I don’t recall the exact November 1943 date that Mexican government agents hustled my Mother, me, my uncle and great-grandmother (abuelita) onto a train bound for El Norte, the United States of America. The expulsion was ordered by former President Lazaro Cardenas who accused my great-grandmother of treason for helping organize the formal opposition – Partido Accion National (PAN)– to Cardenas and his Party, the PRI.
What I do recall is that we walked across the American border on a bridge over the Rio Grande. I am told that I proudly handed an American officer my Mexican passport. He stamped it and waved us on with “Bienvenidos to America.” Years later I discovered I didn’t need that passport for I was an American citizen via my Mother’s birth in California.
Among us, I am told we had $123.00 American dollars. We boarded a train in El Paso, Texas, headed for San Diego to join relatives. The train was jammed with young sailors, soldiers and Marines headed to the Pacific to make war on the Empire of the Sun. Many of these guys had never been twenty miles from home and probably had never met a two-year-nine-month-old kid or adult who didn’t speak English.
I wonder to this day if any of the soldiers, sailors and Marines I saw in newsreels of the bloody battles of Iwo Jima or Okinawa in 1945 were any of these young guys on the train that used to laugh and reward me with chocolate when I made funny faces at them. In later years I would thank them for defeating the Empire, protecting freedom and teaching me that people will pay you to entertain them, sometimes with chocolate.
What I learned from them I used for motivation later on radio and television.
The Christmases of 1943, 1944 and 1945 escape my memory, but Christmas 1946 stands out as the first American Christmas I remember, not just for the festivities, but for who was there.
We started Christmas 1946 with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, then went home and opened presents. Being the only kid and only “man” the attention seemed to be on me. It was a great night.
Most of the men in the family and in San Diego’s Mexican barrio were absent as they had gone to war, or like my grandfather and grand-uncle to build military bases all over the world for the war effort. Arriving in 1943, I had never met either because they were gone.
My mother’s cousin-by-marriage Luis had joined the Army the minute he could (1943) and volunteered for the 101st Airborne (they paid extra and he had just married my mother’s first cousin). He was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. My uncle was 15 when we arrived in 1943, turned 16 in February of 1944 and joined the Army four months later by telling the recruiter that he had no birth certificate because he was born in a mountain village in Mexico where children didn’t have birth certificates. Being a breathing body was his qualification for enlistment, so the Army took him. Off to war with his buddies.
Christmas morning started with my great-grandmother and I having our morning “café con leche,” coffee with milk, mine was mostly milk. Then family women showed up to start preparing Christmas dinner.
My job was to grind corn “masa” for tortillas and tamales. My five-year-old arms almost fell off after an hour from the grinding on a grinding stone like the ones used by our Aztec ancestors. My abuelita supervised all the women and carefully watched over a giant bird in the oven they told me was a turkey in the United States but a guajolote (wah-ho-loh-teh) in Mexico.
Pork, beef, beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes and rice were cooking in large pots, two women were using the ground corn and making tamales with chicken, pineapple, beef and raisins and steaming them to perfection. Others were organizing the large front/dining room into a large buffet. Target time for eating was 4:00 in the afternoon. Other than helping in the kitchen that was the only detail I knew about. The women were happy. I thought it was because Santa had brought them nice presents like he did me. It wasn’t.
My grandfather and grand-uncle who had been working building Army air bases came up the stairs to the apartment above a liquor store. Then our paratrooper hero cousin Luis arrived from Germany. Some distant men relatives I didn’t know bounded up the stairs to be greeted joyfully by their girlfriends and wives. Then came my Uncle Johnny, all of 18-years-old with combat ribbons from fighting in France and Germany.
I cried. I didn’t know any of the men including my grandfather. I’d never met them but I knew my Uncle Johnny. I cried like a little girl and didn’t care.
It was the greatest Christmas, the first American Christmas I remember. All those people are gone but the memory of Christmas 1946 is in my mind as if it was yesterday. So are they.
Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad to all, a todos.
Contreras formerly wrote for the New America News Service of the New York Times.Posted - Copyright © 2022 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.