By Juanita Lopez
It is the year of 2014 and both of my grandparents are very old but alive, though suffering from dementia. I decided to pay them a visit to interview them. Believe it or not, they still live in the same one-bedroom apartment in San Ysidro where they established their U.S. residency in the late 1970s. From their yard, I am able to look at the thousands of tiny houses in Tijuana, where they once lived, dreaming of crossing over for a better opportunity. I look at my dark-skinned grandmother and admire her toothless smile. Her eyes light up every time she sees me. She normally asks me how my brother is doing, and I tell her he’s okay, working like always since he has a baby to take care of now. She smiles and two minutes later asks me the same question. I go over to her kitchen and wash some strawberries that were in her refrigerator. I offer her some after I cut them and sprinkle some sugar on top—my grandmother smiles again and starts telling me about her life, a not-so-sweet story about the times she labored as a farm worker picking strawberries and cutting flowers.
Carolina is my grandmother and Alfredo is my grandfather, who’s in his hospital bed in the room watching a baseball game. He can hardly get out of bed these days. They had a total of four children in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. Looking for a better opportunity, my grandparents decided to travel north and landed in La Colonia Francisco Villa, Tijuana to be exact, in the early 1960s. Here, they had six more children—some died as infants, and others were born dead. I ask my grandmother for the specific location of where she buried my uncles, but she doesn’t remember the location.
My grandmother began telling me that in the 1950s my grandfather became a bracero. “Braceros were given permits to work in the U.S. for cheap labor. Your grandfather and many other Mexican men didn’t care about that, they just wanted to work,” said my grandmother. The horrible things that they had to do to come across were shocking to me as soon as my grandmother began to describe them. She said, “Your grandfather would get on the train that would last several days. A few of his friends lost their lives because of asphyxiation and were just thrown off from the train. They were stripped naked and were sprayed on their genitals to get rid of any lice or any disease.” I couldn’t help but compare those images to the Holocaust. “But there he was, ready to come to work on this side of the border. He worked in Blythe, Delano, and Fresno, eventually sending his money back home so that your dad and uncles could go to school and have something to eat, but they only went up to the 3rd grade.” Soon after, unhappy that my grandfather wasn’t spending time with his family, my grandparents decided to move.
By the time they got to Tijuana, my grandmother discovered that she was a U.S. citizen. “I wasn’t aware where Manteca would be in in the U.S. I thought it would be in Mexico. I discovered that in fact Manteca was located in northern California,” said my grandmother in a high-pitched voice. You see, she never learned how to read or write, because she had to serve others after she became an orphan at the age of five.
I decided to change the subject, so I asked my grandmother to describe her city back then. She said, “Tijuana wasn’t the Tijuana that it is now. Tijuana back then was the place to go and have fun. If I needed a bar of soap, which most of the times I did because we didn’t have washing machines, I had to wash by hand, or if I needed some rice or beans, anything, there were small stores near each corner called tiendas de abarrotes, that had all of that.” Wow, I thought. Nowadays, we use liquid soap and have washing machines at home and normally you go to the grocery store to buy food of that sort. “If you wanted to go and have a good time with the family, you would go to La Avenida Revolución. Here is where thousands of tourists, a lot of Americans mainly, or artists came to have a good time. Many even took the famous picture on the zebra which was actually a donkey painted as a zebra. The whole avenue was full of restaurants, discothèques, tiendas de artesania, bars . . . you name it. Oftentimes your uncles would go and listen to the popular Tijuana bands of the time like Los Moonlights or Los Old Friends.” I told her, “The last time I went to La Revolución, I tried looking for a taco stand around 6 p.m. and there was only like one or two people selling tacos and the stores were closing down.” I guess times have changed.
Eventually my grandmother began crossing the border every day to work in Encinitas, a city in San Diego’s north county. Many people aren’t aware that Encinitas is an agricultural city, a very wealthy city too, but the reality is that many migrant workers work there. She was a farm worker, picking strawberries and also laboring in the flower fields. Both jobs required my grandmother to wake up early, around 4 a.m., so she could cook breakfast and then cross the border. She would meet up with friends so she could carpool to her job, because she never learned how to drive either. My grandmother closed her eyes as she recalled:
I would be knelt down on my knees from the crack of dawn till the sun came down. I would ache from my body, for days. Often I would walk with a limp. I would start getting deep cuts in my hands from cutting the flowers. I would sweat heavily from my dripping head down to my feet because the strong sunrays would beam at me all day long, although sometimes I would be under the white plastic houses. Oftentimes I would also get blisters on my toes because of my poor shoes and being on my feet for too long. I would be so dehydrated, with a parched mouth, and so hungry with a growling stomach.
