I was born in Piedras Negras but soon after that happy event my father moved our family back to Ciudad Juárez. Our house there was in the suburbs, away from the downtown area. It was a big house, two stories high. It must have been an old ranch house at one time but I think the city grew around it. The four sides of our house surrounded the patio. There was a circle of tall trees around the house and their shade protected us from the sun.
There were eight of us children living there at the time, Roberto, Natalia, Elena, Alejandrina, Manuela, and Virginia. My mother and father were there of course.
Maria Octaviana was my grandma’s name. But everybody called her Mama Grande. My grandfather Hilario was called Papa Grande. They did not live with us but they were often in our house visiting, sometimes every day.
My cousin Nacho and his mother also lived with us. My mama’s sister was called Tia Francisca. Nobody told me where her husband was, even when I asked. My Mama told me not to ask any more. She said it would only make her cry.
We had a cook, everyone called her Chata. She looked like an old, old Indian woman and she never talked. We had another lady that cleaned the house and did other chores. Her name was Lucha. We had a nanny to take care of us. She made sure we all wore clean clothes. She made sure we all ate. She made us practice table manners so that we would not embarrass the grown-ups. She taught us how to read and write. She taught us how to cipher numbers as well. My mama called her Panchita, but I am not sure that was her real name.
We worked hard in the mornings making our bed and cleaning our room and ourselves. We had to folder blankets at the foot of the bed and then at night they made us on folder blankets and shake them out in case there were any scorpions or other critters hiding in there.
We studied our lessons in a special room we had upstairs. But in the afternoon Nacho and I were able to go off and play. Nacho showed me how to sneak out the back door that led to the barn where the horses and wagons were. It was fun to play there and talk to the horses. We would brush them like the workers did. We climbed up on the wagons and buggies and pretended we were going places. We had fun chasing chickens around and poking sticks at the pig.
I was three years old, maybe little older because I could remember these things. Outside on the street we heard noises of horses rushing by. We heard a long loud parade of horses pulling wagons. Then we heard the sound of many footsteps. They were soldiers marching towards the center of town.
“Let’s go out there so we can see!” Nacho pointed to the loft in the barn. That would be high enough for us to see what was happening in the street. We climbed the ladder and move to the opening and saw an endless stream of ragged soldiers marching. Some carried rifles; some were just walking, no weapons, no handguns. Some of the people walking did not even have shoes.
There were women and children also marching. I guess there were many families traveling together. I could see the excitement in Nacho’s face. He was a little older than me and I looked up to him. He was about the same age as my brother Roberto. Roberto did not like to play around like with us. We get dirty a lot, and scratched and bruised from all the mischief my cousin led me into. Roberto liked to stay inside and read books and practice the piano and guitar. He didn’t have to take a bath as often as I did. I trusted Nacho’s enthusiasm. I did not know why he was excited by all the people marching and he did not tell me.
Later that night when all of us children were in bed, I heard some more noises. It sounded like two automobiles and many horses following them. I heard a knocking on the door then I heard quiet talking. I could tell it was my father speaking. I could not hear all the words he said, but I know he was telling the people to speak softly because us children were upstairs sleeping.
I heard lots of footsteps, it sounded like we were going to have house guests stay with us for the night. After little bit of quiet noises and footsteps shuffling the house settled down to being quiet again and I drifted back to sleep.
My brother and I, and our sisters woke up ready to continue our usual routine of cleaning up, practicing good table manners, and our lessons. What we found when we went downstairs for breakfast, was our home completely taken over by soldiers. They were everywhere they set up tables and there were full of important looking papers. There were maps and charts pinned to our walls. The carpets were rolled up and taken away. I could see the dirt and mud from the men’s boots leaving trails of clods and grit all over tile floor.
I could smell food cooking out in the kitchen. It was in a separate building away from our house. Our servants were coming and going. They were bringing food and coffee to the men working at the tables.
I saw my father talking to one of the men. He seemed to be the one in charge. He seemed to be pleased with what my father told him. They shook hands and my father went away.
Conchita came and took us to the kitchen. We were not usually allowed to go in there. The dining room was full of men eating and talking. There was no room for us there. Conchita and the other servants looked worried. I thought it was because they had a lot of work to do. There was a table in the kitchen and Conchita sat us down for breakfast. She was trying to keep us to quiet. That was the first time it ever happened.
