The Patron Saint of Changos
Remembering Abuelito at Dia de los Muertos
Six-story grain elevators, like a small town Stonehenge, towered over the railroad tracks at the asphalt intersection of Court Street and Santa Fe Avenue. In the summer of 1961, a ragtag coalition of neighborhood kids, errant older cousins and I had claimed that sun baked section of Ulysses, Kansas as our own pioneer territory.
Published on LatinoLA: October 29, 2002
Shimmering with the allure of forbidden terrain, the train crossing represented the best of both worlds. It was the center of a daily cacophony of grating and groaning and the straining motions of mechanical muscle capped-off by piercing whistles that shattered the silence associated in my four-year-old mind with paralyzing house arrest.
And it was just half a block from home.
The proximity of the two-bedroom wood frame house I shared with my mother and Toby, our bob-tailed terrier, bestowed on me a status ranging somewhere between
mandatory mascot and simmering liability for the older kids who led our excursions across the tracks.
A cocktail of adrenaline and fear propelled us toward the rail yard but always dissipated with the discovery of slumbering boxcars and the occasional caboose adrift in transit. The sort of fleeting bliss that stems from a false sense of immunity melted away our concern for exposure to oncoming freight trains and the retribution of angry parents.
Midway through one enchanting foray, I came face to face with a young Santa Fe Railroad worker whose decision to run my bony white butt off the tracks and back to the house would crack open the door to a coalescing of cultures that has underscored my life as a gabacho in the hinterlands, exploring the border between Anglo and Latino for most of my adult life.
Salvador Sosa Jr., was a twenty-seven-year-old moreno with regal indio cheekbones and a luminous smile. His generosity of spirit, it turns out, extended to having given my mother a ride home from a high school dance some ten years prior to my first encounter with him.
Not unlike myself, he, too, undertook illicit outings from time to time, making the thirty-minute drive on two-lane Highway 160 from tiny neighboring Johnson, Kansas to explore the socially fertile soil of Ulysses.
My truant appearance at his worksite confirmed Sal?s suspicion that I belonged to the platinum blonde 'guera' at the end of the block. It was never lost on me that our house was situated an equal distance from the public library and the Grant County jail, but I had not known that the yellow and tan Santa Fe Railroad company house three lots to the south was home to Sal?s dad, a senor whose hardy but sweet disposition would enrich my life for years to come.
Today, Sal describes his actions as a variation on Catholic charity. I suspect the sins of the flesh figured in, but who?s to say? He claims to have felt sorry for my mom and me, careening around town in an olive green ?52 Chevy, her with her headscarf knotted against the relentless western Kansas gusts and me in my Buster Brown shorts and striped tee shirt ensemble, perched hyper and happy at her side as we bounced guilelessly through that pre-child safety seat era.
When my mother married Sal Sosa in June of 1962, the extended family of her childhood, descendants of Scottish immigrants, suffered a self-inflicted schism. Her status as a small town divorcee and working single mother had been sufficiently scandalous for their tastes. For her to marry a Mexican-American railroad worker was beyond the comprehension of a sizable sector of her blood relatives. Several of them secretly relished the distraction from their own raffish affairs but, nonetheless, stoically severed us from the family tree.
Down the street, behind the creaking front door of the yellow and tan frame house with the screened-in porch, a different world awaited. My new abuelito was stooped yet somehow steady, already in his sixties when we met.
He had been born Salvador de Santiago de la Rosa Sosa on September 5, 1897 in the central Mexican city of Zacatecas, Zacatecas. His father, Antonio Sosa and mother, Josefa de la Rosa, raised my grandfather and his brother Felipe and sister Maria on the outskirts of Zacatecas, a more rural and agrarian life than one would have imagined for a family residing so close to the celebrated palacios and sweeping catedrales of the state?s metropolitan capital.
He arrived in this world two years after Stephen Crane published ?The Red Badge of Courage? and very early into the first administration of the American president William McKinley.
As a child, my grandfather (we called him Popo) was entrusted with a number of chores to assist in earning his keep. He tended goats and sheep for local ranchers and, for nearly ninety years, wore the immutable imprint of a burro?s hoof on his forehead, proof that his life calling lay somewhere beyond animal husbandry.
A lifetime later, sunk into the ancient mismatched furniture in his living room and recalling those childhood memories in Mexico, Popo would insist that the best employment of his youth was cleaning the drenajes in the city center.
?Era el mejor sueldo que ganaba,? he emphasized curtly. My own childhood imagination was stoked by the mystery which shrouded his tenure as an errand boy for fabled Mexican bandit and revolutionary Francisco ?Pancho? Villa. Someone in the family once produced a sepia-soaked photograph of Villa?s motley cuadrillas, replete with the image of a pre-adolescent Popo, squatting in the dirt and squinting defiantly into history.
He maintained a diligent silence about his youthful association with the famously temperamental folk hero, though. The backlash of American anger at Villa?s raid on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916 made a permanent impression on Popo. Seventeen Americans were killed in the assault, which tarnished the Robin Hood aura previously enjoyed by Villa and his men.
