Monday, May 30, 2011

Los Versos del Veterano - With Respect to Eligio Escobar

For those Mexican Americans who served in the military, in particular World War II, one of the most popular songs was one sung by Tejano artist Eligio Escobar. It was titled simply, "El Veterano" - The Veteran.

The song has had staying power and those who served in Korea, Vietnam and now in the Middle East conflicts can relate to its message. The message is simple, a Mexicano will not shy away from anything in the battlefield. A Mexicano will fight with honor, valor and persistence to defend his country. If you go to YouTube, click on this link: and you should hear the song. If not, just put down El Veterano Eligio Escobar and you will get the link. Good luck. It is inspiring.

On this Memorial Day, I would like to offer the lyrics, the song and the message with all those who had a military veteran in their family. "Que dios los bendiga a todos" (May God bless all of you). Eligio Escobar is in the center, my step-dad Amando Saenz at the top, and my father, Manuel Flores, is on the right with the Mexican and American flags in the background. This, too, is for them.

Los Versos del Veterano
Canción de Eligio Escobar

Veterano, soy señores (Gentlemen, I am a veteran)
De la guerra más terrible, fui guerrero
(of the most terrible war, I was a soldier)

Soy Mexicano de raza,(I am a Mexican)
Por la mano del destino,(Because of destiny)
Nacido en el extranjero (I was born outside of my land of Mexico)

Me llamaron al servicio, (They called to serve in the military)
Como macho es mi deber decir “¡presente!” (Like an honorable man that I am, it is my duty to say "present").
Me toco la infantería, (I was assigned to the infantry)
Esos que van en el frente (Those who go toward the front in battle)

Después del entrenamiento, (After my training)
Me mandaron en un barco, (They send me in a boat)
A ir a jugarme la vida al otro lado del charco (to go an gamble my life on the other side of big puddle - ocean)

Yo en mi vida avía rezado, (In my life I have prayed)
Pero allí aprendí a rezar mil oraciones.(But over there I learned to pray a thousand prayers).

Bajo la lluvia de acero, (under the rain of steel)
Balas de martilladoras (bullets from machine guns)
Y bombas de mil aviones (and bombs from a thousand airplanes)

No he podido comprender,(I cannot comprehend)
Como pude yo volver, (How it is I was able to return)
¿Quizás la suerte? (Maybe it was luck?)

Pues, es que mi dios es muy grande,(Well, it's because my God is so powerful)
Mi Virgen Guadalupana (And my Virgen de Guadalupe)
Me protegió de la muerte (Protected me from death)

Y hay que vida tan amarga, (What hard life)
La que un soldado se pasa (A solider has to endure)
sin ninguna esperanza de regresar a su casa (Without any hope of ever returning home)

En los campos de batalla (In the battlefields)
Se mostro su valentía, ser Mexicano (The valor of what it means to be Mexicano was shown and proven).

Para que el mundo lo sepa, (So that the world will know)
Que no se afrenta de nada el que tiene sangre Azteca (Don't one with Aztec blood will not back down to anything).

Ya me despido señores con mi Máuser en las manos (I say farewell now gentle, with my Mauser in my hands).

Y, aquí, se acaban los versos del veterano (This is the end of the lyrics of the song El Veterano).


Sunday, May 29, 2011

My father and step-father were part of The Most Honorable and Patriotic Generation Ever Produced by American Society - The Greatest Generation of all

We have all heard of "The Greatest Generation."

NBC-TV news broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw coined the phrase in his 1998 book of the same title. It is supposed to honor those young men and women who defended our country's honor while serving in the military during World War II. Generally, it included people born between 1901 and 1924. Most survived WWI, the Great Depression and then saved the world during World War II.

This Memorial Day, we pause to honor all veterans, especially those who served in WW II and are still with us. We honor all veterans. Today, May 30, however, I wish we could stop to honor the Hispanic veterans of WW II. I'll explain.

Brokaw said, appropriately, the young men and women in WW II fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the right thing to do. I agree, but every generation has had its war and those who serve do it because they feel it is the right thing to do. But, yes, it was "the right thing to do."

Said Brokaw, "It is, I believe the greatest generation any society has ever produced." Strong words, but certainly, appropriate.

With no apologies to Mr. Brokaw, I would like to put forth the thesis that the generation he refers to had a distinctly Hispanic tinge and that those young Hispanic (mainly Mexicano) men and women who served their country deserve to be recognized as The Most Honorable and Patriotic Generation ever produced in American society. My father - Manuel Flores (photo top right) and my step-father Amando Saenz (photo top left) were part of that Most Honorable and Patriotic Generation ever produced in American society. It is estimated that more than 750,000 Hispanic men and women fought during World War II.

University of Texas professor Dr. Maggie Rodriguez has documented this in her magnificent project "Defend the Honor." She has made sure that an oral history of these proud "veteranos (veterans)" is documented for all to hear. Dr. Rodriguez's work is priceless. She even took on famed documentarian Ken Burns when he totally left out the Hispanic contribution in World War II in his PBS documentary. Burns made some changes to include the Hispanic contribution in WW II, but why did it take someone to point it out for him to make the change? We, too, are part of U.S. history. Hispanic have contributed to the U.S. military effort since the American Revolution. WW II was no exception.

While the contributions in the battle fields of Europe, Japan and the Pacific were numerous and honorable during WW II, what this generation of Hispanics did for the status of Hispanic citizenship in the United States is both remarkable and inspiring. Hispanics, though small in numbers in WW II, proportionately won more Medals of Honor and Purple Hearts in the Great War. Back home, however, they would change the landscape of the nation, initiate the nation's civil rights movement and let people of all colors understand that the Mexicano, Tejano, Puerto Ricans and Centro Americanos were as proud of being Americans as their white neighbors who ate apple pie and drank Coca-Cola.

These young Hispanics served with honor. They served with courage. Some had but an elementary school education, but they volunteered and said, "dale shine (Let's go)." Others volunteered even after they were denied their civil rights, often being denied service in restaurants or loans from a bank. Yet, they had the courage to fight and to say with honor, "We too are citizens of the United States. I will defend my country even though you do not want to grant me full citizenship. I will fight for our country." Others came from Mexico and Central America, gambling their lives for a chance at U.S. citizenship. All these things were "the right thing to do."

Thousands of Hispanics died. Every small South Texas town has a monument to these heroes. But those who survived, contributed even more. They came back with a pride and courage our country had hardly seen. They came back ready to be accepted as full partners into American society. When some found little had changed, they protested. Armed with the GI Bill, they forged forward to get high school and college educations. Yet, it was hard. Good jobs were hard to find. Loans were hard to get. Teachers said they couldn't succeed in college. But, they did not give up.

Then, when the family of a young soldier killed in the Philippines was denied to have a "velorio (wake)" in Three Rivers, Texas, everything changed. His name was Felix Longoria (Photo bottom right). He deserved to have a wake in his hometown. Someone said "no." That was the last straw. The veterans organized and formed the American G.I. Forum under the leadership of Dr. Hector Perez Garcia (photo center right), a WW II veteran himself. No one would push Hispanics around any more. This time, when someone pushed, the Mexicano would push back and point to their service in WW II and simply say, "How dare you deny us the rights of an American citizen since we fought to defend those rights?" It was and continues to be "the right thing to do."

This generation of Hispanics was outraged at the thought some people in our great country considered us to be second-class citizens. They wanted improvements in everything for us and fought valiantly in the courts, the political battle fields and in the halls of education to bring about change. They took on racist and discriminatory policies and practices at public schools all over Texas and asked the state, and the nation, to treat Hispanics equally. They were there before the NAACP and Brown v. Board of Education asking for integrated schools and fair treatment of students. Among the Texas heroes were Gus Garcia and James de Anda, two attorneys who changed the face of South Texas education and politics. It all started with their service in WW II. There were more, many more. The point is, these were honorable and courageous people who would no longer accept second-class citizenship for themselves or any Hispanic. They risked their lives and careers to make America a better place, not just for Hispanics, but for all citizens.

So, this Memorial Day as we honor America's military veterans, let's pause for a while and single out those Hispanics who served in WW II. They are our true heroes. They served with class, dignity and respect and they changed our country forever. Let's honor them with a simple salute at home, the wave of a flag or a visit to a grave site. It's "the right thing to do."

My father - Manuel Flores - was one of those World War II veteranos. He had a third-grade education. He fought four years in Europe and came back ready to change the world by working hard, being a good citizen and seeking the American Dream, El Sueño Americano. Yet, I remember distinctly how his dream of being a full American was denied several times. I remember he came home late on night from drive to Houston to deliver gasoline. It was late at night and he was hungry. He stopped in Three Rivers, George West and Refugio in search of a hot meal. At every restaurant he stopped, he was denied to sit down and enjoy a meal. By the time he got to Freer, where he felt he would be accepted, it was too late. The restaurants had closed. He got home furious. He hurt like I've seen few men hurt. He cried and hugged me and said to never let anyone push me around. Mom and I cried, too. He went to his bedroom opened the closet and took out his WW II Army uniform and just shook his head.

