Authors: Oscar Lewis
One night, her husband sent word that he wanted to see my father. Now, my father is a pretty small fellow, but he went. I saw him grab a knife and put it under his belt before he left. They locked themselves in and I was very worried. I told Roberto, “Let’s go up to the roof. If we see that fellow start something we’ll both jump him.” We were only kids but we were on the roof, watching. We couldn’t see them, though, because they had even closed the inside door. I was really scared. I thought maybe that fellow was going to kill my father. Then my
came out and after that Elena stayed in our house.
The people in the tenement were scandalized at what happened—Elena walking out of one room and into another one. And what guts my father had! But because of the scandal
had to move and we went to live on Orlando Street.
On the day we moved, my father came home early from work, at 1:00
on the dot, and since he always liked to have things done quickly, he said, “All right, take down the bed and roll up the mattress.”
So we rolled it up and, to hide the spots and stains, he covered it with a bedspread. Then, right away my father wanted us to move the furniture and gather up all our pots and pans. Elena took them off the hooks and put them in the tubs, so she could carry them with her. We had lots of tubs to store water, because there has always been a problem of water shortage in the
. We didn’t rent a cart; we carried the things ourselves.
paid a porter to carry the wardrobe, since our new house was over a block and a half away.
It was a bigger, prettier
, and for the first time we lived in a place with two rooms. It made me feel as if we were rich and I was very happy about it. Our rooms were on the third story and there was only a tiny railing on the landing that faced the courtyard, so my father had a real fence put up to keep us from falling.
But my father wasn’t satisfied with our rooms on Orlando and we moved back to Cuba Street, where he knew two women who worked in the restaurant. One of them had a daughter, Julia, whom I was very fond of. It was my ambition to make Julia my “
,” but her family was better off than we were and I felt sort of inferior. When I saw
how nicely her house was furnished I decided I’d never ask her to be my girl friend.
At first Elena tried to be nice to us. She had never had any children and was very affectionate with all of us. I don’t know why, but after we moved to Cuba Street she didn’t treat us so well. That’s when my father’s attitude toward us began to change. She would fight with Roberto at the slightest provocation and my father beat my poor little brother more than ever. The only time I had the impression that my father cared for Roberto was when a dog in this
tore a piece of flesh from my brother’s arm. My father was very upset and turned pale; he got completely confused and didn’t know what to do—some neighbors had to help.
But it is true that Roberto had always been very difficult, you might say, impossible. He was very stubborn and put up a fight about any little thing. Elena would say, “Wash the floor,” and Roberto would answer, “Why should we wash it? You’re the housewife.” And so there was a big argument and when my father came home Elena would pretend that she was crying. He would grab his belt and give it to both of us. He made us wash the floor and the dishes and Elena would sit on the bed and laugh to make us madder.
We were once seated at the table, having supper—my stepmother, my sisters, Roberto, my father and I. I was about to take a gulp of coffee when I turned to look at my father. He was staring at me and Roberto and he said, as though he really hated us, “Just to see you bastards swallow gives me a pain, yes, just to see you swallow, you filthy sons-of-bitches.” We hadn’t done a thing, yet that’s the way he spoke to us. Since then I’ve never sat at the table with my father.
Having lost our mother, we children should have been closer; we should have backed each other up. But we could never be like that because my father always stepped in between us boys and the girls. He stood in the way and wouldn’t let me do my duty as the older brother. If my mother had lived, things might have been different. She was a great believer in the tradition that minors should respect their elders. If she had lived, maybe my sisters would have respected Roberto and me and we wouldn’t have had to abuse our authority.
Here in Mexico, the idea is that the oldest child should look after the younger ones, sort of keep them in line. But my father didn’t allow me to and I never felt as if I had sisters because I couldn’t correct them. He’d say, “Who are you, you son-of-a-bitch, who are you to
hit them? I’m the only one around here who is working his ass off and none of you bastards has a right to put a hand on them.”
