Growing up in Austin, Texas, Diez y Seis — Mexican Independence Day — always seemed to hold an official, albeit minor, status in the state capitol. This was not a holiday that we observed in my family in any formal capacity. Much like Cinco de Mayo we might find ourselves at a Mexican restaurant that night just by happenstance. After all we ate Mexican all the time! As we waited for our enchiladas I would proclaim, “Today is Deiz y Seis,” as if realizing that the Longhorns were on TV. Unlike the Fourth of July, it never warranted parades of children on decorated bicycles and riding lawnmowers. More than likely it would be a human interest story at the end of the local nightly news.
While a student, and at the encouragement of my mother, I recruited my grandmother to help me collect ghost stories from her oldest sister, Julia, the most renowned storyteller and tamale maker in my family. In addition to learning a little bit about linguistics and a lot about transcribing interviews I also heard for the first time the tale of how her family came to Texas from Torreón, Coahuila. In honor of Diez y Seis and with all due respect to the still precarious status of immigrants and refugees in the United States I am retelling it to you today.
Special thanks are due to my mom Janis, Grandma Pauline, and Aunt Julia who guided me to that kitchen in south central Austin, January 1997, where I first heard this tale. I had to exercise a little poetic license to weave that conversation into a single narrative but its really Julia’s story. Believe me, when its family holding you to account you’re going to do your best to tell the tale right!
SPOILER ALERT I hesitated to put this next paragraph ahead of the narrative, but disliked placing it at the end of the post. Go read the story first and then come back, I’ll wait… Okay… At the climax of the story the captain of the Villistas spontaneously decides to spare Julia’s father’s life announcing that Frank is his guardian angel. There’s some interesting symbolism here that might have been clearer had Julia’s ordering of the events been more linear, but then she was already quite elderly when I recorded the story. First, the soldiers had already rounded up all the men and locked then in a warehouse, although Frank was just a boy he should have been with them but somehow they missed him and he slept through it. Second, he is wrapped in a sheet because he rolled off the bed when the raiders stole the mattress. Thus, not only does he appear out of nowhere but he is literally clothed all in white, hence why he is like an angel.
NB. At the end of the story, after the family has risen from destitution to some degree of stability, Julia describes herself as being in a house where “we felt like we were okay.” Being that she and her friend have easy access to the river that is only a short horse ride away this is probably the Deep Eddy house, which is where the ghost stories begin.
The Castruita Family Flees to Texas to Escape War in Mexico
by Aunt Julia, with a little help from my Grandma and me
When I was little, you see my daddy would live in a big hacienda. I don’t know how they call it (laughs). Hacienda. And do you know it’s all big and round and all the people sleep all the way round, it’s adobe. Las casas. The houses were made of adobe. Adobe, yes. And it was a big, high wall all the way round the hacienda. Like a village. There was just one gate.
And we live there, my daddy was the el gerente. Manager. There was a water tank beside the house. There was a big windmill that pulled out the water. And a vegetable garden. On one side was the produce for the people, the vegetables and stuff. But over here on this other side, the other side of this huge water tower. It’s as high as the house on the other side, is where they had the fodder for the animals. And they plant oats and alfalfa.
See the man that brought my grandfather over here to Texas is the one that owned that big hacienda. He had a restaurant and one of the biggest hotels in Torreón. They had a warehouse where they had all the stuff that they produced from farming.
In the middle of the night. They were all asleep. And remember now they’re little houses, the hacienda is all these little adobe houses. The rooms all connect. That’s where all the help lived. The people who worked the fields. You see it go around like that and all just rooms together. My father is one that managed it all, he oversaw all the help that worked there.
They were asleep. About two in the morning. There was one guy who was the watchman. And he made the rounds. The Villistas came. They forced their way in.
It was the summer. They were sleeping outdoors.
They pointed their rifles. They put a noose around my father’s head. Everybody got up. They wanted my father to go and open all the warehouses, they were going to loot them. They looted the horses and the mules. They had the wine, the beans. Everything. Cheese.
They took all the men and put ‘em all in one room and locked it. It was an empty warehouse. They locked ‘em in there, just the men. They only left my mother and me, and then everybody else, all the families and everything, they were locked. I cry and cry. But daddy gave ‘em a lock that really didn’t lock. He knew that, but he gave it to ‘em. So they locked it.
My mother, they insisted that my mother give ‘em money and they went into the house where my mother lived. And here I am, a little girl grabbing onto my mother’s skirt. And they tear me away from her, from mama. And I’d come back and then they had a gun, a rifle pointed at my mother all the time. They came in. They took all their clothes. All the bed linens, everything. She had an old sewing machine. And her purse with the money. My mother’s purse with money was inside the sewing machine.
“Give us money!”
They never did find the money cause she had it locked, her purse was locked inside. They don’t find the money. And I was crying and screaming! And my mother would hold me. The soldier were trying to take me. He tried to kill me. With the, you know, turn of the gun. Tried to hit me. And my mother’s arm is all bruised where they hit ‘em.
So then he went and take out my daddy. And you know, Frank. He wrapped in one the sheets. They took the mattress, everything. They went out, take out my daddy. They tied him up.
Down the road from the hacienda was where the Chinese lived and they had orchards, okay. They wanted to know where the China-men lived.
So my daddy walk behind there. Tied up with the rope. He was walking behind the horses. They were going to hang my father. Frank, they went behind him. He was nine years old. He follow him. They were going to put the noose around his neck. They were going to hang my daddy.
