A Mí Me Toca: My Turn
I am at the County Recorder’s office in Martinez, California filling out a request for a death certificate for my father, who died seven years ago. It is part of a quest to document his life to help me in a journey to open up my own immigration options. I take one form to request the certificate and realize that very possibly, I may need two. If they are able to look up deaths via location and approximate date and their files go back far enough, I may be able to locate information on my grandfather’s death, as well.
I hand the clerk the completed request for my father’s certificate and one with information for my grandfather. Date of death states winter 1958. The clerk seems to have located a record as she charges me for two certificates and within minutes she is printing details of both my father’s and grandfather’s deaths on embossed paper.
My father’s death is not a mystery. It’s a sad story for another day. My grandfather’s death has always been a tragic tale, one I was about to verify by reading the cause of death. My father had told us my grandfather Martín had been run over by a train in Crockett, near the houses on the water where most of the local brick workers and longshoremen lived. Abuelito Martín had been trying to pull up a friend who had passed out drunk on the train tracks when the train caught them both. Maybe they were both inebriated and Abuelito’s reflexes weren’t quick enough, or maybe he died a hero. In any case, my father was there and he witnessed it. He would later tell us, “I had to pick up pieces of my father before the firemen came. You can’t imagine it. Trozos de mi padre. A mí me tocó recogerlo.”
Whenever my father was rueful or locked in his bedroom detached from us in mood and spirit, I chalked it up to the tragedy of losing his father in this brutal manner and how he was left to fend for himself in a country he never truly claimed as his own.
Before I read my abuelito’s death certificate a panicking question arises, “What if the train really didn’t run him over? What if Dad made up that story?” Who would make up such a story, chain themselves to such a tragedy? I didn’t know, but my father held so many mysteries and he did have a penchant for storytelling.
I quickly scan the document.
Place of death: Crockett (Rural) ½ mile East on San Pablo Railroad
Cause of death: Crushing injuries of chest and multiple fractures.
I am standing in a county office less than six coastal miles along the Carquinez Straits from the very spot where his life ended. If I weren’t in a hurry and on my lunch break, I could walk there. There is also a train station half a block away.
Two more bits of information strike me.
Length of stay in California: 30 years
Name of Father and Maiden Name of Mother: (the names I choose not to disclose)
My father’s grandparents’ names are printed there. They are names I never knew, names that were never spoken of as my father would only speak of his mother’s side of the family, the descendants of hacendados, landowners, the blue-eyed folk with Spanish lineage.
My Abuelito was 48 when he died, which meant if he’d been in California for 30 years he came into this country or at least left a legal trail at the age of 18. My great aunties had told me he was known as a norteño when he courted my grandmother, Isela. I have always considered myself a first generation Mexican-American since both my parents were born in Mexico, but if Abuelito had put down roots here this long ago, does that make me second generation or a generation and a half?
Also remarkable is his address: #8 Railroad Avenue, Crockett. My mother tells me this was a ramshackle house built on stilts over the Carquinez Straits, where modest houses once existed for laborers. She moved into that house when she arrived in this country and shortly after those houses were condemned for their poor construction and dangerous proximity to the railroad. My own childhood house on Loring Avenue was on the very edge of a cliff overlooking the railroad below. It occurred to me that we had been in the same spot for three generations. No wonder I was getting restless to move somewhere else, to be riding trains and not crushed or haunted by them.
I am amassing a two-inch high stack of documents from three countries: the United States, Mexico and France. Each of the U.S. and Mexican documents require an official translation. Some of them require trips to Sacramento and an apostille from the California Secretary of State. My father’s death certificate takes its place in the pile of documents. In the age of Dreamers, some of whom I teach and organize workshops for, I realize I am embarrassingly over-documented, but I am also one generation away from campesina, one generation away from soul-sucking poverty. All I have to do is talk to my mother for 20 minutes and references to her impoverished childhood surface.
My husband and children are French nationals and so it seems logical I should be as well, but I have put off the process for many years. I prided myself in being Californian, American with roots in Mexico, Xicana to the core. On some level, to file for some European citizenship stinks of betrayal. I tell my husband the reason he was able to become a U.S. citizen was thanks to my father’s struggles in this country and the abuelo who died on the railroad tracks. The price my father paid for living in California was the immigration itself, the tragedy of his father’s death, a lifelong alcohol addiction and 45 years of hard labor at a brickmaking factory. It was not a pretty life. Maybe now I wanted a pretty life.
When people I meet, white people mostly, learn a little about my past they have trouble taking it in, understanding my trajectory. My parents had less than a sixth-grade education and never quite acquired English literacy skills. My mother made ends meet by working in restaurants and plant nurseries, sometimes taking care of elderly people in the neighborhood, supplementing my father’s income as a machinist. I am the youngest of six children and was the first to attend university. I hold degrees from UC Berkeley, UC Davis and a teaching credential from San Francisco State. Right after graduating from UC Berkeley, I worked for a prestigious archival music company, handling Spanish language marketing and promotion for Arhoolie Records (now owned by Smithsonian-Folkways). It felt like a successful path. After a solid five-year stint at Arhoolie I decided to become a high school teacher and I have worked in public education ever since. The independence and creativity of teaching fuels me, allows me to provide for my children but also competes for time dedicated to creative writing, my truest love.
By some measure people see a success when they see me, but it’s a success that I’m ill at ease with. I have academic achievements and a stable, secure life, but what does any of that mean when I inhabit a country that cages and demonizes brown immigrant families, a country that brutalizes and hunts my Black brothers and sisters? As a young person I was always taught to reach for opportunity, that any goal was within my reach, but in this current environment of hostility to immigrants and people of color, my achievements feel hollow. My political actions are my writing, my community building, and nurturing conscious kids and educating youth in Northern California. It doesn’t feel like this is enough to create change with a government that so overtly violates brown and black bodies. How do I reconcile raising children in this place, in this time of violent transgressions?