On another incident, we went to Corpus Christi to seek a home improvement loan for our home. He was a veteran and had, supposedly, veteran's benefits. At bank after bank after bank he was denied a loan. I could see the disappointment in his face. I could see and even feel his anger. But, he didn't give up. "Vamos para Austin la semana que entra (We will go to Ausin next week)," he said with confidence. He did. We got the loan and eventually added to our house.

That same commitment to being a good person, leading a solid life and raising a good family were followed by my step-father Amando Saenz. He married my mom two years after my father's death when I was 9. He is very proud of his service in the U.S military and considers his experience as a reason why he was able to achieve an education, attend college and support two beautiful young women - Lynda and Judy - and, of course myself. Citizenship is earned and his character help pave that reality.

Today, for the most part, Hispanics born in the United States enjoy the benefits of American citizenship. My father and his fellow Hispanic soldiers who served in World War II made that happen. While there are still many battles for Hispanics to fight, let's pause today and honor those who had the courage to fight for our American rights. It is "the right thing to do."

Gracias, papa y mi padrasto (step-dad) , for being part of the The Most Honorable and Patriotic Generation U.S. society has ever produced. Gracias. You both did the right thing. I hope I have made you proud.
(That's me with the gold bar on the Army cap. I was commissioned in August 1970 during the height of the Vietnam War. I, along with 6 others who received their gold bar to signify they were 2nd Lieutenants in the U.S. Army) were booed at the graduation and commissioning ceremony. I served 12 years in the U.S. Army Reserve and Texas Army National Guard and retired as a captain).


My trip to San Juan (Mi viaje a San Juan)

Visiting the church, now Basilica, of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle is somewhat of a tradition for many South Texas catholic families. My families are no exception to the draw this once simple church has to many faithful. San Juan, Texas, is the destination of many pilgrims from South Texas.

According to church literature, the legend of the virgin dates back to colonial Spain. In 1623, an acrobat travelling with his wife and children stopped in San Juan de los Lagos, a town near Guadalajara. While practicing for their act, the youngest daughter lost her balance and was killed. An Indian woman begged the parents to place the image of the Immaculate Conception in the church at San Juan de los Lagos over the young girl's body. Miraculously, she came back to life. Since then, the devotion to the Virgen de San Juan has grown throughout Mexico and the United States.

But, that devotion has not been part of the Texas catholic tradition for long. San Juan, Texas, was but a small community in the rural Rio Grande Valley when the Rev. José María Azpiazu became pastor of St. John the Baptist chapel in 1949. He was convinced that fostering a devotion to the Virgen de San Juan would benefit the people and draw the community together. A reproduction of the statue of our Lady of San Juan was brought to the chapel and, after receiving permission from Bishop Manuel Garriaga from Corpus Christi, a church was completed in 1954 to permanently house the small statue of what was now to be called Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, La Virgen de San Juan del Valle.

Almost immediately, pilgrimages to the church started. From all over South Texas and points north to San Antonio, Del Rio, Eagle Pass Uvalde, Houston, Austin and beyond, the people started to visit the shrine to venerate and worship the little statue of the miraculous virgen.

I remember first visiting the shrine with my family sometime in the mid-1950s. We had just purchased a house, and that was a big accomplishment for a Mexican American family. We were going to give thanks and leave an offering at the church so that the Virgen de San Juan del Valle would take care of us and make our house a happy one. My father and mother had brought with them a jar of the dirt the house was built on. My dad made the sign-of-the cross, said some prayer in Spanish and held my mom's hand as he placed the bottle of dirt on the floor of the chapel next to the Virgen's statute. There were other objects - crutches, photos of young graduates, flowers (mainly roses), and letters in English and Spanish. There were alter servers (helpers) keeping things orderly.

I was very young - 7 or 8 years old. I was immediately impressed by the devotion of the pilgrims. They were humble, proud and came from all walks of life. They were mainly Tejanos or Mexicanos. Some were crying. Others were in deep prayer. Some were smiling and actually in a celebratory mood. It was strange. This was the usual scene every time we visited. The people were beautiful. The faces seemed blessed, even when they were in tears. There was an aura of mutual respect and understanding that can only be achieved at a shrine such as this. It was much more than a Catholic church, and I guess that's why the National Conference of Catholic Bishops designated Our Lady of San Juan del Valle a national shrine on March 14, 1998, and the following year on June 12, 1999, Pope John Paul II designated it as a minor basilica. Now, it is truly a sacred temple and thousands of people from Texas, Mexico, the nation and the world visit it daily. And, I can honestly say that during my lifetime, I have visited the shrine more than 100 times. It's always a special occasion and very solemn and moving experience.

A usual occurrence at the church was for pilgrims to light holy candles or candles of adoration in the Virgen's honor. Today, thousands are lit daily. They are allowed to burn out in a special ventilation room that makes one wonder how many miracles happen every day.

During one visit we made to the old church, I noticed some of my townsfolk were also visiting. We said "hello" and continued along our way. We all had private reasons for being there and no one dared asked, "How are you?" or "What are you doing here?" Mrs. Morante was in deep thought. One of her sons was talking to her very insistingly. She had made a "promesa (promise)" and I heard her tell Alejandro that she was going to keep it no matter what he thought. Shortly after, I saw her on her knees at the start of the church. Others joined her. Slowly, with her son behind her, she started to move toward the altar where the Virgen de San Juan was stationed. Her hands were spread wide open in prayer. She wore a beautiful Spanish mantilla veil over her head, her face now filled with tears, as she prayed the Hail Mary in Spanish. I thought, that's a real sacrifice. She "walked" or "crawled" on her knees for nearly 50 yards. She was old, for me. She was surely 60 or older. That was hard. Every now and then her son would touch her shoulders, but never stopped her progress. He, too, was praying. By the time she got to the altar, she was dead tired and she fell forward, bowing in front of the statue. A priest came to help her, but Alejandro stopped him. It was his mother. He would help her if she needed help. Besides, she had a "promesa" to fulfill and her quest could not be interrupted. There had been some kind of miracle in her life and she came to give thanks to God and Virgen de San Juan. Walking on knees is no longer allowed in the basilica, but every now and then, an older pilgrim will attempt the sacrifice. I never have.

On another visit, I saw a young Mexican family walk in hurriedly to the Hall of Miracles where families and individuals are allowed to pray, make offerings, leave messages or just meditate as long as they want. The couple was in their 30s. Their children all teen-agers. The eldest was being dragged by the hand by the mother. She spoke to her in Spanish and all I understood was "Tienes que pedir perdón(you must ask for forgiveness). In the Hall of Miracles there are several saints and statues the devoted can implore and pray for help to as they meditate. By now the young girl was sobbing slightly. She was deep in prayer next to us. She had beautiful jet black her that went down to her waist. She had a strand of her hair over her mouth and eyes. Her mom was standing next to her with her hand over her right shoulder. The father stood proudly behind them, as if protecting from eavesdroppers or something unexpected. He held his "petate (palm)" hat in his hands, in front of him. He had his head down. Again, it seemed as if he was anticipating something. Just then, a gust of wind made its way through the Hall of Miracles. Everyone noticed and got a cold chill. The wind blasted by us, interrupting our meditation and made its way toward the young family. The gust blew the hat out of the father's hands and lifted the girls jet black hair straight into an adoration candle. It caught fire and quickly made its way toward the teen-agers face. The mother, who had her hand on the girl's right shoulder, immediately took her mantilla and doused out the flames. By now, the young woman was in tears and all the family was crying. People started to leave as the young family gathered round their daughter. A young boy asked, "¿Que paso? (What happened)." The mother answered tenderly, "No te mortifiques. La virgen nos esta hablando. Todo esta bien. (Don't worry. The Virgin is talking to us. All is fine). Everything may have been fine, but we left them to their prayers. I think all of us got a message that day.

I believe the shrine is truly miraculous. Why would people keep coming if it were not a holy and marvelous place? After all, in 1970 the entire original shrine was destroyed when a small plane crashed into the roof, causing the church to explode in flames. No one was killed, although there were more than 150 people there in mid-morning. The altar was engulfed in flames, but two courageous priests rescued the statue of our Lady of San Juan del Valle that now rests in the basilica and which is adored daily. Miracle? Perhaps, but I'm sure there is a message there, too. The message, I'm sure, was the virgin telling her faithful to build her a bigger, better shrine to accomodate the thousands of pilgrims who wanted to come and implore her help. Now it is done. Now they come, and so do I.

