The immigration topic is hot today—so much turmoil and hatred with a lot of it targeted at Mexican and Latin Americans. Many Mexicans ventured into the Southwest, where I live, during the 1920’s and 30’s, and enriched the communities they lived in, but some of the locals didn’t receive them warmly at all. They spoke a foreign language and had unfamiliar customs that frightened those US citizens.
My historical fiction, When Will Papa Get Home?, deals with this topic during this time in southeastern Colorado where homesteaders laid their claim to a parcel of land and a dream! This story is told through the eyes of Maria about the injustice she witnessed in the treatment of her Papa.
Meet Maria’s Papa in Chapter 2 and how they acquired a quarter of a section–160 acres:
As soon as Papa arrived in the United States from Mexico, he filed a declaration of intention to become a citizen. Many of our friends that came to America before us passed on information to Papa about the importance of doing this. Papa couldn’t write, but information was passed around our small community of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. I had no idea what all this was, but I knew it was important. Papa and Mama talked a lot about it, and they worked hard to get it. In 1926 Papa and Mama gained citizenship while we were living in Branson, CO, and we all celebrated their accomplishment.
I was an American citizen by birth, which really seemed strange because I don’t speak any English, only Spanish, and in my heart I am a Mexican. How does that work?
Now that Papa and Mama were United States citizens, they were able to acquire a homestead in Colorado. Our homestead included a quarter section of land–160 acres. To get our new home, we had to live on the homestead for five years. Acquiring the homestead was a three-step process: first, Papa filed a signed application. Second, we would get the land if we improved it by building a house or something Papa called “containments” on it. I didn’t know what that meant, but Papa translated it to me to mean walls, fences, roads, paths or gates. It took a couple years before we built the house.
First, we built a lean-to to live in, and then we added a small enclosure for our horses and our small herd of cattle. Our animals took precedence over our house. Papa said the corrals were containments too–oh, the English language. The third step of homesteading was Papa filing a deed for our property. We lived there for five years, so it was ours, truly a dream come true for our little Mexican family.
When we were living in the lean-to, I made friends with a horny toad. I had never seen one before. His spiky body fascinated me. He looked like a miniature dinosaur. When he visited, he explored everything he could. Papa and I played with him and fed him, but Mama didn’t like him. We named him Paco. After that we looked for Paco every morning. At first he didn’t come by every day, but we continued feeding and playing with him, so his visits became more routine. He got comfortable enough with me to let me pick him up and hold him in my hand—he just fit in the palm of my small hand.
Our next building was an outhouse a few feet away from where Papa planned to build the house. He experimented on it and built it out of sandstone rock from the mesa and adobe mortar to seal the rocks. He liked the results. Later he used the same material to build our home. The big job for the outhouse was digging a deep hole for all the sewage to go into. Papa spent several days working on it, and he sweat a lot. It was hard work. I tried to help, but it seemed I got in the way more than helped.
I loved that outhouse with its seat to sit on. I had never mastered the art of squatting. With my long skirt, it was so hard to not pee all over the hem of my skirt and shoes. Mama loved it too; it didn’t matter to Papa one way or the other, so I think he built it for us two females.
I can’t believe the three of us built our house. It is so beautiful. Papa and Mama were used to homes made of adobe bricks, but with all the amazing sandstone rocks in the canyon around us, Papa’s experiment on the outhouse worked, so he decided to make our house out of rocks and adobe. He had admired houses in Mora, NM built out of rock and thought they were beautiful. He talked to men there about how to build one, so he was excited to be able to actually have his own rock house.
During the early spring, we carried the heavy rocks down from the rim rock across the canyon–about a half-mile south. We tied the rocks to our two horses and drug them to our house site. It was backbreaking work. Then we mixed mud from the river for the adobe mortar. I liked that part the best because it was like making mud pies, but Mama didn’t because I stayed muddy and smelly for days. Papa mixed straw and manure into this muddy mixture. “My secret ingredients to make it strong,” he chuckled!
The adobe sealed the rocks and made it snug and warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Mama complained about the smell when we were working, but I didn’t notice it. I remember when the stone wall was only as high as my knees. Then when it seemed like magic that Papa put a little square in the wall and it became a window and a big square became a door. We had one window in the kitchen and two in Papa and Mama’s bedroom.
I loved the view out the kitchen window facing north and east. I could see Mesa de Mayo and the great open plains. I could see forever.
Papa noticed that many of the residents in Mora, NM had painted the door frame and doors of their houses light blue. After he got acquainted with the people there, he asked the reason for the blue doors. Many friends told him, “For safety! It keeps out the bad spirits.”
So on one of Papa’s trips to Trinidad before we finished the house, he came back with just enough light blue paint. Papa and I painted the door and what fun we had! We ended up with as much paint on us as on the door and door frame. Mama wrinkled her nose and shook her head. She questioned him about this tradition at first but later grew to love it, especially when our neighbor’s wife, Rosa, commented on how nice it looked.
Next we mixed more adobe and plastered the inside walls to give a smooth even texture—the straw stuck out here and there, so it never was completely smooth, but it made wonderful patterns.
Finally we put on the roof. First we added the vigas, large, heavy support wooden beams we drug down from the mesa south of our homestead. The vigas span across the house, then we added ladrillas, smaller branches that crossed the vigas, then brush and dirt. Then we added the adobe mortar to tie it all together. When the roof was complete, we moved inside. That was a day of celebration because now we could sleep inside, out of the elements.
When we moved into our new house, I wondered if Paco would find us or if Mama would let him in. Early the second morning when I opened the door to go outside, Paco sat sunning himself on our front step.
I scooped him up in my skirt and took him with me to the ridge of the arroyo and he sat with me while I watched the sun rise and the scene before me come to life. Deer sauntered across the arroyo to drink. Long eared jackrabbits hopped around them, darting between bushes. A coyote skirted us, wary of getting shot. Paco just sat, observing our world.
A little later, Papa came from the corral and joined us. He burst out laughing when he saw Paco.
“Has this become a trio?” Papa whispered so he didn’t disturb our wild guests. I nodded my head with a grin. The three of us enjoyed this ritual many days.
“When will Papa be home? ¿Cuándo regresa mi Papa a mi casa?” This has been the longest day yet.
Maria’s wait for Papa ends and the tragedy unfolds. I won’t give anymore away—next week I’ll share what happened to Papa at the hands of a vigilante racist group. If you’d like to read the whole book, it’s is available at Amazon in paperback and e-book:
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