Halloween in Imperial Valley

Halloween always creeps up on me and it has always been a sticky tricky day for me. When I was a little girl in Imperial Valley, I had to do what I could to make it fun. Then as an adult I tried to ignore the day as much as possible, like my ama tried.  Imposible! kids don’t let you ignore it. One of the biggest candy hoarding days of the year, parents need to recognize, verdad que si? 

Planning Halloween 

As a little girl, it was the one holiday that I rallied for as far as dressing up. Don’t get me wrong, I was not trying to be a princess or any silly girly character. But the unwritten and unspoken rule was that to trick or treat you had to be in costume. I would start working on my mom and sisters a few days ahead. I needed three things to make my day a success. Primero, I needed permission and a chaperone or partner to go out and knock on doors for candy. Luego, I needed money for the yearly carnival and finally, I needed a costume. Halloween was up to me, my ama didn’t highlight the day in any way shape or form. She kind of dreaded the day, because all the kids in the barrio knew she had her tiendita, and they expected some great candy from her store. Halloween almost always meant bankruptcy for her negocio.

The week before Halloween the kids were talking about what they were gonna dress up as, or what costumes their mom had bought them. I was always embarrassed that I wasn’t getting a cool costume so every year I said I wasn’t dressing up. Every year I said it was dumb and every year I didn’t mean it. Y cada ano I’d give into the pull of trick or treating. 

Now that I think about it, my ama  always enjoyed my silly chicanadas that I called costumes. I would jimmy rig a costume mostly out of my apas clothes and get into my sister’s makeup. Que one year a baby, another year a hobo, a fat man, a farmer. Basically the same idea always with a different name.

Photo by Daisy Anderson on Pexels.com

12 Year Old Transition

In small towns I think growing up and getting to that serious behavior that a 12 year old should have, takes a little longer. I was not serious about growing up and morphing into a teenager. I didn’t care much about being cool, I couldn’t start thinking of makeup, gracias a Dios! Wearing Makeup was taboo for us younger girls.Silly boys weren’t noticing me yet. Pero, I was real serious about getting lots of candy. 

One particular year, I had secured permission and a partner to trick or treat, my sister Patty was gonna keep an eye on me. I always had to work extra hard on begging and pleading with Patty. She hated taking care of me, she was already in that cool teenage age and walking clear across town to trick or treat was not cool!  I promised to give her a lot of candy and quien sabe what else I promised, but in the end I prevailed upon her. 


DIY Costumes

All I had left to create was my costume for my night of fun and candy.  I had the same old options so I think I decided on a combo costume of an old fat hobo man, muy original verdad? Being giddy with excitement I decided to go extra on the fat and stuffed my pants and shirt, bien exagerada, I could barely move. I was ready, with my big bag on hand, we left. The getting to the carnival part is a fuzzy memory, I’m guessing that somebody gave us a ride there because I can’t imagine Patty agreeing to all that work. Anyway, we were at the carnival for a short time since my pocket book was very light. It didn’t matter to me anyway, I was anxious to trick or treat a lot of kids already all over town, I didn’t want to miss out. 

To maximize on trick or treating candy you have to have a lot of energy and a good plan. Patty wasn’t interested in the plan I had mapped out in my head. She gave me one option. Leaving the school grounds and walking past the middle school and the elementary school, all connected, then turning left would land me on the West side. Going further, past the Circle K then turning right going several blocks further got me to the Rich side of town. Guess what Patty was pushing for? She was getting crabby and I was getting anxious, especially since I was pretty slow with my fat man costume. The padding kept creeping down my leg, almost tripping me. I kept having to re-stuff myself and hold on to my backside to keep the pillow from falling out. 

El Cucuy

But God had mercy on me and we got to several houses that gave lots of candy before she headed us toward home. I milked it as much as I could knocking on doors as we made our way home. I was whiny and grunting and she was so mad that I had tricked her into doing this, we were both pretty tired by the time we reached the railroad tracks. Suddenly our senses were very alert and we had to put off our tired feelings, and watch out for danger, of the El Cucuy kind. We were on Mainstreet, it was way too dark to take the shortcut. Huge semi trucks occasionally passed by and we so appreciated the bright lights those trucks flashed, we stayed dangerously close to the pavement, hugging it. I, the “fat man” was behind Patty and every time I heard crackling, or scraping sounds, I was sure El Cucuy was behind me, I couldn’t turn around, it would be my demise, so I quietly whined, hating my sissy lala emotions.  I’m not the hugging type, but that night I was ready to pounce on my sister for support. Talk about a Halloween nightmare on Mainstreet, hijole! Crossing the tracks and walking that long dark road just before we saw the houses of the barrio was maybe a 10 minute walk but my stuffing and the darkness made it the longest walk ever. Suddenly, I could appreciate why my ama banned us from being out at night. Halloween was one of the few exempted days and I wondered why that day was ok? We walked fast as I was trying to keep my belly intact. 

It wasn’t too late in the night, but those railroad tracks and the empty lots made it the perfect scene in a scary movie, I had imagined it all in those few minutes. Such relief flooded us when we entered  the safety of our barrio. Kids were still out and about and Patty loosened up. I took advantage and knocked on a couple more doors in my hood. All was well that Halloween. Pero que susto!

Booty

We got home exhausted. I tossed my hefty candy bag onto the table, happy with my loot. Oh how sweet home was. I plopped myself down on the chair in the dining room, I was coming undone. So as I was pulling the stuffing out of me my ama was laughing at the image I created.