Every day they come, the lost and hopeless, those in need of prayer and miracles, the sick, the lonely, the happy and the blessed. They come from near, and they come from far; many having traveled hundreds of miles to feast their eyes, and their souls, at the famous Shrine that stands near the community of San Juan, in the Rio Grande Valley. Today, the Shrine features full-scale outdoor Stations of the Cross and one of the world's largest mosaics. It's truly a holy experience to see them. Sometimes one just has to see them. You don't have to pray, just watch and listen. Your mind will do the rest.

My last visit to San Juan was this past Saturday, May 28. Again, the faces of the faithful touched me. They were humble, proud and came from all walks of life. They were mainly Tejanos or Mexicanos. Some were crying. Others were in deep prayer. Some were smiling and actually in a celebratory mood. The people were beautiful. The faces seemed blessed, even when they were in tears. There was an aura of mutual respect and understanding that can only be achieved at a shrine such as this. This is truly a sacred place and, as I said earlier, much more than a church.

On this day, I had personal issues that made me want to ask for help for me and those whom I love. In the past,the Virgen has always been kind. I have survived many ordeals in my life, thanks, I feel,through her intercession. In spite of many "bad" things happening to me, I have been blessed. Now, as I reflect on my prayers at the Hall of Miracles and ponder my reverence as I lit the holy adoration candles in front of the giant mosaic where her small statue is stored, I wonder if I can be helped yet again. Perhaps this request is not to the Virgen's liking? Perhaps I'm out of miracles? Perhaps I have already been blessed in abundance and it's my turn to suffer? I still believe in her intersession, and so I ask for help and forgiveness. That's what I believe in and I remain faithful.

On that Saturday, I attended mass and was pleasantly surprised. I heard a Mariachi Mass in English. For a man used to hearing Mariachi sing in Spanish, it was "interesting." It particularly resonated with the younger Mexican Americans in the church who are now starting to speak more English than Spanish at home. Is that a miracle or just evolution? The priest officiating the mass was black. He implored us to pray and read the bible. He asked to pray so that drugs and violence would disappear from the lives of the people in the Valley.

He implored us to follow the words of the gospel that day and to go home and read John Chapter 14. I did. It reads, in part:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. If you love Me, you will keep My commandments."

And, so, I pray and ask forgiveness and ask for hope and understanding. While I feel I have let my religious standards down, I ask the Virgen de San Juan del Valle to help me find the strength to survive, to love again, to be forgiven and to again be close to my family, culture and values. I know I will get help. I await the miracle.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On birth and renewal

The birth of a child is one of most wonderful events in the world.
Yes, I know that some children are born into hunger and poverty and some are born with debilitating diseases that will never help them lead what we consider a "normal" life.

Yet, with each child we have a message that humankind is expected to reproduce and live on and hopefully make the world a better place to live in as time marches on. The births of my three children and nephew, whom we adopted in Texas, were wonderful experiences for our family.

On the subject of Hispanic children, it is important to note that the Hispanic birthrate is twice as high as that of the rest of the American population. That high fertility rate will fuel the rapid Hispanic population boom in the coming decades. By 2050, the Latino population will have tripled, the Census Bureau projects. One in four Americans will be Hispanic by mid-century, twice the current ratio. In states such as California and Texas, Hispanics will be in the clear majority. Nationally, whites will drop from near 70 percent of the total population in 2000 to just half by 2050. Hispanics will account for 46 percent of the nation’s added population over the next two decades, the Pew Hispanic Center reports.

My Hispanic children are all grown up now. One of my sons will soon have three children and two others have two each and counting. More importantly, with each generation, Hispanics are becoming better educated. My children certainly have gotten a good education and are ready to impact society.

I will review them, one by one.

Numero Uno: When Mario was born, he came into the world screaming, crying, moving and almost wanting to jump out of our arms when we held him. He was hungry, very hungry. The doctor had given strict orders that he would only be fed natural milk, but that wasn't enough. Ha. When they carted him back to the baby nursery he would cry and cry and cry and soon all the babies in the nursery were crying. Imagine a symphony of 25 crying babies. It was more like a cacophony, a mixtures of sobs, cries, snorts and wails. It was loud enough and scary enough that even crows wouldn't stop by.

"What's wrong with him?" I remember nurses asking as I watched through the glass windows at the nursery. "Is he sick?" Finally, I heard one say, "He's a big boy (almost nine pounds and 21 1/2-inches long). Maybe he's hungry?" There was a small pause in the action. Nurses gathered round the head nurse. I think one said, "But the doctor said not to feed him anything but natural milk."

Again, there was a pause. Babies were still crying. Mario was the loudest. Then, it was decided. Next thing I know one of the younger nurses was coming with a baby bottle full of formula milk in her hand. She moved Mario up and pointed the bottle toward his mouth. He seemed to jump out at it and grab it with both hands (wait, babies can't do that). But, he did. The young nurse yelled back something. It must have been, "He was hungry." Soon, the nursery was quiet. There was peace again. At that point, Mario earned a new nickname for his voracious and insatiable appetite. It was in Spanish and it was not "pretty," for a baby any way. Suffice it to say that it had to do with a hobbit with pretty much a glutinous hunger.

Throughout the two days Mario was in the nursery, the nurses would periodically give him extra bottles to keep peace in the nursery. As far as I know, the doctor never found out. Mario grew up into a beautiful young man. He is at least 6-foot-2 and maybe weighs 275+. He still hits the bottle every now and then and he has a wonderful appetite. He was a blessing in our lives. He went on to be quite and athlete and an outstanding baseball pitcher. He helped lead Miller High School to the state baseball playoffs and was named all-state, earned his degree from Texas A&M-Kingsville, led both Laredo Community College and Texas A&M-Kingsville to either conference championships or playoffs in college baseball, played a little pro ball, was a successful high school coach and now he is in education working with highly at-risk kids at a charter school.

My second son, Marcos, is a completely different story. He came into the world quietly. Again, I was not allowed in the delivery room. The first glimpse I got of him was when they wheeled him out in a baby crib of sorts and paused momentarily to show him to me. His eyes were wide open. I had been told babies couldn't really see at birth, but I swear I saw him focusing on different things around the room.

He was healthy, too. A big boy, but he seemed interested in everything around him, including me. He seemed to focus on me as if to say, "Who are you?" His baby eyes were dark, dark blue, like the hues in a Walt Disney animated show. He was eager to learn everything about the world around him. His quest for education would continue and now, with a master's degree in hand, he is the principal at Calallen Middle School. He is well on the way to having a successful and beautiful life. In between, Marcos helped lead Miller High School to the baseball and football playoffs, making all-state in baseball. He set several hitting and home run records that still stand at Texas A&M-Kingsville. He played a little pro baseball, was a successful prep coach for a while and then went into educational administration. He is still looks at the world with wonderment and is one of South Texas' premier Tejano researchers and an accomplished genealogist. Every day, for him, is full of wonder. Now he is enjoying life with his family and is one of the most respected people in Northwest Corpus Christi.

Tres is not enough: My daughter's birth was traumatic. When we arrived at the hospital, the afternoon shift was going on. Nurses were scurrying to and fro and somehow they forgot about my wife and I.

I was left to tend to the birthing myself in the "waiting" room. Ha, there were really nervous dads there and they were all smoking except me. Wow. All of a sudden, it was time. I shouted for help. No one came. Finally, one of the nurses who had just arrived said, "We have to hurry." This time, I was allowed in the delivery room. They wheeled my wife, who was screaming loudly at this point, to the delivery room. Now, there was no doctor. I thought the nurses would know what to do, but it wasn't their patient. "Who is her doctor?" one of the nurses asked. I yelled out a name and said, "It's too late. He's not here." The nurse screamed, "There are no doctors here. We're all on break."

I panicked and ran into the hallway. At a distance I could see a young man in a light green scrubs. I ran him down and asked, "Are you a doctor?" Wow, he looked much too young. I didn't wait for a response and said, "We're having a baby!" He replied, "Now?" I grabbed by his right arm and led him toward the delivery room.

My daughter's head was now "showing." The young doctor gasped and started helping. Within minutes, my daughter was born. She was petite, about 2-3 weeks early and didn't have her eye brows or eye lids yet. She was almost a preemie,but I could tell she was going to be a big girl. Her eyes remained closed as they took her to the nursery and put her under some lights they said she needed for whatever medical reason, but she was fine and we were fine and that was what was important.

We learned later that the inefficiency of the hospital staff could have caused us her life or that of my wife as well, not to mention the heart attack I almost got that day. We talked about the lack of professionalism of the hospital staff and considered filing a lawsuit, but we didn't really care. We had our girl and she was healthy.

The baby stayed in the hospital several days before they allowed us to take her home. She was beautiful. So, we didn't care about any lawsuit. We had our little girl.

