I was twelve, and my sister was about to marry her football-captain sweetheart. She was sixteen, he was seventeen, and the approaching union was fraught with dangers whose effects, many years later, would multiply and spread into the core of San Francisco society and would, more years later, help to define my life.
But now it was 1945 in El Paso, Texas, and plans for my sister’s wedding had aroused the wrath of the groom’s father. A sprig of a man, Señor Antonio Guzman, referred to only as “señor,” “sir”—bedridden for years and partially paralyzed—had sworn to stop the wedding “by whatever means may become necessary.” His anger was meant to punish his son, who had, he declared, “strayed beyond decent bounds by intending to marry so young, a breach of decorum I will not condone.” Being underage, the teenagers required permission of their respective parents. They had my parents’ for a reason that Señor did not know.
Now, to understand the enormity of Señor’s wrath at his son, and my mother and father’s escalating anxiety that my sister’s wedding proceed immediately, one must know that these implications of danger were swirling on the border of two juxtaposed cities—Juárez in Mexico and El Paso in Texas—cities separated only by a stretch of the Rio Grande, most often a bed of dry sand along whose banks lazy spiders spun their webs.
That geographical proximity had created in Texas a class of unique immigrants—men and women of education and means who had fled Mexico during the revolution of 1910, when Porfirio Díaz, the president turned dictator, was forced into exile, throwing the country into a chaos of shifting factions and loyalties. That class of formerly privileged Mexican immigrants often claimed ancestral lineage to “someone noble in Spain.”
Displaced and impoverished by the revolution, they were drained once again by the Great Depression. They grasped onto a societal hierarchy, disdaining those Mexicans of Indian ancestry, a fact revealed, they staunchly claimed, by darker skin, by their “chicanismos”—crude mannerisms, the designation “chicano” being relegated then to a lower class of Mexicans—and by coarse down-tilted eyelashes. Not until years later did I understand why my mother so diligently and gently guided me, five or six years old at the time, to lie on her lap while we sat during stifling Texas nights on the unscreened porch of our dilapidated house as she curled my already curly long eyelashes with a saliva-moistened finger.
The two groups of Mexican immigrants had this in common: Spanish was the language of communication; English was practiced only as necessary among older Mexicans, though increasingly among the younger ones. My mother, like others of her generation and by announced choice, never learned English, considering speaking English to be a betrayal of the country her family had been forced by turmoil and circumstances to flee. At home, we spoke only Spanish.
During World War II, just recently ended, Mexican families with sons in the military had made a notable exception to their clinging fealty to Mexico. They were swept into patriotic fervor. Square signs—red, white, and blue—sprouted in windows: “Our Son is Serving America.”
My mother went to church almost daily to recite tearful rosaries for the safety of my brothers: Robert, the older of the two, in the South Pacific; and Yvan, the younger, in Germany. Both would be returning soon, a fact that made me lament that that would not occur sooner so they might use their military skills to thwart the growing menace of Señor.
Through tumultuous times in El Paso, the class of once privileged immigrants, however poor they increasingly became like other Mexicans in the foreign state of Texas, retained from their previous culture, unbudging attitudes toward social propriety and morality. Those included a staunch belief in the Catholic church and in the sacred virginity of the Holy Mother, considered the Mother of God, not only of Christ. They held an equally staunch belief in the virginity of unwed women.
Señor’s initial threat to stop the marriage of my sister Olga and his son Luis soon escalated into an overt declaration of war conveyed by his tiny wife in a second visit to my family—the first visit had announced his fierce opposition.
Señor’s wife was a woman so small, so like a buzzing hummingbird, that it was difficult to believe what was generally known, that she daily dressed Señor in suit, tie, and shoes, and then carried him, coaxing, pushing him a little, and finally shoving him–gently–to a reclining couch, where, propped up, he glowered through a window and denounced the modern world’s immorality. What she probably suspected and what had coaxed my father and mother to grant permission for the union was that my sister was pregnant by Señor’s burly son and might very soon begin to swell.
Whether knowing of the pregnancy would have caused Señor to relent—or to fall dead—was something his wife and son preferred not to chance. “Any more revelations,” the fluttery woman said after she had delivered Señor’s emphasis on his earlier warning, “will enrage him to the point that we will all be in mortal danger, God help us!”
“Over my dead body he’ll stop the wedding,” my father proclaimed, launching a war of tyrants—he would not allow another tyrant to impose his will on his own daughter, and therefore on him. He, like Señor, ruled rigidly over his family; He did not permit anyone else to even question our conduct. (Once, he confronted a truant officer who had captured me leaving the Texas Grand Theater by the exit door that I used to squeeze in free—I had gone to see Claire Trevor and John Wayne in The Dark Command during Revival Week, my favorite period, which came, too infrequently, once every three months or so and featured movies that, even then, had become “old.” “Don’t dare punish my son; only I can do that,” my father warned the truant officer, who was already backing away from the short, red-faced Scotsman’s fists, prepared to stress his words.)