Ama: Como te fue?

Me: Ama, fue el día más feliz de mi vida!

My mother let out a gleeful carcajada.. Her way of laughing started from the bottom of her belly and rolled out past her mouth. I loved to make her laugh, it was always so contagious. She had  quite a laugh out loud moment.

 Counting all my worldly experiences of all my 12 years of living, I had declared, this had been the happiest day of my entire existence. I had already forgotten the pain in the butt it had been to walk. El Cucuy didn’t come for me, the tracks and all my fears were forgotten. 

LOL


I was pretty proud of myself whenever she told the story of my “happiest day of my life”. I’m so happy to have that treasure in my vault. The contagious laughter has carried on through her grandson Jonathan, everytime he has that LOL gut roaring laughter I remember my feisty ama.

What is your favorite trick or treating memory?

Se Vende! Clinging to What’s Left Of The House I Grew Up In

The house on 511 E. Delta street is for sale. My house! (Or my apas house.)  It’s been empty for almost 2 years and looking very abandoned. When I moved my apa to our house here in San Diego, I had gotten wind of the house in Calipatria going up for sale but I was too busy taking care of him to go back and see for myself.

I thought I had disconnected from that old house when my apa remarried and the house itself was no longer mi amas house. But you know, we hang on tight to things, as if we’re gonna take them with us, into our future and or our eternity. I’ve struggled with the fact that it is no longer Don Manuels house and of course the memories came flooding in as I finally looked at the old worn house. Memories like a quilt, bits and pieces fastened together by the intricate stitches of life that is worn and faded with the passing years.

Not Your Typical Open House

I was very little when the house was built. We were living in the projects on Brown street on the East side of Calipatria when brand spanking new houses were erected on Delta street. They were different, bigger than the ones the other side of the street. Three new houses, with big backyards, well big according to my little perspective. 

My ama crossed the alley and went to see the houses. No open house event, she just walked right into the 4-bedroom, 2 bathroom house. The middle house was much larger than our project home. Imagine, one bathroom had a tub and one did not. Hijole! I could play longer in the bathtub and leave the other bathroom open for someone else. A win win situation. Meanwhile, my sis says that some of the kids played in our house like it was just an old abandoned ugly house, she didn’t like it.

Ama walked through the rooms, opening doors, looking over it all with a dislike. “No me gusta” she decided and walked home, in agreement with Marina. 

Our Large and Ever Growing Family

The small duplex we lived in the projects was pretty crowded, Apa, Ama, and 8 kids ranging from 6 to 20 years old. I shared a room with my sister Patty, I don’t know where everyone else was settled, but I didn’t feel tight at all. I imagine that my ama was squeezed for air. 

One day, my oldest brother left home to get married. It was a lone decision between the two young lovers, no elaborate wedding plans or guests to consider. They ventured to Northern Ca. to start their life together.

The new couple was not quite prepared to face life, as young lovers usually aren’t. The weight of life pressed down on them, my brothers wife; Mary was heavy with child. He figured it was best for them to be near family as she neared birthing. They settled into a house in the next town of Brawley, Ca. but when the baby was born they came back to our house. My ama was relieved to have her son home again.

The New Mother In Law

We were all in awe when the new baby came home, all kinds of feelings. My ama was just barely finished with diapers and toddlers and suddenly she was an abuela! Isn’t it amazing how God fills your reservoir as your family grows? We can love with an overwhelming love. This new baby had captured our hearts.

During the day we kids were at school and then in afternoons we were hard at play so ama was able to adjust to mother in law status. Now that I consider it, my mother with her first daughter in law reminds me of me and my daughter in law. Quiet, shy, soft spoken daughter in laws who would have to learn quickly the ways of a loud family.

La Cuarentena

Everyone settled in as well as possible and life went on as usual for all of us kids. My sister in law Mary was recovering from her delivery and under my mothers care she was going to experience the full cuarentena! 40 days to recover, to rest, to learn her baby, and learn the Zepedas!

My ama made her atoles to increase her breastmilk. A thick hot comfort drink, made  from masa flavored with canela and piloncillo. I can imagine that she was making sure Mary was eating properly, with calditos de pollo. Chicken soup was a remedy for most of the ailments we encountered. Of course it was very likely that mi ama was taking the baby every chance she got. I never practiced the cuarentena as a young mom, probably because I didn’t have my ama to watch over me and make sure I’d be still enough during those 40 days.

Ama would send us off to school and get busy taking care of Mary and the baby between housework and cooking and laundry.

(No se desesperen, I haven’t gotten distracted in my story telling, this is about how the house on Delta street became home to us.)

One day, once we were all sent off, Mary and baby were resting and ama was busy with everything, focusing on the pile of laundry. The laundry room was next to the kitchen. A small room with washer, sink and water heater. On laundry days, she would be in and out because she needed to hang the laundry out to dry. In her going in and out and leaning over the tub to do some extra washing her dress got wet. The laundry had her so busy that she didn’t pay much attention to the water heater’s struggles and noises! After checking on Mary and baby she went back to her laundry. The water heater had burst into a small fire and Ama was blocked from going through the house to get Mary and the baby. Ama used to tell us that her wet dress probably kept the flames off her! She cried out “se esta quemando la casa, llama a los bomberos” Mary had heard all commotion and went to call the fire dept. Then she turns to see her suegra walking out the back door! Imagine that sinking feeling. Mary had to remind her of the baby in the back room. Mi ama went around to the front door to get the baby out to safety. The fire spread very quickly but was contained to the front of the rooms. Thankfully nobody was hurt.