“Who were those people?” Roberto asked.
“Children that is the General!” Conchita told us. “His name is General José de la Luz Blanco. This is very serious. He is here to fight a war. He came to fight against the government and that includes your father.”
I was a small boy when Francisco Madero began his rebellion against the government of Porfirio Diaz. Madero was civilized and he was an idealist. He believed in human respect and human dignity. He believed that each man had the right own his own land that he that he worked on. He believed in freedom of the press and freedom of thought.
This idealism of Madero led to his downfall. He failed as a leader. He trusted too much those that were around him and eventually they assassinated him. Blanco was one of the generals in charge of the rebel forces. He joined Madero in starting the revolution against the government of Porfirio Diaz by attacking the federales in the city of Juárez.
My father was one of the federales, like I said before, he worked as a consul for the Mexican government he was also the postmaster for the city. The general brought all these men to fight my father. I did not understand the ways of grown-ups. Sometimes even now in my old age I still do not. I saw General Blanco shaking hands with my father. I do not know what that meant.
Everybody was ignoring us that day. Nacho and I went into the patio to play. There was now a lot of noise coming from inside our house. Messengers and officers an important looking people came in and went out. The general shouted out orders to everyone. Sometimes he spoke quietly. Then all the soldiers left the house at once. It looked like an emergency for them. Suddenly the house grew quiet.
It got boring there with all the strange people gone so Nacho and I sneaked outside. It was getting noisy out there. Automobiles and trucks and wagons full of supplies and people. There was lots of shouting. And soon we could hear gunfire.
“Let’s go see what’s happening!” Nacho ran and urged me to follow him. We picked up some rifle shells and went back inside to play games with them.
Somebody gave my nacho two cartridge belts that he wore across his chest like the real soldiers. I wanted to have one just like his. He put the spent cartridges in his belt and looked at me proudly.
“Let’s go get some more!” I remember how my eyes lit up and a smile came to my face. “Maybe we can find and the belt for you!”
Gunfire was near. Outside our house we saw soldiers on foot and on horseback running through the streets.
“Let’s go follow them!” Nacho said excitedly. It seemed like a good idea, and that’s exactly what we did.
We followed two soldiers that were on foot. They did not look like soldiers. They wore regular working clothes that the farmers wore. They wore sandals and large hats. What made them look like soldiers was the cartridge belts and the rifles that they carried. We followed these two.
“¡Quitese de aqui!” They shouted, “Get away from here!”
They kept telling us to stay back. There was noise, gunfire and shouting all around us, the sound of horse hooves plopping and sliding on the city street. Wagons and carts rushed by. Once or twice in automobile race by. Our two soldiers stopped at the corner of the building with their guns ready took aim.
They fired at the same time then ducked back behind the corner. We watched them reload their weapons and looked jealously at the spent shells that landed on the ground. I grabbed it. It burned my hand, but I did not let go. The two soldiers took a look again around the corner then ran to the next building. Other soldiers passed us by.
“¡Vamanos!” Nacho whispered and we ran from the corner to join them.
When we got there we saw that I two soldiers had gone and then we noticed that the ones that were there did not have any cartridge belts across their chests.
” Let’s get out of here.” Nacho said disappointedly. “Maybe maybe we could find take one from off a dead man.”
It seemed like a good idea to me also, of course I was only four years old at the time. So we went in another direction, back towards her house.
” Maybe we can find a dead soldier on the way home.” Nacho told me.” He’s not going to need it anymore.”
We walked towards all the noise again until we found the soldiers fighting. There were dead horses on the streets and a soldier was lying next to them. The blood that spilled from the horse and from the soldier did not look real. He had the kind of cartridge belt that I wanted. Nacho tried to take it off of him but man was too heavy. I tried to help also but it was no use.
“Let’s go and see if we can find somebody is not so fat.” That seemed like a good idea so we looked for another soldier or two that were not so heavy. You are in a you and
The sounds of gunfire and shouting seemed closer and we found somebody that we liked better. We followed him for a few blocks but he did not get killed. Then we started to get worried about getting so far away from our house. We would get punished if our family knew that we were so far away from ho and in me.
Nacho and I walked away from the noises and smells of gunsmoke, and the sight of dead horses. We sneaked back and to the patio. It was fortunate for our rear ends that no one even noticed that we were gone. And that was more fortunate than the disappointment I felt for not finding a cartridge belt.
