Manda Marries the Wetback

by: Chuy Ramirez
Posted: August 25, 2021

Vignettes from Strawberry Fields

On her sixty-ninth birthday, Nina recounted to Joaquin how Manda and Benancio had met, on a particularly humid, sweaty Saturday in south Texas. As Manda tended store at the corn mill and kept an eye out for young Nina, the lyrics of a tune gravitated to her, playing in her brain, and she unconsciously, quietly hummed its poetry: “Pasastes a mi lado (You passed right by me)…con gran indiferencia (with such indifference)…Tus hojos ni siquiera (Your eyes hardly)…voltearon asi a mi (noticed me)… Te vi sin que ve vieras (From a distance, I observed you, but you never turned to me)… Te hable sin que me oyeras (My heart spoke to you, but you never heard me)…y toda mi existencia se ahogo dentro de mi (and all that I am died within)…”

Manda had first noticed Benancio standing outside, when she gazed through the large, plate-glass window of the tortilleria y molino de nixtamal (tortilla and ground corn mill). “There’s something special about that man, something that sets him apart from the rest of the wetbacks,” Manda whispered to herself, a habit she’d picked up as the only child growing up in a strict household. Everyone in San Felipe called them “wetbacks.” Those rugged, stringy souls with suspicious faces and cedar-bark hands were either legal workers, los braceros, or illegal workers, los mojaditos, but who could tell them apart.

The man outside picked through the seams of his thin wallet, as if taking inventory before coming into the store to make a purchase. Perhaps it was the way his clothes fit him: simple clothes, Manda observed, but neatly pressed. A man who cares how he looks. She felt herself smiling and wondered whether anyone could tell. He was also tall, something she liked. At his thin waist, the tip of his well-used burgundy leather belt was tucked in behind the loop. His dark brown dress trousers complemented the tan, checkered, long-sleeved shirt. Given the August heat, though, Manda wondered how uncomfortable the ensemble had to be.

Behind Manda, the hopper noisily swallowed the masa (corn meal dough) mixture whole and churned out tortillas for those who could afford them. Two young women helpers stooped over the hot griddle. The oldest one, eighteen at the most, Panchita, always helped Manda at the mill on Saturdays. Panchita put on a full-length vinyl apron, took nixtamal between her hands, and formed large, basketball-sized, pale yellow balls of the bulky dough mixture. Still in high school, Carmelita’s job was to cut white butcher paper lengths from a roll hanging behind the counter. As the customers paid for their nixtamal or tortillas, Carmelita wrapped the orders in the butcher paper.

Manda stood at the glass counter, tending the line at the bulky National Register cash register and occasionally glimpsing toward the window.

Without turning, she called out as she rang ten cents into the cash register, “Panchita, be sure we have enough nixtamal boiling!”

The money drawer at the bottom of the register popped out when Manda turned the handle. At the same time, a wide strip of paper with the printed total rolled out of a slot at the top of the machine. “Ten cents, please.” Manda smiled at the short, thin man next in line.

Peering from under a weathered straw hat with a chinstrap tied behind the neck, the mojadito smiled back with smoke-yellowed teeth and winked at her.

Manda smiled through one side of her mouth, shook her head ironically, and handed him a dozen warm tortillas wrapped in white butcher paper. She then wiped the sweat beads from her brow with her long white apron.

“We have enough maiz, Mandita,” Panchita yelled out over the churning of the motorized mill, “but we don’t have enough lime.”

Manda excused herself from the counter, measured four cups of lime, and poured it into the sulfur-yellow mixture that was bubbling in a large cauldron. She then turned toward the plate-glass window to renew her constant vigil over Nina, her ten-year-old niece, who had wandered outside. She loved Nina so, but she knew she could never love the child as much as she would love a daughter of her own. Every time she hugged a baby, she imagined it being hers, its warm face up against her bosom, its beady eyes probing up at her face, meeting hers inquisitively and finding confirmation, smiling a tiny grin that could only be described as innocent and authentic. She pursed her lips and sighed at the thought.