We had been delayed at school because of the news of the fire so when got home the excitement had died down, but not the curiosity. The vecinos were all around. Our home in the Projects burned along with most everything in it. Marina says the house had the strong stench of burn. It was exciting to me. This only happened in the movies and my 7 year old mind wanted to see and touch! I didn’t see anything burning, I wasn’t even near the fire. No se vale! Cheated out of a time of glorious danger and drama. So close but so far. Mary reminded me that our T.V. survived the ordeal! Partially melted but still working!

When the fire was put out, my parents didn’t know what they were going to do with us. Neighbors reached out to help and we all were distributed to different homes for the night or maybe a few nights, just until it was safe to breath in there again. I’m not sure who determined that it was safe to go back in, but my parents and older siblings did.

Three of us went with Mary, baby and my big brother Angel. Needless to point out that my sister in law didn’t get her 40 days of rest. In fact she had her newborn and 3 pesky little in laws to take care of. It was no small task because my lil brother Chicha was a travieso! There was nothing that he wouldn’t try even in their little one bedroom apartment. Having the newborn there definitely kept us fascinated. When he cried we would blow in his face and he would catch his breath. My little mind was amazed at how I was able to do that, how did I have so much power? Mary was feeling motherhood in full force! 

Me and my brothers playing in the driveway

Epilogue:

I don’t know how many days passed, but when we returned back to the barrio, we went right past the projects on Brown street and made a right turn on to Delta street. It was that house!

The community stepped in to help by donating household items, the football team bought us a brand new fridge! We were given clothing, like a mountain of donations! As we got back on our feet. my ama was so grateful I don’t remember her complaining about the house.

It is where they raised the rest of us kids until we were married or off to boot camp or school.

As the country song says, it is the house that built me.

40 years La Casa de la familia Zepeda

Easter – Dia De Las Pascuas

Spring is in the air, and with it Easter. I love Easter Time, the traditions, activities with my grandkids and most of all the sacrifice and resurrection that it represents.

Easter Memories 

I started this post thinking that I did not have too many memories from childhood connected to Easter, but I do indeed! I don’t recall a crescendo of traditions that culminated on Resurrection day and I didn’t experience the  Easter baskets, egg hunts, the Easter bunny or ham dinners. Chale, not  in my world. We experienced fish on Fridays and rosary on a weekday evening, mass on Easter Sunday and sometimes communion.

I wonder if Easter didn’t rank high in the SEO of my memory because of all the ridiculous frilly dresses and white buckled shoes? Of course, they had an accessory hat and sometimes a little white purse. My little girl self rolls her eyes at those visuals. 

Hamburgers 

En mi Rancho, my limited world recognized the season as cuaresma. Lent was always such a sacrifice. For me, it meant no meat on Fridays! Me oyes? Every Friday for six weeks we had to say no to meat. Of course at school the cafeteria would always serve hamburgers! Hijole! That was brutal, a whole bunch of Mexican Americans who rarely enjoyed a burger, had to sacrifice their rare opportunity. Every week, I resolved to not eat meat. Every week I dreaded the temptation. My cafeteria burger, calling me, the skinny patty modestly covered in buns.  

“Just eat it, all the other kids are” said the diablito on my shoulder.

“No, don’t do it. You must resist” said the angelito on the other side.

Sometimes I would give in because it seemed like all these good Catholic kids were ignoring the edict to abstain from meat. They seemed to remember the fast only after they’d bite into their hamburger. “Hay! Se me olvido!” Pausing long enough to regret their forgetfulness. Then proceeded with caution as they finished what they started. Ya ni modo. Oh well, it’s what I said a few times too, praying that my ama wouldn’t ask me anything. 

Fish on Fridays

Then, I would walk home after a hard day of basketball practice. I was hangry. Fish smell is what I’d walk into. Ugh! Thank God for arroz y frijoles. Can’t go wrong with a bean burrito. Mom would either make tortas de camaron, little shrimp patties in a red chile sauce or fish soup. I have a vague memory of pescado frito also, but what isn’t vague is the strong smell of fish that invaded the house and pounced me on Friday afternoons.

Rituals

During Lent season, we recited the rosary. Mi ama always interrupted our Carol Burnett show and called us to the room for rosary time. Marina usually responded first, always without any grumbling. Then ama would begin to summon us: PATRICIA! ROSALBA! MANUEL! Usually I responded after a couple of calls. My sister Patty, always held out til the threats began and my lil brother always had to get the manaso before he obeyed. In the room we had to kneel and be ready to respond according to the order of the beads. It never failed that my brother would do something to bring about a deeper need for penitence. He would have to kneel with a bean under each knee. We attempted to put on a solemn face as we watched him work hard at not putting his weight on those beans. Rolling our eyes in self righteous disapproval we repeated the prayers.

Easter Egg Hunt

On Easter Sunday we would go to the 10:30 mass, sometimes they’d have an Easter egg hunt, but I don’t recall ever participating. I do have this vivid image of the little girls in the barrio all frilly in their Easter dresses and me looking out from our kitchen window, almost as if I were hiding lest I picked up their sissy lala frilly germs!