She went on to do great and beautiful things. The most important thing she did was overcome dyslexia, a reading disorder that often stops a person from being successful. She, too, was quite an athlete in high school and college. She excelled in all sports, but was very good in softball. She was all-state in high school and all-conference and All-American at Texas Woman's University. She led both her high school and college teams to the playoffs, played a little international softball and played with the nation's top amateur teams. She went on to get her bachelor's degree from TWU and master's in special education from the University of Texas and is now a successful university softball coach and spends time as a consultant for reading disorders.

She is a marvelous young woman and one who has made us very proud.

I could not write these words without mentioning my nephew, Raymond Acevedo, whom I love dearly. Raymond was our pilón (extra or bonus). He moved in to live with our family twice. The last time, when he was a teen-ager, he stayed and we became his guardians and adopted him into the family.

Raymond was born at a military base in Taiwan. Of course, we could not celebrate his birth. We wouldn't see Raymond for some time. Eventually, we adopted him into the family. The one thing I never told him was how happy we were when he was born.

I remember my father-in-law Lupe coming to me with the news. We were at the rancho. He said, "Manuel, vamos a celebrar. Soy abuelo otra vez (Manuel, let's celebrate. I'm a grandfather again)." With that we called the family, went to the store and bought some supplies (fajitas, tortillas, hot sauce, soft drinks and beer) and planned a small but honorable barbecue at the ranch in Raymond's honor. Raymond was a whole world away, separated by an ocean and land masses neither my father-in-law or I had visited, but we were going to celebrate his birth. It was a joyous time.

Ray grew up into a wonderful young man and a strong family man. He has survived much and we are so proud of him. Today he works for AT&T and is a supervisor. He, too, was a great athlete, probably the best in the family. He still ranks seconds in stolen bases at Miller High School, and he did get a college scholarship to play baseball, but the university was not for him.

After some struggles, he earned an electrical engineering certificate from Del Mar (Tech) College. He was the top student in the program when he finished the course. We are so proud of him. Did I mention he makes more money than my children with bachelor's and master's degrees.

Yes, the birth of a child is cause for celebration. A new life has come to earth and the possibilities are boundless. When a child is born, there is renewal of the life cycle and also rebirth of the adults involved.

Mario, Marcos, Teresa, Raymond....thanks for the memories and good luck.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On guns and stuff . . .

The recent hullabaloo about guns on college campuses sent me reeling back to my high school days. I know, I know, it was a different time then. The 1960s and 1970s had some dramatic and traumatic events in our nation that rocked the very roots of our existence and, perhaps, changed the way the world looks at America. Civil rights, women's issues and space exploration were the hallmarks of that era and certainly paved the way for what we have become in the 21st century.

It was also a time when guns and rifles were common place, especially in South Texas. It was not unusual to see a gun rack on the back of a pickup truck. Those gun racks would have the obligatory .22 caliber rifle, a good shot gun and at the very least a small caliber rifle good enough to fire in the brush country and to hit a buck several hundred yards away.

My friend, Louie, had a gun rack in the light blue pick up Chevy truck that belong to his aunt Rosabelle. On selected week days, he would drive it to our high school, guns on display on the gun rack and all. Soon after school was let out and we were through with baseball or band practice, we would all pile into his truck - some of us in the bed - armed to the teeth with rifles, guns and knives. We were going to hunt rabbits, javelina or rattle snakes. We were going to hunt until the sun went down and the next day, at the very least, we would have rabbit stew or rabbit tacos to eat.

But, that is not the point. The point is that guns, especially in South Texas, were accepted. People knew how to treat guns and rifles. Fathers would make sure that children, especially boys, knew how to behave in front of these weapons (and they are weapons). In a rural community, it was not unusual to go out to some one's ranch or lease and have the young boys target practice with a small handgun, a 30-30 rifle and a shotgun.

My gun experience started when my father bought me a B-B gun for my birthday when I was six or seven. He then showed me how to "load" it, aim it and how to stand, crouch, kneel or lay down when I shot. He commanded me to go kill some birds. Dutifully, I went out into my backyard and started looking for the flying critters. I felt like Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. "I'm going to get me a birdy, I'm going to get me a birdy, I'm going to get me a birdy . . . .," and so on. I would sneak around a tree, look up into its branches, listen for the chirps and then. . . .

Well, the first time I did this, I was an utter failure. The great little Mexicano hunter came back empty-handed. I couldn't shoot the birds. They were so, well, pretty, and so in peace with nature that it didn't make sense to shoot them. And, I had already been told we couldn't eat "los pajaros del pueblo (the birds in the city)." I was assured that when I grew up I would be taught how to use a shotgun and we would hunt for dove and quail and maybe duck. Those birds, I was told, we could eat. But, right now, I didn't want to shoot a bird I couldn't eat. It didn't make sense. But, wait, weren't chickens birds? It was too confusing for youngster.

I walked slowly up the porch. My father was in the living room drinking a beer and watching TV. "¿Que matatas, Manuelito (What did you shoot or kill, Manuelito?)" he asked. I was afraid to look him in the eyes. I was a failure. Out of respect, like many Mexicano children do, I looked down at the floor and was able to mutter very slightly, "Nada, 'apa (Nothing dad)." He let out and roaring laugh, uttered a couple of choice Spanish cuss words and said he would have to take me to my Tío (Uncle) Roberto to help me become a hunter of birds.

Within the next week, we visited Tío Roberto and his wife Carlota on the southern outskirts of town. I was told to pack my B-B gun. Tío Roberto must have been aware of my failures as a hunter-to-be 'cause he was waiting anxioulsy. After eating ice cream on the porch, he summoned me to the backyard. The yard was green and luscious with what seemed an unending sea of mesquite, huisache, oaks and elms. They were lush with green leaves on their branches. The huisache, in particular, was beautiful with a bright yellow bloom. I could hear the birds chirping all over, but I couldn't see them. My Tío Roberto said he would point them out to me. He gave me one more tip on how to aim. "Look at the bird, point the rifle at it and then look through the sight until the bird disappears," he told me in Spanish. "Then, steady yourself and shoot. Don't jerk your rifle, just shoot. And don't get nervous. A nervous hunter is useless. ¿Estas listo (Are you ready)?"

I nodded and yes and we were off on our adventure. We walked slowly, again like Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny Cartoon. Finally, my uncle pointed to a branch on one of the oak trees. There we saw a beautiful blue jay, chirping along without a care in the world. How could the little bird have known a hunter had him in his aim? "You see him?" my uncle asked. "Quiet," he said. I just nodded, aimed and shot. In an instant, the bird was falling to ground and, with a slight thud, dead. My uncle was in a celebratory mood. "Eso, bien hecho, bien hecho mi hijo (That's it, well done my son)." I had completed a rite of passage, I suppose. My uncle walked away and demanded I shoot more birds. He told me not to go to the porch until I had a handful. I dutifully did that. I shot bird, after bird, after bird, after bird. I was good. When I went back to the porch, a large glass of fresh squeezed lemonade was waiting for me. The smiles Tío Roberto, his wife Carlota and my mom were evident as my father arrived from a road trip. "How did he do?" he asked in Spanish. "Muy bien, muy bien. Ya esta listo (Very well, very well. He's ready)," my uncle said. "Ready?" I wondered. "Ready for what?" Well, for my continuous journey into the world of guns. Soon I would be handling .22s and 30-30s and next fall I tried a small .410 gauge shot gun. I truly had entered the world of the hunter. I would definitely know my way around guns and rifles and I would pass that knowledge on to my sons. My sons were firing guns by the age 10. When they turned 16, each of them received a deer rifle. My daughter also was taught how too shoot, but never really caught on to it. She just loved to go to the outdoors and look at the pretty animals. She doesn't like shooting birds (ha) of any kind. She also doesn't like shooting javelinas, although the young ones make the best tamales. She didn't mind if we shot wild pigs. They're nasty. Mainly, however, she loved the outdoors and often accompanies her brothers on hunting trips.

And, then I realized. The outdoors was the true link to my hunting legacy. It put us in touch with nature and gave us an appreciation of the cycle of life. It showed us how we can come together and mingle with nature (a true eat or be eaten world) and see how we can survive. I have no doubt my sons and I could survive in the wild as long as we had a rifle, some ammo and a knife or two.....

Which brings us to gun control. Recently, the Texas legislature defeated a law backed by Gov. Rick Perry that would have allowed college students to carry guns on campus. My, how things have changed. Half a century ago, my friends and I routinely had guns and rifles on our vehicles in the school parking lot for us to go hunting after school let out. We couldn't do that today.

When I attended college at Texas A&I in Kingsville, I always had a rifle in the trunk of my car and there were scores of pickup trucks with gun racks and rifles fully visible. Some of us even dared to go into the nearby famous King Ranch and do some, uh, shooting. It was a different world. For the most part, no one stole the guns. Imagine what would happen today?

