2. A Family of Vaqueros
BY THE MIDDLE of the second year you get used to living cheek by jowl with seven brothers. And the noise, if it isn't contentious, seems as natural as wind or rain. Tonight they are singing. Every night from supper till bedtime they sing. They sing in harmonies or thirds, and Frank knows how to accompany them, moda mejicana, on his guitar. Usually the music is not gay, but in its strange wild melancholy it is effective. Of course most of their songs (except those strictly for my benefit and learned in school) are in their native tongue; since it is not my language I am less likely to be bored by the banal repetitions of the verses.
The Aros children are all talented singers. Their father is a good singer. His voice is worn by muchos años, but I have heard him, when on a parranda, sing all night long—while all the rest of us under his roof pretended to sleep—accompanying himself on the guitar when Frank gave out.
Although they fear their father and sometimes feel the weight of his hand or quirt, his children are proud of him. They imitate him in work and play. Even when he behaves his worst, they make excuses for him, or take his peccadillos with amused tolerance. Socorro said: “When my little sister died My-father got drunk and took his gun and was going to shoot God because he killed my little sister.”
They never say “Father”—always “My-Father.” His name is Pedro but he is called Prieto because he is very dark. He is a genuine vaquero. Besides being a master with ropes and spurs, he knows the habits of cattle and horses, knows hundreds of them by fleshmarks, and knows how to make them do what he expects of them, however harsh his methods. He is a typical old-time Chihuahueño, not above medium height but so thin that he appears tall. With his long, concave figure, hatchet face, drooping mustache, sagging pants-seat creased from
He likes my little dogs, particularly Cherry because she is smart and he says she is cleaner to have in the house and car than his babies. This doesn't mean that he objects to babies. At first his reserve and sternness toward his school-age children deceived me into thinking that his large family was a burden. As I came to know him I knew better. Late one afternoon I was hunting for Cherry who had returned from our walk ahead of me and I came upon Prieto and his wife seated on the ground in the corral on the sunny side of the pumphouse. The baby, his fifteenth, was bouncing on her mother's lap, waving her arms in the air. Prieto was cooing at her, and leaned down to kiss her small full lips.
In the tradition of paternal authority he has complete rule over all his offspring and apparently wants to keep them under the family roof forever. The two oldest boys are young men past twenty, yet they remain around the family board, picking up whatever temporary jobs Prieto can get for them. When Catalina, twenty-two—considered well along in years for an uneducated, unmarried girl—was preparing for matrimony he took measures to prevent it. He told her that her suitor was a rogue who wanted her only to make tortillas for him, and he forbade her to leave the house. Finally he and her stepmother promised her that if she would give up this marriage they would buy her anything she asked for and would take her to any dances and fiestas she wanted to attend. This promise they attempted to
Last spring there was a dance at Las Carpas. The Aros car was in its usual state of disrepair. Alfredo, a young bus driver from the Road Camp, took the mother and the baby and the girls. The three oldest schoolboys were to go with me. The younger children had to stay at home under Ysidra's care. She, twelve, is not old enough to be out socially, but is old enough to take responsibility for the kitchen and her young brothers and sisters.
Prieto, squatting on his heels in ambush out by the water tanks that evening, watched me get in and back the car out into the road. The boys, in clean shirts, their hair slicked down, ran to climb in, giggling and pushing for choice seats. Suddenly Prieto called an order, and they stopped in consternation.
I did not dare intercede, but I knew he had no objection to dancing. Once he had danced with me! It was at the last Halloween party, held at night in the decorated schoolroom. It doesn't take much to make a party gala in the far outlying settlements. We had worked at this one—the whole school and the district mothers—so it was especially gay. The teenage pupils were loathe to see it end. When the gente de razón and other distant neighbors and guests had gone, Socorro kept the phonograph going. She put on a rollicking piece and took my hand to step out and dance with her. We did jig steps, separately. Yielding to the rhythm I began to improvise. She picked up a big Mexican hat from a desktop and fanned my feet. The watching children yelled in delight. Suddenly I had a partner. Prieto, who had been squatting on his heels in the shadows back of the stove talking with other vaqueros, jumped out in front of me, half bent over, an intent look on his face, dancing furiously. His boots rose knee high and dashed jauntily forward and back and sideways, scarcely touching the floor. Without once looking at me, he led me, outdanced me. The gleeful kids went wild. When the music ceased he slouched back into his corner and turned to speak to his neighbors as he wiped his face with his colored handkerchief.