Capirotada

There was not a big meal at home waiting. But, mi ama did serve Capirotada at Easter. It might be one of the traditional Easter marks of a Mexican home. The image of mom working on this very humble dessert is clear and beautiful. In my young mind it was kind of weird, but I always enjoyed it when she served it. Capirotada was what mom brought to the table as her tribute, from her own mothers traditions.

I went on a google search to see what others said about it. I asked my sister in law Sandra if she even knew what it was. I asked another sister in law; Mary, if her mom made capirotada. She knew what and how my mother made it! I was glad and mi ama would have been so happy to hear that her daughter in law cherished that memory. 

Easter Dessert

Capirotada has been compared to bread pudding, but my mothers capirotada was nothing like what I’ve seen. During my hunt for capirotada on the world wide web I did learn that it is a very old tradition with original religious significance. It is definitely a peculiar combination of ingredients; piloncillo, canela, clavo. The sugar, cinnamon and cloves are boiled together to make the syrup that covers the layers of the other ingredients. Corn tortillas, bolillos, peanuts, ciruelas, cheese. Day old toasted bread, pitted prunes and a white cheese which did not have a very strong flavor. Hijole! I’m glad that this isn’t a food blog, porque pues, me sacan a patadas! I’d be booted from my own blog.

It was a sweet and salty flavor that mingled nicely. I liked it, and I was so grateful that my sister inlaw brought me home to Delta street last weekend. When she offered me some capirotada and in my heart I hugged her and loved her more.

That was my Easter experience as a little girl. When I stepped into adulthood my multicultural lifestyle converted all those traditions. Easter Sunday is a glorious celebration, where I can lift up my voice, use those inherited vocal chords that my ama left me and sing at the top of my lungs; He has risen! Just imagine my victory as I sat in our Easter Sunday service before covid and shared in the beautiful ritual of communion with my apa.

Easter As Mom

As a young mother I was peer pressured into the Easter baskets. “Rosie did you buy or make your kids Easter baskets?” Que? In a panicked state every year since I became a mother I put together baskets and chased the community egg hunts, frazzled until just very recently.
Their tia Sandra introduced them to the egg coloring tradition and I happily sat out for that activity. Those dreaded frilly dresses were back with a vengeance. They mocked me as I shopped through the racks of pompous dresses that my little girl loved wearing. Now my three granddaughters are very regal in their princess dresses.  

Thankfully, Easter Sunday is a celebration that I am resolute about through the year. I am so very grateful for all that Jesus has done for the world and more specifically for me and my familia.
Have a wonderful beautiful Easter celebration

La Tiendita on Delta St

Our house on 511 E. Delta St. became the go to spot for Mexican candy and other goodies. Before and after school kids would knock on the door to get their supply. It wasn’t an official store, but mi ama ran it like one. She tended it and kept our tiendita running for many years. 

It all started because my 13 year old entrepreneurial self needed money.

Middle School Graduation

Middle school ended with the big show of our 8th grade graduation ceremony. Once again I was subjected to wear a dress. On graduation day our chairs had been arranged on the football field, and we were seated in alphabetical order, the Zepedas are always the last ones. Like the high school graduates, our names were going to be broadcasted on the PA system and we would walk up to get our diploma front and center for everyone to cheer. In 8th grade a person feels real grown up, since they are the oldest amongst all the kids, graduating seals the state of coolness. My big brother Arturo had decided to take me and his sister in law who also graduated out to dinner. It was a big evening for me, I had never gone out to dinner, bien muy muy at a fancy restaurant (at least I thought it was fancy). Then he was going to drive us to the graduation party and hang out. He couldn’t necessarily admit he was keeping an eye on us. As soon as I was able to get out of the big baby blue poofy dress and pull my hair back to control the hairdo, I relaxed and enjoyed my very grown up experiences. 

Rosalba Flores Zepeda

Preparing for High School

Graduation now meant that I needed to get serious about life. High School was around the corner. What were the rules there? Suddenly I was “on my own.” At the Freshmen orientation, I was going to pick my own class schedule. So if I didn’t want math I didn’t have to have it, yet. If I wanted to play volleyball, or any sport, I would have to try out, hijole! The older girls were also trying out or returning to the team. I would get assigned a locker in the gym and on campus. I needed to be ready!

I needed money like the older kids who always seemed to have it. I wasn’t old enough to get a real job and make money. In the summer en el tiempo de la uva, I couldn’t go with mi ama and sisters to pick grapes. I had to stay home to do the cooking for my dad, with no pay of course. What could I do? I planned on making the most out of my high school years, but when school started there were going to be a lot of expenses most likely beyond my amas pocket book.

Opportunity

In my little town of Calipatria, there was no park across the tracks on the East side, but there were a couple of open lots. One was huge, it became our legitimate park a few years later, and I’ll boast a little to tell you that my apa was instrumental in getting us Hernandez Park in our lil ole Eastside. The other lot was private property not yet sold on our street. Our side of Delta street had only three houses on it so it was perfect for our baseball games.

The kids in the barrio would gather for a game of baseball. A few older teens, middle schoolers and little kids came to play.  We’d divide ourselves up according to skill and age and we played hard. We took our games seriously, and developed our skill in these skirmishes. I was just an ok player, not at all like my sister Marina. She loved baseball. I knew I wouldn’t be missed if I was on the bench and here’s where I hatched my money making scheme. Why would I sit around when I could be making money?

