Friday, January 12, 2018

Chicanos at War

Answering Their Country’s Call

In the book, Among the Valiant, Mexican-Americans in World War II and Korea, by Raul Morin, he chronicles the extraordinary and little-known heroics of Mexican-Americans in combat.  One such story tells of Company E, 144th Regiment of the 36th (Texas) Division, the “all Chicano Infantry Unit.”

According to Morin, the soldiers were all Spanish-speaking, and included Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and “so-called Latin-Americans.” Most were former members of other units, including the Texas National Guard. Thus, while other companies filled their ranks with “raw recruits”, Company E was “up to full strength with seasoned and well-conditioned GI’s.”

The unit says Morin, shipped out of Staten Island in 1943, bound for Europe. “Everyone agreed that Easy Company ‘era la mas alegre.’”  They kept each other company on board with songs, corridos, boleros and rancheras, skits, and comedy acts using language from the barrios they had come from, aboard two ships, the “Argentina”, and the “Brazil.”

Among the first Americans to land in Italy, they led the assault on Salerno on September 9, 1943.  “They waded right into the thick of things, [and] within one hour the ‘boys’ in E Company became men, battling back and forth with the Nazi defenders,” and it wasn’t long before one of them distinguished himself with bravery, “a tall, bronze-faced Chicano Sergeant named Manuel S. Gonzalez, better known to his friends as ‘El Feo’ (the ugly one).” 

His unit had been pinned down by mortars and a Nazi machine-gun nest, and as he crawled toward the German lines, a grenade exploded beside him, wounding him in the back and in one hand. “But he did not stop until he reached the German position.” Says Morin, “when Gonzalez came crawling back to his outfit, the mortars and the machine gun had been silenced. He earned himself a Distinguished Service Cross, in the process and the respect of his men.

Morin goes on the document many engrossing tales of the bravery and bravado of Mexican American soldiers who distinguished themselves in combat, seventeen of whom were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor, and many more were awarded lesser awards.  

Monday, February 20, 2017

May the Egg Be With You, Always

May The Egg Always be With You Always

By the time you read this it will be too late and the curse befallen you.  

An article in our local Stockton, Ca. newspaper, The Record, appeared in the October 9 issue concerning a medium-astrologer-“curandera”- diviner-Tarot Card reader named, Maria Murillo Beltran, or “Madam Maria” in LA who has recently experienced a rash of “spiritual cleansings” from customers who are hoping for some kind of  “spiritual intervention”  from the negative energies or forces should Donald Trump (God forbid), or “El Tromp” as they call him, (I call him “Trompas”- one with a trunk), be elected President. Nothing was said about Hillary, but I don’t see why these cleansings wouldn’t work for her, too (maybe on another side of town?) For thirty dollars a pop, she is alleviating their fears.

Using incense, herbs, oils, prayers and eggs these types of spiritualists have eased the fears of Mexicans for centuries, dating back to before the European conquest of the Americas in the 1500s. However, the thin line between a “Curandero” (one who cures), and a “brujo” (sorcerer) is blurred, and the two are often confused. That line is masterfully explored in Rudolfo Anaya’s novel, “Bless Me, Ultima”, where good and evil come toe-to-toe between the old woman, “Ultima,” (the ultimate one) and the brujo “Tenorio.” In the end, the reader is left to assume that although she “dabbles” in the black arts, she uses them for good, but at a price.

This stuff has always intrigued me, but with healthy trepidation. My Tia Juana, was in fact, a “sobadera” (masseuse), and more than once my mom forced me to see her for treatment against the dreaded “empachada”, or indigestion, after eating green, or unriped fruit, she claimed. I don’t know what was more awful, the indigestion, cramps or diarrhea I had, or her painful body massages! Other times, she would strap stinky, raw potatoes on my feet for who knows what reason.

 Sometime in the early 70s, I heard a commercial on a local radio station that went something like this: “Are you suffering from jealousy, failed romance, a husband who drinks or womanizes, or a problem with your job? Well then, call ‘La Curandera Rosa” and she will help you resolve your problem.” Another time, she announced that “Curandero Convention” was to be held in San Jose. I recall wondering what it would consist of, workshops and trading of latest supernatural concoctions?

