From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

The Power of Our Family History

My roots have provided me with a peculiar sensitivity and wide lenses through which I can contemplate the entire world and its different hues. I’m very proud of this.

Claudia Yelín

Notebook in hand, my nine-year-old son Michael plopped down on the sofa in our living room where I had been paging through a writer’s magazine and said, “What did Grandpa Leal’s father do for a living?”

I was startled by his question. He had never shown the slightest interest in his ancestors. When I asked him why he wanted to know, he explained that his fourth-grade teacher had given the class an assignment to research their family histories. I felt an excitement stir within me. There was almost nothing I loved more than talking about my family’s roots since I had recently researched and written genealogies about both sides of my family. But I also knew that my son had a typical nine-year-old’s attention span, and that he would drift off in boredom if I started a lengthy discourse about his ancestors.

My son is of Irish, Hungarian and Mexican descent—a “melting pot” American. I knew little about his father’s Irish-Hungarian side, but enough about his Mexican side to keep him writing for days. This, I realized, was the perfect time to tell Michael the story about his Mexican roots.

He asked again. “What did Grandpa Leal’s father do for a living?”

I put my magazine on the coffee table and leaned back into the cushion of the sofa. “That would be my grandfather, your great-grandfather, Agapito. He was a field laborer, and later, he became a groundskeeper at a high school. He loved to work outdoors. His flower garden at home was gorgeous. Whenever I smell jasmine, I think of his garden.”

Michael looked up at me, his brown eyes wide and round. “What do you mean by a field laborer?”

“He picked cotton, vegetables, fruit—you know, whatever was in season.”

“Like out in the fields?”

“Yes, like out in the fields!” I smiled, amused at his incredulity. “In fact, your grandma’s father also was a field worker for a while.” I suddenly realized that the lives of his great-grandparents were as alien to Michael as if they had been born on another planet.

“Where were these fields?”

“Your grandfather’s dad worked in the valley, near the Texas-Mexico border. There are a lot of citrus orchards down there, also commercial vegetable fields, with acres of beets, carrots and tomatoes. Every kind of vegetable you can imagine.”

“What about Grandma’s dad?” He stopped writing and looked up expectantly.

“He worked for a little while as a picker, but then he went into business as a labor contractor. He took field workers with him all over Texas and Mississippi to pick cotton.”

Michael bunched up his eyebrows. “By hand?”

I nodded.

“Anyway, back to your grandfather’s father, my abuelo— that’s the Spanish word for grandfather—moved to Texas in 1912 because of the Mexican Revolution. He was seventeen at the time. He got a job helping to clear the land in the town where he lived. After his field work, he got a job at a packing shed, washing, gathering and then packing thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables into crates for shipping. After he retired from that job, he worked for many years as a high-school groundskeeper.

“His wife, my abuela, was a strong woman. She was the same age as Grandpa and was born in a little ranch in south Texas, though her parents were from Mexico. Grandma and Grandpa Leal were married in the early 1920s. They lived in Weslaco, north of the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks, in a pink, three-room house on the Mexican side of town.”

“On the Mexican side of town?” Michael interrupted.

“Yes, in those days, Mexicans lived on one side of the railroad tracks, and the Anglos lived on the other side.”

“That’s weird.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“If I lived then, where would I have lived?” He put his notebook on his lap, his eyes intense.

“You mean being part Mexican?” I crossed my arms.


“I’m not sure, but since your dad is Anglo, probably on the Anglo side of town.”

He nodded, then picked up his notebook.

“Anyway, neither of your great-grandparents could read or write, but they were responsible and wise. They were married for more than fifty years. My grandmother died seven years after their fiftieth anniversary, and then Grandpa died just a few months later. Before he died, abuelo often roamed around the house calling for her.”

“That’s creepy.”

I smiled. “He missed her. They were married a long time.”

He frowned.

“Anyway, even though my grandparents were not educated, they were honest, God-fearing people who expected their children to better themselves and to be good American citizens.”

Michael looked down at what he had written. “I didn’t know I had relatives who were field workers and one who was a janitor.”

“Does it bother you?”

“No . . . I mean, I just never thought about it, about what it must have been like to have to work in the fields.”

“People still do that kind of work today, and many of them are Mexicans who travel all over the country. It’s hard work. During the time your great-grandparents were alive, they had few choices but to work in the fields. But they didn’t complain about it. They knew that one day their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have a better way of life.”

Michael pursed his lips. “Wow, this is really something. My great-grandparents worked in the fields.” He slapped his notebook shut. “I’m done. I’ll type it up later.” He jumped off the sofa, walked over and plopped down on the recliner, then turned on the television with the remote control.

I felt strangely deflated. Had anything I said meant anything to him? As I reached over to pick up my magazine, Michael turned to me.

“Mom, the janitor at our school is Mexican. I’ve never talked to him before. I think I’ll say hi to him tomorrow.”

That day, because of a fourth-grade project, Michael learned about his immigrant forefathers, and I learned about the power of our family history. The story of our ancestors can have a positive effect on how we view others— the men and women working in fields, in restaurants, in hotels, in the multitude of menial labor jobs our society gives to new, uneducated immigrants—no longer faceless individuals, but people who want to achieve the American dream. People like our own ancestors. People like us.

Cynthia Leal Massey

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