My sisters, especially Consuelo, tried to create bad blood between us and my father. She knew just what to do to make him beat us and pull our ears. Since the beginning, my father never let us play with her, or let her run, because she was so puny and that’s why, well, I didn’t take her much into account. Consuelo was always a whiny kid, really, no one could whine like my sister. I’d give her a little slap, and she’d burst out bawling. When my father came home she’d begin to rub her eyes to make them red and he would say, “What’s the matter, child? What’s wrong, daughter?” Then she would blow up any little thing into something big. For a light slap, she’d sound off like an ambulance siren. “Look,
, he hit me on the lung!” She always said that because she knew it was the part of the body that would worry my
. He fussed a lot over her because she was so skinny, and, of course, he whacked us hard.
“Skinny”—that’s what we called Consuelo—always put on a humble face for my father, like Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz at the Crucifixion. All suffering and resignation, but she had small, sharp nails inside, you know what I mean? She was always self-centered, that sister of mine, and man! did she make Roberto and me mad.
I don’t know why my father was so harsh with us and so fond of the girls. He had one tone of voice for them and another for Roberto and me. It’s probably because he was brought up the old-fashioned way. He told us, on the two or three times he ever reminisced about his life, that my grandfather was very strict with him and used to beat him a lot. And that’s why he must have decided that for us to respect him he must be, first, a he-man, and then a father. We never talked back to him, we always respected him, in fact we worshiped him, so why did he treat us that way?
My father beat us, not out of cruelty, but for deeper reasons, because of his love for Elena. Naturally his wife meant more to him than his children and he beat us to make up to her, to please her. Deep down he loved us too, but he wanted us to amount to something and when he saw that we didn’t do the right thing he felt cheated, disappointed. He used to say that Elena was a saint and that we were riffraff, that we had evil hearts and never wanted to understand her or allow her to be happy. But, to my way of thinking, his love for Elena was a mixture of affection and gratitude, and my father is, well,
very loyal. I don’t think he loved Elena as much as my mother, because my mother was his first love, a real, true love.
When it came to my stepmother, I tried to keep my mouth shut, because I knew it wouldn’t turn out good for me. I always advised Roberto to keep quiet but he’d say there was no reason for him to shut up because that woman was not his mother. Elena treated my sisters better, because they were girls and were too small to resist her. But we boys were big enough to figure things out.
Once, we were having a chat about family things, and I happened to tell Elena that my mother sometimes affectionately called my father “Old Tomcat.” Then Elena called my mother a dirty name. I really got mad. My mother had her own way of loving my father and giving him nicknames and Elena had no right to insult her. We had a big argument and when my father came home he beat me. But usually I kept quiet when she said something to hurt me. I was, well, careful, but Roberto was like a volcano; you just touched him and he exploded.
If anything wrong took place, if something was missing, whatever it was, Roberto was blamed. Once he was punished for something I did and I felt bad about that ever since. It was the only time I did such a thing. My friend Santiago had said to me, “Take something from your house so we can go to the movies.” The first thing I saw was a crucifix my father had gotten from my grandpa, so I took it and we sold it.
That evening they looked and looked for the Christ and couldn’t find it. Then they beat Roberto for stealing it. I wanted to confess, but when I saw my father so angry I got scared and kept quiet. I never told anyone about this incident. That’s the way it was, when anything went wrong it was Roberto who always, always got the blame.
It was after
died that Roberto first began to filch things from the house. Most of the time when things were missing, he was the one who took them. After the Christ, I never took anything from the house. Roberto’s stealing, when he was young, was petty thievery, something his friends told him to do. For example,
would send home a dozen eggs and Roberto would grab one or two and go out and sell them. That’s how he got spending money. My poor
had a hard time making ends meet. He always bought shoes and clothes when we needed them, and he provided us with the best school supplies, but there were days when neither my brother nor I had five
between us. I used to envy my schoolmates who could buy lollipops or tidbits. Well, you always feel bad then. But
couldn’t make enough for so many of us. I understand this now.
