In my search and thirst for the past, for the faces of our history, I have forgotten the faces that brought me to the subject of immigration in the first place. I have forgotten that the story isn’t always something out there in the world, but something right here inside my own home, inside my own family.
This past Saturday my family decided to have a Catholic mass in my grandmother’s (my father’s mother) honor. In December my grandmother was in the hospital after she suffered an episode, which many of us feared was a stroke, and that our worst fear––the inevitable truth of her passing––was upon us. Watching her, my tiny grandmother, skin as delicate as tissue paper, struggling and crumpled in her hospital bed, I tried to hold back tears, as I suspect we all did, in what seemed like an attempt to keep this fragile creature from dissolving.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a stroke, and she was back in her Boyle Heights home by Christmas Eve. To celebrate, we had a mass said in her honor this past weekend in a small Catholic church, Mission San Conrado, up above Solano Avenue, in the shadow of Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium.
Yesterday, once again looking through Don Normark’s photos from the book, Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story, I came across a black and white landscape shot of Solano Avenue and the north slope of La Loma. The homes of La Loma are gone now, but the church, the site of my grandmother’s mass, stands at the foot of that hill, and it is still green, still looking untouched. After the mass, my brother Andres took his son Armando and our nephew Gabrielito up the steps behind the church, past the ceramic alter to the Virgin Mary, to explore this greenery. I wasn’t up there with them, but I’m sure the boys played pirate, adventurer, conqueror, as I’m sure the boys of La Loma did 60-70 years earlier.
Inside the church, during the homily, the priest (speaking only in Spanish) addressed my grandmother, who with the help of her youngest daughter slowly rose to her feet. He asked her, are all your children here? She nodded. And are these young people your grandchildren and great-grandchildren? She smiled and nodded.Some of the great-grandchildren attempting to sing for their great-grandmother
And señora, he asked, where are you from in Mexico? Teocaltiche (a small pueblo in Jalisco, Mexico), someone in the aisles assisted. Is anyone else here from Teocaltiche? My father raised his hand high up and let a proud grin spread wide over his face. And señora, how long have you been here? My grandmother laughed, shyly keeping her glance low in what seemed like an old school sign of respect for clergy, Cincuenta años. Fifty years, she told him.
And here I was trying to find an L.A. story, lamenting the loss of the culture and people of Chavez Ravine, not realizing that culture still lived in here. Normark’s photos illustrate a lost town, but the hills are still here, the Spanish is still here, and family is still here.
In 1949, Normark stumbled into Chavez Ravine. In 1949 my grandmother was raising three young children in a poor pueblo in Jalisco, Mexico (my father once told me how they didn’t have electricity in Teocaltiche, and that the children waited for full moons to play out in the streets at night). In 1949, the inhabitants of Ravine's La Loma, Bishop, and Palo Verde communities grew their own vegetables and milked their own goats that grazed along the green hills all around their homes. In 1949, my father scaled the hills surrounding his town with his grandmother to collect nopales (cactus) to accompany the simple meal of frijoles, chile, and tortillas that his mother was preparing back home for dinner.
And now in 2010, sixty-one years later, the houses on the hill of La Loma are gone, but my family thrives. And my small, unassuming grandmother stands in a church beaming with pride to be surrounded by her still growing family of seven children, nineteen grandchildren, and twenty great-grandchildren. And in an hour two of those great-grandchildren, Armando and Gabrielito, will be conquering the hill just outside. And somehow, there is comfort in knowing nothing is ever completely gone.