Adding to the burgeoning dangers indicated in the alerts from Señor via his spindly wife was this equally grave one: The groom’s sister, older than he by eight years, had conveyed her intention to travel from Mexico City and return to El Paso to attend her younger brother’s wedding, thus challenging Señor, who had banished her years ago. That banishment had been accompanied by his vow that if she ever again crossed his path, or entered its environs, he would exile her not only from the city but from life. He had added to his harsh admonition one of his most emphatic curses—”a father’s righteous curse”—because, he said, “of her vile association that my dignity will not allow me to clarify.” He also demanded that she never again use his name as her surname.
Her banishment and the “vile association” had resulted from the fact that she was the kept woman of one of Mexico’s most powerful and richest men (the “invisible president”). Marisa Guzman was often referred to only as “the kept woman of Augusto de Leon.”
The kept woman! What did it mean to be kept? Not a wife, but belonging to—”the kept woman of!”—De Leon, a powerful man, a rich man whose wealth allowed him to choose among all others. To be kept meant–had to mean–that the kept woman was beautiful, didn’t it? Being kept was special—and scandalous enough to enrage Señor so fiercely. Banished and cursed! Yet if the rumors were true, she was also brave to challenge the wizened little man who ruled like a despot from his couch. The enormity of it all sent my imagination spinning into vague but exciting conjectures.
All this acquired the fascinating taint of exciting things forbidden, a matter underscored by my mother’s despondent sighs and the loud epithets from my father each time a further message promising to block the marriage was issued by Señor through his frightened wife, who came next to gasp only this:
“What more? What more? Ay, Dios mio!”
The answer to “What more?” came in El Continental, the daily Spanish-language newspaper published in El Paso. Framed in an ominous black border, like a warning of obituaries, an advertisement, four inches by two columns, appeared in its pages, formally announcing Señor’s grave displeasure.
I, Señor Antonio Guzman, formally oppose the union of my son to a girl whose name I shall not mention indifference to her gender. I will banish from my esteem anyone who sanctions such a union, which will be stopped.
Since Señor’s wife and my mother had once exchanged visits, I had seen the wizened mustachioed dictator on his couch as he shrank daily while his curses on the world and his uncannily dark mustache grew in fierce opposite proportion. When he barely glanced at me that day, I ran away, terrified, although I knew he was restricted to his couch.
“They’ll have to marry immediately because God knows what Señor is planning and Olga looked plump to me today,” my beautiful Mexican mother said as she conferred with my father in the dingy kitchen that defined his fall from grace. A gifted musician and orchestra conductor, my father had lived a privileged life in Mexico, the son of a Scottish father and a snobbish mother who proclaimed insistently that she was of “pure Spanish blood.” The family had been regular guests at dinner with President Porfirio Díaz before his fall, sharing his vacation mansion in Guadalajara. My father had gone on to excel at the University of Mexico, to learn how to play “every musical instrument,” and eventually to conduct his own orchestra, his own opera company. From the heights of artistic accomplishment and of Mexican society—and through the vicissitudes of disasters and poverty that the Depression had wrought in Texas—he had fallen to the rank of occasional musical tutor to untalented, grudging Texan children.
“We’ll take them to Juarez, and they’ll be married in a civil ceremony, but they’ll have to agree not to live together until they marry in church, in a Catholic ceremony; and I will write the music,” my father said, asserting his own moral qualifier to the wedding of the two teenagers, as well as his artistic participation in the nuptials.
Whether my mother thought that strategy was appropriate or not, she never dared challenge him. “Yes, you’re right, Roberto.”
We traipsed—there was no one to leave me with—my mother, my father, my sister and her fiancé, across the border to Juárez, where any marriage or divorce might be obtained for a fee. A dowdy Mexican magistrate in a gray suit took a few hard-earned dollars from my father and pronounced the couple legally wed. They agreed not to live together until a church wedding could take place—quickly. Such a church wedding had now become possible without Señor’s consent because the marriage was technically legal.
Another advertisement, even larger, appeared in El Continental:
The claimed union of my son, and a young woman I will not name in consideration of her gender, is illegitimate, not sanctioned by the Holy Catholic Church, or by me. If this canard proceeds into the Holy Church, I shall appear at the sacred altar to proclaim the fraudulence of such a union.
