My mother’s immigration story

Tue. November 15, 2005
Categories: Uncategorized

My great grandparents, from Jalisco, Mexico, died fighting for “Reforma, Libertad Ley y Justicia” (Reform, Freedom, Law and Justice) under Emilio Zapata.  Zapata was influenced by the philosopher Peter Kropotkin (born in Moscow, 1842) at a time of rich intellectual growth in Russia. Kropotkin, a student of French history, came under the influence of the new liberal-revolutionary literature to became the founder of anarchist communism.

During the Mexican Revolution, my great-grandparents and 5 or 6 of their children were killed. One child, my 3 year old grandmother Margarita, survived. She was brought to Los Angeles with three remaining adult family members: Her Uncle Guadalupe, Aunt Frances and Aunt Amada. Margarita ran away from her disagreeable Aunt Frances as soon as she could but was found and placed in a convent. When grandmother decided to become a nun, she was removed from the convent. Margarita soon after married  Ramon Barrios, whose family had a performing arts theater in Los Angeles (according to my mother). Ramon and Margarita returned to Nogales, Sonora in 1932 where my grandmother met a tall and handsome man, Alfredo Salazar (my grandfather).  Her husband abandoned her (reason unknown, but suspected). Margarita gave birth to my mother in Nogales, Sonora, in 1934 and afterwards returned to L.A. in 1935. My starving mother arrived in the States when just a few months old. Aunt Frances’ husband,  Louis B. Aguirre, immediately had my mother  hospitalized to ensure her survival (she was placed in an incubator). Meanwhile, Alfredo Salazar had no plans for living in the U.S.,  besides he had a good business in Mexico. Subsequently, Margarita took her only daughter, my mother Frances, to Nogales every year via train to visit the Salazar’s who, likewise, came to L.A. for visits.  I recall their visits during my childhood.

Margarita’s job at a small grocery store /deli did not pay enough to support both mother and child, so my mother lived with her strict and emotionally/physically punishing Great Aunt Frances until she was six years old, and saw her mother on weekends. Things changed for my mother between the ages of 6 and 11 after starting school. At that time she was finally able to move in with her mother and lived as a “latchkey kid,” happy but alone quite a bit. She said the firefighters at the station across the street looked out for her.

Around this time, Margarita fell in love with Issaia Vasquez (aka Chuck), a Mexican-American soldier. When he finally got out of the Army, they married and made a happy home in Boyle Heights for about one year until heartbreak struck the young family. Margarita reportedly died from a kidney infection after having sought the advice of a curandera who mistakenly treated her for a pregnancy. My mother was eleven years old. Grandmother lived as a Mexican and as an Angelino. It was a huge loss for my mother and I, too, longed for a grandmother’s love. Years later my mother was told that her true father was the man she thought was “Uncle Alfredo.”

I want to add a note about my father’s side of the family: I always believed my father was Scotch-Irish, especially after I visited his childhood home on Greasy Creek in Pikeville County, Kentucky.  My paternal grandmother’s surname was Coleman. Come to find out, Coleman is of Irish and English origin. I find it very interesting that there are more than 100 saints named Coleman in Ireland. Well, our branch of the Coleman family is from the coal mining mountains of Appalachia. Our surname “Blackburn” is an English occupational name for a burner of charcoal or gatherer of coal.

It’s true what they say about hillbillies. Sitting around the kitchen table in Greasy Creek, I listened to crazy stories while enjoying homemade biscuits served with molasses boiled with baking soda. The McCoy’s lived in Pikeville to escape the raiding Hatfields from West Virginia.  Having been raised in Southern California in the ’60’s with the music of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, this way of seeing the world was strange to me. I chuckled when my great cousin, who would have been my grandmother’s age, suspiciously intimated that I did not look like “them” (did I imagine that sneer on her face…is that where I got mine?)  Knowing their fear of outsiders, I told her that I was a half-breed, to which she gave a hearty laugh. Humor calmed my worries (and hers, too).  When I told this story to an acquaintance in L.A. he chuckled and said “You’re a hicspic!”  He later denied having ever said it, but I remember the label because it still amuses me.

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