THE SUNRISE OF A NEW LIFE UPON THE SUNSET OF A TOWN




By Blanca Rodriguez

The blowing wind, birds singing, and the voices of my father, brother, aunt and myself were the only sounds perceived that day when we visited the ruins of what was once my hometown, Padilla Viejo. As they pointed to the places where old friends and relatives lived, their memories, adventures, and stories emerged, and suddenly, this desolate place became alive again.

            Even though I do not remember emigrating from Padilla, the sense of belonging as well as empathy and melancholy flowed in my soul. While I listened to my family discuss stories that developed in those streets and those buildings, I thought about the day when my people left their hometown.

            Quickly, many stories I had heard from my parents, grandparents, siblings, and relatives made sense in my mind and in my heart. Standing in the place where my father and my uncle built my family’s house, I vividly remembered what my mother told me about the day when I was born.

It was a cool summer morning in 1968. The croak of the frogs in our backyard pond seemed to blend with the darkness and the wind that gently blew in my little town at the center of the state of Tamaulipas, México.

 It was around 3:00 a.m. on Monday, June 24, when Nicolasa Muñoz Palomo gave birth to her last baby in her little house. It was a memorable moment in my family’s life; on one hand they experienced the sunrise of a new life and, on the other, the sunset of their town. It was the first time that my eyes saw the light of this world, among love, nature and hope.

 Before I was born, the people of Padilla Viejo celebrated San Antonio de Padua’s Day. According to Catholic tradition, this celebration is to honor the life and works of San Antonio. Similar to other Catholic rural communities in México, Padilla Viejo had its very own religious holy days. San Antonio’s Day was the second most important celebration to Padillenses, after Las Posadas in December. San Antonio was considered the patron saint of Padilla. In fact, the official name for Padilla was San Antonio de Padilla. As part of the celebration, the local church had two special masses. Moreover, at noon some people placed stands and tables in the east side of the Plaza. On the tables, they placed many types of traditional Mexican food such as tamales, gorditas, flautas, tacos, enchiladas, and menudo.

Adjacent to the food tables, there was the area of rides and games, such as lotería (bingo) and raffles, as well as the live music that our band played in the kiosco. All these elements together conform what in Spanish is called a kermesse. It is a public celebration that is organized in schools and churches as a fundraising event. The food was one of the most important parts of the kermesse in Padilla. The smells of homemade food that our neighbors cooked with firewood was so strong that, even when you walked two blocks away from the plaza, you knew what kind of food it was.

As soon as the festival began, families gathered in the Plaza to enjoy the Lotería and the raffles. Sitting around big tables, they carefully listened when the person yelled, “El nopal, la botella, la chalupa, el gallo…” Suddenly the game stopped after one person answered back, “Buena (bingo)!” Then the leader had to check if that participant was really the winner. La lotería is a popular game among people who attend the festivities. In this way, Padillenses were not the exception. They enjoyed playing lotería, not just because it was an opportunity to spend time with family and friends, but also because of the emotion of winning some prizes. Although the prizes were very modest – plastic containers, bags of beans or rice, canned food, soap, shampoo – they were always very useful, because most of the people were very poor.

In line with the food stands, in the middle of the Plaza, was the kiosco. There, the local band played their instruments – accordions, guitars, drums, trumpets, and basses. The musicians who played in the town band were Francisco Díaz, my abuelita’s father and band director; Zenon Díaz, my abuelita’s cousin; Sabino Díaz, my abuelita’s brother; José Acevedo; Juan Guevara; and Francisco Selvera.  My father said that all these men played as volunteers in the plaza as well as in the church’s kermesses. However, for the Padillenses they were their musicians who stood for their town until the end.   

I lived in Padilla Viejo, until I was two years old. Padilla Viejo was a beautiful small town with a pretty plaza and many white benches around it. West of the plaza was the church. North of the plaza was the elementary school, and next to it was the Monument to Agustin de Iturbide, who was emperor of México immediately after independence in 1821. Three years later, in July of 1824, Iturbide was executed by firing squad in Padilla Viejo because he was considered a traitor to the nation. Teaching about this historic event which happened at Padilla was obligatory in the local elementary school. My grandparents, parents, siblings as well as my extended family said that their teachers taught them two things about Iturbide: First, Agustin de Iturbide was a traitor to México, and as a traitor, he must die; second, he was buried in front of the Plaza and next to the church because he was Catholic.

Down the main street near the church, was my house. It was about two blocks from the elementary school. It had a huge backyard full of plants and trees that my mother had planted. We had many kinds of fruit trees such as orange, lemon, guava, and avocado. We also had nopales. Since my mother loved plants, she also had many flowers. My house also had a small pool like a tub that my uncle Esteban built as a macro container to save water when the town faced drought.