Whether or not he developed his skill as a cook and accomplished doughnut baker while serving with Pancho Villa was never confirmed by my grandfather.
?Es mejor no hablar de eso,? he?d caution us. ?Puede causar problemas.?
When word trickled down that the American railroads were hiring Mexican laborers for respectable pay, Popo made his way north to the border, obtaining a two-year work visa in El Paso, Texas in 1920. He was twenty-three years old and spoke no English.
Undaunted, he left behind in Zacatecas a chaparrita he had known since childhood. Juana de Santiago was married to a much older man at thirteen, gave birth to a son at fourteen and was widowed at fifteen. My grandfather married her shortly before embarking on his initial trek to the United States.
Once on U.S. soil, he followed the railroad up through the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle to the endless acres of wheat and dirt and sky that sprawled across the plains of western Kansas. The Santa Fe Railroad foreman who hired Popo was quick to bestow the ultimate gringo blessing, complimenting my grandfather on the reliability of his work and marveling that he wasn?t lazy like the other Mexicans lolling on the tracks. Popo became assistant foreman two weeks into his life in the new country.
Juana?s happiness, meanwhile, was put permanently on hold when her former suegra decided the recently remarried mother was unsuited to raise the woman's only grandson. The parents of Juana?s deceased husband eventually wrested away custody of her infant son, Pedro Diaz. Inconsolable, she withdrew from her life in Zacatecas and prepared to join Popo in America. But every month for nearly the rest of her life, Juana and Popo sent money to Mexico for the safekeeping of Pedro Diaz.
Settling in a series of southwest Kansas communities, Popo and Juana had twelve children together, the first five of whom died in infancy, with the sixth lost to appendicitis.
The remaining siblings were my stepfather, Salvador and the tias y tios who generously accepted my mother and me as honorary Mexicanos---Juan and Roberto, Amalia, Josefina and Margarita.
The Sosa family grew to encompass successive generations, but the core of the extended household was always Popo's place. The cracked linoleum and thickly painted wood cabinets in my grandfather's cocina captured my imagination for hours. During my debut visit at the frenzied age of five, I assaulted his kitchen counter and was scaling my way methodically up the cabinets toward the ceiling when Popo and my parents appeared and plucked me off the wall.
"Ay muchacho!" he exclaimed, laughing and shaking his head. "Este chiquillo es un chango!"
Throughout those slow motion years, I entertained myself by exploring the cavernous rooms around the house or breathing imaginary life into the odd toy I would discover, forgotten on the floor in various degrees of disrepair. Always, the amber hue of overhead bulbs bathed my grandfather's house in the stark sanctity of fading light.
The damp, pungent aroma of black coffee and zesty pork chile painted a simple but rich backdrop to the swirling rise and fall of group conversations in Spanish, at once foreign to my ear and yet strangely reassuring.
By the time I entered his life, Popo had long ago lost Juana to a stomach tumor of devastating proportion. Removed a few months before her death, the malignancy had literally crushed her other organs. She concurrently fought a form of cancer manifested as a rash on her arms, all of which steadily sapped her strength. She had succumbed to gangrene in the aftermath of surgery to remove the tumor, dead at sixty-three and buried on the day I was born.
A few years later, my grandfather married Juana's first cousin, Guadalupe Torres. Lupe was reluctantly received into the family by my aunts and uncles, bringing with her a daughter, Estela, and bearing my grandfather three children of his own---Patricinia, Margarita and Juan. Her fifth child, Marco, was adopted by Lupe in Mexico.
It was during those times, when I was seven and eight and nine years old, that I came to romanticize Mexico (where I had yet to visit) through the periodic ebb and flow of my grandfather's pilgrimages to his homeland. The rhythmic cycle of departure and return was punctuated by late night shuttles to the train station and early morning intrusions into my sleep, where animated revelations in Spanish would seep into my restless netherworld of dreams and I would awaken to find regalitos of coconut candy and crudely painted wooden toys, while my stepfather, Sal, searched for the worm in his gleaming new bottle of a?ejo tequila.
Once rousted from bed, I would slouch in my pajamas on our living room floor and listen to Popo recount the details of his journey, from chisme to the legal status of far-scattered family members or properties that never panned out. Always, always I felt an uncanny ability to communicate with him in spite of the language barrier that ultimately intervened.
That such a small, increasingly bent mahogany man could effortlessly elicit respect from me and my primos while relaying to us an assurance of unconditional love, all without the benefit of a common language, went a long way toward establishing for me a true sense of dignity in the world.
At the onset of every visit to his home, we kids would form a line commencing at his tattered Lazy Boy recliner and extending through the living room, each waiting our turn to step forward and, insulated from peer pressure for a precious few seconds, reverently kiss his outstretched hand.
The absent minded precision with which he rolled his own cigarettes from papers and a tin can of Prince Albert tobacco was testament to an act that long ago became second nature. Once rolled and moistened, he would hold the finished product to his one good eye and examine his handiwork like a jeweler inspecting a gem.
