From Under the Sun, Vol, XI No. 1 Summer 2006
One day you wake up and remember. You recall stories, incidents and curious pieces of data that pile up in your brain. Things that may very well have happened very differently because they took place fifteen, thirty years ago. Things that haven’t crossed your mind for so long and suddenly they seem like they happened today. You get surprised, why are you, all of a sudden, remembering that story? Why now? Is this a message from beyond? Is this a clue about your life, your death?
In the dawning of a cold Saturday, I woke up with the memory of my mother’s sad face. She looked as if she were going to cry. Here face resembles most icons of the Virgin Mary in Mexican churches. It is a face of someone suffering deep inside. It’s the face my mother had for years after my father died. It’s a face that my mother could pull out when she needed it. One of those occasions was the day when she finally agreed to buy me a bike. We went to a small store in downtown San Luis a colonial, very conservative city. The store belonged to a young widow, younger than my mother, who by then was also a widow. When I saw a big, shiny, black bicycle I fell in love with it and said to my mother "that one." Once Mrs. Manzanares told us the price, the real Mrs. Zapata took over. My mother’s sad face came alive, it was sad, but it glowed. I guess she was sad because she was going to spend money on a bicycle. But she was sort of happy because she was anticipating a hefty discount. She was like a lion watching a tender and juicy calf.
My mother was a woman of humble origins. Her father was a modest worker who was killed by lightning. A couple of years later her mother died leaving her two youngest daughters by themselves. My mother and her sister lived with Aunt Felicia, an older, married, sister for a while but it didn’t work. Aunt Felicia had marital problems and made the lives of the younger siblings hell, so they decided to live by themselves. There were other sisters but they also were married and struggling to survive themselves. My mother was seventeen and her sister fifteen. They rented a small room and got jobs. My mother worked as a clerk in a print shop. My father was one the sons of the owner.
The thirties were tough times in Mexico but they were also times of opportunities. Mexico was stabilizing after a revolution and a religious war. Businesses were growing and the government was creating all kinds of social programs. There were good opportunities for entrepreneurs and my father didn’t miss them. As a middle class businessman, my grandfather was counting on his children to work in his print shop. They would work for low pay but one day they would inherit the shop and have a good middle class life. That was good enough for two of my uncles and an aunt, but not for my father.
The print shop used a lot of paper. Some of that paper was thrown to the trash and my father and his brothers would make small notebooks to play with. One day, my father took some of them to school and sold them to other classmates. He told his brothers to do the same but they thought it was a hassle for just a few cents. But the entrepreneur mind of my father saw opportunities, and he began to sell his small notebooks in front of his father’s shop. He created different styles of notebooks and added pencils and other small items that were easy to move. In a few weeks the meager profits were not so meager. He realized that it was very easy for him to survive and prosper and do whatever he wanted to do without having to share control of his business with anybody else. So he didn't work too much in the shop, instead he increased his business selling pens, erasers and other merchandise. An office clerk who was in charge of buying pencils for his office offered my dad a trade; two boxes of pencils for a watch. My father agreed and he was very proud of his watch when someone offered him six pesos for the watch. He sold it for nine, a profit of six hundred percent over the cost of the pencil boxes. That was the beginning of an indisputable businessman.
He was a natural merchant and he could sell jewelry that a jeweler couldn't. With time he also sold paint and hardware and other materials that he found too cheap to let pass by. Maybe the initial success taught him to be bold. Or maybe it was in his genes but he was born a businessman. When he died, he was trading land, houses, apartments, cars, jewelry, paintings, ranches, farms, horses, chemicals, furniture and even fruit crops. He also was a partner in a hotel, a car shop, an entertainment park, everything but a print shop. When his dad died he didn’t claim his share of the family business. He didn’t want to take money away from his brothers and sister, he didn’t have to. He was wealthy.
My father married my mother when he was just beginning his entrepreneurial career. They had a modest start but thanks to my father’s hard work and financier intuition, he constantly improved the economic situation of his family. My mother wasn't prepared to handle her new condition. She was a penny saver and very soon she found herself surrounded by all kinds of luxuries. She didn’t have to bargain for fruit in the market but her training dictated that she had to save a few cents here and there. My father used to make fun of her and he wouldn’t accept the money that my mother was saving. She opted for helping her sisters instead.