Two kilometers east of the Plaza Principal, and near the Purificación River, was my grandparents’ house. The beautiful, 100-meter-wide river ran from north to south in Padilla Viejo. At the banks of the river were some very tall bald cypresses, very leafy and strong.

Because my grandparents’ house was very close to the river, my siblings, along with my cousins and nieces, spent much time playing there and swimming at the river. They remember, “it was like having your own swimming pool in your own backyard.” When they came home, Abuelita Manuela cooked delicious food for them such as, sopa de fideo, beans, mole, picadillo, rice, or nopales, along with fresh homemade tortillas.

 My paternal grandparents, Angel Rodríguez and Manuela Díaz, were the only grandparents I ever knew because my mother’s parents, Hermenegildo Muñoz and Epifania Palomo, died before I was born. However, I still have memories about them from my mother.

When my mother was young, she and my Abuelita Epifania (“Pifa”) made fresh cheese, milk cream, and butter that they sold at the market in Padilla Viejo. According to my mother, Abuelita “Pifa” made the most delicious cheese in all of Padilla Viejo. People lined up to buy her cheese, and many didn’t get to buy it because it sold fast.

Likewise, my Abuelito Hermenegildo, who my mother remembers as a very generous man, enjoyed taking care of his cows and pigs and cultivating the land. He usually gave away a portion of his harvest to the poorest people in Padilla. As a result, many people loved him. My mother told me some interesting stories about my Abuelito Hermenegildo, who people called Merejo; one of these stories is about the first television in Padilla. In 1962, the García de los Reyes Family, who were one of the most prominent families in the town, bought one black & white TV. They had a big house with a big window in the living room. The window was to the side of the street. They had a one-yard high fence around the house. Walking by the street you may see inside their house through that window. When the García family got the T.V, people crossed the street and stopped very close to the fence to watch the wonder of technology. However, Mrs. García didn’t allow anybody to come into their home. She didn’t even like people walking near her house. 

Nevertheless, people still stopped on the street in front of the García’s house trying to watch something at a distance. According to my mother, one day my grandfather Hermenegildo brought my sister Lulu to watch the TV from the street. At that time, Lulu was about four-years old, and my abuelito sat her on the fence. After two or three times of doing this, Mrs. García asked him not to come anymore. That day my grandfather took my sister and walked toward our house. Weeks later, my grandfather came to Manuel Cepeda’s restaurant and realized that he had bought a TV which he set for his customers to watch. When Mr. Cepeda heard that Mrs. García didn’t allow my grandfather to bring my sister to watch the TV, he got angry and told my grandfather, “Don’t worry Merejo, you can bring your granddaughter any time you want to watch the TV.” My mother says that sometimes Mr. Cepeda even gave coffee to my abuelito for free. Even though I never met my abuelitos, Epifania and Hermenegildo, I feel like I know them intimately because of the stories my family shares about them.

In the same way, my Abuelita Manuela, my father’s mother, loved to tell us stories about Padilla Viejo. It didn’t matter if we were many or just one person listening to her; she always had something interesting to share about our ancestors and about the brave people of Padilla Viejo. For example, the story about the time when my mother saved the life of Doña Vicenta Selvera, who had a molino in Padilla. A molino is a machine to grind the corn seeds to make tortillas.

Since Padilla was a rural settlement, we didn’t have water at home; as a result, people came to the river to carry water in containers back to their homes and then used it to wash dishes and to cook. It was common to see women washing clothes and bathing by the river early in the morning. One day, Mrs. Selvera came to the river to swim along with her friends. Then they got into the water. Later on, my mother and some of her friends came to swim too. When they got to the river, they noticed that Mrs. Selvera was in the deep part of the river and suddenly began screaming, “Help me, help me!” Her friends also yelled for help, but nobody did anything to help her. My mother yelled, “Help her, she is drowning!” But still, they were all scared to get close to Mrs. Selvera. My mother at that time was just sixteen years old while Mrs. Selvera was about thirty-nine years old.

When my mother guessed that nobody was going to do anything, she thought, “She is going to die, I cannot let that happen!” My mother bravely dived into the water, swam toward her and pulled her by the hair until both of them made it to the river banks. There, my mom gave Mrs. Selvera CPR to the best of her ability. After a while, she woke up and sitting in the ground thanked my mother for what she did. Meanwhile, somebody had already notified her husband about the incident, and he hurried to see his wife.

Everyone, including Mrs. Selvera and Mr. Selvera, honored my mother’s bravery who in spite of her very young age, had the courage to swim into the depths of the river to save Mrs. Selvera. Since that day, my mother never paid for grinding her corn seeds at Mrs. Selvera’s molino. In addition, she never had to wait in line to grind her corn. That was how Don Julián and Doña Vicenta Selvera thanked my mother for her heroism.

