A moaning by the labor camp dump caught my attention. Inside a junked car with no doors, our neighbor, Diana, was hugging and kissing a big boy not quite a man. I never knew his name, so I call him Novio—boyfriend. In the tangle of arms and hands, her white, ruffled dress slid off her shoulder. From a near distance, her husband, Rogelio, in full Sunday clothes right up to his Panama hat, made a beeline toward the car, his hands in fists.
“¡Epa!” Rogelio shouted. He flailed his arms as if shooing off cats.
Novio ran for his life. Sprinted down the rutted farm path to the county road, leaving Diana, with tousled hair and dress askew, to fend for herself.
Standing nearby, I, only eight years old, was off-kilter too.
Rogelio yanked Diana out of the car.
She bit his hand, and he let go of her.
“¡Cabrona!” he cursed her. A slap and a backhand to start. Then over and over, the thud of fist on flesh. I stood still, terrified. I didn’t make a sound. Diana fell to the ground under the blur of punching and kicking. “Ya no, Rogelio.” Please, no more.
All of a sudden, he squatted next to her. “¡Sangre! ¡Sangre!” Rogelio screamed. Blood.
It was the summer of 1956, two years after our family emigrated from Mexico. We lived in a migrant workers’ labor camp, near Trementon, Minnesota. The farmer’s spacious, two-story house faced the county road. Down a dirt path, the cabins for workers and their families sat back near the sugar beet fields. We lived in one-room cabins, each with a coal-burning stove, a couple chairs, and two bunk beds. We weren’t yet settled in this godforsaken place. We were still finding our way.
As the oldest child of six, I helped Mami with the baby and toddlers. Helped with the laundry. Took trash out to the dump, which is how I came upon Diana and Novio.
Novio was in his late teens, I’d say, compared to Diana’s late twenties. He slicked his hair back like an exotic bird. She also fixed herself pretty. Even when weeding beets in the fields with a hoe, Diana donned a flouncy sun hat and wore red lipstick. She was most enchanting when she danced.
Some afternoons when the fields were too muddy to work, Diana and Rogelio brought their record player outside. I imagined musicians and singers scratched to life by the diamond stylus as the 45 lolled around and around. When dancing to gringo rock-n-roll, Diana moved as if stirring a pot of oatmeal. I didn’t understand the English lyrics, but Diana sang along, as her pelvis stirred and stirred.
I left Diana on the ground by the junked car, Rogelio still cursing and screaming about her blood. Before long, Mami and I, with a handful of neighbors, watched medics roll Diana onto a stretcher.
Rogelio climbed in the ambulance with her. I wanted to shout, keep him away. When the ambulance turned from the dirt path onto the paved road, I lost the sound of the siren’s wail.
That afternoon, I was filling a bucket of drinking water from the outdoor faucet when a sedan—in our world of pickup trucks—drove toward the cabins. I rushed inside, Papi right behind me.
“Policía,” he whispered, tapping a finger to his mouth. “Sh, sh. Nada de Diana. Nada.”
He herded our family onto the bunk beds.
Three knocks on the door. Then rapping and pounding. I cupped my hand over my mouth and scrunched my face tight to keep from squealing, Rogelio did it. I heard footfalls outside, then tires crunched gravel. The policía must have shrugged off the investigation, thinking, She’ll be fine.
The morning after the police came, gossip in the laundry cabin started. “Good thing they didn’t arrest Rogelio.” Three or four women gathered at different hours of the day to wash the labor camp’s ropa sucia in deep sinks. As Mami scrubbed diapers on a washboard, I rinsed. Another woman said, “It’s a family thing.” Someone else: “Diana se lo buscó.”
I had been there. She didn’t ask for it. She’d asked him to stop. Ya no, Rogelio—no more.
Mami sighed. “Why did that joven even look at a poor married woman.” “Teenager,” Mami called him, placing some blame on the big boy. But I didn’t understand “poor married woman.” Do married women who catch a teen boy’s attention get bloodied up?
Even as an eight-year-old, I knew Diana shouldn’t have been kissing Novio. But, thinking back, I don’t recall faulting him for pulling her dress off her shoulder. “You be a decent girl,” my parents had already started drilling me. Did that include my silence? Was I still a witness if I said nothing? In retrospect, my silence didn’t help me forget.
I accompanied Mami when she knocked on Diana’s door. “I’m folding clothes,” Diana said, picking up stacks to make room for us to sit on the bed. There was no chit-chat. Together, Mami and Diana folded a sheet. Lorena, her mother’s helper, walked in with an armload from the clothesline. She and I didn’t even look at each other. Diana reached for the white dress with eyelet ruffles and fingered a dark smear. She handed the blood-stained dress back to Lorena, who dropped it in a cardboard box and kicked it under the bed.
