Yolanda Adele is a Norwalk girl who spent summers at the home of her maternal grandparents in El Paso, Texas. As she describes it, the home had “history, mystery,” and limited plumbing and electricity. 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 The house of my maternal abuelos (grandparents) in El Paso, Texas, is perhaps the most interesting house I’ve known. It was a two-story, box-like structure built around the 1800s, with a tavern downstairs at street level. Mis abuelos, Jesus and Acacia Garcia, resided in the living quarters on the upper level.
At one time it was the unofficial headquarters of the well-known Mexican revolutionary, Poncho Villa. It was rumored that Maximillan, the Austrian Archduke named emperor of Mexico, had also stopped at that tavern on his way to meet with Benito Juarez, then President of Mexico. Benito Juarez’s forces later executed Maximillan.
Blood traces and even ghosts of a bygone era were sometimes evident throughout the house. In fact, my seven uncles swore that one wall of the saloon was blood-soaked from gunfights that occurred so often during the century before. No matter how many times the spots were washed, the maroon stain would eventually and stubbornly re-appear.
Even then, I longed to know what secrets those walls held. The house was always filled with the boisterous voices of my seven uncles, most of whom lived there. At times they said they noticed, among their own chatter, other voices and laughter of people not visible to them.
In the kitchen next to the black iron, kerosene-burning stove was a free standing claw-legged tub. It did not have plumbing fixtures. Bath water was heated on the stove in a cast iron kettle. The only time the kitchen door was closed was when the tub was in use; otherwise, the door remained opened to the adjoining room that held a massive mission-style table and benches made from railroad planks.
When the bathtub was not in use, a large piece of butcher board was placed over the tub’s opening and used as a cutting board for meats and vegetables. Many wonderful aromas from the coffee, chilies, beans, tortillas, and rice mingled with the ever-present smell of kerosene oil which fueled the stove, and filled the house with a blanket of warmth that was inviting to those sitting at the table.
The commode was down a long stretch of hallway just outside of the eating area. It had only one small exposed light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Someone had tied its cord like a hangman’s noose which cast a large shadow on the walls. It loomed there like a teasing poltergeist. My hair stood on end whenever I had to negotiate past it.
There was no electricity in the “water closet.” A little sunlight came in from the cracks in the wall, and so did insects. The water tank was overhead with a long pull chain coming down to flush the toilet, if you could find it in the dark. Many times the chain had to be replaced because it was stolen or broken.
On one side of the wall there was a very large railroad spike which held pieces of newspapers and catalogue pages that had been cut into squares. This was used as toilet paper. Visiting “city cousins,” like me, never stayed in there long and were often seen running out half dressed when they were finished.
On very hot Texas nights I loved to sleep outside on the little balcony facing the main street, just blocks from the El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, border. When I was a child, I remember my cousins Beto, Betty, Rachel and myself lying on a makeshift mattress out there on our perch, like birds with a birds’ eye- view of people coming and going.
We tried to muffle our giggles at what we saw, couples kissing in the alley across the street or drunks relieving themselves as they staggered out of nearby cantinas. We also amused ourselves by making up stories or making fun of passengers scurrying to get on or off the streetcar.
Sometimes people lost their footing as they disembarked, but there always seemed to be someone there to give them a hand. There was a time when a man fell on the tracks while the streetcar was approaching. We all yelled, screamed, and hollered until some good Samaritans ran to pull him to safety.
On Halloween, the transportation inspectors and we kids watched for pranksters who might try to water down the rails with soap to cause the streetcar to lose traction. Twice we witnessed automobiles cross the tracks and collide with a streetcar.
During the day we’d replace the mattress with two rocking chairs. There we waited with anticipation to hear the chiming bells of the Red Line Street Car as it passed in front of my abuelo’s house. The street car was noisy on the rails and had a high-pitched sounding horn that also announced its arrival. We waved enthusiastically at the passengers; often we’d sing silly Mexican songs loudly to them. We were thrilled when some of the passengers applauded us, and we were only too happy to bow and blow kisses to them.
The Red Line Street Car had a sign over the door that read: “Ride a Mile and Smile the While - Only 5 cents.” The street car was built before there were plastic seats marked with graffiti and aluminum rails. Air-conditioning came by opening the windows. Imagine that.
Yes, watching the streetcars on Main Street provided “reality” entertainment for us kids in lieu of television, which my abuelos didn’t have. Sometimes our adult relatives and my abuelos sat on the terrace to visit with each other and greet friends they saw on the street.
We all enjoyed the simple pleasure of watching the streetcars go by until a horrible accident changed all that in the summer of 1950. At that time, my abuelo, Jesus, was working as a maintenance mechanic for the Red Line Streetcar Company.
Streetcars are propelled by onboard motors and require a trolley pole to draw power from an overhead wire. While working at a junction just a few blocks from his home, Jesus turned off the electricity in order to work on the overhead wire of a streetcar that was not in service.
A new and inexperienced employee saw the electricity switch was turned off and instead of investigating to find out why, he simply pulled the switch to the On position. My abuelo was electrocuted. Miraculously, he survived, though he was so severely burned that he had to have his right arm amputated up to his elbow. He remained in the hospital for nearly a year. After this accident no one liked to sit out on the balcony to watch the streetcars go by.
But the memories of our antics on our perch and the ever lingering aromas from the kitchen, along with the legendary stories heard, still linger in the recess of my mind. My abuelo’s house was the only place where I was in touch with my heritage, my culture. Their humble life-style gave me a glimpse and a flavor of where my people came from and what they had to endure. I’m glad that I lived to see that house before it was torn down with its kaleidoscope of history and mysteries.
Published: Sept. 18, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 23