 After that incident, everything was back to normal. My mother got up each day at 5:00 a.m. and went to Doña Vicenta Selvera’s molino to grind corn to make tortillas. Then, she cooked and packaged lunch for my father who had a job as a supervisor at the Vicente Guerrero Dam.

The Vicente Guerrero Dam was a very large dam, gathering the water from three rivers – the Corona, the Purificación, and the Pilón. My father liked to invite my brothers to go there on weekends when he came to supervise the water level. My father’s only condition to join him was that my brothers wake up early in the morning. My brother, Ricardo, says that he felt sad when he woke up late, and he noticed that my dad already left home. My brother told us that he and my twin brothers fished large quantities of sardines close to the dam. They really enjoyed the time they spent there.

When I was a baby, and my siblings were at school, my mother took care of me while doing all the duties that women did at that time. But when my siblings got back from school, they took care of me. My brother, Ricardo, told me about the day when I took my first steps, before I turned a year old. He said he placed a watermelon in the floor of our backyard, and then I walked to get it.

Months later, when I was two years old, my brother, Ricardo, and my sister, Lulú, built a little cart that looked like a stroller. They built it out of an old wooden box and added a base with wheels to it. I jumped into the cart, and they took me around the back yard. Ricardo tells me that I was very happy in there, except for the day when I fell down. That day, two of our neighbors were playing along with my siblings and me in the little cart. Usually my neighbors’ children came to my house to play with us after school, and later my mother invited them to eat dinner with us – beans, rice, nopales, verdolagas, or whatever we had at that time.

Although we didn’t have much money nor a variety of food, my mom always said, “We will share with our friends the blessings that God has given us today.” Everyone in the neighborhood thought about others not just as neighbors, but as members of an extended family. We all knew one another. They knew my family, and we knew their families. We shared many things as well as good and bad times.

Consequently, it was common to see neighbors at my house or at my grandparents’ house in the afternoon. A lot of people liked visiting my abuelitos’ house and talking to my Abuelito Merejo and with my Abuelito Ángel, who was a highly respected man in the community. People usually stayed until late at night, sitting on sillones de mimbre, talking about the history of Padilla Viejo. Some of those incredible stories happened during the age of the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920. According to my dad’s father, Abuelito Angel, many people in Padilla ran away to the mountains during the 1910 Revolution. My older sister, Mercedes, also remembers that my Abuelita Manuela said that Los Villistas came and took away everything. They kidnapped women, stole horses, and things they found in the towns.

At that time, there was a couple that had a small shop in Padilla. They were the Trejos, Mr. Porfirio Trejo and Mrs. Juana Chacón de Trejo. They had a kind of shop commonly known as changarros in México. The Trejos made Mexican candies using sweet potatoes and pumpkins. Back then, people in the rural communities kept their money in their own homes. Sometimes they put it in the oven or inside a kitchen container. Mr. and Mrs. Trejo had some savings hidden in their house. However, when the revolutionaries reached Padilla, they grabbed their money. Dividing the money in two, they brought it with them and ran away to the mountains. A portion of the gold and silver coins were put in a jar. The rest of them were put in a pouch. Far from the town, they began to look for a place to hide their money. Soon they found a cliff and decided to make a hole in one of its sides to place the jar inside it. Then they carefully covered the jar with soil and rocks. After hiding the jar, they looked for another place to put the pouch. Don Porfirio and Doña Juana said the only place they found was an armadillo burrow. They were forced to hide half of their fortune in that place, and then follow their way.

As soon as people heard the revolutionaries left Padilla, families returned to their homes. Mr. and Mrs. Trejo also returned. On their way home, they searched for the jar they had hidden in the cliff. They looked in every cliff they came across on the road, but they never found it. Similarly, they looked for the pouch that they had buried in the armadillo burrow. It took a long time to find it. But when they did, they were surprised that the coins were spread inside, and outside the burrow. They thought that probably the armadillos had dug into the burrow spreading the coins. Truly this is one of the favorites stories told by my parents about the Mexican Revolution.

Likewise, my mom’s grandfather, Juan Muñoz, told what he did when the insurgents came into the town. My great grandfather had seven daughters and two sons. His sons were nineteen and fifteen years old at the time. The older one, Felipe, was blind, so my great grandfather thought he was not at risk of being used by revolutionaries for anything, nor his younger son, who was my grandfather, Hermenegildo, my mom’s father. My great grandfather, Juan, was a farmer. He had animals, big corrals, and barns filled with hay and seeds. He also had many lands located at the border town of Padilla.