Frank he ran and grabbed my daddy by his leg, and then the captain said, “That’s this man’s guardian angel.” And so cut down the rope. And they let him come back.
Frank slipped out. He roll in one of the sheets. And they took him (laughs). Yes, because they take the mattress and everything. But he roll to one corner they don’t see him. Cause it was dark.
And do you know, my mother make coffee right away. And they put some alcohol in their cafe. They were drunk when they left there. The soldiers. They insisted that my mother make coffee, and then they just poured this liquor in. It was 100 proof! (laughs)
They had big cans full of well, it looks like curds and whey. Ready to make cheese. The soldiers just reached in there, would eat the cheese. The cheese, what they need to do was to strain it you know. But they would just eat it. It was a big mess, where they had, you know, all stuck their hand and it was dirty.
All right, when they released my daddy and Frank they came back and because he put just a false lock on the door he opened it and released them. All the people from the hacienda, including me and mama (laughs), just night clothes. We don’t have nothing. Next day my daddy had to come to town and buy some clothes for us to use and everything. The soldiers stole them all. Yes, they took everything. They tore down the place.
They did leave after they decided not to kill my daddy. Yes, yes. They went to the Chinese and kill all the Chinese. And took whatever they want. This was very common. And they, cause that men just live on the mountains. They were guerrillas, more or less. But they’d come, it was very common for them to raid whatever little hacienda was close.
Oh yes. And then, and they told my daddy when they come back they find him there they gonna kill ‘em! So we stay about two weeks there and then my grandfather Anacleto, my daddy’s father say, “No you don’t stay here nomore. Go to Estadio Unido.” Go to U.S. Cause they gonna kill him and his whole family gonna be awful. So my daddy left, he had to go to Austin. He know somebody in Austin.
Yeah, the brother of the man, Mr. Lewis’s brother. This one named Carlos? Charley? Carlos. We stay there for six months, then my daddy went back and bring us to here. To Texas. He came here first, alone. And then he established himself, and then he went back in six months. And brought us back. My daddy went on a train. We went on a train, yeah.
Whenever these guerrillas, they took everything. Nobody go out. And no food, nothing. There wasn’t anything left so what we did was to grind corn, dry corn, and from that she made like a porridge. And that’s what we ate. Just little-bitty cups. One each.
On top of the roof of the house they put the machine guns. So nobody go out. They don’t sell nothing. The stores was close and everything. After the guerrillas would go through the government would send train loads of food. But then all the people, you know, didn’t have anything so they all mobbed the train. And they pass out wheat, flour. Each family would get just a little box which was equal to about a quart of flour, beans, rice.
Okay, see, my daddy after this raid, you know, when they cleaned out the hacienda the owner of the hacienda said, “You better go because they’re going to come back.” And in fact they told my daddy that the next time they came, if he was still there they will kill him. So he, that’s when he came to Texas.
My father’s cousin wrote him and said, “You’d better come back for the family cause, see the rations, your family is starving. You better come back.” So that’s when my daddy went back, six months later. And he brought us.
So we come. We stay in Piedras Negras. One week, because my daddy you know he didn’t have no passport. Well they detained ‘em. While the whole family had a passport, my daddy didn’t. He had only a tourist pass and it had run out. We were a week there, in Piedras Negras at the border. Doing the paperwork.
When we came over, it was Augustine. Mother. Maggie. Frank. Me (Julia). Four children and my mother. And we traveled alone, because see my daddy came the other way around. They traveled alone. I remember that picture of my mother, she was so skinny. But we had had hardship for six months. Down there.
When we first got here we lived in this big ol’, this empty store. And it was just one big, you know, hall. And behind there was this big water tower with a metal tank because it was a windmill pump. And it was so cold that year that in the morning there’d be a huge icicle on the side of the tank. We had no bedding.
In the evening, when we went to bed my mother would wash our clothes and hang the clothes to dry inside the building. There was one stove where she did the cooking. Wood stove. And we all slept around it. But because she had to wash the clothes, cause that was all the clothes we brought what was on our back.
And there was a little black woman that lived near there and she gave my mother some old rattly-tattly blankets and we wrapped ourselves in it to sleep. And the kids wake up in the middle of the night, they’d be so cold, they’d be crying. My father would wake up in the middle of the night, add wood to the stove so it would stay warm. He’d kill birds and coons and possums and squirrels. And that’s what we used to eat when we first come to Austin. And next to the house it was a big field of cabbage (laughs), steal the cabbage from the guy next door. It was so sweet to steal cabbage like that (laughs)!
For 25 cents a day the boys were hired to spinach. Turnips, big turnips. Now my father was working in the dairy already, but this man that hired him would give him breakfast which my mother cooked. She would fix for each one of the hired hands, bacon and biscuits. And my daddy would eat one egg and one slice of bacon, and give my mother the other egg and the other bacon and the biscuit and she then took that divided it among the four kids.
See for a whole year we were there with that man. Then after the end of the year this other man hired him and he gave us a house to live. And then we were no longer hungry because we have everything there. There was a lady she would give us eggs and bacon. And my mother had a vegetable garden. Peach orchard. Grapes. You know every weekend they go fishing, perch. The lady had two sons and one daughter, and they’d climb up and cut the grapes. So see we felt like we were okay because they had all this to eat. They put netting around the trees in the orchard. Plums and grapes.
The little girl was my same age and we would get on the horse and go play on the beach near the river. We go on the river and play there.
Okay. We’ll cut it there.