Calipatria Hornets was our school softball team.

I took my plan to my ama because I needed an investor. I planned to sell lemonade and cookies at the game. Pero, esperate. I knew nothing about bougie homemade baked goods. En mi casa the oven was used to store the casuelas and comal! Everyone loved cookies, and nobody knew the difference in quality. In fact, we thought that if food was packaged and straight from the store it was obviously better. It was a great plan, if only mi ama would lend me money for my business venture. 

My mom always had a stash of money! Somehow bam! After her ranting about not having any money and needing some herself she would bust out with her dolares. I never accepted it when she claimed not to have any money. I knew that she didn’t have money for all the things we asked for, but she was a true business woman, era bien trucha, turning over and examining our requests. Having raised 4 children with one income in the very expensive city of San Diego, Ca. I now understand her frugality. 

Learning the Business

The lemonade and cookie stand was going to cost more than just a couple of packs of cookies. She pointed out the other things I would need, but I was excited and promised to follow through. She gave me the money so I could prepare for the big day. Although things were changing for me and I was stepping into the more serious side of life I still took advantage of all the other afternoons I could play ball. Playing ball wasn’t just for the little kids, it was a serious thing and because of the hot sunny days, I knew my lemonade was going to bring me that needed money.

I was excited on my big business day. Good old fashion baseball in the empty lot before the many fear of germs or regulators. It wasn’t a snack bar, it was just me and my lemonade and cookies. The kids playing hard in field would return after each ending for lemonade. The little kids watching ran home for money to buy my sweet goods. I sold out that first day.
My ama was impressed. When she asked me what I would do with my profits, I said that my plan was to spend it slowly, thinking that was the shrewd way to do it. I knew I needed money, but I hadn’t realized that money isn’t a one time need. She proposed that I invest my money into another market: Mexican candy, and keep on selling. I was convinced and ready to stock my store.

Saturday’s in Mexicali

Weekly grocery shopping was a big event for my ama, it was a day which she shared with all of us kids.  On Saturdays, Apa would take the family across the border to Mexicali for the day. Mom did her shopping, the boys got their haircuts, and there were all sorts of things on the to-do list.
Sometimes we would eat gusgerias, junk food, that included treats covered in chile y limon, from the carts in the streets. Coctel de camaron (I still can’t stomach shrimp), churritos with plenty of chile, and Tamarindo! A sweet and sour fruit that grows in pods. It has a large dark brown seed covered in a brown sticky pulp and that is encased in a dry easy to break light brown shell. When explained like that it does not sound tasty, but I love that tangy fruit. I always ate too much and made my tongue raw. Much of the Mexican candy I chose to sell is made from tamarindo. Perhaps my favorite treat was the mango on a stick, peppered with chile, limon y sal. My taste buds are getting excited just thinking about it. 

Some Saturdays we would get comida china. Chinese food in Mexicali is delicious but different from what I’ve had in San Diego, I really wish I could describe it and do it justice.  Other times we would stop at a hamburger stand in Calexico, and have a big, good old fashioned hamburger with french fries. It was a real treat for us, because we never ate hamburgers at home. Our wants were endless, and maybe here’s when mom would pull out her stash of cash. 

Inventory for Dulceria Rosalba

There was a certain colonia my dad drove to for the candy. It had a whole street blocked off like a swap meet. Every kind of vendor set up shop, that’s where my mom did her shopping. Vegetables, carnes, tortillas, bolillos, quesos, aguas frescas and of course, dulces. The air was mixed with all the scents of meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables and it would take a minute for our nostrils to adjust to the sour smell. With so many vendors vying for our business, all of a sudden our spanish would be all mangled around our tongue, but mi ama knew exactly how to handle them all.

Since it was my investment, she let me pick the candy after all, I new what would sell. We bought pulpas de tamarindo and powdered chamoy. We got paletas con saladitos, saladitos, those little salted plums are delicious in a sweet orange. I stocked up on rollitos and churritos. This was the start of our tiendita. I must say that it was quite a trial not to eat up my inventory!

In the barrio everyone loved Mexican candy and my business took off very quickly. It helped my sales that I was taking candy in my backpack to sell at school. You would think that with money coming in so quickly and steadily I would have kept my business up.

It got tedious and pretty soon mom was doing all the work. I was done with my tiendita and I told her I was shutting down. She tried to get me to continue, but I was too busy with my sports and besides I was getting too cool to be seen selling my paletas con saladito and pulpas

Dona Chuy’s Tiendita

My mom was not ready to give up the venture. She put out a small table in our already small dining room and set up her array of assorted candy. Her inventory was much bigger and she even branched out and sold ice cream cones. Dona Chuy was now the unofficial spot for candy for the whole barrio. When kids were short on coins, she allowed them to ‘owe’ for the next time and soon she had to have her libretita to keep track of borrowers. No interest was charged, of course, she did it only to keep kids happy and her store running.

My siblings and I had an unspoken agreement with ama. Business boomed after school and when we were home we had to get up and answer the door for a customer and attend to them. Occasionally we’d get a free candy or ice cream cone. 

This little business went on for years. When my mom passed away, dad kept it going. The kids in the neighborhood all knew dad (Don Manuel) because of the candy store. My own kids would always come prepared with change so they could buy candy from Tata when we went to visit. Of course he never charged them and of course they were only too glad to take the blessing.