Much of the good singing now sounding across the partition comes from her side of the family. She has a high-pitched voice that easily carries. Víctor, her third son, has a voice like hers. It is fun to see him, at a program, stand up in front and sing a high soprano above all the others. Bill Ronstadt, our clerk of the board and mentor, particularly enjoys his singing. “Did you hear that high voice?” he asks a guest. “That was Víctor.” And he pushes the little guy up to the limelight where he puts on a knockout grin and brings down the house. Víctor has a wide mouth. For two years he has won the pie-eating contest at the Altar Valley Annual School Meet.
Prieto's wife is called Doña Lupe, but I think of her as “My-Mother.” “My-Mother says do you have a bottle? The baby threw hers on the cement and broke it.” “My-Mother says if you can send her an aspirin.” “My-Mother
“My-Mother” astonishes me. Suppose I had to feed and clothe all these children on fifty dollars a month? Could I ever be so placid, so self-contained in the confusion of so big a family, most of them self-assertive boys? At first I misjudged her. She seemed to sit all the time with a baby on her lap and let the stepdaughters do the work. I was hasty. She guards her strength and favors her own, but she is a good manager and loves life with a gusto that all around her must feel. Her children find her equal to any occasion. If an ant stings Meli she runs to My-Mother for some cuajo (saved from the stomach of the last cow killed) to ease the pain; when Chelo has a fever, My-Mother stews some dried tapiro blossoms and makes a tea that sweats out the poisons. When Frank—her first son and the apple of her eye—has a sore throat she has the teacher take him to town to the county school doctor; and when one of the girls is stricken with romance, she can handle that, too.
Not only does she spend the family check, she usually collects it. Whoever is handy and has a car in running order is commandeered to drive her to town where she trails down the patrón and “settles” with him—or draws money in advance to make her purchases. She tries to feed her family well. They raise their own beans, corn, and squash by dry-farming a level patch of ground a mile east of Poso Nuevo, and My-Mother seems to have an inside track with the rain gods. And
Manuel is chief farmer as well as houseboy and handy man. He has lived with the Aroses for years; and if he earns any money at outside jobs he turns it over to My-Mother who buys him what he needs. The school children laughingly tell me Manuel believes the earth is flat, and that someday he will find a buried treasure. At times he sees ghost lights flitting in faraway places where some money is buried.
With Manuel and a passing guest or two they are always eighteen or twenty for meals. Yet they have a limited supply of dishes and cutlery and their table seats only eight. They eat in relays—three tables for each meal. First the girls serve the father and the oldest boys and guests; then the school children; then they sit down and eat with My-Mother who has been present all the while, sitting at a little cook table feeding a baby and overseeing the kitchen and provisions. The food is served directly on the plates from the pots on the stove and each child gets only what is placed before him. I sometimes hear complaints about this. One says the reason he does not grow faster is that the girls do not give him enough to eat.
Although none of the Aros children have had to work really hard compared to the labors suffered by children of the poor in other parts of the world or in the early history of our country, My-Mother has taught domestic tasks to her girls so successfully that any of them after the age of ten can run the household while she is in town two to six weeks for a confinement. And the boys know that living means toiling.
