Tuesday, May 17, 2011
¡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.