My abuelito was a bracero–part of one of the original groups of Mexican workers that came to America from 1942 to 1964. I don’t know the exact year he was in America but I know the town was Riverside. My abuelito, when he talked about it to his sons, called it “Ree-ber-see-deh” and remembered harvesting oranges. The entire town was just orange groves and orange groves, he said.
Much later I went to UC Riverside, alone and afraid of being the only person in my family to go to college, and tried to take some comfort in the thought that I was not the first person in my family to live in this orange-ridden place.
There’s a lot that I will never be able to understand about my abuelito, who was so different from me that I might as well be listening to a history book when my father talks about him. There are scenes in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! which depict a human being entirely composed of pride, machismo, and self-righteousness that I imagine as an approximation of what my abuelito must have been at the height of his power.
Because it was power he had. Land and strawberry fields and plenty of sons. In a small farm town, in Mexico, in the 1960’s–this was power.
There’s not much about this kind of life I can connect to. My abuelito threatened to kill men and men threatened to kill him for perceived insults. He rode horses and had guns and knew how to command respect. I’m almost another species; I fall asleep scrolling through Instagram, wondering if I should be more politically correct, questioning my use of hashtags.
I have two things that make me his granddaughter: my nose and my bike.
The Zavala nose is kind of a curse. If you know me and you’ve seen my face, there’s really no way you can miss it. It’s big and crooked–there’s a very well-defined bump in there. My grandfather has this nose as well as a few of my uncles. My dad has the nose but pretends he doesn’t. One time he looked at me and asked, “Where could you have gotten a nose like that?”
My aunt (an uncle’s wife) once said when she was very pregnant that she hoped her baby girl wouldn’t inherit the Zavala nose. She said it looked awful on girls. I was standing behind her.
But I like my nose because–well first off, because it fits my face and it’s weird and I like that. But I also like it because it’s this very definitive link to my grandfather and my father. So when I am scrolling through tumblr, laughing at a joke about Starbucks and Ralph Waldo Emerson and I get that big disconnect between me and any of my ancestors, I can just kind of think about my nose and how it’s there and it makes the connection for me.
The second thing is my bike, which I bought online on a whim as a Valentine’s Day present to myself. When I first started riding it, I realized I had no business owning a bike. I had no idea how to ride or turn or just generally stay atop it.
But I kept going, mostly out of cheapness (how could I let $150 go to waste??) and it paid off. I can ride the bike now, with ease. My abuelito had a bike most of his life; people don’t really have cars in that part of Mexico, unless they’re fairly rich. A bike is more reliable than a horse. So well into his nineties, my abuelito rode his bike into town and flirted with the local saleswomen. He had a girlfriend who was a youthful seventy year old.
I imagine that for him, the bike meant freedom. Few people that are ninety-two year old can just leave and visit people whenever they like. But he was strong and athletic and so he had autonomy.
This is something else we share–the brief freedom of bicycle riding.
I guess there’s not really much else. There doesn’t have to be. The small comforts are enough.