a wall she continued:

“I mean, even if you find anything approaching “Jesus the magician” in these pictures, wouldn’t that just tell you about the people who made the paintings rather than Jesus himself?”

“That is one of the aspects I’m curious about myself,” I replied, “either way, it’s fascinating.”

“Well you’ll have to do that on your own, I have to go,” and she cast the book aside on the couch.

Ariana mooned about the room gathering her things thinking aloud.

“These catacombs are from the 3rd or 4th century. Even if it could be shown that what Jesus held in his hand was, in fact, a magician’s wand and not, say, a walking stick; it would still be required to account for how far back the idea went.”

“Hence the book!” I announced.

“Good luck with that one geek!” she spat off in her pithy humor and left, closing the door behind her.

The Bell

South Texas is a place where memories linger. Legend has it that the flat land, where one can see for miles around, allow the memories of its people to wander for there are no mountains to guide them upward into infinity. I had often wished to be born elsewhere. Rome or Greece, I had thought, would be the best place to be born. It was so rich in history and memory that to walk the roads under the Parthenon or the streets along the Colosseum on any given night was to walk where ancient people had walked. And that had always struck me with a gong of romance. It was a far cry from South Texas to be sure. Our history went as far as the arrival of the Spaniard in the 1500’s. As impressive as that can be, it was eons away from those great city-states.

I had come to the Bell Library in Corpus Christi on the cusp of a memory. Years ago I had come with a friend, Juan Solizeno had invited me to peruse the family history section of “the Bell” as he had come to call it. He was particularly interested in a set of papers collected in early 1760. The Englehardt Papers preserve, in four journals, the travels of Daniel Englehardt, whose journey along the Rio Grande, gives us the first glimpses of the families living along the great river. He details a number of family names, local customs, laws and other information that had remained unknown until Englehardt’s journals were discovered in the 1930’s.

“Here it is.” mumbled Juan. “This is why I love the Bell, a 18th century collection cherished and preserved as if it were from the first.”

“Here put these gloves on,” he insisted.

I obliged and while he removed the journals from the safe-box, I imagined we were archaeologists viewing the documents for the first time in history.

“I want to tell you of the first time I encountered these journals,” he said mysteriously.

“I was 34 years old when these journals were brought here. I was teaching English at the high school when the city hosted the event in conjunction with the library. It was a huge deal when the choice was made to house them here,” he recalled, savoring the residue of the memory.

“I thought it would be a good idea to somehow incorporate these journals into my lesson plans. So I would read them an hour each day after school and find ways to use them.” He continued: “One day I came across this page.”

He pointed halfway down the page. The irony of primary sources struck me like a death punch. I could not read the handwritten text. My eyes were not accustomed to deciphering quickly the cursive handwriting of Mr. Englehardt. Noticing my struggle, Juan took liberty.

Allow me: “…some miles south of the River, encountered a most curious regional aspect. head of the household proudly boasts his family as first to bring the printing press to the region. A quaint little ranchito called El Solizeno. All manner of material printed by their nimble hands…”

I looked at Juan with a puzzled look. That is your last name.

“Yes. Yes it is. This is where genealogy became real to me.  I had always been interested but with this my curiosity soared! It was the start of a long journey. A journey I continues to this day.”

“You know it’s funny. I remember sitting on the porch with my grandparents, my aunts and uncles when they would tell stories about our family. Most of the time it was boring and I wasn’t interested but there were times I couldn’t help but listen. One such story was about el jacal abajo de la casa.  Way back, when our great-great grandparents lived on a ranch in Mexico, there was talk of a shed or a shack under the house.  The details about what was in there differed from telling to telling Some say gold and silver, others say precious jewels. Based on this Engelhardt account, I think it was books they stored there.”

My recollection suddenly burst,.

“What are you doooing?” Ariana asked in her stylistic playful greeting.

“I’m trying to find a book.”

True to form she added: “That shouldn’t be too hard here in a library.”

“No silly. I’m looking for a book I found years ago while here with a friend. It was my first time here at “the Bell” so I wandered. I came across an archaeological report about a site on the Gulf Coast, here in Corpus. I seem to remember the remains of a shipwreck found.  In my rush to take in the facilities I only quickly read through it. But I recall it stating that Roman denarii were collected and that it might be dated to Roman times. The only evidence of a Roman ship on the shores of Corpus Christi. But that’s all I remember, so, I’m trying to find it and read the full report.”

Today marks the anniversary of my mother’s passing. It was strange, and perhaps quite sad, to me that only after her death did I begin to think of her in terms other than “my mother.” Her life as “a woman in South Texas” was something that just didn’t occur to me. And although I’m sure I thought about it on several occasions, it wasn’t a substantial part of my life. In thinking about her, one startling fact always leaps out at me. My mother was functionally illiterate and was schooled up to 3rd grade. She could not read and could just write enough to put her name on paper. In fact, on every instance where a signature was required she would simply place an “X.”

In thinking a lot about the place of women in South Texas, my mother’s situation was not at all unique. Many Tejanos of her generation, especially women, could not read or write (she was born in 1935). Even if, statistically speaking, between the years of 1942 to 1960 the enrollment of Mexican-American school children went from 53 to 79 percent, the reality of that time was that many children were either pushed out of schools under segregationist policies or simply fore went schooling all together in favor of helping the family with work and income. Due to this bleak cultural situation, many of the later Tejano generations placed a high premium on education for their children. Even within our own family, my mother always stressed going to school and was ever prodding us to “hit the books.” At the time, as I guess any child would, I greeted the advice with a flippant “whatever, I wanna watch TV instead.” Now, the comment takes on a new complexion in light of her own inability to read; something I know she wished she could do. She’d often ask me to read to her from the bible. At night, we’d recite the ‘Our Father’ as much for me to know it as, I’m sure, it was for her to remember it.

