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By Los Angeles Writer Yolanda Barrera

My daughter, her husband and Benny, my 5-year-old grandson, came over for Thanksgiving dinner but it was a dinner like no others.  Both my daughter and her husband work with the public and my grandson is at a day care center.  Thus, all three of them are at high risk of Covid transmission.  My husband and I have compromised immune systems.  So, the “dinner” was a fifteen minute visit, with masks on and they were ten feet away from us.  We could not eat dinner together since we would have to remove our masks so they picked up the dinner I cooked to eat in their own home. 

To alleviate the sadness we all felt at not being able to do the typical Mexican abrazo upon greeting each other and not being able to have the physical contact we have always enjoyed, I asked Benny, “What day is today?”  He quickly answered, “It is Thanksgiving Day.”  So I asked, “And Benny, what is it that you are thankful for.”  He said, “My Mom and I are thankful for family.”  My daughter grinned and we all laughed.  Clearly, she had prepared him for the question. After a few minutes, I asked Benny again the same question to see if he would give me the same answer.  He frowned and said,  “I already told you, Nanima.  I am thankful for family, just like my Mom.”  We all laughed again.  Lest he think I was losing my memory, I asked, “Well, what else are you grateful for?”  He thought a minute and said, “I’m grateful for all the toys I’m going to get for Christmas.”  That’s my Benny!

I had a fitful sleep and the next morning I was depressed.  When will the vaccine be ready?  I started seeing the photos sent to me by my friend who, contrary to the State’s and Dr. Fauci’s advise, decided to have a Thanksgiving dinner, as usual, with friends and family, without social distancing and without masks.  “Perhaps I am being too cautious,” I thought.  My depression continued.  I knew it was just “Covid ennui” but it persisted despite my best efforts to overcome it.

I remembered that when my mother, whom we call Mami, was depressed, she would listen to music.  Many studies show that music releases neurotransmitters associated with reward, such as dopamine and thus can alter moods and relieve stress.

I began listening to a CD potpourri of traditional Tejano music of polkas including such artists as Little Joe y La Familia and Mazz.  As soon as I heard the first polka, I started dancing around the room feeling light as a feather.  My aches and pains were forgotten as I sang along with some of the songs. 

Suddenly I felt nostalgia enveloping me and in my mind I saw my father whom we always called  Papi, Jesus Marin Barrera,  and my Mami Amelia Garza Barrera, gliding around the dance floor dancing to the polka, “Atotonilco” played by all-time legendary artist Tony de la Rosa.  It is a beautiful polka and was one of my parents favorite.  I was transfixed by the image I saw.  I could see them so clearly that for a moment, I thought I was transported to a time long, long  ago.  I saw my handsome Papi who was almost six feet and always tanned from being outdoors working in the fields as a farm worker.  He was always lean and muscled due to the heavy work of carrying ladders and bags and boxes of fruit.  When he went to a dance, he always  wore a Stetson hat, his one vanity, and he would wear a Texan suit complete with his boots and wide leather belt with a “B” on the buckle.  My handsome Papi . . . I always thought he was good looking enough to have been a movie star.  In my mind, he looked like popular Mexican actor/singer the late Antonio Aguilar.

I could see my gorgeous Mami,  5’5″ and slim as always.  As she frequently told me, she never weighed more than 100 pounds except when she was pregnant.  Mami has the whitest skin I have ever seen in my life.  She never tans; she just burns.  She has light brown hair and gorgeous blue eyes which she inherited from her Garza ancestors.  When she went to the dances, she would typically wear a Texan dress, complete with multiple ruffles.  They were the best looking couple around wherever they went.

They were also the best dancers around.  They both loved music and dancing.  In fact, they  met at a dance in Mission, Texas and my Papi proposed to my Mami at a town-hall dance.  As we grew up, they never stopped dancing- going to dances every Saturday night.  Even when we moved from Texas to California, they would go to the dances at the VFW hall in Porterville.  I would go with them to the dances and I always marveled at how well they matched steps with each other and how they were able to make dancing such an incredibly beautiful experience.  They danced like the Tejanos, in a circle around the hall and with such a passion for music- polkas, corridos, huapangos, cumbias, chotiz, redobas and boleros. Their music was that of the original Tejano music geniuses like Tony de la Rosa, Ruben Vela, Gilberto Perez, Los Donneños, and of course the fabulous Los Relampagos Del Norte.

I always wished I could find a guy who was as good a dancer as my father but it never happened.  However, my Mami and I had an understanding. When the band played a huapango, the state dance of Tamaulipas, my Papi would reserve that dance for me.  My Mami would graciously allow me to have the pleasure of dancing the huapango with my Papi.  It was the highlight of my night. As soon as I would hear the beginning notes of the huapango, I would practically run to my Papi to dance this fast paced rhythmic joyous dance.  My Papi was the best dancer I have ever known.  He would lead me with strength, skill and guidance.  I was always so proud to dance with him.  I knew everyone envied me for dancing with the best dancer in the hall.