The topic inspired lively discussions in my Chicano Literature classes and students were anxious to tell their own stories to about this ominous side of our culture. One story concerned a woman here in Stockton, who was experiencing severe pain each time she urinated. She was convinced that someone had put an evil spell on her, but doctor-after-doctor just snickered and told her that she was just being silly: “There is no such thing as an evil spell; go home and take an aspirin.” Finally, one doctor told her “Ma’m, you are absolutely correct. You are possessed by an evil spirit. I will give you some powerful medicine that will banish the spirit from you. He then scribbled something on a piece of paper. “Here, take this to a pharmacy and take the medicine as prescribed. In a few days, you will notice that the color of your urine will gradually turn yellow. When that happens, the spirit will be exorcised.” She followed his instructions and was cured!

Not long ago my wife and I had a “limpia” (cleansing) done. Since her medical problems have mounted, friends (in good faith) continue to suggest all kinds of remedies, teas, prayers, ointments, herbs which “my uncle used and was miraculously cured.” One friend recently suggested a limpia which “worked miracles” on her. The place was an unpretentious store front on West Lane. Although I was nervous, we were greeted by a kindly old man who quickly put our fears to rest. On the shelves was a vast array of potions, oils and powders, all boasting some kind of protection against physical and spiritual woes.

He took us into a darkened room and seated us. The room smelled of copal (incense) and on his table sat candles, an array of religious statues, some Catholic and others crude representations of “Aztec” dieties, I suppose. Overall, it was a pleasant experience as he prayed over us, beseeching health, good fortune, a   healing of body and spirit, and protection from negative forces . He ended by taking a glass of water, cracking an egg for each of us, and dropping it into the glass. “If the egg floats, that is a good sign; if it sinks to the bottom, that signifies bad luck.” Both of our eggs floated.

If you happen to read this before November 8, 2016, crack you egg quickly and drop it into a glass of water before it is too late! And after this tortuous election, may your egg forever float! 

PS: I must've sunk to the bottom because we got Senor Trump(ista) as President. Curses!!!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Nopal En La Frente: Revisited


On visiting my blog today I find it interesting that of all my posts over the years only one has generated any measurable amount of interest (comments) from readers and that it a short post on the use of the phrase "Nopal en la Frente." The image in that post is of a clay mask I made some time ago of a face with a nopal or cactus pasted on its forehead. I was sure I had already posted a chapter from my book, "Songs from the Barrio" by the same title. So, I am taking the liberty of posting it here in hopes that it can continue to generate the spirited discussion of the first post.

Un Nopal en la Frente (from "Songs from the Barrio", by Richard Rios

It became obvious to me early in life that the color of a person’s skin would play a crucial role in succeeding in American culture. Ironically, in our family three of us, John, Shirley and me, were born light-complected, with freckles and red hair. The other three, Mary, Eddie, and Jessie were dark-skinned with black hair. My mother would admonish me for playing in the sun. “Métete a la sombra! Te vas a poner negro, como Indio!” It was understood that to be a black or “dark Indian”, was bad. The nice word for being dark skinned was to be called “Moreno.”

Mexicans refer to light skinned Mexicans as gueros or gueritos. I hated the word because it was often accompanied by a tone of ridicule. Where the red hair and freckles came from in our family, we never knew. Neither my mom or dad had red hair, nor did their parents as far as we knew, though my dad was light-skinned with freckles. I heard stories of Mexicans with blue eyes and fair skin in regions of Mexico, but I pretty much bought into the popular stereotype that all Mexicans were dark skinned and had black hair, and that I was an anomaly.

When I became a dad years later, both of our boys were born dark skinned with jet black hair. When they asked “Daddy, why do you have freckles?”  Jokingly, I would say, “One day my mother was painting the ceiling over my crib and I was spattered with drippings.” They would crack up. “Tell it again Dad, tell it again!