During the Revolution, he decided to stay there and hide his family. He sent his daughters to hide into the barns. Then, he put a burlap sack on my grandfather’s head and tied it. He also tied him with a rope from his neck to his feet. My great grandfather believed if the revolutionaries saw a teenager tied they would not take the time to untie him. That was the interesting part of the story. When the insurgents came to his house and stole many things, they noticed there was somebody tied with a burlap sack on his head. He said the revolutionaries made jokes about him. They laughed when they saw that my grandfather couldn’t walk or see. Thereafter, the intruders grabbed their things and got out of the place, leaving my grandfather tied with the burlap sack on his head. 

Despite all these stories being very interesting to me, there is one that captured my attention since the first time I heard it. It was told by my Abuelita Manuela. It was about María Petra, Mr. Candelario Guevara’s daughter. According to my abuelita, when the revolutionaries came to Padilla, María Petra couldn’t escape, so she got inside a big oven built in her backyard with soil and hay. There, she kept safe while the revolutionaries assaulted Padilla.

Prior to 1967, the people of Padilla lived their lives in this way. They enjoyed reminiscing about the Revolution, about their adventures, in short, about their land and town. After that year, however, things drastically changed for Padillenses. In 1968, the year I was born, the people were uncertain about Padilla’s future. There were rumors every day about the evacuation of the population to another new town. Meanwhile, authorities were discussing what they were to do to control the water of the Corona, Purificación, and Pilón River that gathered at the Vicente Guerrero dam. Months later, they decided to evacuate my town, Padilla Viejo. As soon as residents knew the decision, many questions came to the minds of Padillenses. My family experienced feelings of fear, anger, and bewilderment –“What will become of us?,” they said. “They cannot move us like objects,” some argued. “What about our lands, our properties, our history?” and “What will happen with our dead loved ones?” Many unanswered questions came to their minds starting the day they heard the news.

At the end of 1970, the exodus began and, along with it, a radical change of lifestyle for about 4,000 Padillenses. Finally, in 1971, my family moved out of Padilla Viejo. My siblings and my parents, along with my father’s family, including my grandparents and my mother’s family, left our dear Padilla Viejo behind. Tears, anger, bitterness, uncertainty, and helplessness were some of the feelings that we experienced. My parents remember how sad it was to see when some of their life-long friends dug up the remains of their dead relatives. They placed them in burlap sacks and boxes along with their memories and carried them as one of their most valuable belongings. Then walked toward their new home away from Padilla Viejo.  

The musicians, who usually played during weekends and the celebrations of our town, set their instruments for playing one last time at the kiosco, in the center of the Plaza.  They did not have any more public dancing, rejoicing, or playing lotería, but instead, they just saw faces of sadness, melancholy, and resignation.  Playing “Las Golondrinas” (The Swallows), the band, led by my great grandfather Francisco Díaz, said good-bye to their friends and to the land that soon would disappear under water. My parents say that some people packed a rock from the road or a piece of the wall of the school and church, along with their belongings, stubbornly trying to keep a piece of their own history with them.

One of the musicians, Mr. Xenon Díaz, an eighty-year-old man who lived and worked all his life in Padilla, refused to leave his hometown. He said, “I was born here, and I will die here in my land, where my ancestors died.” His unwillingness to leave led to his depression. As a result, he got sick and he never recovered; months later, he died and was buried in Padilla’s cemetery.

Even though I never heard any other case similar to Mr. Díaz, people still left Padilla not by conviction but by obligation. After packing our belongings, my parents moved to Ciudad Victoria, where I lived until 1990. Meanwhile, my father’s family decided to go to the new town founded by people from Padilla Viejo, which was called Padilla Nuevo. That name really meant that everything was new and unknown for those who moved there. Some people said, “All things here are different; nothing is like Padilla Viejo.”

That day, contemplating the remains of my town, I remembered Mr. Xenon Diaz’s words. I missed my Padilla Viejo. I missed even the moments that I never lived there. Because those moments were abruptly taken away from me when I was forced to emigrate for the first time in my life at the age of two. After that travel, I asked myself, “Can a dam with 3,900 cubical hectometers of water keep the memories of those 4,000 people buried? Did we lose our identity after leaving our town?”

Now, forty-four years later, my answer is no. On the contrary, I realize that all the values, beliefs, and memories ingrained in me since my early years in Padilla Viejo have conformed my identity as a person, Padillense, as well as a Mexican, and it will be always with me wherever I go.

An anonymous author said, “Memories are the architecture of our identity.” In my case, those memories have been built not just by myself but by all the people who directly or indirectly have influenced my life. Those memories are little pieces of our own puzzle called identity, which gives us a special place in this world even when if we are removed from it.

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