A Glimpse Of Dust Unto Shadow

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November 1, 2017 · Posted in Commentary 

[Seven years ago first-time author Linda LaRoche gained entry into her genealogy by documents she found through The Church of Latter Day Saints. She had been told her family’s roots were in Mexico. But records indicated she descended from Criollos (Spaniards living in Mexico that kept their blood lines pure). Amazed by her findings she began to ask questions. Her mother, who had been an intensely private woman had not shared her family history other than their migration from a comfortable life in Northern California to Santa Clara, a village outside of Guadalajara, Jalisco. But approaching her twilight years, her voice grew steady and louder and her memories were vivid. LaRoche, documented as if she had become a trustee, a conduit to honor the past. She heard about violence, injustice, a lack of humanity and disrespect for life that brought tears to her eyes. The resulting portrait is illustrated in Dust Unto Shadow, a sensitive collection of short stories told in her mother’s voice and written with Hispanic folklore chronicling the quest in living for love.
Copies are available at: http://www.lindalaroche.com/resume_linda_laroche.htm  ]

This is an excerpt:

We fought a lot in Santa Clara. Not just to fend off enemies but to fit in. Maybe because there was little to do or maybe it was because that’s what we had learned by watching my father take out his rage on my mother, and as kids we took it out on each other, or maybe it was because life was hard and it made people hard or maybe it was because we were cramped, and it was dirty but whatever the reason it seemed that everyone had to fight.

There were street brawls, fist-fights, bar shootings, public slaps, punches, children crying and dogs being kicked. Sometimes it was a matter of two people disagreeing, other times it would blow up into a public spectacle with people cheering on the bloody sweaty opponents, but many times it ended with a gun shot. There were constant arguments over property lines and rights, people angry and claiming that they needed their animals not to wander off, that their cow got milked to feed another family, and that only one family pay for a dividing wall, otherwise a refusal instigated revenge — these disputes lead to brawls erupting and even death.
Then there were the grudges and feuds that went on for years, generations even, a couple of brothers beating up a man who had beaten up their father, who had shot his best friend for sleeping with his wife thirty years ago.

At church on Sunday’s half the men would be bandaged, nursing a cut, or wound, or injury of some kind sustained in local combat. There were split lips, swollen cheeks, black eyes, bruised arms, and scraped knuckles.

My brothers fought with one another constantly. Other kids wanted to fight us because we had come from elsewhere, because of the way we looked, because they said we weren’t Mestizos, or because we didn’t have our father living with us. But we always fought back, sometimes as a team. I learned that being a Castro meant animosity and I too learned how to throw a rock and make a run for it.
By the end of our first summer, Tío Polonio, my mother’s eldest brother, found us a house. The house had been lived in by my mother’s cousin, Niña Vel, a quiet, shy woman in her late twenties who had been labeled a spinster. Before our arrival, her parents had died one shortly after the other and their loss had left her traumatized.

At night, Niña Vel would see spirits, who opened doors that made creaking noises and who tried to throw her from her bed. She turned to the local priest who spoke of spiritual possession and instructed her to recite the rosary and wear a crucifix at all times. But as mysteriously as the spirits would enter they also would stubbornly refuse to leave. She sought refuge in her sisters, who spread the word, she was loca. My mother said there are forces in the universe that can transform our world if only we surrender to them. Niña Vel surrendered, but her agony continued. She was crestfallen and, certain the spirits were testing her. She continued her ritual of saying the rosary every night despite being frightened. The people of Santa Clara told evil stories about her — many shunned her and called her bruja, witch. The children taunted her. Her cousins boiled yerba buena teas, brought them to her but nothing seemed to help. Her madrina, godmother, was beside herself with worry. She performed sacrifices every day in Niña Vels’ behalf. Salt was placed near the front door to repel the spirits, and a white sheet was hung from the window to attract peace. But each time the result was the same, the spirits of the dead haunted her. She then had the priest perform an exorcism. But Niña Vel continued to grow worse. Consulting with a curandera, she advised her to take leave. “Es volundad de los muertos,” It is the will of the dead, she concluded. So, Niña Vel packed her bags and left for Los Angeles. Her house made from adobe and stone would be ours, a place to call our own and we would remain in el barrio de arriba.

We moved in one day. Not that there was much to move. Tío Polonio had given us a table and chairs and Niña Vel being spooked left some things behind. I couldn’t believe we would live with such grandeur — a total of three rooms; one sleeping quarter for the boys, another for the girls, a kitchen eating area and outside, an outhouse and a chicken coop. The porch of the house was more like a long corridor and became my mother’s work area.

Afterwards, I realized I had a profound and intensified feeling — a strange yearning for something indefinable — a sense of refuge, of belonging, as a longing for home, to be whole. Being in this house reminded me we were getting further away from ever returning to the United States. The longing to go back held over me until one morning when we awoke, we found mother was gone. She had left a note telling us she had had enough of the pressure and our fighting. She had taken leave. My heart sank. I woke everyone up, took my sister by the hand and the six of us ran to Mama Leila’s house. Her second son, Tío Nemorio, who was visiting instructed his son Aurelio to get on his horse and try to fetch her.
Tía Maria blamed us for being malcriados, poorly behaved, and creating a sick environment, Mama Leila chimed in and said we were disordinados, too much to handle. It seemed we had three mothers — perhaps to make up the fact that we had no father. My sister Josefina was crying at the top of her lungs, and my brothers all pitched in with their arguments. I just stood there, looking from one distorted face to another, listening to the babble of enraged squabbling, to all the hurt and anger, to everyone unloading their accumulated grievances, each blaming the others for a family that was breaking into pieces.

As an adult, looking back I can understand her having reached a breaking point. There was no quiet time of calmness or comfort, never enough hours for the work she somehow must do.

On the surface, my mother’s story seemed gutsy, a classic example of determination; a single mother, tolling at her work, intent on building a future for herself and her children. But she didn’t see it that way, for her, it was what she had to do. She had begun to build a reputation and to make a living as a seamstress and had a following. People clamored for her work from the surrounding other two Barrancas. Her clientele, both men, and women, would travel to be fitted for custom-made clothes. Whatever it took to get the job done became her moniker and if there was going to be a wedding or a fiesta and she had an order to make the costumes, she’d labor all day and all night, stitching frilly dresses and men’s jackets, not stopping to eat or put us to bed.

When we left St. Helena, my mother had had a fairly new Singer sewing machine, black with decals that sat on a wooden desk with trestle legs, and an iron plate pedal. Because we could only carry so much on the voyage, as a piece of furniture she left it behind with cousin, Lupe. Lupe, a year later in the midst of the Great Depression also left for Mexico. Lupe also could not make the voyage with the machine and handed it over for safekeeping to our Italian neighbor, Lucia, who had taught my mother to bake those rich cakes and cookies. Lucia promised to oblige. My mother wrote to her three times. The first time she asked her to send it, promising to reimburse her, the second and third time she pleaded that it was her livelihood, that she had six children to support, and if Lucia needed the shipping costs in advance, to tell her how much. But each and every time there was no response.


Linda’s mom is in the top photo; Linda is in the picture below



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