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The Outsider

May 24, 1998|JAMES CARLOS BLAKE | James Carlos Blake is the author of "In the Rogue Blood," winner of the 1997 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction

He loved the desert towns--Agua Prieta, Nogales, Sonoita, Mexicali. Loved Baja California above all places on earth, loved Tecate and Tijuana and Ensenada. Sometimes they went to towns on the American side of the borderland--Calexico, Tucson, El Paso, Las Cruces--just for the novelty of it, to flirt with the blonds. At a time when few Mexicans traveled more than 50 miles from home in their lives, my father and his crews were men of vastly traveled experience, worldly men of the borderland, and not one of them yet 30 years old.

Sometimes there was trouble with the American Border Patrol, and on one occasion my father was jailed in Tucson for a night as the result of a misunderstanding involving an American girl he'd taken for a visit across the border. So bitter did this experience make him for a time toward all things American that he refused to speak English, poorly as he did, for nearly a year afterward. And several years later when the U.S. State Department sent him a notice that, according to the U.S. Nationality Act of 1940, he was entitled to claim American citizenship on the basis of his American parental lineage and had only to fill out the enclosed forms to do so, he tore up the papers. In Mexico City his brother Juan received the same forms and also threw them away. They knew themselves as Mexican and no argument about it.


He met my mother, Estrella Lozano, at a dance in Brownsville, Texas, and the ensuing courtship was whirlwind. She'd grown up the only child of a Mexican horse rancher whose ranch encompassed thousands of acres just south of the border in Tamaulipas state. But her mother hated ranch life, and so her father bought them a house in Brownsville. She attended Brownsville schools and learned to speak English so well that her mother, who spoke no English at all, often chided her for learning it better than Spanish. She became a true borderland Mexicana--did the jitterbug and sipped black cows at the drugstore and thought Clark Gable was the living end. And then she met my father, and next thing she knew, she--who had never ventured farther from Brownsville than her high school graduation trip to Galveston Island--was waving goodbye to her grim-faced mother as her husband of less than three days gunned his yellow Buick from her house on Levee Street and toward the international bridge. Two weeks later she was in Baja California, as far from home as the moon.

She was at first thrilled by the adventure of it all, but my father often had to leave her alone in whatever house he rented in whatever pueblo was closest to the construction camp where he had to spend most of his time. Sometimes they were apart for days, and she'd become terribly lonely. Her only companions were the young maids my father hired to help around the house. The maids were sympathetic to my mother's plight and tried to keep her entertained with stories of the region, with accounts of ancient legends and tales of the haciendas that had long ruled that portion of borderland Mexico. In years to come my mother would tell those tales to me.

Yet there was no assuaging her loneliness, and in one of her frequent letters home to her mother, she signed off by writing, "Sometimes I think this is the world," and drew a long arrow pointing to a circle the size of a quarter at the top of the page--and then drew another arrow down the margin of the paper to point to a tiny pencil dot at the bottom of the sheet: "And this is me." The first time I saw that letter I was a grown man, but the sense of isolation it conveyed struck me with a keen recognition. It well described how I'd felt most of my life, except that I had no idea where that large circle at the top of the page--which for her was both her father's ranch and her mother's Brownsville home--would ever be for me.

My father came home from the job as often as he could. Sometimes he could stay a few days, sometimes only for hours, for even less time than it took to make the drive from the camp. But whenever he and my mother were together, they had wonderful times. They went to nightclubs if there were any in town, to cantinas if that was all there was. They drank and danced and made each other laugh, these young lovers who were as much in thrall to their passionately romantic natures as they were to one another, whom in truth they hardly knew. In photographs from those days my father is deeply tanned and lean-muscled in his short-sleeved work shirt. His hair is black and curly and his grin, bright white. He sports a roguish pencil-thin mustache, and his eyes are full of daring. My mother's pictures show a girl, dark-haired and fair-skinned, sensuously slight, beautiful. She looks as if she could ride her father's strongest stallions with a sure and easy grace.

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