Maria Gutierrez’s visits to her grandparents’ ranch in Mexicali, Mexico, left her with lasting impressions. She and her siblings slept outside under mosquito netting and reveled in games with cousins and the warmth of a large, extended family. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
By Maria H. Gutierrez
When I was seven years old, visits to the ranch of my grandparents in the Mexicali desert valley in Baja California were very adventurous trips.
My siblings and I rose early at the crack of dawn, 6 o’clock in the morning, with exciting anticipation to see our grandparents.
After five hours on the road from Los Angeles to Calexico, the border town that welcomed us into the steaming hot Mexicali valley, I sighed with relief knowing that soon we would arrive at the ranch of abuelita and abuelito.
Upon our arrival, Grandma and Grandpa hugged and kissed us on our dusty foreheads. With a smile on his face, Grandpa helped Dad bring our luggage and food into the family room of their adobe house.
In the living room, which was Grandma and Grandpa’s master bedroom, there was a velvet painting of an armadillo. My grandparents laughed when I told them that the armadillo looked like an animal soldier. Grandpa told me with a loving smile that I had a creative and funny imagination.
As I looked out the bedroom windows, Grandpa told me that their ranch home was surrounded by cotton and corn fields that his sons tended and harvested.
“Come and eat. Lunch is ready!” Grandma said as she led us into the dining room. A long wooden table covered with a red plastic tablecloth served as a “royal carpet” for a homemade dinner of Mexican rice, pinto beans, and red chile, chicken, and cheese enchiladas.
After lunch, my parents and siblings were entertained by a black and white 12” x 12” TV. Grandma whispered into my ear, “Elena, I have a surprise for you.”
She led me into the living room and opened an old, dusty metal footlocker. It was filled with Spanish primary school novels and textbooks. I read two hours before bedtime.
Since the adobe guest house was occupied by my uncles, my family slept outside, enjoying the cool night air on queen beds under mosquito net covers. My sisters and I shared a bed protected with pink mosquito nets. I could hear those nasty insects buzz all night.
In the middle of the night, when I was sound asleep, I thought that I was awakened by angelic voices. Turning to my right, I actually was awakened by my sisters crying out, “Elena take us to the bathroom. We need to urinate!”
Being the eldest, I was assigned the responsibility of taking my siblings to the luxurious cardboard and wooden outhouse. I hated this chore, but held back my anger each time we had to visit the outhouse.
I enjoyed counting the stars at night while I quietly sang, “Twinkle,, twinkle, little star.” This experience filled me with deep contentment and serenity.
On Sunday morning, as the warm rays of the sun and the melodic good morning ritual of the Rita roosters awakened us, we could smell the delightful aroma of cinnamon and raisin oatmeal (avena), Mexican bread and Mexican chocolate coming from abuelita’s kitchen.
After breakfast, Grandpa shared with us the agenda for the week. He told us to sit in a circle on a bamboo mat in front of an old chalkboard. The remaining days of our visit were written on the chalkboard.
“Today being Sunday (Domingo),” he said, “you kids are free to do whatever you desire on the ranch. Your uncles have a few fun activities you can choose from.
On Monday (Lunes) we will visit Tío Mikey and Tía Anita and their family. And on Tuesday (Martes) we will visit Chole’s (Mom’s) third brother and family who live two miles from ejido Juarez (Grandpa’s ranch).
They invited us to join them for a delicious homemade lunch. On Wednesday and Thursday (Miercoles y Jueves) we will take a trip into town after breakfast to buy provisions and do some sight-seeing.
Our special day of the week will be Friday. Grandma and I have planned a Graciano and Fonseca family reunion. And Saturday will be your day of departure.”
This last statement made me feel very sad. I shook my head and said to myself, “No, Elena, you have five days to look forward to. You’re going to have fun and be happy.”
Wednesday and Friday were my favorite days. On Wednesday morning we got up at 7 o’clock to a warm 85-degree day. After breakfast, my siblings and I hopped into the back seat of our Blue and White Chevy Impala on route to Calexico.
Upon entering the town, I was amused by the vendors on the streets singing funny rhyming melodies.
Grandma and Grandpa purchased their groceries from a colorful market called El Mercado, or Tanguis, very similar to a farmers market. I enjoyed reading the labels and signs that described the vegetables and fruit.
I took out my little red notebook and wrote the names of my favorite fruit and vegetables in Spanish and English. Abuelita (Grandma) was so impressed by my interest in learning that she treated me to my favorite fruit, a juicy red apple.
Our last stop was to a small Mexican shop that sold books, school supplies, and souvenirs. As I walked into the shop I was amused by the display of colorful Folklorico dolls.
Abuelito (Grandpa) said to me, “Elena, mi amor, choose your favorite doll. I want to buy you a gift.” I was so happy that tears flooded my eyes. My grandparents also bought gifts for my siblings. I will always treasure this trip to Calexico.
The family reunion day on Friday was a very special day for me. Outside of our grandparents’ adobe home was a huge thatched roof patio decorated with colorful red, green and white balloons and streamers. A long wooden table was covered with a green and white plastic tablecloth that served as a stage for a delicious Mexican potluck lunch.
The main dishes were two large Pyrex baking pans of green and red chili, cheese, chicken, and beef enchiladas, a pot of menudo, Mexican rice, and pinto beans
Mama and I prepared a huge bowl of potato salad. We also prepared the appetizers which included big bowls of tortilla chips and chili-flavored potato chips and guacamole in a red and green ceramic bowl.
My mom baked a marble cake decorated with 12 Mexican flags that we purchased at the educational supply and souvenir shop.
One hour later, Uncle Roberto blew a red whistle. He made us laugh when he put on a red, green, and white wig.
“Tío, you act like a funny clown,” I told him, giggling. He had my young cousins and I line up on the dusty desert soil that he called the “Graciano playground.”
He introduced us to the Mexican jump rope where the children sing funny, rhyming melodies in Spanish while jumping. I enjoyed this game the most. I waved my pompoms (red and green) while my pre-teen cousins played baseball and volleyball.
At the end of the day when my cousins departed for home, my preteen uncles sat down with me on a red bamboo carpet and played jacks. To their surprise, I won every game. Robert, my favorite uncle, said with a smile on his face, “Elenita, you are very intelligent and you are good at learning Mexican games.”
“Gracias, Tío,” I replied with my head down, feeling kind of shy. The Fonseca-Graciano family gathering was the most memorable day of my visit to Mexicali.
Saturday, homeward-bound, was the saddest day of the week for me. I so desired to stay at least another week.
While sitting on the patio wooden benches, we exchanged gifts. Mama nodded her head to me, which was the signal for me to carefully carry the gifts that were in a beautiful Sears shopping bag. Mom gave Grandma six Tupperware containers and a Pyrex baking pan.
Her father received a blue cotton Gabardine dress shirt and a pair of navy blue working gloves. And my two uncles were given a pair of brown work gloves with matching sweatshirts.
Our grandparents gave us delicious homemade cornbread and corn tortillas. We hugged, kissed, and shed a few tears. I told my grandparents that we had so much fun that I looked forward to visiting them the next year.
Yes, we were blessed. I will always cherish the special memories of our first vacation with my siblings to our abuelitos in the Mexicali valley desert ranch.