Mary and her siblings
Growing up, I did not feel the sting of prejudice. My parents and grandparents taught me to not feel inferior or subordinate to anyone. Unlike recently arrived immigrants, my family has lived in what is now New Mexico since the 1600’s, a hundred years before the United States became a nation. The family image of our ancestors was that of explorers, conquistadores, and “vigilantes,” the royal guard for the king. Today, as I watch the sin of racism displayed all too frequently, I see that prejudice did exist in my small community in the 1950’s. We just didn’t talk about it. Why not? What effect did prejudice have on my parents and grandparents and what lessons did they pass on to us?
My grandfather, Eduardo, retired from ranching and opened a saloon in the 1950s. He managed the bar and was the chief bartender. His English ability was limited. One afternoon, a man walked into the bar and ordered a drink. He became irate that my grandfather spoke in Spanish. He reached across the bar, grabbed my grandfather by the collar with both hands, and shaking him, yelled, “Speak English!”
My dad Estevan, hearing the commotion, rushed into the bar, grabbed the man, and ordered him to leave. The man, nearly 6’ tall, who would not be intimidated by a 5’7”, 140# Spanish male, took a swing at Estevan. Esteban ducked, avoiding the punch, and slammed his fist into his opponent’s solar plexus. The man hit the floor, unconscious. Dad was an experienced boxer. He boxed in high school, and during his stint as a sailor, he had trained with the lightweight champion of the world.
Estevan picked up the phone. “You better come quickly, “ he said to the sheriff. “I think I’ve killed a man.” The sheriff arrived and bent down to get closer to the unconscious figure. He was out cold. No medical help was available. The only doc in town liked to go fishing at the end of the day and there was no way to call him. The closest hospital was 80 miles away. The sheriff took off his hat and scratched his head, pondering his next step. Just then, the unconscious man’s foot twitched; then his arm moved. He rolled on his side, groaned, and slowly sat up. The sheriff helped the fallen man to his feet. The culprit took one look around, put on his hat and walked out of the bar. No one ever saw him again.
I was five years old, riding my bicycle in front of our filling station. Dad was greasing a car that was up on hoists in the lube bay. A man named Lively, a misnomer, as he rarely smiled, drove up and parked by the gas pumps. He owned the Conoco station on Main Street. What business did he have here? He walked up and began talking to Gordon, one of Dad’s “Anglo” employees.
“Why are you working for this Mexican?” Lively taunted him. “You should come work for me.”
“Mr. V. pays me well and treats me well. I like working here. Mr. V. is a great boss — best I’ve ever had,” said Gordon.
Mr. Lively wandered over to the garage, and seeing Dad still under the car, pulled the hoist lever. The car descended, the escaping air making a hissing sound. I thought Dad would be crushed and I would be an orphan; how would my mom raise us five kids alone? I wanted to yell at the man in the striped gray coveralls to leave my dad alone, but I couldn’t make a sound. My feet were rooted to the ground; I froze in my tracks. Before I could panic, Dad managed to get out from under the car, pulled the lever, stopping the car in midair. He grabbed the trespasser by the collar of his coveralls, delivered a right hook to his abdomen, followed by a left uppercut to his jaw. Lively lay on the ground in a heap. Dad grabbed him by the shirt, threw him towards his truck, and ordered him off the property. Mr. Lively never came back to recruit any more employees.
In the 1980’s, Mom and Dad still owned and ran the filling station, and had bought an RV Park on property adjacent to their business. A couple stopped by the RV office to reserve a spot for the night. They were impressed with the park, commenting on the newly mowed lawn, the clean facilities, and the nice camping spots by the river. As my mother completed the registration, they asked her who owned the place. She informed them that she and her husband were the owners.
“How did you people (meaning Hispanics) come to own a business like this?” asked the gentleman.
Without skipping a beat, “Bought it with cash, just like anyone else,” said Mom.
Not satisfied with the answer and apparently unable to fathom the possibility of a Hispanic owned business, the customer just shook his head muttering, “just don’t know how you people managed to do it.”
My father owned his business for more than 50 years. As the village’s first mayor he raised the household standard of living by securing bonds for a sewer system and a water system to replace the archaic septic tanks and individual wells that were contaminated. He brought in natural gas as an alternative to the expensive and inefficient propane tanks scattered throughout. He worked with a local landowner to cede a parcel of land to the town, which provided the setting for the headquarters of the Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau was embarking on a decades long project to build water conservation tunnels and dams, creating jobs and bringing Bureau employees into town. He went into action when the local historic narrow gauge railroad was to be demolished, working with the governors of both Colorado and New Mexico in this joint venture. The narrow gauge rail line remains an important part of the area’s economic stability. He served on the national board of the Small Business Association and was a school board member, as well as serving on multiple committees for his church. Yes, that’s how “you people” contribute to their community.
Sixty years later, Edmund, my youngest brother, now owns and runs the business Dad started in 1952. A man wandered in and asked for the owner.
“Who’s the owner here?” he asked in a Southern drawl.
“You’re looking at him,” said Edmund.
“I just moved to these here parts from Texas,” said the man, “ and purchased the Chevron Station 16 miles south of here.”
“Congratulations,” answered Edmund, “I wish you well.”
“You’re looking at the man who’s going to put you out of business,” responded the Texan.
“You’re not the first one who’s tried, and you won’t be the last,” said Edmund, smiling.
Before long, the Texan started to recruit my brother’s employees. Having no takers, the new owner had the audacity to ask Edmund if he would could spare his employees for a time to show him how to use the tire-changing machine and other equipment. He also needed help with the use of the computers for the gas pumps. Edmund, stating he was extremely busy with his own business, reminded him of the prediction he’d made. “I thought you said you were going to run me out of business.”
Within a year, the Texan was gone, his business for sale.
My cousin recently recounted a story about her mother, my Aunt Susie. In her 80’s, Aunt Susie moved to Virginia to live with her daughter. While asking her mother about her life, Aunt Susie recounted to her daughter the prejudice she experienced when she moved to Colorado in 1951 with her new husband. She applied for a job teaching elementary school and became the first Hispanic teacher to be hired in that school district. None of the other teachers would speak to her or sit with her at lunch. She was harassed and ostracized to the point that she had decided to quit her job. The principal refused to accept her resignation and somehow convinced her to stay. She taught for more than 30 years in that same school district, a positive role model for hundreds of students. She endured.
My parents and grandparents taught us that trials and tribulations are inevitable. They didn’t just talk about injustice; they met it head on, taking care of business without hesitation when needed. They met challenges with hard work, perseverance, and grace. They would not let others define who they were and how they should live their lives; instead, they created their own destiny.