Mamma and America
For her children, she put aside alienation & nostalgia
Alejandro J. Diaz
It was my father?s idea to move from Mexico to Chicago. My mother, on the other hand, loved her country and according to her, coming to the U.S. had never once crossed her mind. But pap? had always kept a wondrous eye toward the north.
Published on LatinoLA: November 1, 2002
He was a poor boy raised in a big family. His most vivid memory was that of a twelve-year old child. One of his younger sisters was very ill and my grandfather, not having enough money to purchase the medicine that the doctor had prescribed, sent my father door-to-door asking the vecinos for a hand out. After finally raising the funds that were needed, my father ran two miles to the pharmacy and two miles back, but when he arrived home his dear sister was already dead. So as far back as he could remember he wanted out of Mexico and dreamed of living in the promised land.
He always emphasized how in this country those born poor had a real shot at prosperity much unlike in his native land. He would say, ?In Mexico, those who have will be damned to ever give an inch to those who need.?
Upon arriving here, my parents took full advantage of the opportunities that this society had to offer. They settled in Chicago and worked hard to provide a nice home and a good Catholic education for their five children. None of us ever went without. It was the late fifties and back then immigrants had no other choice but to learn English in order to survive. There was no Spanish TV, or Spanish newspapers to accommodate them.
My father was determined to learn the language. He read the English newspapers and watched American television religiously. He even went so far in insisting that we converse with him in English and we did, but out of respect to my mother we always spoke to her in Spanish. Before long my father had American friends and knew their culture even better than they did. He really thrived in this country. It was this great zeal that my father had for his adopted home, and the never-ending longing my mother had for her Mexico, that eventually led to the irreparable void in their marriage.
Mamma always clung on to a romantic notion of her homeland. Being orphaned at a very young age she was raised by a loving grandmother. And unlike my father, she was from a somewhat prosperous family, so my mother?s memories of her time in Mexico were much different than those from her husband.
My brother, sisters and I would sit around the kitchen table on Saturday afternoons listening to her stories. She loved telling us about her family and about her youth.
Mamma grew up in a spacious home encircled by aunts, uncles and cousins. Every Sunday, relatives from all over the city would stop by to visit with her grandmother. The old woman was the matriarch and made sure the family stayed close. She also kept a very close eye on the single girls of the house, never allowing them out without a chaperone. When Mamma attended the Friday night dances, an elder aunt was always at her side, so when a boy approached her he?d have to get through the aunt first.
Saturday afternoons were spent at the downtown movie theatre. It was the only one around for miles, so the whole community congregated there once a week. It was the heyday of Mexican Cinema and film idols like Pedro Infante, Cantinflas, and Arturo de Cordova often showed up unannounced to visit with the audience. It was quite the event for Mamma?s small town. In those days, my mother would say, there were real movie stars who truly loved their public. Long after Mexico?s golden movie age, my mother would still gripe about how uninspired today?s movies were compared to those of her childhood.
Mamma also enjoyed Sunday visits to the plaza. Back then, the Town Square was the epicenter of the community?s social life. My mother, her friends, and aunts would spend all afternoon walking around the plaza after church. The women in their long dresses would smile politely as the men in their suits bowed and bid them a good day.
Sometimes boys would ask my mother?s aunt permission to walk alongside them. If agreed upon, then the young man had one full turn around the park to introduce himself, and to plead his case. It was in one of these excursions that my mother met my father. Soon afterward they were married.
That was Mamma?s Mexico, a life filled with family, respect and tradition; it is something she would never let go of.
Not wanting to lose that tie to the old country, we?d vacation every summer south of the border, and it is here that I remember my mother being most at ease. She?d spend the days visiting with relatives and childhood friends. They would talk for hours catching up on their lives. She would eat at her favorite restaurants and then show us the exact spot where she and my father first met. And of course Mamma would always make sure to say hello to long gone loved ones at the local cemetery. On these trips she spoke such beautiful and flowing Spanish. She was right at home there. It didn?t matter that by now she had spent three-fourths of her life in the U.S., she was still, and would always be, a Mexicana.
She continuously held her country of birth on a pedestal. Sure, she was grateful that her family was able to progress in the good U.S. of A, but to her there was never a doubt where her heart lied. When my brother and I would discuss Mexico?s faults she would become defensive. Once she even cried and asked us why we had so much disdain for her beloved country. We never, in her presence, spoke one disparaging word about Mexico again.