Mrs. Manzanares was the opposite side of the coin. She had been a rich girl who married a not-so-rich guy for love. Her family refused to recognize her marriage and severed all links with her. Nevertheless, her husband was a hard working man and little by little was building his bike shop when he died from a badly treated infection. "As you know I'm a widow myself and I have to provide for six children, at least you don't have any," said my mother. But Mrs. Manzanares wasn't going to fall for such an argument. San Luis was a small city where everybody knew everybody. And everybody knew that even though my father had died, our family was one of the richest families in the region. So Mrs. Manzanares counterattacked, "I know but at least your husband had many businesses. Mario only had this bike shop and it doesn't produce much money, you know, the rent is high, paying the mechanic, taxes and giving bribes to inspectors even when I don't have any irregularities." Mario died from a simple foot infection. He just didn't want to spend money and time visiting a doctor. When he realized that he was going to spend more time fighting the infection than working he went to the hospital. It was several weeks too late.
During the money saving excursions with my mother I was extremely bored. I was not prepared to spend hours hearing my mother fighting for a few pesos here and there. I wasn't a spoiled rich kid; I was a confused kid. I didn't know if we were rich or poor. We lived in a big house with six bedrooms, four bathrooms, a library, two living rooms, a studio and an annexed maid quarters. The yard was big and my father built his office in a corner. There was a full time gardener and two full time live in maids. The house was very spacious and was full of beautiful furniture. The pantry was big and it was always full of beans, sugar, wines and all kind of goodies. My father liked bargains and he knew that good prices were available when buying by quantity. Therefore he bought sugar by 100 pounds bags, nuts by boxes, beans by bags and so forth. After my father died, my mother continued buying in the same style for several years. Of course that was more than enough to convince anybody in San Luis about wealth. But in my case, hearing my mother quibbling for a five cents discount on the lettuce with a poor merchant woman on the street was puzzling.
"But I have seven children to take care of, and look Nacho, he is only twelve years old. You know how expensive is to pay for college and he and his brothers eat a lot at their age." My mother wanted to score big. Mrs. Manzanares didn't have children and she couldn't claim that burden. However she could argue that my brothers and I were in the most expensive school in San Luis. And even though we were seven offspring my older sister had married and was living with her husband. And, if Mrs. Manzanares had known, she could have argued that I was twelve years old and not ten as my mother was claiming. But she wasn't very good at knowing a child's age. She was younger than my mother was and, according to my Aunt Anita, she was hoping for a second marriage. She was pretty, a little overweight but just the right amount to make her very attractive to older men. Her greatest asset though was that she was supposed to be easy prey. In those times a young widow made many men salivate. It would have been bad for an inexperienced woman but for an intelligent woman lascivious hunters were opportunities. She thought she could catch one of them, and it did happen several years latter.
My father died when I was ten years old but it took me about twenty years more to realize how much I needed him. Of course, at that time I cried and felt lost for a couple of months. But my family and family friends pampered me a lot. I was the youngest in my family so my mother, my sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles provided me with lots of distractions and support. That made me feel better because I didn’t have that before. They gave me the attention that my father couldn’t provide.
My father was a busy man he would leave home very early in the morning and return late. On top of that he wasn't the type of man who knew how to talk to children. He would tell my mother or other adults about his business but he didn't have conversations with his children. He never asked us for our opinions, feelings. That was the culture of most men in the fifties. Only when I was much older I tried to think of the things that my father did that proved his love for me. My mother always told us he was a great person and loved us a lot. First I just accepted that as a fact. But later I began to question how? Why he hardly talked with me? Why he didn't ask me how I felt at school like some of the fathers of my friends? Why he never offered to defend me from a nasty teacher who used to make fun of me? Why he never encouraged me to succeed at something?
Mrs. Manzanares said her last offer was twenty pesos less and no more. To avoid the issue of her childless condition and the cost of raising kids she explained the cost of her business. Juan, the mechanic was taking half of the profits and the rent of the shop was astronomical. And it was true that the rent was high. The shop was a half block off the main plaza. Few people had cars so they would walk to the stores around the plaza to buy clothes, furniture, shoes, and tools. The most popular coffee shops were one or two blocks from the plaza and coffee shops were a must for shoppers, bureaucrats, businessmen and university students. Therefore that place had a lot of people passing by. But Mrs. Manzanares didn't know how to capitalize on that traffic. She would sit and wait for customers. Not like my father who would go to the stores, government offices and offer them land for a new postal branch, jewelry to expand a beauty saloon, oranges for their restaurants and so forth.
