I never seen a picture, but I reckon from her story that she was a beautiful girl that became a wealthy widow. She married many times, the first husband was Villarreal, there was a Henderson in the middle, and the last one was Pérez, my great-grandfather.
My grandfather Justino was the Benjamin of a long list of siblings. The older ones were more surrogate parents than brothers and sisters. The records show that he was born in Cameron County, Texas, in 1897, however the family folklore says he falsified the records to enlist for World War I when he was a minor. Justino grew up in San Benito, a typical Texas town of the beginning of the twentieth century, where the railroad tracks marked the segregation boundary, on one side was San Benito, for Texans and Mexicans, and on the other, was Harlingen, for the new conquerors.
Grandpa’s family had been in Texas for over two hundred years and they were Mexican in the sense that Texas was once part of Mexico. My grandfather would refer to himself as Texan, without qualifications, to Mexican migrants as “pelones” and to the invaders as “gabachos.” Due to facts on the ground, it is necessary to clarify explicitly something that should be evident. In 1954, in the U.S. Supreme Court case Hernandez v. Texas, one of the Justices asked: “Can Mexican Americans speak English?’ and “Are they citizens?” Gus Garcia replied, “My people were in Texas a hundred years before Sam Houston, that wetback from Tennessee.” When we identify as Texans we do not pretend to be something else, we are asserting our claim to our homeland. Talk about cultural appropriation! On an occasion, I was talking with a migrant from Michoacán. I am not sure where he was born, but his parents came from Michoacán a few decades earlier, he was raised in El Paso and could not speak Spanish. I forgot what we were chatting about, but out of the blue he said, “you foreigners don´t understand how things really are here.” I felt my blood boil and told him that I personally have been in Texas longer than he had been alive and that if I could speak Spanish and he couldn´t, that didn´t make me a non-Texan. I mean, if someone asks me my nationality, I would describe myself as Mexican because I was born in Mexico, but that doesn´t mean I forfeit my identity as Texan. In fact, I hold dual citizenship. Mexican is NOT an ethnicity; it is a civil state. Yes, a cultural complex of sorts, yet with many connotations and shades, similarly to being “American.”
When I was a kid, I did not speak English at all, but my grandfather would tell me never ever mix languages, when speaking English, speak English, when speaking Spanish, speak Spanish. A favorite story was about a skinhead that wanted to signiar, “what?” He finally guessed that “signiar” was Spanglish for to sign. Another activity was to spend the afternoon listing funny Spanglish words like “washateria.”
I remember my aunts talking in Spanish to my cousins and they answering in English. I understood, I probably would behave like them in their place, yet I felt contempt for them, no longer Mexican, yet not fully “American,” but half-baked Mexican-American.
It is a fact of life that there is bad blood between northern Mexicans and “pochos,” second and third generation Mexican migrants. We would cross the Texan border often and know that a Henderson would let you pass without fuss, but a Martinez would make you wait for even hours and question you, looking for excuses to send you back. In a store, you would see them clerks talking in Spanglish, but when you approached them for help, they would resent being talk to in Spanish and claim not to speak it, which in fairness it is true. On our side, we resent being discriminated by newcomers to a land that has been our home for centuries.
Justino was a rascal and a restless wanderer. His elder brothers would try to knock some sense into him with sticks. My grandfather once told me I was born old; He was born a man, one that takes his destiny on his own hands. In his early teens, he took a horse, left the Montalvo household, and rode to Falfurrias to be with the Pérez, his father´s family. He horseback rode the whole Texas Valley looking for girls and adventure.
Hey, restless wanderer
Where you goin’ to now
That when you go, there’ll be
Hearts bleedin’ and
To feel like you’re never at home
And you make new lovers
Don’t you get lonely
On the 26th of July, 1917, in Brownsville, he enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard. He served under the 36th Arrowhead Infantry Division. The arrowheads were sent to Europe in July 1918 and conducted major operations in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. On 9–10 October, the unit participated in heavy combat near the village of St. Etienne. The division suffered 2,584 casualties, 466 killed in action and 2,118 wounded in action. The unit was inactivated in June 1919.
