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Mexican traditions, language fight for survival in Alabama.

Don Memo took me to the site of his baked cow skull. Behind his old, simple house he ha dug a 4-foot-deep and 2-foot-wide pozo, or well. After filling it with lumber, he set it afire. While flames licked out of the earth, Don Memo washed the fresh cow head in his sink.

"Sometimes I just get a hankering for cow brains," he said to me in Spanish. My wife, Michelle, watched from one side of the kitchen as Memo cleaned the head. "Ay, Marcos, I'm going to get your bolilla (white woman) to eat a little bit of brain tacos today. Come now, Michelle, see how clean this head is? Better than eating the rear end, you know."

Michelle appeared persuaded, until she heard a clink against the metal sink. "Oops," said Memo, "there goes a tooth."

Baking cow brains is a liturgy unto itself. The wood burned for 12 hours, drying out the earth around the pozo. Memo placed more wood into the hole, then set large stones on top. The next morning he wrapped the skull in aluminum foil and placed it nose down atop the stones. He covered the hole tight with a sheet of galvanized metal. Twelve hours later the brains would meet a tortilla and hot sauce.

Memo placed a couple of chickens and two cow tongues around the head. He was obviously excited. I asked why so much work, if there was a special occassion. "Oh, it's the weekend. And it's beautiful weather today. You never know if someone is going to visit."

I looked around at our north Alabama hills. I had to agree with him. Such a weekend was made for a gathering of friends.

Though living here most of her life, Memo's wife, Jovita, rarely speaks English. She prepared the rest of the meal. "Ay, que alegre es tener gente aqui. Esta trieste una casa callada." (Oh, it's great to have folks around. A silent house is a sad one.)

Memo and Jovita have lived in Alabama for about five years. The three decades previous to that they lived in many parts of the United States, two of the thousands of working immigrants. Memo doesn't mind telling stories from those years. "We were migrants from 1954 until the 1980s. I used to leave eight of my children in a park and take my wife and the two youngest children to someone's farmhouse. I knew they would reject us if they saw my whole family. Later, we would sneak the other eight into the barn."

Knowing that life has changed little for migrants, Memo and Jovita offer a bit of tradition to their own. The cow head and other meats cooked all day. Most assuredly folks would come around this evening to enjoy some real Mexican food.

Joel, one of Memo's children, came out and greeted me. He is a stout, strong 15-year-old. He wore a T-shirt with an elaborate painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe across the front. His baseball cap, turned backward, had La Raza (literally "the ancestry") embroidered in red, white and green. We greeted with the usual handshake, three movements that end with our fists popping against each other. Over the years, the hand-shake has become smooth, ritualistic, a dance of friendship.

Behind Joel stood an old Ford LTD, with a stereo speaker the size of a small filing cabinet vibrating the trunk. Joel and his older brothers flipped through various cassettes. One minute it was Banda Macho, the next Arrested Development. Joel moved along with both. Bilingual, he sang along, missing no beat:

Gracias a Dios que es mi padre, y que say indio como el. Walked the roads my forefathers walked, climbed the trees my forefathers hung from.

There have been tense moments in his young life. Joel has heard "stupid Mexican," "wetback" and "lazy spic" whispered behind him in school. He is known as a "good kid," which I suppose means, to some, a boy who doesn't start trouble no matter how much he's harassed.

But get Joel to listen to music or play his conga drum or talk about someone insulting his mother, and the good kid's eyes burn with a certain anger. "I listen to rap music because it talks about la raza. It helps me see the racism around here every day."

He told me the story about his mother. "It was at the parade, y ese joven queria fregar a, my brother, man, sequia hablando mal de mi mama, dijo, |Hey, your mama's cheap, boy.' So the kid was asking for it, mi hermano le pego duro, in the eye. Se subio fuerte la sangre, his blood got up, man, como no."

While his father took care of the cow head in the burning well, Joel and his brothers stood around the LTD. It was Saturday afternoon. Monday morning was a million miles away. Joel listened to the music and talked in both of his languages as if storing up living energy for the gringo week of school ahead of him.

In this community, language is always an issue. People judge individuals on their speaking abilities. English is an invalid barometer used to measure a person's legal status. And legal status, ostensibly a private issue, becomes a discriminatory factor in the social work office, the clinic and some churches.

It's a discourtesy to ask about papers. Yet there are so many discourteous people around. From Legal Service employees to religious missioners, the questions "Do you have papers?" or "Are you documented?" or especially "Are you legal or illegal?" bash against Latinos like two-by-fours.

A friend named Luis and I speak mostly in Spanish. On Saturday, he studied English etymologies with me. "This word, left, it's used a lot of ways. |I left my coffee on the table,' but then, |There is a lot of chicken left.' Then, |Turn left.' How can they do that? Why do they do that?"

We also discussed our Spanish and how it has changed. Luis corrected his daughter, Amalia, hoping she would not forget. "No, honey, don't say dicieron, say dijeron. Where did you learn that?" Amalia smiled, slightly embarrassed.

Other changes have crept into the language, ones that, like the English word ain't, will more than likely make it into a future Spanish dictionary.

"Empuchelo! Empuchelo!" yelled one of Luis' kids to another as they pushed a dog out of the house. I was confused. Luis explained, "It's a mixture. Push and empujar. Both mean |to push.' So you get empuchar."

"That's lousy. We're losing our language."

Luis agreed, quietly looking at his kids. "That's what's happening, brother. Survival makes you say and do things you've never said or done before." He chuckled, but a sadness escaped. "I wonder how my kids will talk when they're older."

It's a fear we all hold. For Latino children growing up in a white-dominated society, the pattern is well-known: Others tease you for speaking Spanish, so you quit. Your parents still speak only Spanish, but you answer them in English. Outside pressure demands conformity and the breakdown of familial roots.

The price is paid in the loss of one's self. Here in Alabama, I see Latino kids who can't express themselves well in either language. They grow into adulthood, unable to tell the world who they are, trapped in cultural muteness.

In the living room, Luis kids still battled with the dog. "Empuchelo! Empuchelo!"

Luis said in a strong, loving voice, "No, hija, dile empujar."

Amalia smiled. "Empujalo, fuera de aqui."

The circle of friends gets together to talk about problems and dream of posibilities. It usually happens around such Mexican cuisine as cow heads. "It's a delicacy, you know," Luis told me. "Brain tacos are much more expensive than beef tacos."

There is a politic in our gatherings. Though we've attended outside forums that deal with migrant problems and justice issues, they lack a certain flavor. Led by good, loving gringos who want to help the poor, the meetings are in English, around folding tables with hard metal chairs inside dark, cold buildings void of children. Here, Spanish is the dominating language. Gringos who don't speak la raza better hang on tight or they're out of luck.

At the end of the weekend, the cow skull was empty. The music had been turned down. Everybody was a gusto, comfortable. Monday stood around the corner, waiting with tomato fields, chicken coops, meatpacking factories. Yet all were relaxed and happy, knowing that la raza would get them through the week.
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Title Annotation:migrant worker biography
Author:Villatoro, Marcos McPeek
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 15, 1994
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