This is what we saw as our wagon train got near the town. This was our first glimpse of the Imperial Valley. It was once the bottom of an ancient lake. It was also at one time a part of the sea of Cortez. It was also a good place for farming. The valley land was flat and powdery, full of silt. It was so powdery that it reminded me of that nice smelling powder my mama put on her face.
We rolled our wagons to the center of town. My father was to meet a man there so he could start on his new job. He asked a man on the street for directions and quickly walked out of sight.
The street downtown seemed very wide. It was not yet paved, and it stank of horse and mule droppings. The downtown area was not that big. It was made up of two buildings. There were other structures there, but they looked half built. They had wooden frames, wooden floors, and canvas walls and roofs like a tent. Other buildings there had screens all around instead of walls.
I could see that my mama was unhappy, she was trying to hold back her tears. My sister Natalia was not trying to hold back her tears. She looked at everything in complete horror and sobbed continually.
“I want to go home!” She kept repeating.
“¡Hay Dios!” Both my mother and sister shouted. Robert tried to be the grown-up and did not complain. He held the reins to the wagon, waiting for our father’s return. My other two sisters were just like me. We were in the back of the wagon staring at everything in awestruck wonder. Nothing was that bad as long as my mommy and daddy were around.
The other wagons went on their way. Some of our fellow travelers stopped and said goodbye to my mama and waved to us kids. We all stayed in the wagon, everything was strangely new here and we were not ready to explore.
In a little while we saw a man cautiously walk up to us. He wore a Stetson hat with a huge grin. It looked real Western, and it seemed twice as big as other western hats I have seen. The man had cowboy boots. They were dusty and worn-out and had laces that went all the way up the front of his boots. His spurs made jingling sounds as he came closer to our wagon. He wore a gun belt that holstered a huge revolver. His skin was dark, burned by his time out here under the sun.
He approached my mother’s side of the wagon and removed his hat. He held on to the brim and let the hat dangle in front of them. I noticed that the skin that was protected underneath the cover of his hat was white.
“Pardon me ma’am, my name is Jack. They told me you speak English.”
“Yes.” She spoke softly, not sure what to think. She was not accustomed to speaking with strange men.
“Yo hablo español, pero no muy bien. I come from Waco back there in Texas.” He gave an embarrassed smile and nodded to the east. “That means I talk funny in two languages. The office sent me here to show you to your new home. If’in you allow me, I can lead your wagon over there.”
My mama gave a shy nod. Jack plopped his big Stetson back on his head, adjusted it with both his hands, then climbed aboard our wagon.
“You see ma’am?” He pointed to his left. “It’s just right over there.”
One block over we saw a row of tents. They were far apart I guess to give people privacy. There were no fences or any other kind of markers to show the property lines. I saw the place first. There was nothing there but a floor raised off the ground. There was a big great thing rolled up on the floor. On the other side of that platform was a ditch that flowed into a large chocolate brown pool of water.
With the help of Jack and a few other neighbors our house looked exactly like this one that you see above. The town looked abandoned when we first showed up but suddenly several men and their families came by and helped Jack set up the tent. It had a wooden frame, a real door and lots of screen to let the air flow through.
In a short time the ladies had a table set up. One of the older looking women started a fire right on the dirt. She had set a large round piece of iron on some stones over the coals. She was sitting cross-legged and was forming tortillas in her hands by patting the masa back and forth. She placed it on the piece of iron, the ladies called it a comal. She flipped it over another time and by the time it was done she had patted down another tortilla. I stood there watching her. Since I was never allowed to be in the kitchen, I was fascinated by people cooking.
The lady noticed me looking at her and started to laugh a gentle laugh and started talking to me. It was a sweet voice but I did not understand a word she said. I stood there listening to her. I was hoping to recognize one of her words while I watched her make tortillas. The stack quickly grew high as she talked and patted the masa.
“La señora es Maya y no haba español, mijo.” One of the other ladies told me. “She comes from the hills down south. Her husband works on the canals. They speak their own language. Her name is Doña Tula.”
The table was full of good things to eat. I think it was good things to eat. It was all new to me what they had brought to share. Mama made sure we had something to eat, then with the nod of her head told us to go away from the grown-ups. Roberto and I and my sisters sat down on the blanket in the shade of the wagon. It felt like our first real meal in the long time.
The grown-ups there, including Jack and some other men sat at the table and joined the meal. Eventually their talk grew quiet, they almost whispered. I saw that worried look on my mother’s face. It was the same look she had as we crossed the bridge back in El Paso. Her
I could not hear what they were saying so I finished my meal and started chasing Alejandrina around. I still miss her when my memory of her comes back. Her English name was Alice. This picture was taken in 1912.
Over our tent the men built another larger frame. It was big enough to cover the whole tent and more. More neighbors started coming over with branches and leaves. Jack had a tall ladder and with his funny way of speaking Spanish, he was able to get the neighbors help in covering the top of the structure with these branches. The plant they used was called cachanilla. A lot of our neighbors also covered their house tents with the branches and leaves this way to help insulate them from the heat. I guess it helped keep things dry when it rained.
These houses had no insulation, just a very thin piece of cloth separated us from the outside. The canvas walls did not stop any of the freezing winds that blew through in the winter, yet somehow we survived. I do not understand how.
That reminds me, speaking of rain there’s a place on the east side of the Imperial Valley that hasn’t had one drop of rain in over a hundred years.