World War I was a bloody miserable event, but I couldn´t never tell from hearing the stories of my grandfather, full of laughter, like a mischievous boy recanting his pranks. How he got special privileges because he was the best boxer of his battalion, and he made money betting on himself; How he would leave the trenches to explore the French country side, like if he were in the Texas Valley, looking for girls and adventure. How he would be punished with cooking duty peeling potatoes; how he would compete with one of his friends as a sharpshooter to see who could kill the more Germans (his friend always won). For him, like for the men in his bloodline, being fierce and fearless was the highest value, just below kinship. I can feel this fire in myself, yet is muddled and buried deep.
The story of my grandparents, Justino and Clara, it´s Shakespearean. Justino´s family had already selected a Jewish girl for him, Clara was a minor, and my great-grandfather was half Irish, half German. So, they eloped to Mexico. Justino went to work for the Mexican Eagle Oil Company, a British oil enterprise.
In 1909, the Compañía Mexicana de Petróleo El Aguila SA (“Mexican Eagle Oil Company”) was incorporated. In December 1910, a well on the Gulf of Mexico coast between Veracruz and Tampico struck oil that flowed at a rate of 100,000 barrels per day. This single well turned the fortunes of El Aguila ‘s oil business. Within a few years, Eagle was one of Mexico’s two major oil companies. In 1911 the Mexican revolution overthrew the Díaz dictatorship that had favored Eagle Oil Company. Regardless, by June 1913 Mexican Eagle was the largest company in the Pearson group, with net assets valued at £6.8 million. Eagle was far bigger than the Anglo-Persian Oil Company or Shell Transport and Trading.
Mexican Eagle was the dominant firm in the Mexican petroleum industry until March 18, 1938, when the government of Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized it, along with all other foreign-owned oil interests, to create Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex).
Formally, Justino oversaw logistics, but his real job was to protect the crews prospecting and drilling for oil in the jungles of Veracruz. They would go so deep in the jungles, that people would get below the trucks to check if they were male or female. The mere mention of Justino’s nickname, the Texan, was enough to clear the field of trouble makers. Once, he was shot on the back, still he held his ground. He would leave the oil fields to explore the jungles of Veracruz, like if he were in the Texas Valley, looking for girls and adventure. When the British of Eagle Oil left the fields to the Mexicans of Pemex, he stayed. He spoke fluent Spanish and violence, but most important, he was a northerner which meant that his word could be trusted with life and death matters.
Justino was a rascal all his life, until a stroke cut him to the ground and left him half dead. He was loyal beyond reason, always made business on the worth of his word, without papers. When he felt ill, his partners violated his trust and his partying friends never came to visit. Why a full man would have to suffer a half death? The jokes of the Gods are heartless.
Justino had four daughters. The second one is my mother. She still resents being sent to Texas, away from her parents. Even today, a grandmother herself, she claims, she was not loved as much as the little sister that was kept in Veracruz when things were tamer in Poza Rica.
My grandfather let my grandmother raise their daughters catholic. When they were teenagers, he offered them a small gold star of David with the inscription ציון . Only my mother accepted the accessory as a kind of secret pass way, just in case, without heeding the call. She didn´t even asked for the meaning of the inscription and my grandfather never pressed the issue. My mother would wear the star when on vacation, and if some asked about it, she would answer in a way to imply she was a practicing Jew, but of course, when pressed on the matter she did not know anything about it.
My mother was the first to marry, so my father was Justino´s first son in law. My father was a lot like my grandfather, a northerner, loyal beyond reason, a good friend, and the Benjamin of a large family, tortured by his elder brothers. Justino liked him but there was a crucial difference, my grandfather was a joking rascal and his own man, my father was a straight arrow and a team player. My father ended resenting grandpa because despite being a successful professional, he failed to impress his father in law. Not that my grandfather said anything, it was just what it was. Once, grandfather came to visit us, when my father had just bought a lot in an upper-middle-class neighborhood to build our house. The lot was bigger than average and expensive, indeed and achievement. Father told grandpa that he just bought a huge lot of land. Grandpa´s eyes sparkled with excitement. Justino did not say anything, but the disappointment was evident in his face when he saw that huge was 30×20 square meters. The pain on my father’s face still holds my heart, the pain of a son that just has failed to impress his father. Why did he not tell grandfather matter of fact that he had bought an expensive lot in an upper-class neighborhood? That was impressive enough.