I still go hunting, when I can. Although I have not shot a deer since I downed a 10-point buck in Rancho Soliz near Hebbronville on Dec. 28, 2006. I shot him with a 30-30, sans scope. As I saw the buck making his way down the sendero and through the well-worn animal trail toward my deer blind, I couldn't help but think back to Tío Roberto and his lesson, and also to the time my dad, a World War II veteran and a certified "expert" in the Army, was disappointed and laughed at me. I focused on the buck (he was chasing a doe), picked a spot in the brush country where I could get a clear shot, aimed the rifle and waited til he disappeared on the sight and - bang! He went down.

Somewhere, my dad was smiling. I took him to the shed by the main ranch house and my sons helped me with the field dressing. My step dad, Amando, was so proud. "I do believe that's the biggest buck we've taken out of this ranch in some time, " he said. He slapped me on my back and said those now familiar words that I have used with my sons, "Bien hecho, bien hecho."

We mounted the buck. Every time I look at it I can't help but feel sad. Oh, but don't tell any one....


Sunday, May 22, 2011

On the end of the world

From Y2K to Armageddon, Heaven's Gate and the Halley's and Hale-Bopp comets, the end of the world has been predicted now for some time. . . .

The latest doomsday scenario, if you don't count the Mayan calendar,was Harold Camping's predictions that the end of the world would start Saturday (May 21). If per chance you are reading this blog, so far so good.

Yet, some people are disappointed. It's like the world didn't end and they have nothing to wake up to in the morning. No, wait, they actually had something to wake up this Sunday (May 22) morning.

Hallelujah. It just wasn't our time, yet.

Camping and his followers were looking forward to the end. They believed they were likely to be among the 200 million souls sent to live in paradise forever. They were referring to the end of the world as "The Rapture" - a term with Biblical references.

Camping is a religious or Christian radio star and president of Family Radio, a California-based station with affiliates or programming throughout the nation.

Deeply religious, he believes in the Christian concept of "The Rapture." The Rapture is a reference found in Thessalonians where reference is made to Christians getting "caught up to meet the Lord in the air." Problem is, the Bible doesn't really say when it's going to happen. Camping used numerology to pick out a date, it seems, out of thin air. Well, you know what they say about numbers, you can make them tell whatever you want them to tell. Silly numbers.

I like the Mayan prediction for doomsday much better. Good news is, we still have some time to get ready for this one. According to the Mayan calendar and Mayan lore, there will be a series of cataclysmic events that will occur on Dec. 21, 2012. A whole set of theories have arisen from this prediction. What we do know is that the date marks the end of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the calendar used by the MesoAmerican tribes. It's the end. Period. That's it. The date doesn't really mean the end of the world, I feel. I think it means the transformation of society or people in the world, sort of when the Spaniards and Europeans arrived in the "New World" of the soon to be named "Americas."

That arrival certainly did change the world the native inhabitants of the Americas knew. Maybe something similar will happen. Ah, but who would come to visit? A God? Our Lord? Aliens? The people lost in the Bermuda Triangle? Something has to happen. Can't wait. Let's get ready.

Speaking of things that are happening, it's time to revisit the Aztlán theory as seen by the Chicano activists of the 1960s and which many people believe is "right on!" Some say Aztlán will materialize as early as 2025 when the Hispanic population of the American Southwest becomes the dominant force in politics and the economy in this area. That will lead to the destruction of one group of leaders and propel the descendants of the Aztecs to a more prominent in a new era which they would have referred to as the Sixth Sun.

The Aztecs believed there had been four worlds, or "Suns", previous to the present universe, the Fifth Sun or Qunito Sol. These earlier worlds and their inhabitants had been created, then destroyed by catastrophic action. The present world is the Fifth Sun, and the Aztec saw themselves as "the People of the Sun," whose divine duty was to wage cosmic war in order to provide the sun with his "nourishment. Without it, the sun would disappear from the heavens. Thus the welfare and the very survival of the universe depended upon the offerings of blood and hearts to the sun, so the legend says. If the Fifth Sun was the era of a people called the Aztecs, the Sixth Sun, after the destruction of the leadership base that exists, will usher in a new people who will represent the new Aztecs. Those people, some believe, are in the American Southwest. It will take several years for the new people to find a new homeland. It should start with 2012 and then the transition will take place.

Aztlán is the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, a sort of paradise where their displaced people would end up sometime in the future, oh, like 2025. The Chicano Movement took this concept and put a whole new twist to it which sounds, actually, "right on, ese!" Chicanos believe that the sons and daughters of the Aztecs and other indigenous tribes that suffered atrocities at the hands of the Spanish have now relocated in a new land in "El Norte" - north of what is now Mexico - and are about to take over. Population figures certainly seem to affirm that concept.

Chicanos use the name Aztlán to refer to the lands of Northern Mexico that were annexed by the United States as a result of the Mexican-American War. Yep, that would be parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. Their theory is that the land ceded by Mexico in 1848 would be the new homeland of the sons and daughters of the Aztec. These sons and daughters would then take over this land and transform it into their new homeland. Throw Texas, which Mexico lost in 1836, into the mix and you have the basis for a very sound theory. There are millions of Mexican Americans in those states, millions....nearly 40 million it is estimated.

Mexican Americans - the sons and daughters of the Aztecs - now make up the majority of the people in portions of several states in the American Southwest, according to the 2010 census figures. During the next two decades, Hispanics (primarily Mexican Americans) will probably make up the majority of the population in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado. Mexican Americans will compose, at the very least, a major portion of the population in these states, and that would bring the end of Anglo dominance in the territory, politically and perhaps economically. The indigenous (Aztecs?) would again rule.

Some members of the Chicano movement proposed that a new nation be created called Republica del Norte (Republic of the North). It is ironic that in the 19th century, circa 1850, there was a rebellion in what is now South Texas and Northern Mexico to form a new country that would be called The Republic of the Rio Grande. It's old headquarters building and capitol still stand in Laredo. While that movement was ill-fated and politically-based, this movement to colonize the American Southwest is just a natural evolution of population migration and searching for a home. How else can you explain the millions of immigrants who seem to be magically attracted to this land. This evolution is, therefore, a natural occurrence predicted by the Aztec. Could these same people be the lost tribe of Israel? But, that's another story. For now, let's stay on the colonization effort.

That leads us to the concept of reconquista or reconquest. The concept has been advanced by Chicano nationalists of the 1960s and 1970s to describe the creation of this mythical Aztec homeland called Aztlán. They believe, as I said earlier, this place to be the American Southwest. They believe that soon - oh, let's say 2025 -the majority of the population in those American Southwest states will be Mexican American. Perhaps?

After the 2010 census, California was 38 percent Hispanic, Arizona 21 percent, New Mexico 46 percent, Texas 38 percent, Colorado 21 percent and Neveda 20 percent. In almost all these states, the majority of the school-age population is Hispanic, Mexican American to be more exact.

Consider this: The Hispanic birthrate is twice as high as that of the rest of the American population. That high fertility ratewill fuel the rapid Hispanic population boom in the coming decades. By 2050, the Latino population will have tripled, the Census Bureau projects. One in four Americans will be Hispanic by mid-century, twice the current ratio.

In states such as California and Texas, Hispanics will be in the clear majority by 2050. Nationally, whites will drop from near 70 percent of the total population in 2000 to just half by 2050. Hispanics will account for 46 percent of the nation’s added population over the next two decades, the Pew Hispanic Center reports.

The writing is on the wall - or census figures, anyway. These states are on the way to becoming majority Hispanic. Will that mean the end of Anglo domination in those areas and change how people view the world in those five states or nation? Is that the end of one era and the start of another era means in the predictions of the calendar and the indigenous? I think so. It is not so much, I believe, the destruction of the world. It is, rather, the development of a new structure of leadership that helps shape the world. The Aztec empire, for example, crumbled under Spanish rule. Likewise, in the American Southwest, those who are in charge now passing hideous legislation to try to keep the Hispanic out of their lands, will crumble. A new leadership will emerge and a new world will flourish.

We will find out circa 2025, 2026, 2027, 2028, 2029, 2030 . . . For sure, by then, someone's world will end.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On family - familia

Growing up I was taught there was nothing more important then family. La familia was what defined you and how you left your mark - legacy if you will - in this world. A Mexican boy would often inherit the name of his father and would be called "Junior" or his name would end in an "ito" - as in Manuelito, what I was called as a child. This was a form of the family's patriarch passing down his name to a new generation. I consider it an honor.

I understood that world. I wanted to be like my father. He was a decorated World War II veteran. He had but a third grade education, but he could read and write with the best of them. Mexican American boys just didn't get an education back then, I feel. They had to work, and he did. When I was growing up, he was a truck driver. For a 6 to 8-year-old boy, that seemed like the best job in the world. Wow, having a big ol' truck to drive all over the state of Texas. Wow!!! I couldn't wait to do that, and at times he would take me with him.

