Born in the Shadow of Mount Rushmore
My Papá wasn’t much for telling stories. He liked facts and information. If you asked him about the Mexican Revolution or about the freezing point of water, he’d go on all day, sounding grown-up and important, like the men who read the news on television. Mami was the storyteller in our family—as long as the subject was people. I thought she must know everybody in the world—who their family was, where they came from, and what they did all day.
Still, my father had one story that I always loved to hear. “Papá, tell me about the hospital!” I’d beg him. Sometimes it took a few tries, but he’d finally look up from his book.
“The hospital,” he’d repeat, his voice thoughtful. “I drove by it every day, but I’d never gone inside. It was not far from Ellsworth Air Force Base, where we lived when I was stationed in South Dakota, less than an hour from Mount Rushmore.”
He would always start by telling me about his time in the army. Papá was proud of his army service, so part of the story was about how he’d entered the army after the Korean War as a lieutenant in the Air Defense Artillery.
“Your brother, Mario, was already two years old,” Papá would continue, finally getting to the important part of the story. “Once we knew the new baby was about to be born, I brought Mami to the hospital. We all went inside, even Mario.
“The nurse told me Mami would need some time and I should come back later. So I went home to the base where we lived and left Mario with a neighbor. When I got back to the hospital, they said it would be a while before I could see your mother.”
In those days, fathers stayed in a waiting room while their babies were being born, and new babies were usually brought to the nursery, not kept with their mothers. It was a long time before a nurse came out to tell Papá that Mami was fine, but she was asleep. The nurse said Papá could see his baby.
When he got to the nursery, Papá looked through a big window and saw rows of metal cribs with clear plastic sides, each crib just big enough for one tiny infant. Some of the babies had blond hair, and some had brown hair or no hair at all. Nearly all of them had fair skin. Only one baby had very dark hair.
“That was me!” I’d say. “I wasn’t even one day old.” I knew Papá had had no trouble picking me out in the nursery because I looked like him, even though he was a grown man in an army uniform and I was a little baby wrapped in a white blanket. He knew right away I was his. And I was sure that I knew right away that he was my Papá.
Papá would nod at that point in the story, and sometimes he’d even smile. I’d wait for him to say something else, but usually his nose would go right back into his book.
I was always excited to hear this story, but over the years, I came to understand more about what living in South Dakota had been like for Mami. Papá’s family was from Mexico, but he had grown up in Texas. He had gotten all of his schooling, including college, in the United States, and he spoke English well. After graduation, he was fulfilling his army ROTC commitment as an officer stationed in South Dakota, and he went off to work every day at the missile battalion protecting Ellsworth Air Force Base.
But Mami had grown up in Parral, Mexico, in the state of Chihuahua, and didn’t understand a word of English. The neighbors gave her baby clothes and thick winter coats for the brutal South Dakota winters, but they didn’t speak Spanish. Papá was often away overnight, and she was alone with two small children.
I remember Mami singing a song about Marranito, a little pig, while counting our fingers and toes. Mario and I loved having her undivided attention, and she loved playing with us and making us laugh. But Mami had no adults to talk with except Papá.
Even the landscape was not what Mami was used to: tree-covered hills and rolling plains instead of a desert sprinkled with cacti and spiky plants. The summers were very hot, with black flies everywhere, and the winters were freezing cold. Only the stars were the same as she remembered from home.
Mami never liked to complain, but she must have been lonely. She was overjoyed when Papá’s tour of duty was up after two years and he was discharged from the army. Now we were free to move to a new home.
Mami and Papá packed up their beige 1955 Ford and drove one thousand miles south to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where we moved in with Tía Alma, Papá’s older sister, and her family, the Barbas: Uncle Sam Barba and my cousins Debbie, Cathy, and Sammy. I don’t know why we used the Spanish “tía” for Tía Alma but the Anglo “uncle” for Uncle Sam. That’s just the way it was. My father’s mother, Abuelita Juanita, lived with the Barbas too. When we moved in, Mario was four years old and I was just two.
From the first day, I remember the babble of voices, the adults speaking Spanish, a swirl of words and song and argument and stories and laughter, with my mother somehow always at the center. My cousins spoke a mix of English and Spanish, but Mario and I spoke only Spanish at that time.
I remember eating breakfast in the family room, sitting at the table with Mario and my cousins, each of us with our small glass of juice and bowl of cereal. Mario and I slept in this room too, because all of the bedrooms were full.
The house was crowded, but I didn’t mind, because there was always someone to play with. Every day after breakfast, we’d tumble outside and chase one another through the yard and the back alley, discovering the world. I remember running to catch up with Mario and my older cousins, running for the sheer joy of speed and the wind on my face.
For my father, who grew up with one much older sister, the noise of five small children was a trial. He loved us, but he would often spend his afternoons at the library instead of playing with us or helping my mother around the house.
Once he found work, rather than wearing his army uniform, Papá dressed like the other men in our new neighborhood, donning dress slacks and a button-down shirt and tie for his job at New Mexico State University, where he was a chemist in the physical science laboratories. My aunt, uncle, and grandmother went to work too. My aunt was a schoolteacher, and my uncle worked at White Sands Missile Range. My grandmother had a job at a clothing store. My mother was left to keep house and look after all the children. It was a lot of responsibility for her.
Mami had grown up poor, with thirteen brothers and sisters. Her school days ended after the sixth grade, but she’d wanted more education. She took a typing class and made her way north to the border city of Juárez, Mexico, when she was sixte...