After a long battle with dementia, my apa has now passed on. The little tiendita has been closed for many years, but it lives on in the memories of countless kids who grew up in our barrio. When my sister and I were arranging his burial and choosing his plot in Brawley, CA the young man who was pointing out plots to us said, “Wait? Are you talking about Don Manuel from Delta street in Calipatria? I used to go buy candy all the time at his house.”

another story for another time, where I again had to wear a dress.

Migrant Work in the Valleys

HIstory in the Making

As I’ve written this account of my work experience, just a teenager needing to contribute to the family economy, I realize now that I was living through a time that made history. Wow! I wish now that I would have paid more attention. Migrant workers all over the State were standing up for their rights, linking arms with Caesar Chavez! Meanwhile this teenie bopper was worried about how ugly our work clothes were!

Migrant Workers

One fourth of the economy in the Imperial Valley depends on its agriculture. It is a hub for trabajadores del fil, my dad worked in the out in the fields most of his life, yet I don’t consider him a migrant worker because he planted himself in the Imperial Valley and gave his youth and strength in that land. Honestly, not until I started looking back into my life did I wonder about the category the Zepedas fit into. Were we immigrants? Permanent residents? Americans? Just last night my son Emery said “When you talk about your experiences, I’ve imagined you like that.” A migrant family.  According to the definition, a migrant worker migrates. My parents uprooted from Jalisco to Baja California, then one more and final time to the Imperial Valley in California. 

Sometimes migrant workers wait for harvest season or work from one crop to another. My apa prepared the soil where the crops would live, using the big carapillas. My grandsons will be excited to know this fact about their Tata. My apa was also a regador, irrigating the crops and in due season when the harvest was ready the piscadores were there. Thankfully some of the picks of Imperial Valleys bounty always made it on our table. Someone always gave us lechuga, melon, cebolla y sandia

Money from the Sugar Beet

Then, there were the train cars filled with sugar beets, which contribute significantly to the Valleys economy. They passed slowly along the tracks near our neighborhood, the Eastside. Many times they crawled by at such a pace that when we walked home from school we would jump onto the cable that connected the cars (I just discovered that those are called a coupling) to cross the tracks and get home. The sugar beet train was making its way to the sugar plant in Brawley, CA. Man! Those beets sure did smell when they were getting processed into sugar, but they provided work for plenty of families.

Beef

Another money making smell in the Valley is cattle. Driving along the freeway, we’ll get whiffs of the alfalfa, the earthy smells of growing produce. But, get down into the towns, pass through Brawley and the outskirts of Calipat and you’ll be hit with the pungent smell of the feedlots. The hot desert sun burning into the herd of cows and the dry air stirring the air, filling it with cow dung aromas. Ugh! We hated that smell, it burned into our nostrils, then my dad got hired in one of these feedlots. It became a smell that I learned to tolerate. Dad even got us an office cleaning job there. Every Saturday we had to go to that feedlot where the air was thick with cow manure smell. My sisters and I had to clean off layers of dust that gathered everywhere in that office. Once we would start cleaning the air mingled with the foamy window cleaner, then it was a mixture of dust, dung and cleanser, and that mixture seared our noses. I was just a helper, I didn’t get a paycheck for this work, it was my family contribution.    

Teenagers and Work

Calipatria is a small town, there wasn’t too much work for a teenager to find. The 2 grocery stores were set, jobs for teenage stockers were filled already. Circle K couldn’t hire minors and the gas station was owned by the Rivas family. A large family that needed no extra help, so the choices left were the fields at harvest time.

The GrapeVines

I started working the summer of my 14th year. Like, get a paycheck job. I had nagged my ama into letting me work with her and my older sisters. My first summer as a migrant worker in Coachella Valley picking grapes. A memorable experience that I was confident I could handle despite my mothers concerns and warnings.

Our day began just before 4am. For my ama it began at 2am. She would prepare our lunch. Listen, I’m not talking about the individual little lunchbox with a sandwich, chips and a pastelito. I’m talking about serious food that went into a huge Mexican shopping bag. She would prepare and cook the meat and while that simmered she made tortillas for burritos, more than one for each of us, there were 3 of us kids and herself. She filled two thermos, one with coffee and the other one with avena. (Wow! As I’m writing this account I’m realizing that my mother, a grandmother by this point, was out there working piscando uvas! She was tougher than my silly teenage mind realized)

The Outfit Matters

Getting dressed for the day was tricky because it was nice and cool in the wee hours of the morning, but it was summer time, 100 degrees on cool days! We had to be sure not to over dress, but also make sure our skin was covered, especially our face. We didn’t know anything about sunscreen, our protection was long sleeves, a handkerchief for our head and one for our face. 

By the time the work truck pulled up she had us somewhat awake, we were dressed and had our first dose of avena. I think every Mexican momma religiously believes that oatmeal in a porridge style gives extraordinary power to the body. Doña Elena, the owner and driver of the camper truck didn’t let us waste time. She was a tough militant looking lady whose mannerisms commanded our quick response. Andale! Andale!  We quickly hopped into the back camper. It was lined with wooden benches all around, a nice tight fit. She went up Delta street and picked up other workers. There were probably 12 of us in the back and 3 in the cab. We had to be on route 111 at least by 4:30am since it was an hour and ½ drive. The road dipped up and down, moving the avena around our pansas. Eventually we were lulled to sleep. No exagero, some of us teens would fall asleep and our bodies were like pendulums swinging back and forth, stopping only when we banged against another body. Just imagine the adults catching a teen on the left and another on the right, and sometimes pushing one up and back against the wall to keep him/her from falling forward. We rode on like this right into the grape field.