My father died in a car accident when I was nine. The next day, my name changed. I was no longer Manuelito or Memito (another endearing term for Mexican boys whose name is Manuel). I became, MANUEL. Period. I was now the only Manuel in the immediate family and the "ito" part was dropped over night. It was both an awesome feeling of responsibility and a scary notion. I suddenly realized I was expected to work to provide for myself and my family.I was no longer considered a muchachito (little boy0. I was 9!!!! I also learned very quickly that I was the man of the family until someone else - a step dad who would later marry my mom - came along. He did and he is a wonderful man. Thank God! He was a blessing in my life and continues to be my pride and joy.

But, somewhere I lost my legacy and my definition of familia. I wanted to be like Manuel Flores Sr., so I joined the Army. I served 12 years in the Texas Army National Guard and Reserves and retired as a captain, but somehow all those years do not add up to squat when it came to my father's four years of surviving the Germans and their allies in World War II. I mean, he earned a Purple Heart and countless combat medals. Me? I went to Austin a weekend or two a month and partied on 6th Street on Friday and Saturday nights. Some training, huh? Oh, I also went to assorted Army forts throughout the nation to improve my military skills and did very well, earning two promotions. But legacy? Ha, no way.I left no legacy in the Army.

My only legacy I feel are my children, at this point. My children - Mario, Marcos, Teresa and Raymond (pictured above) are my love and job. They are wonderful young people who have grown up right, no thanks to me, and who will make an impact in their world, thanks mostly to their mom. Now it is their responsibility to pass on traditions and build a legacy of their own. It is their job to show their children what familia means. I feel they will do a far better job than I have done. I wish them well in this world and I hope they instill a sense of familia in their youngsters so that they can pass on that value to a new generation of the Flores clan. Familia is very important. I will never forget that.


Friday, May 20, 2011

On graduation at my alma mater

Last Friday, (May 13) I attended the graduation exercises at my alma mater, Texas A&M University-Kingsville (formerly Texas A&I University). With but some exceptions - the traditional non-sensible graduation speeches - they were two beautiful ceremonies in an arena - The Steinke Physical Education Center - much too small to handle the large crowd present to see 550 students (most of whom were present) graduate.

It was a bittersweet moment for me. Now, instead of being a student marching to get my diploma, I was a "full" professor marching in with the faculty. I got to seat and watch everyone of those graduates get their degrees, shake hands the president of the university and exchange hugs from friends and loved ones. I couldn't help notice how things had changed.

More than 45 percent of the students receiving degrees were classified Hispanic. Of those, 207 received their bachelor's degrees, 35 earned master's and seven earned their doctorate. That was a far cry from the numbers in 1970 when only about seven percent of the graduates that year were Hispanics. Wow!

It was also a far cry from the number of Hispanic (the term didn't even exist at the time) graduates when my Tío Juan Rocha and my Tía Clelia graduated in 1959. Those were different times. The Chicano Movement had not even started and discrimination against Mexican American seeking an education was at a high point. That didn't stop Juan or Clelia from making it a point to strive for better things. A year earlier, my uncle Juan was burned in effigy because he had decided to run for A&I student body president. I remember being told at home "Quemaron a Juan" and thinking the worst. Later I found out what they burned was a figure made of bed linens and stuffed with old pillows that was hung out of a dormitory and set on fire. Nevertheless, the figure had his name - Juan Rocha - painted on its chest.

Tío Juan would go on to be a successful lawyer and became the main attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense andEducation Fund (MALDEF) when the organization sued the state for lack of higher education opportunities and professional programs in South Texas colleges and universities. MALDEF won, but like they say, the results are still in the mail. While we have progressed, as the numbers of the 2011 graduation class assert, there is still much progress to be made.

But, back to the talk on graduation. When Tío Juan and Tía Clelia graduated from then Texas A&I, the ceremony was held in Jones Auditorium, a World War II building that still stands and has about 1,000 seats.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s I would accompany my grandfather Pedro G. Chapa, Clelia's and my mom's father, to the A&I graduation ceremonies in Jones Auditorium. I really wasn't sure why he wanted me to come to the graduation ceremonies with him. The first time I came, I was 11. It was May 1959. I could see a sea of proud graduates lined up outside the auditorium waiting their turn to march in as family and friends showed up for the festivities. We would always get there early, so we could find good seats toward the middle of the auditorium. "We can see everything better and they can hear us better from there," he would tell me.

The first year, I just sat there watching the ceremony. He would clap politely and I would just take in the pomp and circumstance of the occasion and wiggle in my seat as most 11-year-olds are prone to do. But then, I heard a distinctly (well, sort of) Spanish surname being pronounced - Fast-su-o Bey - nay - be - days. Grandpa Chapa nudged me and started clapping louder. He made sure everyone could hear him. I clapped to and said "Yea!" as loud as I could. Around the auditorium, small choruses of boos could be heard. A man in front of us looked to his wife and said, "Another God Damm Mexican (graduating)!" as he frowned. His wife turned back to look at us. I couldn't tell if she was embarrassed for what her husband said or felt sorry for us. She looked confused. Oh, wait, she was looking a real Mexican Americans at the graduation ceremony. She must have wondered if we were related to Fastsuo Beynaybedays. We weren't, but I was starting to realize why I was there and each subsequent graduation I attended with my grandfather would be more meaningful.

About 20 Hispanics graduated that day. My grandfather and I cheered as loudly as we could for all of them. We didn't know them, we were just proud of them. We also clapped politely for all who graduated that day, no matter what the color of their skin. We were proud of them, too. As I recall, there were two African Americans graduating that day, too. Like the Hispanics, they were greeted with some boos.

I was a young man. I had been taught in Mexicano culture "que los hombres no lloran (men don't cry)." But I felt a tear roll down one of my eyes when grandpa Chapa asked me if I had enjoyed the ceremony. I told him, "Yes" and thanked him for bringing me. We would do this for another five years til I got to high school and had other "more important" things to do, like growing up. But the message was clear. Getting an education is important. I'm proud to say I got my college degree, two master's and a doctorate. I hope I made my grandpa proud. I wonder what he would have done when he saw me cross the stage, get hooded and get my doctorate degree. I wonder . . . .

So, I will never forget the lessons my grandfather taught me. He was showing me, in his on way, how important a college education was. He was showing me that a college education should be celebrated and honored and that the people who complete their college degree at whatever level must be congratulated with gusto. It takes hard work and discipline to achieve and earn a college degree.

Last Friday at the SPEC on the campus of Texas A&M-Kingsville, 550 students earned their degrees. Three were American Indian, seven were Asian, 15 were Black, 158 were white, 117 were international students and 249 were Hispanic. At least 30 of them had taken at least one class with me. I felt proud. We had come a long way.

Oh, and no one was booed.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

A vist from the Knight of Spades (Una visita del Caballo de Espadas)

Growing up in South Texas, it was not unusual for a child to have near brushes with the Mexican folk healing tradition known as curanderismo. Children were always visiting a curandera (faith healer) for maladies such as "mal de ojo" (evil eye), empacho (stomach problems) or susto (fright or shock). We saw faith healing as an art, a "don" - a calling or a gift - that gave these special people a relation with the supernatural to help cure illness, calm fears and restore faith among the Mexican population.

Closely related to that was the relationship to the occult, at least in my view. Growing up in the South Texas brush country, we all knew that certain people had special powers. There was talk of lechuzas (male withces), brujas or brujos (withces) who would cast magic spells on people and "make things happen." Some of the conversation on the occult was related closely to the old 13th century Spanish "barajas" or card deck used widely in Mexico, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The deck used in Mexico consists of 48 cards and has four suits. The four suits are bastos (clubs), oros (literally "golds",or golden coins), copas (cups) and espadas (swords). According to legend, the four suits are thought to represent the four social classes of the Middle Ages in Europe. The suit of coins represents the merchants, the clubs represents the peasants, the cups represent the church and the swords represent the military. The cards are numbered. Thus, you would have "el seis de copas (Six Cups)", and so on. In the traditional Spanish card deck used in Mexico, the last three cards of each suit have pictures similar to the jack, queen, and king in an Anglo-French deck, and rank identically. They are the sota, which is similar to the jack and generally depicts a page or prince, the caballo (knight, literally "horse"), and the rey (king), respectively.

Each card has powers, according to legend, if you know how to use them. The suit of spades, in particular, is a powerful one. Spades, according to lore, make reference to the health or mental state of a person, perhaps the one being analyzed. They are almost always negative and related to accidents, illnesses or uncomfortable things occurring in one's life. In the suit of spades, one of the most powerful figures is the "Knight of Spades or Caballo de Espadas."

This card, came to visit our house one night.