Northern California is my home. All I have to do is think of Abuelito Martín who died on those train tracks. All I have to do is hear the trains when I go to Richmond, Crockett or Berkeley and I have confirmation of the price my family paid to be here, but I can’t help but wonder is it still worth it to be here?
In 2018, I traveled to the Southwest as invitations to visit other states unfurled before me. I visited Tucson, Santa Fe, and San Antonio in that order. My work as a writer and educator helped to carve this path. In 2017 I published a chapbook, Café Colima, as part of a first-place award in fiction through Kore Press, selected by one of my all-time writer heros, Edwidge Danticat. The good people at Kore Press organized a celebratory reading for me and my poet sister Natalia Treviño in Tucson. I traveled there to meet the publishers, read at their institute and visit the city. I was keenly aware of how close I was to the border and how close I was to Yuma, Arizona, the site of my father’s original border crossing. Even though my abuelo was already in California, my father at 14 was directed by my abuela Isela to go in search of his own father and to bring him back. “Te lo traes cuando lo encuentras.” Bring him back, she said, as if retrieving your father in another country was as easy as buying cinnamon from the corner store.
This was 1946, a time before coyotes, before mass incarceration, but still my father was caught in Yuma and jailed for a time. I only know this because his sister told me when I was in my twenties, always trying to explain my father’s suffering. When he died, I found his journal next to a typewriter and one of the entries was about this very incident. He regained consciousness in a jail cell just to witness an elderly man being beat on the head with a broomstick by the jail keeper. He doesn’t tell how or why he was released but he does eventually make his way to California, jumping trains and finding work along the way. I know it is an experience that traumatized him.
Not being able to “bring his father back” to Jalisco also traumatized him, especially as he found himself 10 years later witnessing my abuelo’s death, and then responsible for explaining this tragedy to the rest of the family back in Mexico. I know it was something he wanted to write about more. It is a story I will never completely know but will continue to explore with my fiction. I know Arizona as a state that anchors my father’s pain, yet I am grateful to Kore Institute for hosting me. This visit coincided with the time of inhumane family separations at border facilities, which continue to this day. My activism, whether it’s through writing, participating in protests, or raising funds for the ACLU, seems like a drop in the bucket against the monolithic machine that is ICE.
In April 2018 I was invited to participate in a workshop hosted by Courageous Conversations for Latinx educators from across the country in Santa Fe. I attended with three of my teacher colleagues. We worked through three days of empowering panels on colorism, helping children of color succeed and honing our own stories to step into leadership. I was most stimulated by meeting other Latinx professionals from around the country, non-Californians who have a different heritage–Ecuatorianos, Hondureños, Guatemaltecos, Dominicanos, Puertorriqueños and Peruanos. It opened my eyes and inspired me to bond and share stories, to encourage each other to sustain our work as educators. Now in 2020, mid-pandemic, I wonder and pray for my Latinx colleagues and all teachers, truly, as we navigate the daily beast of distance learning. I wonder who of my peers across the nation has been endangered or will be endangered by a premature return to the classroom. I know this country has failed us in handling the pandemic, and there has been a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
In July 2018 I had the privilege of attending the Macondo workshop founded by Sandra Cisneros. Macondo is a conference for Latinx and multicultural writers across the country. Although I have been writing for many years, I was late in arriving to Macondo, but there I found a community of writers who felt like family. That year I worked with Reyna Grande, whom I was acquainted with through writing circles in the Bay Area. It was a summer of new friendships and finding sustenance in my writing. I felt a renaissance of Latinx creativity flowing through San Antonio, a city I had written about as I chronicled the lives of conjunto musicians and guitarists such as Lydia Mendoza, back when I worked for the record label. In the five days I spent in San Antonio, I marveled at how talented and magical my raza, my Chicano compatriots, were who thrived in that community. I loved seeing brown faces and families everywhere I went in restaurants, grocery stores and on the river walk. Our readings and workshop talks fueled me in a way I had not experienced in many years. My poet friends, Natalia Treviño, Viktoria Valenzuela and Vincent Cooper also hosted and accompanied me for a reading of Café Colima at the Twig bookstore. San Antonio became a highlight as well, in my triptych of the Southwest.
For the first time in my life, I feel a sense of place not only in the San Francisco Bay Area, but also within the Southwest. I know these trips have aligned for a reason, to more deeply connect me with my homeland. I may one day make use of that stack of documents to allow my passage and integration into another country; James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Gertrude Stein and the Cuban writer, Zoé Valdés all come to mind as each of these artists made France their home. Could leaving the U.S. help me focus on my home in a way I can’t when I am mired in the struggle of surviving the daily grind? The truth is, I still would have to earn my living and be an immigrant all over again. Even though I am U.S. born, let’s face it, my brownness and indigenous features have always marked me as other. For now, I am staying in California, through the pandemic, through fire season, through climate catastrophes, through my children’s youth and resisting these times of racial strife. After all, if the artists and resistors leave, who will be left to continue the work and fight the good fight? It’s easy to favor an escape to another idyllic country, but I am not ready to abandon the life I have created here, the life my father and grandfather died for.
Leticia Del Toro is a fiction writer, poet and essayist from Crockett, California. Her awards include the 2017 Kore Press Fiction Prize for the chapbook Café Colima as well as residencies and fellowships from Hedgebrook, the NY State Summer School of the Arts and Bread Loaf. Her writing has appeared in Huizache, Zyzzyva, Mutha Magazine, About Place Journal and is forthcoming in Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century. Leticia earned an M.A in English from the University of California at Davis and also attended VONA and Macondo. She is working on a collection of short stories.