El Compadré, El Gordo y la Comadré

El compadre was convinced that he was going to have a son. Daniel was to be born in the winter of 1980, he was sure of it. He often pontificated in his shrilly back-country Spanish accent as he sat at the kitchen table in his white undershirt, company issued trucker cap emphasizing his speech with a Slitz aluminum beer can that he never seemed to spill. He and my mother had an ongoing bet about who would have the boy. The odds were in his favor, according to him, he had already fathered three girls and god must have a male heir in store for him. He had to, he wanted a son so bad.

Daniela was born in late November, and I, Javier Cano was born a few weeks later by C-section. My mother was forced to endure the pain of an extended labor, until the incompetent doctor figured out that my mother’s pelvis had fused in a childhood accident and allowed the C-section after hours of struggling and agonizing pain. I don’t remember my birth, but I was told that my father was worried that my ears would stay glued to my head and that my skull would remain deformed in a cone because of the amount of pressure the attempt at a natural birth had put on my cranium. My mother had won the bet, but el compadre never stopped telling the story that he was supposed to have had a son.

In many ways I became that son, groomed from birth as family, Daniela and I grew up side by side, had she been a boy it would be her writing this narrative instead of I. It seems that history repeats itself for our awkward class of people, negotiating patriarchy yet maintaining a matriarchal structure, displaced Mexican peasants not fully proletarian, settlers yes but not the imperialist kind, we’ve never owned the land. Yet here we exist, we defend ourselves and we create life in the face of death.

I always had trouble fitting in. I spoke earlier than most children my age, and was encouraged to banter con el compadre y la comadre on daily resolanas, when the entire community would gather on the porch after work, drinking beer, sharing stories, just before the men tended their home gardens and the women went inside to create magnificent feasts made on a budget and through conviviality. Daniela and I and the rest of us kids learned to listen as the sun moved lower on the horizon. About an hour before the sun touched the horizon, the men would move to the huertos familiares, like clockwork to tend the peppers, corn, beans and squash and the women would continue their conversations as they began finishing meals that took the entire day, sometimes two, to prepare the old way.

As a child I moved fluidly between both spheres of the home and garden. Sometimes when the gossip was juicy the comadres would shoo us away, and we would sit on the porch, ears burning, in silence trying to hear, until someone would call our names to the garden to examine a bug or the biggest vegetable at the time.

Daniela and I lived vicariously through each other, more and more as we grew up. She was smarter than I ever was, and always had plans about what we should do, or what she should do to me. Most of the time we would get together and she would play with my cars, and I would play with her dolls, she liked to race and I liked to have conversations. When our parents would find us, they would all have a laugh at our expense, and el compadre would insist, see! I told you I was supposed to have a boy!

A family friend would always ask me if I was going to marry Daniela, he would ask after asking me if I liked girls, and I would tell him that Daniela was like a sister. He would insist we were betrothed. But our parents never forced it. Later, not being able to date the one person who I had the most in common with, would add to my own alienation in rural southeastern Washington. As jealous boyfriends, and awkward moments made it difficult to stay as close of friends as we had been in our youth. We could never win an argument with each other, Daniela would always bring up old things, many I myself had forgotten. I had trouble fitting in. I felt protective of Daniela, and the only fights I remember getting into on my own accord were always about defending her honor. Who the hell did I think I was?

I did not fit in. I wasn’t as cool as Raymond Lee, Octavio’s Texan cousin from Brownsville. For one, I had a belly, like el compadre, who had a huge pot-belly and thin arms and legs, yet I was a bit more barrel chested, la comadre called me Gordo, her term of endearment for me. Octavio’s cousin Jonathan called me Pansas Jordan, because we all liked to play basketball, but I couldn’t see very well, so I wasn’t very good. I focused on fouling instead, and found an affinity to Dennis Rodman, who also didn’t seem to fit in but was known for being a good defender. Even in league play, my job was to foul out as quickly as possible and to hurt as many of the opposing players as possible without fouling them in the key. This strategy only worked if there were no team fouls, and because I was destined for the bench, I would rather play my heart out and foul out.

At about age 10 I became more and more isolated. Daniela was no longer a neighbor, and she spent a lot more time in her own home with her live-in grandma and aunts. Our mothers had begun to work full-time at a local packing house, and our fathers continued their 18 to 20 hour days during harvest. My younger siblings were put in daycare, yet because it was so expensive, I was left at home, by myself, all alone.

I think my young intellect, and communication skills made it seem I was older or more independent than I really was. I like to think that, but most likely it was a matter of money, my folks were poor, they worked all the time, and could barely make rent on the lot they lived and the payments on the singlewide trailer they had purchased and the cars the bought in order to drive to work. My father had taught me to drive at an early age, the same way he taught me to swim, by experience and patience.

I would drive at 10 years old, to the laundry mat behind the potato cellars. One time a family friend saw me driving and swore the wagon was driving itself, until he saw my head bobbing just above the steering wheel and that I was doing an ok job. I remember I used to like to drive the wagon through the tracks of the machinery, mud tracks the tractors left in wet soil that had hardened with the sun. It made for a bumpy ride, and a polvadera, but I remember it made me feel like I was on the Dukes of Hazard.

I dealt with not fitting in by retreating into my own mind and by developing a relationship with the land around me. Fancying myself as an explorer, I would climb mounds of potatos in the cellars, climb weather treated telephone poles in a stockyard, and peddle through the back country of the lower Snake River by myself and sometimes with several boys from the community.

Winters were the hardest on our families. Our fathers would be laid off for the winter after working 18-20 hours a day…

There are moments I am convinced that rebuilding the fabric of these early relationships with el compadre, Daniela and others is an important step in healing not only myself, but an entire enclave of Spanish-speaking Mexican peasant-workers who once held a tiny outpost thousands of miles from the U.S./Mexico border and even further from their place of origin on both sides of Lake Chapala in South Central Mexico. It has been thirty years, and the price our families have paid for settling has been that most all of our lives revolve around work instead of leisure, and though we have not reproduced a desired labor force, instead our families have produced a generation of skilled and work-a-holic managers, many of us who yearn deeply to go back to our peasant roots because of the camaraderie, cohesion, and and gratitude that autobasto brought to our lives. Our parents were proud to be campesinos, my generation did all we could to not be campesinos. 

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