Through her working life she managed. South Texas was changing rapidly throughout these years and although some changes were painfully slow, literacy was improving. Every one of my siblings profited from public schooling in Kingsville and could read and write. As times changed that one fact about my mother remained the same. But still she managed. She was a cook for most of her life and a very good one at that.  My sister Maria (Mère) relays this story about their time cooking together at Tacos de Josè and La Siesta:

Breakfast and lunch were the busiest times for the restaurants and the orders would pile up. As each order would come in, mom would say nomas leye me los mija y yo los hago and so I would read the orders off to her and mom would cook them.

This is how she managed. She would make do with her inability and use her skills, talent and creativity to overcome the short coming. Today, woman’s literacy has improved by leaps and bounds. I am utterly proud to admit that I know of no women (or anyone) that cannot read and write. I’m sure that some exist and continue to struggle with it but that cultural tragedy is a thing rapidly passing away. Every time I think about my mother I think about her reality as an illiterate person. I think about how she worked hard and raised six children within that reality and how much harder her life must have been because of it.  I think about how much more courage it will take for me to live with love and integrity as she would have wanted.  I think about how foreign the idea of illiteracy is to me and my siblings, her grand children and great grand children because she stressed the idea of education. And I think of how blessed our lives were in spite of it. So on this day, I celebrate my mother’s life. I celebrate how she overcame obstacles to raise her family to the best of her ability, with love and sacrifice . And I celebrate how she was among the final members of a generation debilitated with illiteracy.

South Texas is a place where memories linger. Perhaps the flat land, where one can see for miles around and in any direction, keeps memories tied to the land for there are no mountains to guide them upward into infinity. Matias had memories too.

As he sat there listening to Mrs. O’Shea read, as she did every Friday after the days work, a conflict arose within him. He had heard this story before but not the way Mrs. O’Shea was telling it. He sat intently listening to the story waiting to hear what he knew should be there. As the key words echoed in his head: “…Texans” “…Mexicans” “…Santa Anna” “…Fannin” “…massacre” he wondered whether perhaps his mother had been mistaken. Or, he thought with dread, maybe she had lied. Maybe she hadn’t been there. Maybe she hadn’t loosened the bonds of some of the Texan rebels. Maybe she hadn’t provided food and water and shelter in defiance of the supreme Mexican general’s orders to execute every one of them.

As Mrs. O’Shea finished the story about the Battle of Goliad, Matias ventured a question: Does it tell of a woman who helped the Texan rebels escape execution? Does it say that she helped loosen their bonds, provided food and shelter? Or that she gave them water to drink?

Mrs. O’Shea replied “No…” in a tone reflecting curiosity. Wondering in Matias’ direction she continued, “Why do you ask?”

My mother was the mate of Capt. Telesforo Alavez. She was there when those events took place.

Mrs. O’Shea shuffled through a few pages in deference to his question then firmly concluded “Matias, I’m afraid what you’re telling me is not found in this book.”

His first instinct was to cower in shame, he believed his mother after all.

How could this be? he thought. How could her efforts be left out only to be forgotten?

That’s it for today, es hora de cenar” concluded Mrs. O’Shea as she stood to her feet; and walking to the doorway of the school house, she placed the book on a desk nearby. Matias’ mind was bubbling with thoughts, the kind of thoughts that had him feeling like he was on a horse and hastily being taken somewhere. As she thought aloud in a rambling fashion about her plans for next Friday’s reading, her heels clopping against the wooden floor, Matias’ gaze remained fixed on the book on the desk. By this time, feelings of shame were rapidly spiraling into frustration and anger.

How could these damned gringos forget such a woman that helped save their life? he murmured to himself.

See you next week, Matias” said Mrs. O’Shea as she receded into the shadows of the schoolhouse.

A half-hearted wave was all Matias could muster in his pensive state. He walked slowly down the dirt road of the Santa Gertrudes ranch toward his house. The dust he kicked up as he walked in the South Texas heat gave him a tangible image of the storm brewing within him. As he approached the house he could see his mother at her chores and, already, he could smell dinner cooking. Today, however, he had not the will to determine by the aroma what was being prepared. The only smell that instantly found a home in his memory, as he walked in the door, were the freshly cooked tortillas that mounded the table.

Hola Mama, como estas? he asked, going through the motions of his usual routine; not wanting to alter anything that would clue his mother, Panchita, into the fact that this day was different.

Pos,” she sighed, “aqui hijito, haciendo que hacer” she replied as she removed the last of the tortillas from the comal. Looking up to gaze upon her oldest child, she noticed the pensive look on his face.

Matias, porque andas tan callado? Todo esta bein en el trabajo?”

Si mamma, todo esta bien. Alfonso le manda saludos.

Como les fue con la senora O’Shea?” she asked casually, unaware that she had struck the very chord of his troubles.

Todo fue bien. Muy bien pero una cosa me fastidio. La senora O’Shea leyo de la batalla de La Bahia Espiritu Santo. Y no habia ninguna palabra de que usted les ayudo al los Americanos. Nunguna palabra! Fue como si…como si no estabas ayi! Se olvidaron de ti mamma!

Noticing her son was close to tears, Panchita put the palote down on the table. And walking toward him gesturing with motherly affection to sit next to her, she consoled him saying,

Matias, el libro que leyo la senora O’Shea es una vercion de las batallas. Y si no hay mencion de mi, sera que no saben; no que se olvidaron. Basta que nosotros sabemos y acuerdamos de esos dias tragicas. O quicas, puedes tu educarlos! Quiero que sepas que nosotros Mexicanos nacimos del grito de Hidalgo y no del libro de los Americanos. Ven Matias, ya esta la comida.”