“Does he intend to crawl to the altar?” my father said with a nasty chuckle, while my mother shivered at the prospect of Señor’s carrying out his vow. “We’ll see how he intends to interfere.” My father’s tone indicated that he was more than ready to meet the challenge in this escalating war. I envisioned the two tyrants entangled, exchanging blows at the entrance to the church, a sight that caused me to double over with laughter, which would have earned me a vicious smack from my father if I had not learned, though not always successfully, to dodge.
Rehearsals for the wedding ceremony proceeded in a private home, the address withheld as long as possible. Apprehensive bridesmaids and nervous awkward ushers gathered there, my future brother-in-law’s fellow football players proclaiming their manliness by emphasizing their clumsiness. The stoutest among them was stationed at the door to make sure no invasion occurred. The wedding would take place next weekend in the Church of the Sacred Heart.
The tense silence that prevailed in our house was broken by a shrill little voice. Señor’s wife had escaped from her husband’s tightening scrutiny to appear again and warn us: “Señor intends to rise like Lazarus to stop the wedding!”
Whatever he did intend, I was sure that the man I had once retreated from in fear was capable of horrors, horrors that included my mother’s and his wife’s instant speculation that he would set fire to the church.
What’s more—my mother expounded on added perils—if he learned that his daughter Marisa was indeed expected, then he would surely have someone carry him into the church on a stretcher to fulfill his terrible promise.
“Might your daughter be coaxed not to come?” my mother asked the trembling little woman, who gasped, “Oh, she’s coming all right, nothing can keep her away, and she refuses to change her name, as he demanded—it’s still his and hers!—and it will infuriate Señor to the limit of endurance because everyone knows she’s the kept woman of Augusto de Leon.”
The kept woman! Those words resonated from what I overheard. I tried to envision her, shape her. Nothing I could conjure satisfied the extravagant title. I knew only that being a kept woman had created scandal; and so I imbued all the secrecy and whispers about her with a glow of glamorous wickedness. I begged God:
Please let the kept woman come.
The time of the ceremony arrived. The church had been adorned with as much opulence as limited funds allowed, including paper flowers intermixed with real flowers gathered that very morning from outlying fields. In the balcony in back of the church, my father was directing his small band of enduring musicians playing the special music he had arranged with enormous care to further affront his adversary in this battle of wills.
Wearing a suit jacket which one of my brothers had outgrown and which draped over me like a cape, I sat in the front pew nearest the altar with my mother, who clutched her rosary as if it was a weapon she might hurl if the tyrant invaded. I had noticed that two hideous aunts—my mother’s older sisters, whom I did not remember having ever said a kind word about anyone during their frequent unwelcome and unannounced visits to our house—were stationed like evil sentries by the entrance to the church, anticipating, I was sure, that Señor would somehow appear and they would be able to egg him on to do his worst while they pretended to ask for God’s succor for us all.
I was jolted by something else, strangely unexpected. I saw my sister entering the church wearing a white veil, while the groom, visibly uncomfortable out of his football uniform and in his rented tuxedo, awaited her at the altar. My sister? That was my sister Olga? My friend who had been a gangly tomboy who chewed her hair when she was anxious? Had I been so overwhelmed by the spiraling dangers, and so, capable of ignoring my mother sewing into the late night on yards of white lustrous material—how purchased, only she and God knew—that I hadn’t realized my sister was the cause of the main danger? She was being married?
How was that possible?—leaving me, her friend? Hadn’t she given me my greatest moment of victory in baseball when, as a moony child of eight—she was twelve—I had been relegated to the “outfield” of a vacant weed-claimed lot to daydream while a neighborhood baseball game proceeded? As I had been imagining what lay behind the sheet of blue Texas sky, I heard her shout at me across the lot: “Jump and catch it!” Responding to her command, I jumped, my hand up, and I made the catch that won the game.
In church now, seeing her like a ghostly ship gliding away from my life, only then did I realize that my sister, who was not gangly any more and was very pretty—would never again play games with me. I felt a sense of betrayal, deepened when she passed by in the procession of bridesmaids flouncing like lavender butterflies and she did not glance at me. Was she embarrassed by what she was doing?—there in white, getting married?
My mother, weeping, kept looking toward the back of the church, nervously, and then fretting with her rosary so absently that her fingers did not advance along its beads.
“God protect us!” my mother exhaled loud enough to be heard by those seated several rows away. They and others, stirred by her reaction, turned to locate the object of her shock at the entrance to the church.
Señor! He had done it. He had been carried to the church on a stretcher, and then, with all the force of his meanness, he had pushed himself up. There he stood at the entrance to the church, the morning sun carving a threatening shadow along the main aisle as he paused, ready to unleash on us all whatever horrors he had plotted.
But it wasn’t the tyrant that had cast such an imposing shadow. It was—
“The kept woman of Augusto de Leon!” my mother gasped.