Hidden, but still there.
Sh-sh, nada de Diana.
That August, after I saw what happened to Diana, we found our way to the Nyssa, Oregon, labor camp for Mexican immigrants. We arrived during the onion harvest, so Papi found work. Cabins were identical to the ones in Minnesota—one room, coal burning stove, bunk beds. We lived there for two years.
When I was ten, Mami and Papi purchased a small, clapboard fixer-upper a block away from the labor camp, on “the other side” of the town’s underpass, which we mejicanos called el puente. Scuffed and squat, our casita had barely enough crawl space for a skinny man to repair a leak. We put up with torn screens and locks easily picked by wiggling the doorknobs. But with five small rooms, a flushing toilet and bathtub, and a kitchen sink, this was a vast improvement from the labor camp. Still, we lived on the other side of el puente, divided from the white side of town.
The public school was where brown and white children mixed—sort of. When I was in fourth grade, my sweet gringita friend invited me to go with her to the store where her mom worked. I’d spoken to her mom before, whenever I translated for Mami, who’d be buying fabric to make our dresses. But this time, when I went with my friend, her mom acted like I didn’t exist—only now and then sneaking furtive glances at me out of the corner of her eye.
The next day at school, my friend said, “Mom asked lots of questions about you.” Like where I lived. My friend told her mom that I lived “on the other side of the underpass.” My breath caught before I exhaled. Her mom had also asked about where my father worked. “I told her he works for farmers.” I felt queasy in my belly and in my head. My hands quivered. Her mom was friendly with me as a customer with my mother, but not as her daughter’s friend.
Over the years, teachers also asked about where we lived. “How does your big family fit in such a tiny house?” The question made me squirm. How did they think we fit? We didn’t dawdle when bathing, for instance, because someone else might need the toilet. Was that what they wanted to hear?
“We make room,” I’d reply to those who paid enough attention to ask.
To them, we must have resembled the old woman who lived in a shoe, from the Mother Goose rhyme, with “so many children she didn’t know what to do.” Mami put two children to sleep head-to-toe in each of the twin beds in the first sleeping room where Mami also kept her sewing machine. In the second sleeping room, which also served as the TV room, the baby plus a toddler slept in the full bed with Mami and Papi. When la cigüeña flew in to deliver another baby, the living room couch slept a toddler with one of the older kids. We were “tight,” in all the meanings of that word.
In our too-small fixer-upper, Mami, like other mothers of her era—white or brown, rich or poor—took care of our family. Weaving chains and double crochets, she kept us warm in hats and scarves. She fixed our breakfast and packed lunch for Papi before seeing him off to the beet and onion fields during the growing and harvest season, and the sugar factory in winter. With Papi at work, Mami finished getting us ready for school. She combed the boys’ hair with water. Plaited the girls’ braids so tight I felt them pull on the sides of my eyes. If I flinched or squealed, Mami explained, “They have to last all day.”
Because we were raised in the tight weave of Mami’s hands, we found ways to live in our mythical shoe.
“¡NO, NO, Y NO!” Papi shouted, spitting profanities.
He cussed in English, too. “Son-of-a-beesh.”
This uproar in our kitchen was because my ninth-grade teacher had asked if I’d help his wife after school. Hold their newborn, set the table, make salads. Easy work could keep me out of the field. I would still help Mami with chores—“really, I will do both,” I said.
But Papi shook his head. “What does that mada facka think we are?” Papi said I wasn’t a criada. Not in a gringo’s or any other house. That I was “nobody’s maid.”
I saw no difference between field hands and maids. But I didn’t challenge Papi; I obeyed. In the 1960s, each spring when the sugar beets sprouted around Nyssa, he took my sister Marie, my brother Juan, and me, all teens at the time, to thin beets. He handed a short-handle hoe to each of us. Then we joined him: stooped and stepped sideways, cutting off spindly plants and weeds crowding the healthier seedlings with thick spines. I found a rhythm—side-step, hoe, side-step, hoe—up and down the rows.
As years passed, other siblings joined the crew. When we finished each day, I admired the acres of evenly spaced beet seedlings—a portrait of the discipline and symmetry that farm work demands. I had the sore back and stiff neck to prove it. The setting sun rewarded us with iridescent orange and violet streaks across the horizon. That’s my fond memory of working in eastern Oregon—those glorious sunsets.
