Border Town Blues
The first portion of this saga described my youth circa the 1950’s, in a California border town called El Centro. The story continues but is only the beginning of life as we knew it in this cozy agricultural oasis. At some point in the late 1950’s, a feeling of foreboding came over me and our peaceful life in this idyllic farming community was about to explode– in more ways than a hundred life times could be for myself, many of our town’s residents, and for many people across the country. Our idealism would be scattered into a million pieces like the fragile china from my grandmother’s antique cabinet. It was as if our family’s life had suddenly slipped through my still child like hands onto the stone cold linoleum kitchen floors.
On one hand my childhood in El Centro was still similar to a Disney movie filled with the fantasies of youth. The daily atonal hymn of the combines and conveyor belts in the fields allowed us to feel secure and comfortable. We were warmed by our daily routine and rested in the comfort of knowing a fresh, tasty meal awaited us every evening. The fragrance of freshly mown hay and a sweet scent of sugar beets filled the air as they were being refined into store bought sugar at the Holly Sugar plant nearby.
We were in awe of the farm workers as they toiled throughout the days of frost, spring and the blazing heat to come for the bounty enjoyed by all the other families, except their own. We reveled in our new blue bathtub and matching sinks that sparkled while the workers shared an outdoor plumbing system beside their shabby barracks. In my soul, I felt this imbalance and it saddened me, but I was not mature enough to really appreciate the consequences that were yet to unfold.
We spent our days picking dark, tantalizing berries in a neighbor’s yard after scampering over the fence to retrieve these sweet treasures. I spent many evenings lying on the front lawn, transfixed by a star-filled sky, pondering the perplexing questions of youth. Walking to school with friends I’d known for years was a pleasant and glee-filled experience while our teachers watched over us as they would their own children. Many of us excelled under their strict tutelage while other students descended into despair under the pressure of daily homework. Weekends, however, brought bright lights, excitement of football games and the synchronized marching bands regaled in blue and white. The jubilance of cheering crowds enabled us to savor each victory against our town rivals.
Holidays like Christmas brought pomp and circumstance with lighted sleds on rooftops and crowd lined streets as we rode in the parade on horseback, along with a sheriff’s posse and the town mayor. The Mexican culture was on vivid display during these parades with children in brightly colored costumes and colorful musicians that entertained the crowd with magnificent holiday songs. Our two disparate cultures blended together beautifully though briefly, during these memorable events. If I was a “good girl” as dad used to say, I may have received a brand new pair of riding boots for Christmas. In stark contrast, the migrant children often went without the gifts that were bestowed upon children of the upper strata of farm families.
But, “brother hold onto your socks” as my father used to say. All hell was breaking loose in my mind and heart along with most young people of my generation now referred to as the “Baby Boomers.”As the 1960’s were ushered in with a full-fledged bang, my family and I began to diverge in a very uncomfortable way. Although I respected and adored my family for the most part, I began to explore independent thought, as many young people do most of which horrified our parents. I voraciously read books like the two classics by George Orwell, “Animal Farm” and “1984.” In school we were assigned other classics to read such as “Catcher in the Rye” and I very slowly began to question everything I had been taught both about my cozy little world and the world at-large. Additionally, although at a young age I didn’t understand the fluent Spanish my father spoke with the migrant workers, I longed to understand what they were saying.
Thus began my curiosity and exploration into the Mexican culture and language on a deeper level. This curiosity about cultures far and wide remains with me today, but at that time it only brought me torment. I shared very little with others, even close friends because my views were considered radical. As I changed along with the world around us during this revolutionary time, my relationship with both my parents spelled nothing short of heartache. I felt very alone and spent a great deal of time sequestered in the bedroom reading with a small flashlight way past my appointed bed time.
In the turbulent 1960’s, my parent’s heroes were Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. My heroes were similar to many of those in my generation who were protesting in the streets for civil rights, the war in Vietnam and the rights of migrants to unionize. While the chants of “Make Love not War” and “We Shall Overcome” abounded, we watched in horror as we saw fellow students being shot and killed at Kent State University for exercising their right to protest. And young men our age died by the thousands in what is now considered a useless war. By the time my father took up his cause by running for the Senate seat in our district in 1964, we had all but stopped discussing the world and politics.
Many of the townspeople agreed with the older generation’s stance, except those farm workers who were trying to organize alongside the leadership skills displayed by the late Cesar Chavez. As this labor movement gained momentum in our town and across the nation, anger and violence ensued. Our family was caught up in the turmoil and I will never forget some of the statements my father made after President Kennedy was shot and killed. While a nation mourned stoically and many were drenched with the tears of winter, we could feel the frosty chill of desolation and despair. We huddled together like lost souls searching for a safe harbor in each other. But in our house, the name of President Kennedy was never uttered again and, for most people, life proceeded as usual.
As our heroes fell, one after the other, we waved goodbye to the innocence of our youth. I still ponder today how our lives could change so suddenly and dramatically as it did when I lost my father as well. I learned as I grew and matured that death of both loved ones and the ideals of our youth can change everything. Nothing remained the same as it was then. El Centro descended into entropy, neglect and the highest unemployment rate in the country. Like so many small towns all across the country, the border town of my childhood is withering like its forgotten family farms. But it will always live on in my memories as the town I knew in the 1950’s with close knit neighborhoods, star-filled skies and the sweet scent of sugar beets that permeated the air.