My first American Christmas was memorable. Not very many five year olds are expelled from their native country for political reasons but I was. It was my Great-grandmother’s part in founding the only real opposition political party in Mexico in 1939 (the PAN) that led to my coming to San Diego. The trip was memorable. It led to the best Christmas ever, the one that for my family ended World War II. This was a Mexican American Christmas for my family and for thousands of others throughout the Southwest.
Despite our small numbers estimates are that up to 300,000 Mexican Americans served in Europe and the Pacific wars; some were from my family. They are all gone now, but I honor them and memories of them with this piece.
They are all gone now. They were the Greatest Generation of my life and, perhaps, that of the United States of America.
Christmas, 1946…I was five, I had been in the United States of America exactly two years. My mother born in San Diego, California, was a U.S. citizen which benefited me because that made me an American citizen at birth. Thus, though born in Mexico, I was technically not an immigrant when I crossed into El Paso, Texas. Needless to say, I didn’t speak a word of English when I crossed but by Christmas 1946, my English was expanding exponentially day by say.
The trip to the USA from Mexico City was, in retrospect, stretched from a Spanish Colonial city with less than a million people to a mighty 140-million person United States of America.
Mexico City still carried the scars of clashes in 1940 by those loyal to Presidential candidate General Juan A. Almazan and Communist thugs unleashed by what my Great-grandmother Maria called a “filthy Communist,” President Lazaro Cardens. Cardenas hand-picked successor, General Avila Camacho was not a particular fan of my activist Great-grandmother so he “invited” us to leave the country when his power was consolidated.
Adios Mexico; Bienvenidos to my new country, the United States of America.
Train to Ciudad Juarez. We walked across the border, immigration stamped my Mexican passport and we boarded another train for Los Angeles. On that train I learned one of the most important lessons of my life. Being in the middle of World War II, the train was loaded with soldiers, sailors and United States Marines. They were kids like my Uncle. None of them spoke Spanish and I didn’t speak English. They responded to my making funny faces with chocolate. More faces, more chocolate. Lesson: People will remunerate you if you entertain/inform them.
From Los Angeles four more hours in a crowded train loaded with sailors and Marines heading to the Pacific War by way of the huge Naval and Marine bases in San Diego.
My Great Aunt, cousins and their cousins, the extended family that numbered dozens upon dozens greeted us at the San Diego Depot. My 14 year old Uncle Johnny, like me born in Mexico immediately enrolled in San Diego High School; my Great-grandmother and mother were taken to one of myriad tuna canneries for immediate jobs and I was left with my teenaged cousin Fala, pregnant with her first child by her new husband Luis, an Army Paratrooper.
My mother was dragged to the movie house across the street every night (10 cents admission), seven days-a-week, by a cousin in order to learn English. My Uncle Johnny didn’t last long at San Diego High. When his friends enlisted in the Army to fight, so did he. He was 15. When the recruiter asked for his birth certificate, he shrugged and lied with, “I was born in Mexico; I don’t have a birth certificate.” Off he and his buddies went to join 12 or so million others in the Great War, some did not come home – he did.
The war ended and a neighborhood empty of young men waited for the warriors to come home. Slowly they came. But none of the men in my family had come home yet.
The war had scattered our men all over the world. My Grandfather built Army bases in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas and followed invading Marines onto Guam and Saipan to build airstrips from which planes bombed Japan. My Great Uncle was in Alaska constructing Army bases. Fala’s husband Luis was in the 101st Airborne jumping into Normandy where he was wounded. My Uncle Johnny was heading for Japan to invade it in what would have been the costliest battle in human history. We nuked Japan and they surrendered. His boat kept going to Korea where he served in the occupation force and chased Japanese soldiers that refused to surrender.
Surrounded by family women and cousins, I helped in the kitchen preparing for the 1946 Christmas feast. Every one of the adults was ecstatic. They knew something, something this five-year-old did not.
Tamales, enchiladas, pots of pinto beans, a ton of Spanish rice, Bacalao (Spanish cod fish) were being prepared; fruit punches, eggnog (Eggnog?) Rompope and dark Christmas beer flowed freely while the food was being prepared. Once in a while, some women would weep silently.
The door bell rang downstairs – we lived on the second floor above a liquor store – up the stairs came Grandpa, from Japan; a while later came Great Uncle Frank from Alaska. Cousin Luis, Sergeant of the 101st Airborne followed; two distant Marine cousins I did not know came up the stairs, one a Guadalcanal veteran, the other of Iwo Jima. The last to arrive was my soldier Uncle Johnny from Korea resplendent in his Army uniform older than I remembered him. He was in fact a 16 year old combat veteran.
A lot of tears, tears of happiness flowed that Christmas Eve 1946, mine included. They are all gone now. I’m the only one left to remember my real first Christmas in the USA, Christmas 1946.