Outside, a group of mojaditos, some in filthy field clothing, mingled about, sharing their grilled maiz tortillas. Some just added salt and devoured them as if it was their first meal in a long while. Others passed greasy fatback pork rinds between them and slurped Coca-Colas, a luxury they had purchased with their Saturday paychecks, their lips and fingers glossy from the oily fat. Working around the men, picking up empty returnable glass bottles and the trash they were creating, was Nina.

Manda had minded store at the molino de nixtamal ever since her arrival from Saltillo.  The business was what her father had envisioned when the family first arrived from Mexico in 1905, with his oldest daughter, Rebecca, in tow. Relying on the latest innovations, the corn mill converted rock-hard kernels into the masa the women shaped into the staple of San Felipe life. White maiz was boiled in a mixture of water and lime powder until softened, then ground by a motorized mill, into the sandy dough. Maiz was sold by the pound to the women of the neighborhood.  The sweet scent of the freshly ground maiz had them scurrying there daily, forming a long line at the tortilleria.

America had beckoned. The Mexican radio station announcer touted the benefits that awaited the braceros: “Come one, come all to the plaza at the center of Linares on Saturday! Sign up as a bracero. Go to America, where jobs are plentiful and wages are good. The Mexican government will protect your interests while you are in America.”

From under the hood of a 1936 Chevrolet, Benancio struggled with grease-smudged hands, fiddling with the spring of a carburetor. Linares, Nuevo Leon was just up the mountain from Monterrey, Mexico, up where the old goats grew fat while lechones (baby goats) were weaned for Monterrey appetites, where daily echoes of carpenters’ axes resonated just before the warning shouts, “Agua!” (“Timber!”) and the telling, thunderous crash of the most superior pine in Mexico. Unlike the others from Linares, who immediately left for the United States, Benancio was reluctant. Eventually, though, he, too, would depart for the United States.

Handsome, over six feet tall, and with an impressive gray, felt, Roosevelt-style Stetson on his head, the man lowered his head as he walked through the front door of the molino and awaited his turn in line at the cash register. Towering over the rest of the men and clean shaven, except for a well-manicured mustache, Benancio’s features were unmistakably Arabic.

Manda was one of three sisters who owned the corner general store and the corn mill, and Benancio had learned that the three ladies were very well respected in the community. The oldest, Señorita Rebecca, was close to forty-five. Rumor held that she’d been left very weak from tuberculosis, and she rarely made an appearance at the general store, as she preferred the solace of her second-story bedroom next to the breezeway.

Without looking up at Benancio, Manda asked, “Are you with the group who stays at Don Gabino Flores’s place?” Don Gabino had contracted fifty braceros, whom he accommodated at his truck garage, which he had converted to sleeping quarters.

Benancio was fumbling with his money when Manda spoke, and it seemed he had not heard her.

***

Joaquin interrupted Nina’s story. “I heard that Aunt Rebecca was the brains of the operation,” he said.

“Oh, let’s leave that for another day,” Nina said. “Let me continue before I forget.” She smiled and went on. “Now, Benancio knew there, in front of him at the cash register, was the youngest of the three sisters…”

***

Manda’s wavy black hair was captured in a hairnet. She had clear, olive skin and thin lips. She looked up at Benancio, inquisitively meeting his gaze, cuing him and anticipating his response.

“A dozen tortillas, perhaps?” she suggested.

A modest Benancio responded cordially, his white teeth gleaming, “Oh, please forgive me, señorita. I could not tell if you were addressing yourself to me,” he stammered.

“Ten cents, please.” Manda gave Benancio change for a quarter.

He looked at the loose change in his hand. “Expensive, eh?” Benancio complained mildly as a disappointed look came over his face.

“Absolutely not,” Manda retorted, resolute, then reproached herself to the point of sounding apologetic. “The price of corn has increased dramatically, and still we have not increased our prices.”

Benancio swallowed nervously, and his voice faltered. “Señorita, in Mexico, I would have paid no more than two or three centavos for the tortillas.”

Si. That’s true, but you’re not in Mexico, are you?” She smiled as she said it, making sure to address him with the informal “tu” instead of the “usted” she had formerly used.

“Hmm.” He smiled back at her, and as he opened the door to walk outside, he heard Manda addressing the next man in line.

