No-frills Christmas filled with joy: 'Mama's Santos' excerpt

2013-12-16T17:15:00Z No-frills Christmas filled with joy: 'Mama's Santos' excerptArizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 16, 2013 5:15 pm  • 

Bah! Humbug! If all of the trappings and trimmings of the holidays have you feeling like Scrooge, you don't need to have a visit by three ghosts to remind you of the simple joys of Christmas. Just read this excerpt from the award-winning series "Mama's Santos: An Arizona Life" by Arizona Daily Star reporter Carmen Duarte:

• • •

Chapter 9: Woman of the House

With adult duties, Nala has little time for school

In 1926, Nala’s oldest sister, Gumesinda, was dating Manuel Lara. Next in line, Angela, was being courted by Geronimo Castrillo, a man 20 years older.

Young Nala (my Mama’s nickname) was about to become the woman of the house.

Angela did not listen when her mother tried to persuade her not to become interested in Geronimo. Dolores thought he was too old for her 16-year-old daughter. But love is love.

Gumesinda was the first to marry. It was a fine celebration, and all wore their Sunday best.

Stepbrother Dimas took the bride and groom to church in his black Buick, along with best man Geronimo and maid of honor Angela.

After the services, Nala, 10, had her first ride in a car. She and a slew of children piled into the Buick, squealing with joy as Dimas took them for a spin.

The community of San Antonio, N.M., and friends in Duncan were invited to Gumesinda and Manuel’s wedding celebration at Nana Leonarda’s house.

Nana Leonarda prepared the food and set out the fine china, silverware and linen that she brought from Chihuahua.

Uncles brought their guitars and couples danced to the música — waltzes and lively ranchera songs.

The celebration repeated itself months later for the marriage of Angela and Geronimo.

The two older sisters moved into their own adobe homes in the growing family compound in Duncan.

They helped their mother with their younger siblings when they could, but they also worked in the fields and had their own houses to clean.

Dolores leaned heavily on daughter Nala, who at age 11 took over the household chores. By then, Dolores had given birth twice more — to Dolores, known as Lola, who was a year old, and to José, an infant. They would be the last of Dolores’ 11 children.

Nala continued to be a workhorse, almost never stepping into the classroom.

When there, la burra tried her best. Nala truly wanted to learn.

But mostly she learned to cook and clean. She found the energy and strength to fill a grown woman’s role. She attributes it, of course, to God and the santos.

She learned from her mother and from Nana Leonarda to cook the staples of the family diet — tortillas, huevos con papas and frijoles. She baked biscuits and brewed coffee.

Later, she learned to bake cakes and mouthwatering lemon meringue pies and bread. She cooked with plenty of love, and it nourished her relatives, who labored in the fields beginning at sunup.

In summer, they all came home for lunch at the height of the burning sun and napped before heading back to the fields at 2 p.m., returning home after sunset.

When they were gone, and her mother or one of her sisters cared for the young ones, Nala fetched water from the well and heated it over the stove, pouring it into large wash tins for laundering clothes on a scrubbing board.

She became enraged while washing the pile of diapers, a never-ending chore.

She resented doing the mother’s work. She said her anger gave her more energy.

She pressed clothes with an iron heated on the stove.

She made the beds and swept the dirt floor, sprinkling water on it to keep the dust down. The compacted floor was like rock.

Her brothers tended to the vegetable garden, gathered eggs and milked the cows.

Holidays were the only break from ceaseless toil.

Nala’s favorite was La Navidad, Christmas.

Nala would eagerly climb onto the family wagon with the rest of the children to head to Nana Leonarda’s in San Antonio for the annual celebration of Las Posadas and the novena to Santo Niño de Atocha.

The children wrapped themselves in blankets against the chill of morning as the horses pulled the wagons down the winding dirt road into New Mexico.

Christmas brought no presents and no tree. These were frills in a life where you were happy to have food. There were children who drank a glass of water for breakfast when the food didn’t stretch during the week.

Nana Leonarda helped widows of the community with the pickled and canned goods that she always had in stock. Nala believed God blessed the dishes at Nana Leonarda’s celebrations because there always was enough food. The dishes seemed to multiply, as they had in the Bible when Jesus blessed the fishes and loaves of bread.

It took about 90 minutes to arrive at Nana Leonarda and Tata Florentino’s farm in San Antonio. The children ran to the abuelos, who eagerly awaited their hugs. Nala and Nana Leonarda felt their special bond during their abrazo.

Nala was a little girl again.

She ran off in search of cousin Tita to catch up on gossip.

Tita was going to school in Virden, when she wasn’t hoeing and picking cotton, or harvesting potatoes and onions.

The smell of the onions permeated Tita’s skin during the picking season. She hated it.

She also hated the way she was being taught at school.

“The teacher wants our parents to teach us how to speak English. But they know our parents do not speak English. They cannot read. How can they teach us?” Tita asked.

Nala quietly listened. She knew the story all too well.

“I’m learning how to write a little, but I’m the only one who can understand it,” said Tita, now 14. 

• • •

“Mama’s Santos: An Arizona Life,” which ran in 36 installments in The Arizona Daily Star from Feb. 13 through March 19, 2000, is now available as an e-book in Kindle and Nook formats. The e-book includes a list of Spanish translations. Go to azstarnet.com/ebooks

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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