José Ángel Flores, the man I referred to "abulelo (granpa)" was an expert when it came to "working with" the Spanish card deck used in Mexico. And, he taught us all to play games like malilla, la malilla platicada and conquián, to mention a few. But he would also dabble into the occult. Some times, late at night, he would brew a pot of coffee on the old wood burning stove and "work with" the cards for what seemed hours. He would mumble words in Spanish which, to an 8 or 9-year-old just learning English, resembled the scary mutterings of the witches in the movie Snow White, where the witches were boiling water in troubled waters as they hunched over a pot of green steaming stew. I was never allowed to see him to do this. He was in the kitchen of the four-room house. I was relegated to one of the bedrooms or living room. At times, he would get visits from the townspeople who would ask him to "leer las cartas (read or work the cards for them). The sessions would last 15 to 30 minutes and they would talk very low. It was very private stuff, I figured. I could hear him shuffle the deck of cards, ask a couple of important questions to the person seated across the kitchen table from him and then, as I said earlier, mutter some words (I don't know if they were Spanish) that sounded more like incantations. The person would soon leave. He would always tell them "Vaya con Dios (Go with God)," which I thought was strange because what he had just done did not seem to be a religious ceremony. As I grew older, I wanted to learn more about this.

One particular night, when my Tía Mage (Aunt Maggie) was visiting, I somehow managed to sneak into the bedroom next to the kitchen by telling Nana (my grandma) that I was sleepy and wanted to go to bed. I was not sleepy. I wanted to hear what was going in the next room. There were no doors. As was the custom back then, a sheet served as the only barrier between rooms. I laid down and Nana sat besides me on the bed, suspicious of what I was plotting.

Again, I heard the conversation in Spanish. I could hear the concern in Tía Mage's voice. José Ángel, my grandpa, sounded very serious. I could hear my Tía Mage sob slightly. Whatever it was they were talking about, it was serious. Then I heard her say, "Tenemos que llamar al Caballo de Espadas que nos venga ayudar (We must summon the Knight of Spades to come help us)." There was reluctance on my grandfather's part to do that. There was a voice of concern which I had not heard before.

Nana would tell me later that the image of the Knight of Spades is very strong in the Spanish card deck. It represents strength, valor and resistance to things that threaten to harm a person. However, it also represented approaching danger and only the Knight of Spades could stop the impending doom if he were asked to do it in the right way. She told me that, according to lore, the Knight of Spades was the defender of just causes and would defend a person who would fight for things that were good.

She said The Knight of Spades could save a person's life, save him or her from alcohol or drug addiction or help him or her overcome an evil spell or a bad romance. It all depended on the person's needs or wants or circumstances, she told me on another night, her breath getting heavier as she explained. But she also said the Knight of Spades could just decide that the person was not worthy of his help and just decide to take fate into its own power and bring an end to the dispute or matter at hand. "En veces, es mala noticias, espcialmente si recibís un mensaje malo de una mujer (Sometimes, the Knight of Spades brings bad news, especially if the word is being delivered by a woman)." She stopped and made the sign of the cross and glimpsed toward the picture of La Virgen de Guadalupe (The Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron "saint" of Mexico and Mexican Americans) on the bedroom wall.

Now, some of the things I had heard and seen on the previous night made some sense. On that night, when my Tía Mage was visiting José Ángel, I heard the strange sounds and utterings coming from the kitchen. With the smell of coffee brewing and mesquite wood burning permeating the small frame house, I heard a horse galloping at a distance. I thought it was strange, because even in my rural town, very few people rode horses in the dead of night in the 1950s. The gallop got closer and closer. My grandfather's incantations grew louder and louder. "¡Ven, Caballo de Espadas, ven! (Come, Knight of Spades, Come!), he said in a loud voice which I could have heard easily in any of the house's four rooms. Nana got closer to me and embraced me saying simply, "No tengas miedo, niño. Todo va estar bien (Don't be frightened child. Everything will be all right)."

The galloping got closer. I could distinctly hear the horse approaching on the dirt road that led to town and then I heard a horse neigh right outside the bedroom window where Nana and I were. My grandfather's voice got louder. "Ven ayudarnos con nuestros problemas (Come help us with our problems). Salva la vida de nuestro hijo (Save our son's life). Guárdalo del mal (Keep him out of harm's way)."

I could hear Tía Mage's breaths get quicker. Excitedly she said, "¡Ay viene. Ya va llegando (He's coming! He's almost here)."

Just then I swear I heard galloping stemming from the kitchen. I could not stand it any longer. I jumped out of the bed, escaped from Nana's grasp and pulled back the sheet that was keeping me from seeing what was going on in the kitchen. I couldn't believe my eyes. I was in shock. The actual card of the Knight of Spades was circling the table. It was as if it was being held up by strings, like a titere (puppet) in some nightmarish side show at a carnival. But, there were no strings. The horse was neighing, my tía (aunt) was smiling from ear-to-ear and saying in between her joy, "Ya llego. Ya esta aquí. Nos va ayudar (he has arrived. He's here. He is going to help us)!"

Then, they saw me. Nana covered her mouth with both hands and José Ángel shouted, "Manuelito, no!"

Almost instantly, the card fell harmlessly off the table. The galloping sound and the neighing stopped. Tía Mage let out a plaintive screech that echoed through the night air and frightened the dogs outside. As the dogs barked, Tía Mage said, "No va a trabajar (It's not going to work). Espantamos al Caballo de Espadas causa de este niño (We scared the Knight of Spades away because of this child)."

The last thing I saw was Tía Mage storm out of the room. The door slammed behind her as she wrapped her black lace shawl over her neck and walked furiously away from the house. Then, I don't remember the rest. I fainted. My next recollection was of me lying on the bed with my mom and dad and Nana cowering over me. Nana had a bottle of alcohol she had presumably used to get me back to my senses. My mom had a bottle of Mentholatum which I could tell she had rubbed on my chest.

My grandpa, José Ángel , was in the next room mumbling in Spanish "No trabajo (It didn't work). ¿Que vamos hacer, hijo? (What are we going to do, son?). He was talking to my dad, who had walked into the kitchen and had this very concerned look on his face. My dad, a World War II veteran who had survived four years in the Eurpean Theater and earned a Purple Heart and several combat megals, put an arm around my grandpa's back and said, "No te mortifiques, 'apa (Don't worry, dad). Son nomas cuentos de viejas (They are just old wives' tales."

I could hear my grandpa sob slowly. "Pero dijo que te ivas a morir en un acidente (But she said you were going to die in a accident). . . y, Manueltio espanto al Caballo de Espadas (And, Manuelito scared of the Knight of Spades)."

About a month later, my father was killed in a horrific car accident in Oilton, Texas. I was in the car. In my left hand was a Spanish card deck we had purchased in Mexico earlier that day on our trip to Nuevo Laredo. Perhaps it was the Knight of Spades who was with us that fateful day? No se (I dont know).

Was it my fault? Was it fate? I wonder to this day if my father's death had something to do with the visit from El Caballo de Espadas (The Knight of Spades) that night.

One thing I know, I will never forget the visit from El Caballo de Espadas (The Knight of Spades) to our house in the outskirts of my hometown.In this case, his visit was mala noticias (bad news). Did he take matters into his own hands? Or, did I interrupt his interceding with the destiny of my father's life? No se (I don't know).


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Manuelito, bring me my eggs! (Manuelito, trae me mis huevos!)

Growing up in rural South Texas, one always had a sense of the country. Farm animals seemed to have a constant presence and importance around the house. There were chores to take care of for everyone, including a 7-year-old boy still trying to figure out who he was and why he lived on a farm, sort of. But, it wasn't a farm. The four-room frame house was but three blocks away from Main Street on the outskirts of town. And, we didn't have pastures or pens for cattle and horses. We had what we called a "paplote" (windmill) for fresh ground water, a hen house and a place where we would fatten the pigs, but we were not living in a true farm. Yet, we didn't live in town, either.

It was in the small four-room frame house with a cement porch facing the garden on the east side of the house that I spent my formative years. While mom and dad worked and lived in the city, I would be taken care of by Nana and José Ángel Flores, the person I would call "abuelo" (grandpa), but later found out he was my great uncle. Nana was his sister and she was my grandmother, but I just called her Nana 'cause she took care of me. Nevertheless, it was clear José Ángel was the head of the household. His wife had died in 1948, about the time of my birth. So, I never knew my "abuela" (grandma), so to say. I only had Nana, who led most of her life guarding a family secret that was not revealed until my father died. My father never knew who his "real" mother was, but such is life and that is another story.