As quickly as my happy thoughts and my vision came, they were gone.  The Tejano music continued to play but I was in tears.  My Papi passed three years ago.  The gorgeous lithe and beautiful woman who was his wife, my Mami, is now 95 years old and spends her time in a wheel chair due to a leg amputation.  Now, she has her music to keep her company since the love of her life, my Papi, with whom she spent 70 years of her life with 65 of those married, is gone.

I did not even try to stop crying because I realized I was not crying out of grief; nor was it because life robbed me of my superhero, my Papi; nor because my Mami’s active life was so drastically changed.  No, I was experiencing a catharsis.  I was crying for my family who cannot get together during Covid, for my Benny’s loss of having a traditional kindergarten year, for the friends and family members I have lost to Covid, for the suffering of other family members like my Mami and brother who suffered through Covid and for so many others whom I do not know but were victims of Covid and whose families are crying now because they cannot be with them this holiday season. 

I also cried because I realized how fortunate I have been all my life.  My parents were farm workers but when work was done, music dominated our household.  When we lived in Texas, all of my Papi’s brothers played some form of instrument (accordion, guitar or drums) and at all the family parties, we had a “conjunto” (band) which played, my Tios Ramon, Juan, Rico and/or my Papi.  Even my grandmother Guadalupe could play the guitar.  The same was true on my mother’s side of the family.  In fact, my Mami’s brother, Gilberto Garza, often played and sang with high profile professional Mexican conjuntos like Los Hermanos Banda and other groups.  My Tio Rico from Porterville also played with a local professional conjunto called Los Vagos.  Music was part of our life growing up.  It was music when we were sad and music when we were happy.  

When my tears stopped, I stood leaning against the counter in my kitchen.  I felt exhausted.  Yet, my experience was not yet complete.  I could still hear the wonderful Tex-Mex music in the background but my mind drifted.  My parents grew up in Texas where the Tejanos (Mexicans born in the United States)  suffered tremendously over the years.  Although many Tejanos fought on the side of the Texans at the Alamo in 1836-38 and later fought on the side of United States against Mexico in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848 and still later they fought for the confederacy since Texas was a confederate state, they were treated as foreigners, with disdain and disrespect.  Many Tejanos, including our relatives, lost their land grants and yet they stubbornly clung to the land in which they had been born, Texas.  Although the Juan Crow (Jim Crow in South) laws in Texas targeted the Tejanos and thus began the insidious and demeaning segregation period in Texas, they still persisted.  When the Texas Ranchers killed Mexicans and Tejanos claiming they were bandidos, our ancestors refused to abandon their hard-fought lands. When the Anglo rancheros began to lynch the Tejanos for unsubstantiated and false allegations such as cattle theft, cheating at cards, standing up to the Anglos, speaking up for themselves, refusing to play music for the Anglos, and even alleged witchcraft, the Tejanos stoically persisted.

It was only when mechanization of cotton deprived my parents of their ability to provide a living that they moved to California.  But, the pride of their background and of their family struggle as well as the stubbornness and tenacity was passed on to their children- to me and my siblings. 

Papi led his family with his strength, skill and guidance just as he led Mami and me on the dance floor.  My Papi’s philosophy was, “if you don’t like it, change it.”  One day when all of us were picking olives in a field outside Porterville, Papi   noticed we were not working at full capacity.  Indeed, we were tired from lack of sleep since we had all gone to the  dance the night before and had to get up before dawn to pick olives. He said, “You don’t like this work, do you?”  All of us shook our heads.  “Well, if you don’t like it, then change it.  Go to college to get a good education so you don’t have to work like a burro like me.”  We took his words to heart.  All four of us siblings went to college and two went to graduate school. 

Even Papi took his own advice.  He did not like the unjust working conditions he suffered under as a farm worker so he became a union organizer for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ Organizing Committee.  Many years later, he became the manager of the El Futuro Credit Union in Porterville where he successfully led the credit union back to be profitable.  Before him, the credit union had precariously overextended itself and was in danger of closing.  He became a revered leader in his community.  He was on the board of multiple organizations and worked tirelessly to raise funds for the farm workers, to raise funds for scholarships and to make the community a safer, better place.  He was heavily involved in various capacities in the federal program, “War Against Poverty”.  His community efforts were recognized by the City of Porterville when he was selected to be Grand Marshal of the Cinco de Mayo parade.

I smiled as I realized my Papi’s visit with me was over.  The Tejano music sounded louder, happier, and I began to dance as I remembered my Papi danced. “Papi, you did good.  Algun dia nos veremos otra vez y bailaremos un huapango.” (Some day we will see each other and dance a huapango again.)


Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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