While my father watched English programming, my mother and my sisters preferred their novelas. It was incredible! They knew the story lines inside out, were on a first name basis with the characters, and would put everything on hold merely to watch that evening?s unraveling plot. I couldn?t understand it. To me these soap operas were at best a waste of time. I would often try to explain to my mother that all of these shows had the same premise: ?Poor girl meets rich boy and lives happily ever after.? She?d listen graciously but would never allow herself to be swayed. After a while I stopped trying to pry her away from her novelas. And although today I still don?t see their appeal, I am at peace with them, for in a strange way they kept Mamma close to her past.
Looking back though, my mother did take on many American traditions and traits as her own, more for us than for anything else I?m sure. But nonetheless, every Halloween she?d dress us up in costumes and lead us through the neighborhood. We lived in a section of town that was predominantly Latino, and on this day all of the children and their parents walked up and down the area?s Main Street collecting candy from all of the small businesses. Without exception we?d run into friends and stroll down together. My mother and her comadres conversed in Spanish while we kids communicated solely in English. And of course every Thanksgiving I looked forward to her amazing turkey dinners.
During Christmas time we never celebrated Los Tres Reyes. For us it was always Santa Claus who brought us wonderful gifts on that special morning, although we would have tamales, arroz y frijoles with a ham for our Holiday dinner.
My mother even learned how to make great pancakes. I can only imagine what must have gone through her mind when one morning, out of nowhere, her youngest son asks to have pancakes for breakfast! I can picture her now, hurrying to the grocery store, reading the back of the pancake mix box, then trying to figure out how to make these pancak?s. But she also made tortillas de harina that were out of this world. We?d eat them right off the griddle with melted better on top and then we?d wash them down with a cafe con leche. I have never again tasted anything so delightful.
What stands out most, though, is how every Friday night, no matter if it were warm, wet, or snowing, my mother treated us, and many times the other neighborhood kids, to one of the most American of customs: Hamburgers at McDonald?s. In those days there wasn?t a MickeyD?s on every half block as there are today. No, for us the nearest one was quite a ways off. On summer days we?d walk through the entire neighborhood for those burgers, and in the winter evenings we?d take the bus. What a sight we must have been; a mother with her two boys riding the bus in the blistering cold, holding bags filled with burgers, fries, and milk shakes.
Halloween, Thanksgiving, pancakes, McDonalds, all of this, and so much more, must have been so foreign to Mamma, yet without hesitation she adopted these ways as her family?s own. Not being born here, she must have felt like an outsider I?m sure though, that this fueled her drive in securing her family?s place in this country.
In the 1980s and 90s there was a big movement to register Latino voters: Our numbers were getting too big to ignore. My sisters, my brother, and I had always done our duty and voted. My mother had never wished to become an American citizen; to her it was a betrayal to her Mexico. But after much cajoling from her children she finally gave in.
I guess her dream of returning to her country was now just that.
There was no way any of us would ever move to Mexico. Our lives were here and Mamma came to that realization. So on August 5, 1992, Maria de Lourdes Diaz Zapata from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico became a naturalized American citizen. My eldest sister, Ninfa, accompanied my mother to the INS offices in downtown Chicago that day. She remembers, when the magistrate asked my mother to say something in English, how Mamma looked over at her for a moment then turned her head, looked the man straight in the eye, and said, ?I love America.? The judge was impressed and Ninfa, in tears, proudly embraced our mother.
And in that next presidential election Mamma voted. She had come a long way from that young bride who left her home behind many years ago.
In the summer of 1998, at the tender age of sixty-two my mother?s life came to its end. It was a beautiful, warm day in Chicago. She was surrounded by her American children and grandchildren. Blending two worlds into one is precisely what my mother had accomplished. She instilled a sense of history and respect in all of us, and while she never stopped loving her Mexico she knew that our destiny was here, and accepted it. I will forever be grateful to Mamma for putting her feelings of alienation and nostalgia aside so that her descendants could become a part of this society.
There is a very special love that exists between mother and child it is one that when gone, will never again be felt.
Alejandro J. Diaz:
Alejandro J. Diaz is a writer and filmmaker originally from Chicago.