“Ten cents, please.”

***

“Manda, Mandita, por favor (please)!” Rebecca shuddered. “You can’t marry that man! You just met him, for heaven’s sake. Hay Diocito! (Oh God!) He’s a wetback!” Rebecca declared, tapping her breastbone, which she tended to do whenever she was stressed. During her bout with tuberculosis ten years earlier, breathing had become difficult for her, and she had picked up the habit of tapping. Presently, that was how she reminded her sisters that she wasn’t particularly healthy.

Manda’s jaw tightened. “I’m going to marry him, Rebecca. I already asked him.”

Oye nomas? (What?) Dios mio! (My God!) Enriqueta! Enriqueta, please bring me a chair. I may faint.”

Enriqueta was at Rebecca’s beck and call. She obliged, but her face seemed to glow with a sincere joy for Manda.

A defiant Manda stood in front of Rebecca, her arms crossed.

Rebecca offered what Manda knew was Rebecca’s perennial logic: “Manda, we’re a team—you, Enriqueta, and me. You have a home here. You know that perfectly well. No man controls you. Que le paso a Enriqueta (What happened to Enriqueta)?”

Manda turned to Queta, who wasn’t about to listen to Rebecca’s caustic complaint about her own marriage.

Queta turned and walked away, her lips pursed in strain.

“Exactly six months. That was how long it took for Queta’s young groom to return home, to run back to his mother,” Rebecca carped, “but not before Enriqueta became pregnant with Nina. Need I say more?”

None of the sisters ever lost their temper. Even when angry, Manda knew better than to ever cross that invisible line from which there might be no retreat. However, she felt it was as good a time as any to say her peace, even at the risk of doing so. “No one controls you, Rebecca…and no man controls me,” she said firmly. “I agree with you, but I am tired of you controlling me. You control my entire life. We are slaves to this store and to the molino.”

“Now wait a minute, hermanita (little sister). This store is our life. We work hard, especially you and Enriqueta. I can’t deny that. I know you both work harder than I. Of course, I haven’t been well for years, but this place has put a roof over our heads. Many in San Felipe would kill to be in our position. You must know that!”

Manda began to roll her eyes, but then her Aunt Teresa’s admonition prevailed: “A proper lady remains dispassionate when facing great difficulty. Her outward expression should never reveal frailty or immaturity.”

Manda wanted to make it known that she had made up her mind, that she had not walked over from the corn mill next door to ask Rebecca for her blessing but to advise her that she was going to marry. After all, she was all of thirty-four. “The store and the corn mill are what I am fed up with!” she spat, but the very second she blurted it out, she wished she could take it back. The store and the molino was their father’s dream, and Rebecca had embraced it as her own. Rebecca was right, after all: The store and the molino were their lives.

Rebecca swallowed, and an injured expression overtook her face.

“Rebecca,” Manda began again, apologetically, “the folks in the neighborhood are now getting around in cars. They can shop for their groceries anywhere.”

Rebecca’s left eye began to tear up, and her face began to reject Manda’s every assertion.

Manda continued pleading, though, as if the entire matter was resolvable through mere logic. “They no longer need us. For the store to compete, we must keep providing credit, and even in your condition, you have to help with grocery deliveries. We are losing money. The corn mill profits subsidize the cost of maintaining inventory at the store.”

Rebecca focused on Manda’s eyes. A painful frown grew across her face as she negated Manda’s statements with motions of her head. The older sister’s maternal instincts usually prevailed, and she was not about to let Manda undertake a disastrous course. Except for those two years she’d spent at the tuberculosis hospital, Rebecca had run the businesses and supervised the household with a firm hand. “You are wrong,” she offered in a strained whisper, as if forcing back her rage. “You are so, so wrong.”

Manda approached a few steps and raised her arms to her face emphatically. “Rebecca, the customers are almost exclusively mojaditos. You know that. Just yesterday, the radio said some congressman is proposing a law to repatriate all the Mexican people here. All the men must leave or be taken away. Those are the only customers who pay cash for what they buy. Sooner or later, the store will have to close, whether we like it or not.”

