From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul


My grandparents, Vicente and Juana, emigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico, to the United States in the early 1900s. My grandfather worked on the railroad. When the couple became a family with three sons and three daughters, they worked as migrant farm workers throughout the southwest. They picked cotton in Texas, tomatoes in the Central Valley of California, grapes in the Napa Valley, apples in Washington and harvested sugar beets in Idaho. In the winter, the men pruned trees. In the spring, they planted the crops they would harvest in the summer and fall. They eventually settled in the Central Valley of California.

My mother’s brother, Amador, was the youngest of the six children. He was the first to graduate from high school. He had dreams of going to college and becoming an engineer. He pursued his dreams in a quiet but persistent way. In 1942, the year he graduated from high school, he was called to military duty. He was eighteen years old.

Amador smells the rich scent of ripe tomatoes on the vine. The aroma fills the hot, dry air as he makes his way down the row of small, bushy plants, each row a perfect line into the distance. The plants hide their fruit behind dusty leaves. His hand reaches in and searches. The fresh morning dew is long gone in the summer heat. He feels a tomato and gently tugs. The plant reluctantly lets go.

With tomato in hand, he looks up and sees his mother in the distance. She is making her way from their home during the tomato harvest, a cluster of tents next to the levee. A little cloud of dust rises with each step. It must be lunch time. She shifts the weight of the bucket she is carrying from her left to her right hand. He goes to help her. The duty of the favorite son. The one with promise. The one who will go to college.

He makes his way to the wide, dirt road. They meet. She hands him the bucket. The food is covered with a faded washcloth. The weight is shifted from her to him. Her responsibility complete. He can feel the moisture of her perspiration on the washcloth she has wrapped around the handle of the bucket. He looks down and sees the worn gray and pink fabric that was once red and blue. “Gracias, m’ijo,” she says as they make their way to the shade of a lone tree in the distance. At this moment he feels content, almost serene.

He wakes to the damp air. For a moment he wants to cry, but only a few tears escape in the morning darkness. The rough blanket and hard ground feel harsh. He is in the Philippines. World War II. His reality gradually comes into focus. Just another couple of weeks, and he completes his tour of duty. The longing and the loneliness in his chest sometimes feel unbearable. As the time draws nearer, the dull pain becomes sharper. The memory of the smell of tomatoes warmed by the sun and his mother’s tortillas dissipates as he crawls out of his tent into the humid morning air.

Amador completed his four-year tour of duty. He returned to a freshly painted bedroom and a new bed. The return home after the long separation seemed surreal not only for him, but also for the entire family. His boyish innocence had been replaced by a man’s demeanor. His previous energy replaced by periods of silence and solitude. He explained that he had become infected with malaria in the Philippines and had spent the previous months in a military hospital. He hadn’t sent word because he didn’t want the family to worry.

Amador’s life plan remained intact; he enrolled in college and registered for classes. His course schedule was set for the next semester. The week before he was to start classes, he went shopping for new shoes, the shoe box next to his bed a symbol of a dream about to become a reality. But tragically, Amador passed away just a few days before he was to start college. Two months after his homecoming, he died of complications related to malaria. The shoe box next to his bed transformed into a symbol of a dream never to be fulfilled.

I didn’t know my tío Amador. Fortunately, I have come to know him in the stories my mother has shared with the family. She remembers him as a kind and gentle young man with big dreams. His military photo brings him to life—a teenager with a shy smile and sparkling eyes. We visit his grave and ponder the vacuum created by his absence. The stories he might have shared. The professional accomplishments he might have achieved.

On Veteran’s Day, a little flag distinguishes his grave-site. We leave the cemetery knowing that Amador is part of a long and distinguished legacy of Mexican-American participation in the defense and protection of the rights and privileges of all U.S. citizens.

Maria Luisa Alaniz

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