Sunday, September 24, 2006

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¡Por la libertad!

By Richard Gonzales Fort Worth Star-Telegram Carmen Puertos drank, smoked and laughed for most of her 92 years. When she chuckled, her open mouth revealed few remaining teeth; she never bothered with dentures. Her earlier photos show a pretty woman with thick brown hair. Time turned it gray and caused her legs to hurt when she walked. But it never took her pride, spunk or freedom. She cared for her grandchildren -- including me -- while her children worked in Chicago factories. She taught her family, in Spanish, not to be cowed by the big, blustering American city. After all, she was a chilanga -- a native of Mexico City who had lived in the capital during the days of dictator Porfirio Diaz and revolutionaries Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Perhaps the rebellious airs in the days of the Adelitas and soldaderas, or female warriors of the revolution, filled her with an independent spirit. One night when she was 14, she stayed out late to attend a neighborhood fiesta. Fearing the wrath of her father, she ran away to a convent where her older sister was studying to become a nun. Her father forced her to return to his comfortable, maid-tended house, where she could have lived out her years. But Mexico was a macho country with macho men. (Her father was 30 when he married his 14-year-old wife, with whom he would have 14 children.) She wanted to live in the world beyond Don Puertos's reach. So she ran away again at 19 with the help of an older brother. This time she fled to Nuevo Laredo with a female friend to care for her aunt. She worked as a laundress at the Hamilton Hotel in Laredo. When she heard that a family was going to Waukegan, Ill., to open a restaurant, she went along. She proudly told her children that she was never undocumented -- "No era mojada." She walked across the bridge spanning the Rio Grande with papers for which she paid $8. It would be nice to say that life in the United States was pleasant and bountiful for her. In truth, life in the Depression was hard for her and millions of others scrambling for food and work. She married another Mexican immigrant, Juan Reyes, bore him four children and followed the jobs to Chicago, Lyons, Kan., and back to Chicago. In Kansas, she joined other Mexican women to form a mutual aid society that raised money through jamaicas, or fairs, for the election of Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas. During Mexican Independence Day celebrations, she sewed Mexican dresses for her daughters and herself, splashing red, white and green in their skirts, blouses and hair. She played old Mexican songs and taught them to dance traditional steps that she recalled from fiestas. When Kansas commemorated the 400th anniversary of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's exploration for gold, Carmen Reyes and other Mexican women pooled their money to bring Mexican matadors and bulls to demonstrate the corrida (although the bullfighters would go through the sweeps and turns in their suit of light and crimson capes without the fatal sword plunge). The Kansas townfolk easily accepted the Mexican garb, dances, customs and Spanish. Perhaps the small number of Mexican immigrants, their hard work and neighborliness calmed any fears that they might have harbored of the children of Coronado. There was no bitter history of the Alamo and the Mexican War; instead, they shared a memory of a conquistador traveling with his soldiers and priests in search of wealth. In Chicago, there would be more disappointment and heartache for Carmen as a daughter followed in her footsteps and ran away. Despite their advanced age, Carmen and Juan Reyes adopted the runaway daughter's five children. In later years, Carmen and Juan wanted to live closer to family. And so when she died Aug. 6, 1996, it was in Garland. When I asked my grandmother why she had come to the United States, she answered: Por la libertad -- for the liberty. She wanted the liberties to smoke, drink, marry the man she loved and live in a country where a runaway girl could find a home. Carmen Puertos de Reyes taught her children to cherish their golden freedom.


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