February 18, 2005

First Person

Mi Jefe

By Heriberto Escamilla

Some people see their elders as bridges to the past; people that impose on us customs and ways of being that often seem out of touch with today’s realities. As I journey through this life, with each day closer to joining those that have come before me, I’ve learned to see my elders differently. Our fathers are in fact our personal windows to the future. My father’s face is mine in 25 years, perhaps a little worn and wrinkled by the woes that await me. My grandfather’s eyes, also mine, maybe dimmed a little, by the shadows of unlived dreams. Our elders, they are imperfect ideals, blemished images, but nonetheless real people that guide our path and fuel our hope.

These days, I’ve been thinking about my father, mi Jefe.

Mi Jefe is the product of another time and place; when little boys were often called upon to bury younger siblings. At the age of six, my father with arms barely able, slowly lowered an uncle that I never knew; into the barren dirt of the Campo Santo. The little boy’s unforgivable sin had been to enjoy the murky, but refreshing waters of the Rio Ramos. Even after so many years, my father’s voice still chokes when he recounts the August day. Victor probably paid very little attention to the cactus spine that found its way through the leather straps of his muddy huaraches. But the tiny bacteria that lived in the waters were much more attentive and quickly took advantage of the open wound. Victor, the uncle I never met died of an infection that even at that time could have been easily treated by penicillin. Death made frequent and unexpected stops in my father’s world.

Mi Jefe, like most of his contemporaries scarcely saw the inside the one-room schoolhouse that promised the children of Los Ebanos a better future. His three years of formal education were supplemented by the lessons of the mostly benevolent, but often unforgiving Mexican sun. His teachers were a team of massive oxen yoked to a metal plow that turned the dark earth of Los Ebanos into neat, furrowed fields. My father was and still is a farmer that understands that in order to harvest, one must sow. The call of El Norte seduced my father away from the cornfields of Nuevo Leon, away from the future promised to him by his elders, free to create his own.

My father defied the waters of the Rio Grande a handful of times, before finally walking, with his head up high, over the steel and concrete bridge that connects the Old Laredo with the new. To my dad, the Houston sun was every bit as bountiful as his brother across the border. My dad is and was true regiomontano, never afraid of work and putting it in the best light possible, very frugal with his earnings. Santa Claus didn’t visit our house until I was much older and I think we were always his last stop. His bag was pretty much empty coming down that chimney (we actually didn’t have a chimney, but I have to stick with the image here). Nonetheless, mi Jefe has done well with the creator’s endowment.

But more than anything, mi Jefe worries a lot; he has always paid his bills on time and always with cash. Sometimes I think that his life has been devoted to meeting one obligation after another, always sacrificing his happiness along the way.

My father was always there, sometimes even when I thought it would have been better if he hadn’t. He was there when I fell. Not to pick me up or comfort me you understand. My father whether he knew it or not ascribed to the very old ways. According to historians, when little Mejica opened their eyes to the light of day, they saw the village priest who would begin their orientation with a song.

Life is hard my son, life is about suffering, the best you can do is face it like a warrior.

More often than not my father would add to any injury with a good regañada for being stupid enough to fall in the first place. He didn’t attend my high school graduation, but I learned through friends that he often bragged about our accomplishments. My dad’s body still stiffens when I greet him with a hug, but each time a little less. And on the phone, when I get up enough courage to tell him that I love him (it still seems silly to me sometimes), the silence on the other end tells me my words found their mark.

We live in a different time and place. Data from the census bureau tells us that the percentage of children born to single moms has increased from 5.3% in 1960 to 33.5% in 2001. The percentage of single moms is even higher among some ethnic and social groups, as much as 50%. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not judging or moralizing and I have a tremendous amount of respect for those people that raise children by themselves, male or female. It is what it is, as the wise men say. But mothers and fathers are special. Today, a lot of our young children see no reflection in the mirror, their arms desperately grasp at the empty spaces in the circle and their voices wander without direction, slowly dying and never heard. Other reports tell us that 9 out of ten runaways flee fatherless homes. A recent report by the National Association of Principals indicates that 71% of our high school dropouts have no father at home. And according to the Texas Department of Corrections, 85% of the youths in our prisons grew up in a fatherless house. And yes death makes frequent and unexpected stops in our world as well. According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, 63% of all adolescent suicides are from fatherless homes.

My sisters tell me that my Jefe complains of being tired. At 75, he is longing for the long afternoons of coffee and conversations with don Carlos Guajardo, y el tio Matias, vague images from a different time and place. Part of the future promised by his childhood, one that never came to be. I can’t help but to wonder if the fatigue he feels is not the result of living his life that extended from one obligation to the next. It’s a forced existence, isn’t it? Maybe I don’t understand yet? It saddens me and I pray for my father as we should pray for the youngsters. I ask that our fathers find happiness, the golden years a la Mexicana, in the company of friends and loved ones. Let’s pray our children find teachers; skilled at empowering their voices. And for us, for you and I, let’s learn to sacrifice, the way our ancestors taught us, with joy, taking the time to appreciate the world that surrounds us. El es Dios.

Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Mexico, was raised in Houston, Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology-San Diego Campus.

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