Unloading was another spectacle. Teen after teen jumping off that truck, followed by the  slower moving adults. It seemed endless. Families grouped together while the loner joined a family. Each group had its piscadores and one empacador. We were paid per box, besides our minimum wage, most likely a result of the huelgas of Caesar Chavez. You know, I have a vague recollection of having to stop work and join a peaceful protest that was taking place on the grape farmers property. What mattered to me was that we got off early in a typical teenage attitude!

Ok, back to work. Our time was limited because of the heat and our speed was critical. More cajas de uvas meant more money. My mom did not mess around, she was a little in size but fast and focused. She would walk right under those grapevines without ducking and bust out pails full of grape clusters 3 or 4 at a time, which one of us kids would have to carry out of the row and bring the packer. I’m not sure how I got to be the designated packer, but I then had to arrange the clusters of grapes nicely in the crate.  The counter came by to approve my box and add it to our count. A sweet memory is seeing my ama come out from under those vines looking like a racoon, covered in dust from the vines, looking furious if she saw us working slower than her. I’ll say it again, my ama was tough!  I don’t remember how many boxes we completed in the 3 hours before the 15 minute break. I can visualize the rows of maybe 6 stacked 4 boxes high. My sister Marina thinks it could have been more!  

 At break time, the sun had reached us, the 9 oclock break didn’t come quick enough. We didn’t actually have time to rest, just enough time to devour the tacos, drink lots of water, and run to the porta potty. By the end of our day the heat would just about consume us. Hot dirty work that is not for the faint hearted. At noon we were packing up and climbing into the truck for home. 

Now the ride home took an evil twist. The stench of our sweaty dusty bodies with no air conditioning back there to relieve us.  With so much cold water in us, the up and down movement turned our stomachs. Argh! The sweaty armpit smell that most likely came from us teens choked us and we audibly gagged.  The adults remained the same as in the morning, straight as a board, eyes wide open, watching out for us. 

Working out there in the vineyards was hard, but somehow our youthful hearts manage  to laugh and tease one another and flirt with boys. While I wasn’t paying too much attention my heart and mind recorded the necessary scenes so that I could eventually appreciate my hardworking momma and be amazed that she could get our hormone crazy teenage selves  to obey her and work hard too.

Maria de Jesus Flores Zepeda

Culture, Diversity and Coming of Age

Imperial Valley

Today I’m all about the melting pot, total give away with a name like Rosalba Greene right? But when I was growing up, in the California desert valley I didn’t know anything about it. In my small community, we had very little diversity. 

I come from the Imperial Valley, way down at the bottom of California, right at the edge of Mexico. If you cross the line you’re in Baja. Lots of Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans to pick from in El Valle Imperial. Small towns scattered throughout the region made social interactions comfortable. 

It’s what I was used to, surrounded by mi gente mostly, speaking our rapid sounding Spanish dialect.  Of course with the small elite group of whites; los Patrones who controlled the economy mostly through agriculture; we mostly spoke Spanglish, the official unofficial language.

California State Route 111 or as we called it, “El Ciento Once“, was the main route that led to the important cities. and it went right through The City of Calipatria, where the tallest flagpole in America stands. It has a reputation of being  bien chiquita, the warning was don’t blink or you’ll miss it! A “city” with a small population of almost 8,000.

The sembradores, piscadores, regadores and patrones drove the economy with agriculture and farming. How such a dry desert place produces such wealth in vegetable crops is incredible, although it didn’t really matter much to me then, I now realize it was our bread and butter. My Apa supported our family working as a regador, one English translation is irrigation technician. I guess it can be quite technical, once my dad was explaining how it was that he irrigated a field, or maybe it was how not to irrigate a field? Too little water will dry a crop, too much will drown the crop. Just the right measurement is needed, but when he used technical measurements he lost me.

Social and Economic divides

We sectioned off the city, not literally but within and gravitated to our comfort culture. It was like this, the East side across the tracks, where we lived. The West Side, where the town square rested, a good mile away from the tracks. Then there was the rich side where the whites lived. People of the same ethnic group with similar experiences, grouping together so naturally. This description is from almost 40 years ago, quizas ya cambio, maybe Valley folks are all mingled and mixed now.

Social life consisted of after school sports and the Friday night high school football game. Our special occasions included the perpetual quinceañeras on Saturday nights. I can only imagine what the rich white kids experienced. Horses, 4H club and other expensive hobbies. I really don’t know the kind of socializing that took place over there, my husband the Cold Blooded Englishman tells me he played tennis and went sailing (bien muy muy).

We all, Mexicans, Americans and Mexican-Americans crossed cultures and economic status on the 4th of July. We agreed that our fireworks displays were the best. Homecoming games were times of rallying together and getting that CIF championship! You know what’s crazy? All of a sudden, We were all cozy around each other, we all were one team, the Calipatria Hornets! I can hear the cheerleaders chanting “We are the Hornets, mighty mighty Hornets!” Then we all drifted back to our comfort cultures. 