No one told me why. That very night, I remember waking up to the sound of whispers. I got out of bed and went to see what the whispering was about. I made sure to stay in the shadows, out of the way. I was old enough to know what they were saying was serious. The grown-ups, my mom and my aunt Francisca and uncles José, Enrique, and Hilario, did not even bother to sit down. My uncles were dressed like cowboys, they wore their guns and their spurs jingled each time they took a step. I saw their rifles leaning on the wall near the door. They were saying things with quiet urgency. They were saying the words I did not understand. Oh, I knew what they were saying I just did not know what they meant.
My mama was in tears. My grandmother was patting her on the head and trying to comfort her. My father kept coming in and out of the house. He was taking sacks and crates outside to our wagon. He took some blankets and even the mattress that they slept on.
My mama noticed me standing in the shadow and she came over and gave me a hug. I could feel her chest shaking as she was holding back the tears, but she did not say a word.
“Roberto, get the children on the wagon.” I heard my father say. It was the dark of night, we had only the starlight to guide us.
“Quietly.” My father continued to say.
Amidst tears and hugs, everyone was weeping. I saw sadness in my uncles’ eyes. I also saw fear. My mama kept me in her arms. She walked him to the wagon. The horses were already hitched and ready to go. My brother Bobby was making sure everybody back there was seated. Mom took me to the seat in the front and climbed up there. My father was already waiting, the reins were in his hands. My uncles for now on horseback and in waiting to the right along with him.
Immediately he made the clicking noise and shook the reins. The two horses tested the weight of the wagon then moved forward. I know my father was trying to move us quietly, but every rock we rolled over, every rut and bump we rolled over seemed to ring out as loud as gunshots. The wagon itself creaked and moaned and snapped with each turn of the wheel. I do not know how he expected to take us very far without being noticed.
We moved through the outskirts of town, then down the quiet neighborhood streets and even through some alleys. It was still dark and I could feel the chill of the morning. There was a tall building near the river. My father took us around to the back of it. We could see a large automobile waiting in the shadows. It was big black and shiny, the kind rich people drove back then.
My father jumped down and walked slowly to the man standing by the car. He looked like the general. There was whispering going on among the men there. My father shook the general’s hand and waited for us to get down and join him. My father opened the door told us children to get aboard. Then he made sure there was room for my mama. Six men came from out of nowhere and stood on the running board of the car they had rifles and handguns and they look serious. Six men on horse back surrounded the car.
The man driving the car turned a crank in the front and the engine started up. It seemed to make less noise than the wagon with the hoof prints plopping in the hard crunching of the steel rimmed wheels. He drove us quickly now through town until we got to the bridge on the big river. The driver took us straight across the bridge without stopping. The men on horseback were right along with this.
When we got to the other side the Soldiers there saluted as we went by. We made it across to the American side. This side of the river was called El Paso, Texas. The soldiers there stood at attention as we drove to the headquarters.
My father and the driver walked into the office. They still spoke softly even though, I supposed, they did not have to anymore. I could see more handshaking going on and a look of relief on my father’s face and on my mother as well. The sun was coming up now and we could see Mexico on the other side of the river.
“It’s not our home anymore.” My father told us. We walked the rest of the way to the train depot. I recognized our horses and wagon. Workmen were already taking our things down and packing them in crates. And I saw the workers take them to a boxcar and slammed the door shut.
A huge noisy steam engine rolled up. I covered my ears felt the ground shake. The boxcar and passenger cars were now connected. We got on board the train. The steam engine was hissing and making other noises. Eventually as the new day broke the train jerked and were put into motion.
I looked out the window and saw the rugged hills of El Paso. I heard the steady clacking of the wheels and the powerful pistons of steam. Mama could not stop her crying now. My father sat proudly next to her. I could see no emotion on his face. He faced forward and did not look out the window again. I settled down between Bobby and my sisters. I tried looking out. I did not want to miss seeing anything but soon I was deep into sleep.
I found out many years later that that night could have been our last. My father worked for the Mexican government of Porfirio Dias. This put him on a hit list. There was a group of men coming over that night to our house. They were going to kill all of us. My uncles found out and with the help of General Banco, we were able to get away.