Right now, let's talk about José Ángel Flores. He was a tall, handsome man with deep blue eyes and striking white hair, as I recall. He must have been a very handsome man in his youth. He was light-complected, pero puro (but all) Mexicano, that's for sure. He had worked as a farm laborer all his life, from the fields near Goliad to the those in the South Texas brush country. His hands were calloused because of the hard work. Now in his late 70s, he had settled down, retired and would only do odd jobs to have some spending money. He didn't drink or smoke and seemed the fountain of health. His 6-foot-2, 250-pound frame look sturdy and firm and it looked as if he could still handle himself in whatever situation might arise. José Ángel was a solid person, a caballero (gentlemen), but also somewhat of a prankster, especially with the younger generation of the Flores clan.

He liked to embarrass my cousins and I by using words that had double meanings and often would make rhymes that would embarrass us. This happened to my cousin, Manuel Arredondo. He was my age and as he would be walking up to the our country home, José Ángel , 'buelo (we all called him abuelo) would shout out at the top of his lungs - "Ay viene Manuel Arredondo, fundió hediondo" (suffice it to say that hediondo means smelly and the other word is part of the human anatomy).

At about 5:30 p.m. each day he would urge me to go the hen house and say, "¡Manueito, trae me mis huevos!" (Manuelito, go get my eggs!). Nana would just burst out laughing. The double entendre could well have meant that he had lost his testicles and I had go get them for him. She would stop her laugh mid-way and then sternly rebuke her brother. " José Ángel, no digas cosas así. Vas a mal acostumbra al niño". (Jose Angel, don't phrase things that way. You're going to set a bad example for the boy).

Dutifully, I would go and get the "huevos" (eggs). I would put them in a mid-size pail which I had stuffed with hay to make sure the "huevos" did not crack. After all, the last thing I wanted to do was crack my abuelo's eggs, right?

"Cuidadito con mis huevos, Manuelito. Son my especial, (Be careful with my eggs, Manuelito. They are very special)," he would shout at me as he sat on his rocking chair on the porch enjoying the cool southeasterly breeze stemming from the Gulf of Mexico.

Nana would again rebuke him. "Ay qué hombre tan grosero, (What a rude man)," she would say, before breaking out into a loud laugh and taking a sip of the homemade lemonade which seemed a fitting break from the heat that summer day.

I hardly ever reacted to the taunting. I was used to it. It was a daily occurrence. Somehow, the cackle to the hens was soothing and I didn't mind going from nest to nest gathering the fresh "huevos" so that our family could have something to eat. When I picked up the eggs, they were still warm from the sun rays entering the hen house and, of course, from the hens roosting on them. I wondered, "Are we eating baby chickens tomorrow morning?" I would smile at the thought and continue my chore. Every day I would pick up about a dozen fresh eggs. Nana would sell some of them to our gringo neighbors the next day. She would make about 50 cents from the half-dozen eggs she would sell them. At five days a week, that's $2.50 cents she would make for us. It helped the family income. I heard the rooster crow as the evening gave way to the night and the hens started to dutifully come in to roost for the night. They looked like a little army of drunken birds making their way into the hen house, toddling to and fro as if trying to find their balance. Every now and then, one would stop to scratch the dirt and forage for a late-evening meal. Their cackling was dying down. The rooster made sure they all went in to the hen house as I exited the chicken coop and snapped the door shut behind me.

"Manuelito, ven aquí (Manuelito, come here)!" Nana told me from the rocker on her porch. "Ven a tomarte una limonada con nosotros (Come drink a lemonade with us)."

"Ay voy (I'm on the way)," I answered. "Ya recogí los huevos de mi abuelo (I already picked up my grandpa's eggs)."

Their laughter faded into the evening breeze. I picked up the ice-topped glass next to Nana's chair on the porch and sipped the ice cold lemonade. . . . . It was a good day to live in the country in South Texas.


¡Mama, ay viene el negro! (Mom, the Black man is coming)

It's hard to say when a child first solidifies a memory of his or her life. Growing up in rural South Texas, I remember the house we lived in when I was but two or three years old. It was a small wooden frame house with the white paint peeling off and a bright red trim on the window frames and outdoor porch. It was next to El Convento (the convent), better known as Little Flower School. El Convento was a towering three story white stucco structure with a green-tiled roof. On summer evenings, the shade from El Convento would bring welcome shade to our back yard, making it the perfect place for a niño (child)to wander around, dig holes, find worms, throw rocks or just get lost in the wonderment of the outdoors.

I admit, I don't remember much about my childhood at age 2 or 3. But, one memory sticks out. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, about 10 a.m., my mother would ask me to sit by the window and wait for the ice man to come. For some reason, I obeyed and stood still for at least 10 minutes watching out the window. I don't know why I obeyed. Like most two- or three-year-old boys, I usually would run helter-skelter through the house or backyard daring my mom to catch me. When she did, it was only 'cause I let her. Ha!

Still, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings I would take my place at the window facing the street and look to the east, where the ice man's usual trek to our house originated from. It was almost like clock work. I didn't have to wait long after my mom asked me to watch for him.

Sure enough, soon enough, the clip-clop, clip-clop of the mule pulling the wagon through the caliche and chapopote (tar) lined streets could be heard. Periodically, the wagon would stop to deliver ice to faithful customers. The man would get off the wagon, get a pair of giant clippers and pin the 25- or 50-pound blocks of ice. With little effort, he would haul them down and take them inside the house. He was a gracious man. I could hear him speaking to the neighbors. He would speak in both English and Spanish. "Si señora, gracias (Yes, ma'am, thanks)" he would say, tipping his hat to the woman. "You can pay me Friday," was his usual way of saying goodbye.

Clip-clop, clip-clop the wagon went until he came within 25 yards of our house. That's when I would yell out at the top of my lungs, "¡Mama, ay viene el negro!" (Mom the Black man is coming!). She would answer back always, "Ay voy! (I'm coming)." Both of us would wait patiently at the front door as the wagon pulled up in front of our house and the hulking man would get down. "Hola Maria, Manuelito, how are you this morning?"

His name was "Ash!" He got the name from the white folks in town because ash is dark black, like the color of his skin. He was the patriarch of the only black family in a town composed of 75 percent Mexicans and about 25 percent white, give or take 3 to 5 percentage points.

"Ash" was a wonderful, caring person. He worked for the ice house on the outskirts of town. Later, I would learn that it was at that same outhouse where the bodies revolutionary Mexicanos of the early 20th century were brought and burned. My abuelita (grandma, Nana, would always make the sign of the cross and look toward the sky when we passed by the ice house. I always wondered why, until I was a college professor and did some research. The rumors were true.

But, "Ash," what a wonderful man. He would get off the wagon, walk to the door, shake my mom's hand and brush my head with his big black hands and ask, "¿Que tanto, hoy? (How much today?). Mom would usually buy a 25-pound block of ice. On the weekends, she would often buy a 50-pound block (Or, so I remember. Mostly they talked in English and I only really new to speak Spanish at the time). "Ash" would bring the block of ice into our house and place it at the top of our refrigerator. It would keep our milk, meat and other products fresh for at least two days before it melted.

His job complete, "Ash" would drive away to his next customer. I would watch each time with fascination as the mule-driven wagon would pull away. Clip-clop, clip-clop the mule's hoofs would sound as they pounded the pavement with a rhythm that seemed to deny time. Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop the sound of the hoofs echoed through the streets. And, then, the wagon was gone. If I listened close enough in the still of the morning bothered only by the barking of dogs wandering the streets, I could hear "Ash" greet his customers. He had a deep, strong voice that seemed to carry through the streets. "Yes, ma'am, how much?"

"Ash" was his name. I never knew his real name. I knew that he had kids, some as young as me, I found out later. But, I would never see them in school. Later, I would go to Little Flower School and then to high school in my hometown. I never saw a Black face in my classroom. You see, Blacks were not allowed to go to school (public or private, I presume) in my hometown. They would have to drive more than 30 miles to go to school in another South Texas town. And, if I recall, correctly, "Ash" was the only Black face I saw in town. Much later, my sister, my step father and I would run into him at the ice house. He picked up my sister and she looked at him curiously. She was four years old at the time. Instinctively, she took her right hand and rubbed her index finger on his face and then looked at it to see if anything had rubbed off.

"Ash" just let out a big roaring laugh as both my step-father and I grinned from ear-to-ear. "No child. It don't rub off. That's there permanently on my face," he said as he gave her a big hug while my sister wrapped her arms around his neck and bulky shoulders.

In an instant, my thoughts wandered back to my childhood and how I was so enthralled with the prospects of a Black man visiting our humble home. I could see myself waiting patiently at the window. I would be wearing my cachucha (baseball cap) and hugging my osoito (teddy bear) and looking eastward as the sound of the clip-clop, clip-clop of the mule-driven wagon would get nearer. He would approach our house, stop the wagon,the mule would neigh and and Ash would bring the ice down, come into our house and put it into our "refrigerator." We didn't have electricity yet in our house. It was 1950.

Shortly, the Black man (el negro), whom I only knew as "Ash" all my life, would be gone. It was time for me to go back to being a little boy.