Ramón and Pancho shoulder the biggest jobs. They milk five cows, tend the horses, work in the field before and after school in crop season, help their father with the cattle, and keep up the eternal round of wood-getting. This year Frank and Arturo have also entered the ranks of woodmen. Even Víctor and Pili sometimes go out for an armful. At special times when a fiesta or roundup is coming, they harness the big-footed horses to their rickety wagon—made from pieces of abandoned ones—and bring in a regular load of good dried mesquite limbs. Such a load lasts this populous family only a few days. Most of the time the kids go afoot to the montes (thickets) and carry fuel, a boyload at a time. Only Ramón is allowed to use the axe, and this by express permission each time. The others go out barehanded, wrench dry branches from the gnarled tough mesquite trunks and break them into stove lengths by hitting them on the ground. In good weather getting wood is something of a lark. A boy has a chance to be free of supervision so that he can loiter a while, hunt for chucata (tree gum) and enjoy life.
Pancho is resentful because they never make Frank or Arturo (My-Mother's boys) go out in the cold. Most winter mornings those two stay wrapped in their quilts until after eight o'clock. Occasionally his bitterness flares into revolt so violent it is hard to take his part. Frank admits to being lazy, but he is good-natured, never insolent. Arturo, half-brother to both Frank and Pancho, has a winning disposition. It is impossible not to love him. Pancho, fifteen, sturdy, dark, with straight black hair, is the only one of the school boys in the family with a terrible temper. Usually My-Mother's commands are obeyed. Her disciplinary methods, I understand, are old-fashioned. Frank, her favorite son, became a problem at school for a while. One afternoon I lost my head and scolded him sharply before the whole school. His sister Socorro said, with indignation, “I have told My-Mother, Mrs. Bourne, how he is behaving in school and she says she is going to whip him.”
Immediately the wrestling, giggling, and bantering begin. Pancho starts it by calling Víctor “La Victoria.” Víctor retaliates by calling Pancho “La Panchita”; and Arturo, who has just been called Artureña, giggles of “La Panchurea”; and the fight is on. It is not yet a serious altercation—merely a commotion of noise and wrestling. Boy giggling is so vexatious that at times it is a relief when they go to battling in earnest and end with bellowing shrieks I cannot pretend to ignore.
During the romp Frank has been strumming chords persistently, calling out “¡No, hombre! ¡No, Hombre!” when jostled in the fray. Now he asks, with an adolescent break in his voice: “What do you want us to sing?”
At once they are off, pleasantly singing in the dark. There is no lamp for the boys' room. Sometimes they have a candle, but usually, until warm weather, only the light of the small fire in the chimney. When the nights are hot, they sit in the dark until they feel sleepy, then take off their shoes and turn in.
With whoops—“Thank you, Mrs. Bourne! ¡Qué maestra tan buena!” out they all went and to the corral in a split second. Before I could get my hat, trot over and climb the fence, Ramón, rope in hand, had joined the men in the midst of dust and smoke, and flying hooves. As I settled on the top pole of the enclosure beside Edward, José missed a loop and Ramón leaped out and forefooted a beautiful little sorrel filly. He glanced up wondering if I had seen his neat catch. Pancho was on the colt's head as she hit the ground. Arturo was putting wood on the branding fire.
On pleasant evenings everybody gathers under the little trees out in front of the Aros quarters and the girls join in the singing. The girls never go into the boys' room which is separated from them by an unbroken adobe wall, although there is a thin nailed-up door between my room and the boys'—except on bath days. Then the bather, girl or boy, takes a turn at the washtub filled from the tap outside under my little window, locks himself in, hangs a blanket over the small north window, and splashes and sings. The waiting line is like a barber shop on Saturday afternoon.
