Saturday, January 18, 2014

My Family's Grapes of Wrath

While it doesn’t happen enough, I get excited when either of my daughters discovers a book that they can’t put down. That happened recently with Isabella, who was learning about the dust bowl. She couldn’t remember the name of the book she read in class, but it clearly caught her attention. She asked me if I knew of any movies about the dust bowl. The movie that came to mind was The Grapes of Wrath, even if it was about much more than the dust bowl. In any case, Bella wanted to watch it.

I read the book in high school, but never saw the 1940 movie that featured Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. My mom told me the book by John Steinbeck was one of my Grandpa Louie’s favorites, because it accurately described the brutal conditions he experienced as a teen-ager during the Great Depression.

Grandpa Louie and his most of his family were back and forth between New Mexico and California during that time. He was 12 years old in 1930, when the U.S. Census shows him in a packed household on Ft. Moore Pl. in Los Angeles. He was with his mother, Eliza Chavez, his sister Perla, 8, and brothers, Benny 5, and Lalo, who was just 2. His father, Diego Antonio Chavez, and brother, Mike, were back in Cubero. Eliza’s brother, Felix Otero, his wife, Flora, and their children were also living in the same house in L.A. His Uncle Felix was the only person working – at a department store.

The Chavez’s moved back to New Mexico, at least by 1935. They were living in Grants, according to the 1940 Census. But tragedy had struck twice. Grandpa’s brother Mike was killed in an accident in 1936, and his father, Diego Antonio, died after a battle with TB, in 1939.

My Grandpa Louie married my Grandma Lola Gallegos in San Fidel, outside of Grants, in 1941. They must have left to L.A. soon after that. Grandpa Louie’s younger brother, Benny, died in 1944 in an accident at the shipyards in San Pedro, outside of L.A. My Uncle Lalo said his mother, Eliza, used the insurance money from his brother’s death to buy a house in L.A.'s Boyle Heights, where they stayed for many years. But Grandpa Louie and Grandma Lola moved back to New Mexico.

It’s clear that the depression years, and the treks to and from California, had left an indelible mark on Grandpa Louie. I wish I had the opportunity to talk to him again about his experiences. At least, I’m glad his great-granddaughter, Isabella, could get some sense of his plight as she watched The Grapes of Wrath.

As an aside, a funny thing happened soon after we watched the classic movie, based on the Steinbeck novel. I wrote recently about the rumor that another famous author, Ernest Hemmingway, wrote his most famous novel, The Old Man and the Sea, during a stay in Cubero, the birthplace of my Grandpa Louie.

I still doubt that the rumor was true. But during research of the rumor, a friend at the New Mexico Records Center and Archives reached out to expert Hemmingway scholars. One wrote back with the lyrics of a song referencing the rumor about Hemmingway’s supposed stop in Cubero.

While the song doesn’t prove the Hemmingway-Cubero connection, the thing at just about knocked me off my chair was another reference in the song --  the reference to John Steinbeck’s novel about Tom Joad.

John Stewart, a singer/songwriter, wrote "The Road,” about Route 66:

Where is the road?
Cyrus Avery’s ribbon of dreams
that ran away from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean to connect the Mid-West and the Promised land.
A concrete artery for the American Dream
for the automobile, for the restless traveler.
Where is the road that wouldn’t die
in 1977 when they took down the last highway sign and thought it would just go away,
but it wouldn’t just go away.
It wasn’t just a road Cyrus Avery's ribbon of dreams.
It was Pop Hick’s Diner with
Howard and Mary Nichols In Clinton Oklahoma
Where the heart beat of what John Steinbeck
Called the Mother Road
was heard over the sound of coffee cups
knocking against plates of Spanish Omelettes
And home fries.
Where is the Road that Tom Joad traveled west
From Oklahoma with his family
and tethered mattresses in the Grapes of Wrath.

Where Ernest Hemingway sat and sipped wine
In the Villa de Cubero in Cubero, New Mexico -
where he wrote The Old Man and The Sea.
Where is the road that refused to die,
as highway signs saying Route 66 began to reappear on the sides of buildings, shops and sheds as if by magic.
As if the signs that appeared painted
on the very concrete itself were a kind of
stigmata of the American dream.
Where Will Rogers once stood in the Coleman Theatre in Miami, Oklahoma
and re-defined the image of a country
with a reality check that long outlived
even Rogers himself, as the road became known as The Will Rogers Highway.
and the Coleman Theatre still stands beside 66
with an ornate style that screams "I am alive"
against the Oklahoma horizon.
Where is the road where Stanley Marsh planted
ten Cadillacs in the ground outside of Amarillo, Texas and Cadillac Ranch became visual rock and roll.
The road runs from Tucumcari
to Flagstaff, through Meteor City and Winslow, Arizona, with the line of a spider vein on the thigh of a runway dancer.
And the road cuts through the Mohave Desert
where sidewinders find the shade
in the shadows of abandoned Oldsmobiles
bleached into rusted skeletons
like those that lie beneath the
white hot sand of America’s highway.
And then it’s Azusa, Pasadena, Pomona
where harness horses walk under wool
blankets in endless circles at the L.A. County Fairgrounds and the solid air of Los Angeles hangs like the smoke of a
Hollywood pot party over the fading walls of the Miracle Mile.
Where is the road that stops at the Santa Monica Pier, where Crips and Bloods strut their territory over weathered boards that still shake to the feet of tourists and the sound of a carousel spinning it’s innocence in what’s left of the Promised Land.
Where is the road?
I must find out.

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