Trophy Memories

It’s been nice remembering my days in Calipatria. Days when I shined as a volleyball player and walked the high school grounds with such confidence. I considered myself (though perhaps nobody else did) a good point guard in basketball, of course that was on the J.V. team as a junior! (the oldest player on the team). The sports banquets were always a bit awkward, but I loved that spotlight, especially when I won a trophy. Then, as my Senior year came to an end, and I was having to consider my future, I definitely never imagined that I would be anywhere else in the world.

Culture shock

I came to San Diego because I was accepted into UCSD, Third College. Pero como fue possible?! (My Puerto Rican friends would say, “Que fue?”) I was just as shocked! Submitting an application had been a last minute idea suggested by my volley coach; Miss George. I didn’t expect my immediate future to change so quickly, so completely through one application. I figured I would go to IVC– our community college and ease into adult life. When the letter arrived in the mail announcing this opportunity, it was time to tell my parents about it. 

Before I could settle down and enjoy my last summer as a kid, I found myself in San Diego, on campus with masses of students from all over the world! Summer Bridge was the program that helps students transition from kid school to hardball school, by the end of 4 weeks I should have crossed the bridge with experience and confidence. 

There I was, with my non-English speaking ama and my apa, refusing to speak his heavily accented English. We were completely disoriented on orientation day. That whole afternoon was a blur. I can now imagine what my poor mother must have felt as she said goodbye, leaving me all alone to face adulthood, with all those different people.

College Life

 One of the ice breakers we Mexican Americans use is Spanglish. Somehow it eases things up when talking to a new acquaintance to bust out your Spanglish, that is, if they speak Spanish. You can imagine what a relief it was for me to see other fellow Mexicans walking about the campus during orientation. As soon as I got close enough to one girl, I said “Estoy bien lost! Man! Ni se lo que estoy haciendo?!” She turned to look at me and said, “What?” She had no idea what I had said. I was on my own. Later, I found out that this girl was Mexican-American! Where did she leave her Spanglish? 

I was shell shocked that first year of college. I shared an apartment with 3 other girls, and wow! Talk about diversity. My bedroom would become my sanctuary when I wasn’t in classes. Allison, my roommate was this super confident black American girl, who was enjoying her independence. I don’t think I ever learned much about her except that she was always spending the night with her boyfriend, was that even legal? The other two girls were my housemates. Hilary, was from Northern California. A rich white girl, always chillin’ on a high with her boyfriend. It got to the point that literally they would do days just hitting that bong, barely going to classes, yet somehow passing exams with A’s! I was awkward with them, now it wasn’t only the white and brown difference, it was their relaxation methods that weirded me out. Don’t get me wrong, Hilary was nice, but what she offered, I did not want.

Julia, my other housemate was also from Northern California. She was a hippie type, very natural, didn’t like perfumes, or make up or deodorant. She was the most approachable even spoke Spanish, but because I wasn’t in that comfort cultural zone I avoided her too. Little did I know that one day I would be related to someone a lot like her; my brother in-law Jeremy.

Life was hard and school was just too much to cope with to even realize that I had no social life. In lil’ ole Calipat high, I was accepted. Nobody was unaccepting me, if anything, all the other Freshmen were just like me, adjusting. In high school I was cool, I was fun and crazy, but college life and the big city was way out of my league. I did manage to acquire a friend,  a legit Mexican-American. Her Spanish was better than mine and she was studious. Two awkward Mexicans in a multicultural sea of students. Margarita was smart and focused on why she was there, while I was wondering why I was there in the first place! Fatigue, depression and loneliness washed over me.

I survived that first year, but just barely. My grades were mediocre, It wasn’t until the end of the school year that I realized that all the free time I had between classes and labs was meant for studying, not The Guiding Light soap opera!. 

Staying in San Diego

I was glad when it was over, I was done with the whole experience, midterms and finals for sure! My brain was was exhausted. I was ready for my break. I needed to catch up with my sis Patty, and my valley friends before facing the reality of adulting. But, once again, an application determined my future. I had applied and was hired for a job at the Science and Engineering Library on campus, starting immediately. In this setting I would really face the diversity of cultures and generations. (I didn’t even know that students could be old!) I had to face it, accept and maybe embrace it. We would see, but first I would catch a quick weekend at home

More Change

One short summer weekend, that turned my life upside down and inside out again! My mother fretted and she looked at my sister Patty. Otra vez! She was getting blamed. My other siblings wondered what the heck I was doing. I was a different girl, hold on, same lil Mexican-American chick, but I re-entered San Diego a whole new person from the inside. Some would say “I got religion” Maybe I did. This is what I know, I discovered true friendship. 

Jesus Culture

Wow! A friend who transcended culture, age, gender, mindsets, habits. No pretending, no holding back, he loved me, just the way I was! Immediately I trusted him. No fear of backstabbing, or rejection. No worries that he’d be embarrassed of me, or that I was bothering him. He actually sought to be my friend, he wasn’t too busy. He was that friend that totally influenced every part of me and my life. Now with this new influencer in my life I was challenged to look outside my comfortable culture and accept and offer friendship outside of it. While I was open to it, it was a bit awkward. I was glad that in fact He encouraged me to mix and mingle my Mexican-American culture with his Jesus culture, and beyond! He spoke Spanglish.

I can’t wait to tell about the incredible diversity I’ve enjoyed in my relationships, starting with my marriage. Friends that I would have never chosen or been afraid to approach were arranged into my life beautifully.