Eloísa and Socorro, the biggest girls since Katie left, sing second; Ysidra and Chelo are sopranos, although Ysidra can sing second if she wants to. Meli, two and a half, can sing and knows words to many verses. Even Mercedes, a year old last fall, hums tunes. It's a good thing there are no monotones in the family, for singing
This musical talent made it hard for me to break into their good graces. The teacher before me was a musician, had a piano, and made life for these nightingales one grand sweet song. Bill warned me, and bought a portable phonograph. I had many records, and bought more. But what is the best phonograph in the world compared to a piano right in the room? I had two advantages: I could teach dancing, and I knew their language. And before long I discovered Frank could play a guitar. Nobody taught him, although I suppose the fellow who left one here for several weeks during the roundup showed him some chords. “Franqui” is gifted with innate knowledge of key and pitch and harmony. He was captivated by the instrument, spending all his time out of school with it. And when the fellow came to get it, My-Mother persuaded Prieto to give him a horse for the guitar. It took patience and tact to get Frank to bring the guitar into the schoolroom and accompany all of us in the Mexican songs that fascinated everyone. Then one day the man brought back the horse and took his guitar. None of us had money to buy another. School was sad. The whole place was sad.
Luckily I was able to trade a gold wedding ring no longer in use for a second-hand instrument which, according to the dealer, had made a radio performer a living for six years. Certainly the pleasure it brought to Poso Nuevo was worth both sentiment and old gold. Besides, then the Aros family accepted me as a member of the tribe.
It seems little trouble to have a large family if there are big girls to be nurses and housemaids. Catalina, Eloisa, and Ysidra, within the limits of their experience, are experts. Socorro is capable, too. They make tortillas every day, sometimes twice a day—seventy-five or ninety at a batch—the big thin ones so much more tedious to make than the little fat ones (gorditas). The necessary skill is beyond the comprehension of most gringos. It means two to three hours over a hot stove for each batch, not including the mixing and shaping. Socorro offered to teach me to make tortillas. I was fascinated by her clever manipulations when she came into
Bill takes proud, intimate interest in the Aros kids. Perhaps it is for their singing. He knows and loves music. He has a strong attachment to the native people of this sunny land and appreciates their artistic skills. Furthermore they have been Baboquívari pupils ever since he has been clerk of the school board. When I am telling him something that happened in school he is likely to interrupt with: “I like old Ramón.” Or “Arturo is a good kid.”
Bill is the perfect board member. He says, “Sister, that's swell,” and signs the vouchers. There is no squabbling in our district. Pascual is the other board member (the law requires at least two members to sign the vouchers) and he adores Bill, and looks up to him. The children used to call him “Weelie” which is absurd. He is not fat but weighs two hundred pounds and bears the dignity of great vitality and a fine handsome physique.
Another song is finished in my nightly serenade. Ramón, probably to please me, leads into Mi Viejo Amor, an oldtime song that Bill sang for us the day he brought his guitarita and we all sang together. We have practiced it often, for we want to sing it for Bill's bride, Sally, that he is bringing from the “East” (Illinois in this case).
Monday morning we were very busy at our school subjects when we heard a car at the gates. We shouted: “It's Bill!” for we were anxious to see him. We all went out to greet him and his companion, Mr. Hill. He looked happy and gay as always. I thought he was going to be serious not happy and gay as he used to be because he is now married to a nice girl but he looked just the same as always. He brought us our big new wall maps—World, U.S., Europe, and our state.—Mary Hernández.’’
There is a funny strange custom of nicknaming which we Mexicans call them sobrenombres. Nearly everybody in our school has one that he knows better than his name. Here are some: Herlinda, Linda; Dolores, Loli or Lolita; Pedro, Pili; Edward, Lalo; Teresa, Teddy; Ramón, Monchi; Consuelo, Chelo. I don't know the real reason of nicknaming but I imagine it is because nearly all Spanish names are long and hard. That makes it difficult to holler to someone. That is my opinion. We Mexicans have lots of queer customs.
Now we have received three new pupils. They are Americans. Th teacher calls them Nordics. They have easy names. Inez, Bill, Jack. Yet we Mexicans on the third day were calling the boys Hoover and Roosevelt and the girl Princess because she has beautiful yellow hair.’’
That story amused Bill when he came by my quarters one evening to check on some school business. He found me correcting quiz papers and picked up one that made him rock with laughter. It was a geography test paper. I had typed some unfinished sentences to be completed by writing in the answers: ‘‘