Rebecca bent forward in front of the reciprocating fan and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. Her wrinkles were few and well powdered, but in that moment she looked older than her years.

Just then, a group of children interrupted the discussion, noisily coming in one end of the store. They bought some chewing gum, then rushed out the other end, with Queta following their every move.

“It’s one o’clock,” Rebecca said.

As was their tradition, Queta and Manda closed the two doors to allow for the daily siesta.

When it was Rebecca’s turn, her voice shrilled. “Manda, there are ten, maybe fifteen households at most in North San Felipe that can boast of owning a late-model car. We are one of those families. Besides,” Rebecca complained, “unlike me and Queta, when have you, Manda, ever experienced what it is to labor in the cotton fields? From that hard work, we saved enough to create this business, a business that has survived in San Felipe for close to twenty-five years.” Her voice trembled as she pleaded, “This store is the product of our father’s, Queta’s, and my sweat!”

“I know, Rebecca, but…” Manda swallowed, sniffed, and bowed her head, just as she had done dozens of times as a child, whenever Aunt Teresa sentenced her to  make amends for some infraction. “But this store will never give me children. I am thirty-four already. I don’t want to live the rest of my life torturing myself, wondering what life would have been with children.”

A short distance away, Queta listened quietly, her hanky muffling her own sobs. Manda had been spending her nights drifting off to sleep while thinking of names for her children. “Two boys and two girls,” she had told Queta. “That’s all I can have. My Aunt Teresa once told me that women beyond the age of forty should not have children.”

Years of resentment converged on Rebecca’s face. How long has it been now? Rebecca had pondered the matter with Queta when she realized that Manda was spending time with Benancio. “Remember, Queta? Papa taking us to the train station in Mexico, where we waited for hours for the delayed train?”

Queta sighed. “I do remember. Imagine! It’s only been nineteen years since we first met our baby sister.”

Shortly after Manda was born, their mother had died, and Manda had been returned to Saltillo. The first fifteen years of her life, Manda grew up in Saltillo, with her uncle and Aunt Teresa. Teresa was a very successful midwife in that once-Spanish colonial city, and Uncle Placido was the rector at the renowned private technical college, Ataneo Flores Gomez.

Letters from Saltillo often came in cute little envelopes with a printed return address, Rebecca recalled. Inside, the rector’s letterhead even included a telephone number. How envious Rebecca had felt every time a letter arrived from Saltillo. It was always a very proper letter, typewritten, with all the formal greetings and salutations.

When Manda could finally write, her letters fell into that same style. Some included photographs. In one, she was sitting on a bench at the park across from the Saltillo cathedral. In another, during a wedding, a pre-teen Manda posed as she walked down the red-carpeted, curvilinear steps of the Spanish casino as she held onto the balustrade. In yet another, Manda was facing the steering wheel of a Model-T. How Rebecca had resented her younger sister’s lifestyle every time one of those letters arrived, and the photographic evidence only exacerbated her envy.

With Queta at a distance, feigning disinterest by dusting the colorful cloth sacks of flour that were stacked so high, Rebecca forewarned Manda, “Don’t forget these words, little sister, for I will never repeat them to you ever again. Remember them, Mandita. Believe me, you will. You are bound to suffer because of this choice you are making. Mark my words. That wetback will marry you solely because it will keep him here, in this country. Then…and remember this well, little sister…” She paused and took her eyes off Manda for a moment, as if reconsidering what she was about to say. When she turned back to Manda, she said, “When he no longer needs you, he will desert you.”

 

 

Chuy Ramirez is an attorney practicing law in the Rio Grande Valley since 1983, and dabbles in writing.

PUBLISHER’S NOTICE

The September 2021 edition of IberoAzltan will be our ninth. We had projected publication of six editions which would be focused primarily on an interview project which we began in 2017, called the Chicana/o Legacy Project. The interest in and support for IberoAztlan was Unexpected.

Rather than ceasing publication as originally intended, we are offering to transfer all publisher’s rights, powers, and legal authority to anyone (individually or otherwise) who has the interest and wherewithal to carry on the project.  The purchase price is $1.00, and the consideration and conditions are negotiable.

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