About a year after Papi prohibited me from helping my teacher’s wife, my sister Marie agreed, on her own, to clean the rectory and cook the local priest’s dinner after school. When Papi wasn’t home, she described the bland steak and shredded lettuce tossed with vinegar and oil that the priest ate every day. “No chile,” she said, smiling about her adventure.
Marie never got parental permission, so it came as no surprise when her gig came to an end in one of Papi’s tirades. He had heard—at the cantina, of all places—that Marie was working at the church, and rushed home fuming. “NO, NO, Y NO.” His daughters weren’t maids, and he threw in, “We didn’t come to this country to clean toilets.” Marie had to quit.
Thin-skinned potatoes could ruin from sun damage. In late July, we arrived in the field before dawn, and strapped on wide canvas belts with two hooks in front for hanging a burlap sack. Straddling the row, I gathered potatoes into the sack as it dragged between my legs, tugging at my loins. At sunrise, I heaved a deep sigh, relieved we’d soon quit for the day.
Unlike potatoes, onions thrived in August heat. Farmers dug up the onions and left them in rows to dry to a golden brown. Then we “topped” off the stems with knives and emptied bushels of them into burlap sacks. With temperatures over a hundred degrees, we made sure to protect ourselves. Sombreros for Papi and the boys, and for the girls, wide-brimmed hats atop floral scarves, tied under our chins. And long sleeves, for us all. Some days, the dangerous heat made the air wiggle, like a mirage in the distance.
A third domestic work offer: the wife of a local businessman had come down with chronic back pain. She asked the high school principal for help finding a “hard-working and trustworthy” girl. Our little Julia (short in stature but tall on work) got the nod. Mami gave Julia permission, and when Papi asked about her whereabouts, he was told only that she was “helping a señora who is sick.”
Sometimes when he noticed Julia’s absence, he’d ask, “Is that señora still sick?”
First it was me, then Marie, then Julia. What do they think we are? Papi had said. Surely the señora knew of white families with daughters. Some of my white peers worked indoors as cashiers, bagged groceries, scooped ice cream cones at the A&W.
I could have worked indoors, too. In my last two years of high school, I took an “Office Help” vocational class. For one hour a day, I performed high school office tasks, and I did well. Yet no teacher or anyone else from town offered me a paying part-time or summer office job. When it came to housework, though, gringos found us. An eerie sensation gnawed at me, until it matured into a miserable truth I didn’t want to accept.
The señora and her family who hired Julia were good people. They treated her well. Despite good intentions, all of them—my ninth-grade teacher, the priest, the señora and principal—had tried to push my sisters and me toward dead-end housekeeper jobs most people didn’t want. How about a job in your husband’s air conditioned office, Señora?
While Papi tried his best to save my sisters and me from housekeeping work, he did not spare us from dragging heavy potato sacks in the predawn darkness or from the blistering, wiggly heat in the onion fields. Like many farmworker families, we worked for stingy wages. Papi saw no other way to support our large family than to have all of us work when there was no school. “Ni modo,” he often said. No way around it. Nevertheless, in the fields, Papi taught us, by example, not to back down from difficult tasks. We learned that there’s dignity in physical labor and to respect all manual laborers. Maids, too. If his sons and daughters could handle the heat and rigors of field work, Papi figured, we could do todo, anything! Everything!
Assumptions that women in our family were suited for housekeeping work continued well beyond high school. Decades later, another of my sisters, Berónica, cleared the dishes she used at a “self-serve” motel breakfast. A stranger tried to hand Berónica her dirty plate.
“I didn’t take her damn plate,” my sister told me. “I had the same skin color as the motel workers, but they wore uniforms. I wore a skirt and top, no name tag.” Still, to give the woman the benefit of the doubt, Berónica explained the motel’s “self-serve” procedure.
“Scrape your plate into this trash bin,” she said, pointing. “Then place it on that rack.” The woman pursed her lips and, again, thrust the plate at my sister. “Okay lady, I tried,” Berónica muttered and hurried away.
By then, Berónica worked as a victim-witness advocate for the prosecutor in her community. Years of experience with stereotypes and social inequality—and the nightly news—had given her the confidence to reject dirty plate offers. NO, NO, Y NO! Just as Papi had said.
Teresa M. Elguézabal is a retired attorney who was born in Mexico. In 1954, she immigrated to the United States with her parents and three siblings. She became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1967. Her personal stories and essays have appeared in the Readers Write feature of The Sun Magazine, Pandemic Diaries of Passager Magazine, The Baltimore Sun newspaper, The Maryland Bar Journal, and Rosebud Magazine. One personal essay about forgiveness is archived in This I Believe. She is currently working on Becoming Gringa, a book-length manuscript about her Mexican immigrant experience. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, near her daughter and grandchildren.