By the time I was in the fifth grade I had my first girl friend. She was Elisa, the sister of my friend Adán. I used to go to Adán’s house to sing because he played the guitar. Elisa’s parents watched her very carefully, but they accepted me as a friend of her brother. I took advantage of the situation and asked her straight out to be my girl friend. She was older and taller than I; I was about thirteen and I had to stand on something to kiss her. I took her to the movies where we could kiss and embrace. But that was all you did with a
. If you go to bed with your
you are practically married.
Because of my friends I began to neglect my studies, but my teacher, Professor Everardo, was a decent fellow and you might say that, man to man, I was a friend of his. When I was still a new boy in that school, something happened which gave me pleasant memories later in life. There was a boy named Bustos in my class. He was the school champion because he could lick all the runts in fist fighting. The first day there was a teachers’ meeting and Bustos was left in charge of our room. He called me to order, but not in a polite way, and so I said to him, “No, you shrimp, you can’t yell at me.”
“I can’t?” he said. “So you’re a tough guy, well, well.”
So I said, “I’m not so tough but if you think you’ve got as much guts as I just because you’re a big shot here, you’re making a mistake, pal. I’m from Tepito, and we don’t take any crap from anybody.”
Well, I punched him in the nose, right there in the classroom, a hard sock and his nose and mouth were covered with blood. Then the boys all said, “Bustos,
! that’s some wallop the kid gave you.” After that they nicknamed me “No. 20” because that was my number when they called the roll. Since I had licked the biggest kid in the school I became famous and everybody kept saying that No. 20, No. 20, won the fight. After that none of the boys ever bothered me because, even though I was very short, I was strong and had powerful arms.
Josefa Ríos was the first girl I really fell in love with, a blond, with white skin and very pretty. There was a boy, Pancho, whose parents were, well, sort of better off, and he sure was handsome. Well, I was madly in love with Josefa and she was in love with Pancho, and Pancho paid no attention to her. I became so jealous that I tried to
provoke Pancho to fight, so Josefa would see I was better than he. But Pancho never wanted to, because he knew I had licked Bustos.
Then one time the principal’s Saint’s Day was coming up, and all classes had prepared something to perform in her honor. Our room had nothing prepared. I got to school early one day and nobody was there and, as I always do when I’m sad or happy, I started to sing. I didn’t notice that Professor Everardo was listening. He came in and said, “Look, Manuel, you have a good voice; now we have something to perform on the principal’s Saint’s Day.” But I really didn’t know why he said that until several days later when the affair took place. The first grade put on a dance number, the second a declamation, the third something else and so on until they reached the fifth grade, and then they announced, “Fifth grade, Section A, a song dedicated to the principal, sung by pupil Manuel Sánchez Vélez.” Holy Mary! I hadn’t known anything about it, and I was scared to death, and there was Josefa in the first row.
I hid under the benches, and didn’t want to come out. Everybody looked and looked until Bustos saw me and dragged me out. They took me as if I was a prisoner. Well, I got up on the platform and sang a song which was popular at the time, “Amor, Amor, Amor” … “Love … love … love … created by you, by me, by hope …” At that time, my voice was clearer, it really was, and I could sing much higher. I sang through my tension and fear, and kept looking at Josefa. Then, just like awaking from a dream, I heard applause, a lot of applause, very loud, really. Ah, then I felt very proud, Josefa was applauding me more than anybody, and I said, “Oh, God Almighty, can it be that she will notice me?” Well, after that I wanted them to let me keep on singing.
That same afternoon I said to Josefa, “I have something to tell you. Will you allow me to see you from now on?” I remember how happy I was when she said, “I’ll be waiting for you at six on the corner near my house.” I was very happy, naturally, and I came at six on the dot, but she didn’t show up. Pancho had spoken to her that very day, so, of course, she went out with him and left me “whistling on the hilltop,” as they say here.