Christmas at Popo's house represented for me the bittersweet knowledge that life was unlikely to get much better. Amid the staccato blast of children manicly willing themselves toward the arrival of Santa Claus and the steady crescendo of adult revelry in the front of the house, beneath the black velvet matador painting and the framed photo of Tio Roberto receiving his Purple Heart for heroism in Korea, I would slip away.
The spartan guest bedroom in the far northeast corner of the house, ordinarily lifeless, was splendidly transformed each Christmas into an intricate and expansive shrine to the birth of Our Lord. The awesome silence of a room awash in muted red lights, piled deep and wide with figurines collected from decades of nacimientos, santos, baby Jesus' and crucified Christs with thorns like thick, oversized sewing needles, porcelain livestock and miniature Mideastern sojourners, interspersed with crucifixes and rosaries, was enough to bring me to an immediate and wonder-filled awareness of the gravity of Advent.
"This is true holiness," I thought. The converging aromas smelled relentlessly rich, like the box after box of shelled peanuts, fresh oranges and Popo's trademark chocolate-covered cherries stacked in the pantry with the molcajete and cast iron skillets.
The weary roll call of those who would attend Midnight Mass was among the last litanies I heard on Christmas Eve. Heading home to my parents' house an hour's drive away, the toasty fragrance of cornhusk tamales blanketed our car with an eternal sense of belonging.
The humility and reverence exemplified by Popo's Christmas altar was evidenced in his approach to life throughout the year. Time and again we pulled away from the front curb of his home after a weekend visit while he stood at the unhinged gate, administering the bendicion with a makeshift cross of splayed and weathered fingers.
As the years blurred by, I escaped the confines of Kansas and wandered like an academic nomad through a succession of colleges and graduate school. In between bouts of higher education I subjected myself to the degradation of real life, complete with a series of promising false starts at vocational fulfillment as an adult.
I eventually stumbled into my professional comfort zone as a talent manager for recording artists, helping to guide the careers of aspiring stars. First as a personal manager, then later as a record company executive, I spent more and more time on the road, in wheezing tour buses and bustling concert halls, indistinguishable airports, faceless hotel rooms and late night recording studios thick with incense and half illuminated by exhausted lava lamps.
All along the way, I was represented back home by my stepfather Sal, who visited Popo on alternate weekends with the consistency of genuine loyalty. My grandfather strived valiantly to keep up with my itinerary, incorporating me into his daily prayers and weekly masses, always interceding on behalf of my health and safety. Apprised of my whereabouts, he would moan and place his hands to his head. "Viaja demasiado," he'd say in reply to updates on my activities in England or Japan, France or Bulgaria.
His indomitable spirit flourished in old age as he outlived Lupe and refused to give in to the toll of time that left him nearly deaf and blind. In his seventies, he undertook the construction of a basement for the house on Santa Fe Avenue. Working alone with a kitchen spoon and a hand bucket, he chipped away for months at the soil beneath his back porch, producing over time a handsome two- room addition to the home, which he promptly leased out for extra income.
His independent spirit came with a price tag of willful determination to do things his way. This included a stubborn resistance to spending the night away from home with children or grandchildren and the painstaking lengths he went to while liberating an electric blanket my parents once bought him from every inch of wiring it contained---an essential safety precaution, in his mind.
In the spring of 1993, my grandfather was hospitalized for a pain that doubled him over and cut short his efforts to trim the neighborhood trees. Only then did doctors discover a widespread infestation of lung cancer.
The two family members keeping vigil at his bedside confronted their own mortality when Popo suddenly sat bolt upright in bed after hours of comatose silence. He stared intently at a far corner of the hospital room, crossed himself and whispered in a clear, distinct voice, "Juana". He then closed his eyes and stepped gracefully away from this world after ninety-seven years of devotion to faith and family.
He was buried on Cinco de Mayo.
Surviving home movies shot on 35-mm film in grainy black and white capture the essence of my childhood as a skinny gabacho kid surrounded by the love and laughter of a boisterous Mexican-American family. In scene after scene, I appear as a sporadic white flash, streaking across the melee of wrestling matches, dogpiles and chases that spill beyond the camera's frame.
I have carried those images with me through the years. As I travel the world recording music for listeners who care about compelling artistry, whether in English or Spanish, the challenge remains the same. To capture the onda that makes the music possible, to provide support for undeniable new talent and to convey through music the seemingly boundless warmth of the Latin spirit is a worthy endeavor for anyone, most of all for a gringo with a debt of gratitude.
Wherever I find myself in the course of my work, from Miami to East L.A., Mexico City to the Rio Grande Valley, there are those frequent empowering occasions when I look back across the interior landscape of my life to the railroad house on the corner lot in Kansas and silently say a prayer of immeasurable thanks to my abuelito, Popo--- the patron saint of changos.
Cameron Randle is a Los Angeles-based music executive and writer. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling Stone.