He worked very hard and was always tired. That’s why I was surprised when, one day my father took me to the movies, only me! I don't know why just me. Years later my mother would tell the joke. She said that my father told me to wake him up if he fell asleep during the movie. Because he would fall sleep over and over, I spent all the time watching him instead of the movie. I vaguely remember that in the movie, a very poor man found a coin and had problems spending it. I guess it was a comedy. That small memory is one of the pieces of evidence that I collected in order to claim that my father loved me. He tried to show his love the only way he knew how, giving us things. On other occasion my grades in school weren't very good and he bought several toys and told me that those things were for me if I would get good grades. I was really motivated by a cowboy outfit, shiny guns and a sheriff star. But after a couple of days I forgot the prizes and my grades really didn't improve. My father got tired of waiting for my good grades and gave me the toys after a while. Unfortunately that was the end of that educational approach.
Mrs. Manzanares was wearing a red dress with flowers. She tried to talk as a businessperson, not a small task for a woman in San Luis; “I’m selling my bicycles with the smallest margin of profit in town. It’s going to be hard for you Mrs. Zapata, to find this bicycle at a lower price, even in Mexico City.” “Well – answered my mother – maybe Nacho will have to give up his dream of having a bicycle. Poor Nacho he was so eager to have a bike.” That idea was appealing to me. Even when I wanted the bicycle I was ready to go home. “No, no! Poor Nacho, I don’t want him to go without a bike. I’ll lower the price by another five dollars” said Mrs. Manzanares touching my head with consternation. I knew that meant another hour of hard bargaining. I had to find another way to entertain myself. I decided to count the stripes on my mother’s dress. It was one of her favorites because my father used to like it and she was trying to preserve my father’s memory at any cost. That’s the reason she never married again even though she was only 44 when she became a widow. I was a preadolescent and very naïve for my age, but I remember several occasions when men tried to flirt with my mother. She was a piece of ice with them. I don’t know why she was so adamant about never dating again. She felt insulted when someone would tell her that she could find another husband. What I know is that she felt the loneliness that traditional women pay for their convictions. When she died she left a diary where she talked about how lonely and sad she felt once her children left.
My father was different. He loved socializing. He belonged to all kinds of organizations and was always on the go. One of his rituals was to go to the Country Club every morning for his bath. He used to take me with him some Saturdays. The steam bath was a treat and I had the privilege of choosing a glass of orange juice or lemonade after the bath. Sunday afternoons were also special. The whole family would cram into the car and my father would take us for a ride. During Christmas we would count Christmas trees and that was a big entertainment for the children. But the highlight of the afternoon was a stop in an ice cream parlor "Don Pepe" and everyone would choose their favorite ice cream. I always chose lemon against my mother’s suggestion of chocolate. And it was a Sunday morning when his heart failed. We didn’t have ice cream that day or ever after. The provider left all kind of material goods. We didn’t get anymore traces of his love for us, he was gone forever.
It was almost seven o'clock. Time to close the store and Mrs. Manzanares and my mother still had a difference of thirty pesos. We had been in the process for more than three hours. I checked all the bicycle gadgets in the store and knew the prices of all of them. I regretted spending the last couple of weeks bugging my mother for a bicycle. All I wanted to do was to go home and forget the whole thing. "OK, let’s split the difference. I'll take fifteen pesos off but this is really my last price" Mrs. Manzanares said with an imploring voice. I looked at my mother imploring; take it, take it. "Oh! It's so hard with so many kids. They are growing and they eat two plates of beans and some times three..." I felt more sympathy for Mrs. Manzanares that for my mother. But her relentless attack produced results. Mrs. Manzanares took off twenty pesos, and I went home with my new bicycle.
Two weeks later I was riding my bicycle with a cousin on the handlebars. It was on a dirty hill, and I was with a group of friends. We were enjoying the fast ride. I thought I could outrun my friends due to the extra weight of my cousin. I saw the stone but it was too close to avoid. My cousin had to get seven stitches but I only got a few bruises. My bicycle was a wreck but I never asked my mother for another one. Years later Mrs. Manzanares married the doctor who took care of my cousin and they had nine children. I accompanied my mother to the wedding. Mrs. Manzanares remembered the day when my mother spent several hours buying me a bicycle. “I wasn’t meant to be a businesswoman –she told her new husband laughing- I’m better suited to be a housewife.” My mother also laughed a lot. However, as I was driving back home I turned to check the traffic and I saw my mother’s sad face. The same sad face that I saw just today.