This was the sacrifice that she had to endure for many years until she was able to make my uncles and grandfather U.S. residents. Since my grandfather’s bracero visa had expired, he would work in Tijuana, and my uncles would work there too. Soon after, some of my uncles, including my dad, got married.
After saving up for some time, in the late 1970s my family moved to San Ysidro. My grandparents’ choice of moving to San Ysidro was so clever—they wanted to be closer to Mexico, and Tijuana was the closest they got to their roots. They wanted to be able to cross to Tijuana, whenever they wanted. They would go and see the dentist over there, or go there for their weekly groceries because it was cheaper to buy more there than over here. My grandmother laughed as she said, “The meat was much fresher over there, and I sure loved cooking.” She remembers the border with fewer doors and officers, shorter lines—all you had to say was that you were a U.S. citizen and, well, she was. I told her, “Yeah, let me try saying that phrase now. I need to show proof of that, and even with proof, I am asked a million questions such as, where do I work or go to school, and why did I cross to Mexico?” Can’t I just cross to eat or visit family without being bombarded with all of these questions?
At first, only my youngest uncle came to live in San Ysidro with my grandparents. In fact, he even went to high school here, adopting the Chicano calo slang and style. My older uncles and dad decided to have their children in Tijuana because the hospital bills were cheaper there. They didn’t know that it would’ve been easier for their children’s future to have been born in the U.S., since later on those children would get deported. Once those children were a bit older, my uncles and dad decided to move to San Diego, and landed in Logan Heights. My two uncles and dad also worked in Encinitas in a nursery, mainly, cutting flowers, from gerbera daisies to chrysanthemums, you name it. But my dad’s favorite were the sunflowers, those big yellow flowers which often were on my kitchen table. My uncles and dad were very proud of that agricultural work—it was hard but at least their children were getting a better education than them, and they had dignity.
I smiled at my grandmother and I couldn’t believe that I was able to have this long conversation with her. Given her condition, I was shocked that she could remember the past so clearly, but not the present. I’ve heard these stories many times before—they are not foreign to my ears. I can’t help but weep sometimes because it’s difficult to picture my old wrinkly grandparents going through all of that hard work so that I can have a better life. So I am grateful for what I eat—something as sweet as these red strawberries that my grandmother once picked, that once made her body throb in pain. Or admire the beauty and the beautiful smell that my flowers have in my living room—flowers that she once planted, or cut, which left blisters on her hands for days. I can’t help but think of Tijuana today, a city that was once the loudest, most festive, and commercialized place. Now it’s more like a ghost town that creates fear, and one becomes hostile to it. The border that was once more open has become so militarized, and has made it harder for people to reunite with their roots, their people, my people. At least my grandmother doesn’t have this new image of it since she hasn’t crossed the border in over ten years or so. One of her sons had to stop working and had to get knee surgery because of the agricultural work in the flower fields, and her other son, my dad, died. The only son that still works in Encinitas is my uncle; he now is owner of his own flower shop and also his son has a shop of his own. Something that started as a very necessary job became a family job, and an honorable one at that.
My grandmother still has this vision that one day she will cross back to Tijuana and visit her “terre” as she calls it, short for terreno: land. She wishes to find those lost graves of her children and be reunited with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren who she has never met but who now live there. Unfortunately that is not going to happen because of her health.
There’s only one strawberry left on my plate, and as I look at my grandmother she smiles and says, “Ooh, I remember when I used to work picking them, here in Encinitas, the city of the poinsettias!” I smile and say, “Ay abuelita, do tell me about it.” Once more, over and over, I hear the story that each time leaves me speechless.
Editor’s Note: We’ll be publishing excerpts from Sunshine/Noir II: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana, an anthology of local writing about San Diego over the coming weeks, starting with the chapters written by SD Free Press writers. As City Works Press co-editor Jim Miller says in his introduction: “…San Diego is still a city in need of a literary voice, a cultural identity that goes beyond the Zoo, Sea World, Legoland, and the beach. With Sunshine/Noir II we persist in our romantic, perhaps Sisyphean, effort to address this need and expose the true face of “the other San Diego.” To buy a copy of Sunshine/Noir II or any other San Diego City Works Press book go here.