Here we are, my family. My mother must have been the one who took the photo. I look to be about six or seven so the year was 1953 or 1954. That is Chris on the left. She is 12 years older than me so that puts her around 17 or 18 years old. That is my sister Teresa on the right. She is 6 years older than me so that makes her around 12 or 13. My brother Carlitos was 9 years older than me so he was around 15 at that time. And there’s my father Carlos. He was in his early forties at this time.
We’re in the backyard of our house in El Centro. I wonder why Teresa and I had our arms folded. I liked to bounce around a lot so they must’ve told me to stand still and she was showing me how.
(Hey Eagles fans, check this out: there’s the Hotel California!)
My father had several jobs while we lived in the Imperial Valley. One was with the Irrigation District, another was with an industrial supply company. He was Spanish-speaking of course, and Mexicali was just a few miles away. He did a lot of business there. Mexicali is an industrial town so there were good opportunities for selling their products.
It was about this time in the photo when my father said, “Let’s go for a ride.” Going someplace was always better than not going so I jumped in his truck and off we went.
We drove south out of town and the road quickly changed from small town neighborhoods to farmlands. The rows of green things growing were perfectly straight and seemed to go on forever. I looked at the farmhouses and wondered what it would be like to live there, to be a farmer. All that farm equipment, the tractors and trucks, the plows and other machines, they all looked like fun to a six-year-old boy.
An irrigation canal ran parallel to our two-lane road. I remember thinking it would be fun to jump into one of those canals but I knew that would never happen. Even back then I heard the stories of children drowning, of how quickly the water moved even though it looked like it was standing still.
After what seemed like a long time the road took a sudden turn to the East and it lead us into the small town of Heber. It was hardly a town all back then. It was made up of a few houses, a general store and gas station, a post office and not much of anything else. Calexico was just a few miles away to the south. El Centro where we lived was a few miles North. If somebody that lived there really needed something they did not have far to go to get it.
Just outside of the farmlands of Heber we intersected with Highway 111. It was just a few miles more to reach Calexico and the border crossing into Mexicali.
We were locals and the customs officers knew my father and the rest of our family. We were always going back and forth. I never needed papers returning to the American side.
The officer would look at me and say “Where were you born?”
And I would answer truthfully, with my American English, “El Centro.” And that was enough back then. I haven’t crossed the border since my father passed away many years ago, now. I am certain now that the process is gotten more complicated.
We drove straight through, my father and I in his company pickup. I remember it to be green in color, a Chevrolet, with the name of the company painted on the doors. We drove parallel to the railroad tracks and eventually it turned into the entrance of a huge building. Railroad tracks spread throughout the property. Trucks hauling trailers filled with cotton were lined up one after another.
My father weaved our truck through the tangled mass of trucks and trailers and boxcars and he drove us into the big building.
“Stay here.” He said. “Don’t get out.”
I did just that. There was too much going on inside that building. Conveyor belts, trucks unloading, noisy machines all making noises, loud noises.
He soon came back with a man that worked there. My father nodded his head to me, which meant lift your feet and stay out of the way. The man reached in and slid out a flat piece of steel. It looked heavy but he handled it all by himself and carried it some place out of sight. My father jump back in the truck and we drove back to the border crossing.
“What is that place?” I asked.
“It’s called a cotton gin. The farmers from all around bring their cotton here and there’s a big machine that separates the cotton fibers from the seeds. The seeds are used for oil and the fibers are used for cloth, for clothes.”
Back at the border crossing the officer there looked at my dad, gave him a wave, and we drove right through. We were on our way back home. Highway 111 was a two-lane road and most people drove around 60 miles an hour. I said most because there was always somebody in front of us who like to drive at 25 miles an hour. It took a while to find a clear stretch of road but when he had an opportunity to pass that car and he took it.
Then once again our speed was dropped down to the low 20’s by another slow moving truck. After seeing this several times and I started wondering why were those people driving so slow. I had to ask and so I did.
“These people are Mexicanos. They live across the border and work here on this side. Some of these people don’t want to get pulled over by the police or the Highway Patrol. They might get in trouble for not having the correct papers. They drive real slow so that they will not get pulled over for speeding.”
It made sense at the time the way my father explained it, but even though as a kid I was thinking: if my dad knew why they drove like this, wouldn’t the police also know?