However, in school, being light skinned gave me an advantage over my darker skinned friends, who were quickly labeled “slow learners” and put in the back of the room. They were the ones prodded into fights by the White kids. As a result, they banned together, running in groups for self-protection. Ironically, most people never knew I was Mexican and I could run comfortably in both circles, even with Whites from downtown. But this was risky business. None of us wanted to be called a Gringo-lover. “Check out this Vato. He thinks he’s better than us,” they would say about any Mexican running with White guys.

But I have to admit something here. I had a thing for White girls, little “gringitas”, as we called them in Grammar school. I went head over heels for Greta Johnson and Louise Sailor, with the golden locks; but they never even knew I existed. My mother, sensing my dismay, would say in her old sage wisdom, “Acuerdate, amor de lejos, amor de pendejos”, reminding me that love from a distance, was a fool’s love. “Cuando te cases, casaté con una Mexicana porque ellas saben como respetar a sus hombres.” It was only Mexican women who knew how to respect their men so I needed to make sure to marry one, she warned. I would take her advice to heart years later and marry a girl from Mexico City.

It was the barrio culture for Mexicans to stick with Mexicans. Scandals would arise when someone married outside his group, a Mexican with a White, or the supreme disgrace, a Mexican with a Negro! These individuals were often ostracized in the barrio and treated with great suspicion. For a Mexican to pretend he was better than the rest, was considered a supreme insult. “Miralo, se cree muy Americano el pendejo, pero trae el nopal en la frente!” The image of someone having a nopal (cactus) pasted on his  forehead was hilarious.  We all understood that the cactus was our firebrand, sealing our Mexicaness, something we could never disguise or change, one we took to our grave. That no matter how American we thought ourselves to be, to them we would always be “just another Mexican”, was an irony that too often proved to be true.

“You are not an American”, one of teachers once told me, “You’re a Mexican”. “Mom, am I an American?” “No, you are a Mexican.” She confirmed. “But I was born here!” I protested, “And I speak English!”  “But in their eyes you will always be a Mexican”. End of argument. The teacher’s also changed our names. Beautiful Spanish names were shortened, I suppose, for their convenience. Federico became Fred, Margarita became Maggie, Jose became Joe, and Richard became Dick. I hated Dick. We all knew what a dick was. Worse, were stories circulated in the barrio about Mexican families or individuals who had actually Anglicized their names, about the Campos’ who were now the Fields’, and the Martinez’ who were now the Martins’.

Our Spanish accent was a separate issue. No matter how hard they tried many of my barrio buddies could never kick the Mexican accent and it became a barrier to them. “Mai teechur, tol’ me I gotta reed dis’ buk by tomurow.” For me, shedding the accent was as easy as discarding an old coat. But there was a huge price tag for trading our Mother-tongue for another. We had to choose: Spanish or English; there would be no compromise. Being bilingual was a thing touted in those days.  “The sooner you get rid of Spanish and your accent, the better”, was inherently understood by us Chicanos, pounded into our psyches to the point that some of us became ashamed to call ourselves “Mexican”. “No, I’m not Mexican, I’m Spanish”! We insisted. We understood clearly that Spanish had more class than the other word.

The advent of what would later be dubbed “Pocho” or “Spanglish” is even more of a mystery but it neatly and easily embedded itself in the barrio, a tossed salad of English and Spanish. “Mi teacher me dijo que tenia que read este book y write un essay on it.” There were no rules for grammar here. Nonetheless, most of us clearly understood it we flowed between las dos lenguas seamlessly”.

And so we ate “Spanish food”, not Mexican. My mom spoke only Spanish at home, though she understood it. For her, it was a cultural compromise to speak it. “Why should I?” She demanded. I was comfortable moving back in forth between the two languages and understood that one was to be used in barrio, and the other in public. I hated people scowling at us at a store or the bank when we spoke Spanish out loud, so I kept it to myself.

During the 40’s it was not unheard of for families to forbid their children to speak Spanish in the home, believing that it would prevent them from getting “ahead” in American society. While this bothered me at the time, I understood why they were doing it; in our home it was not so. We all spoke flawless English, but we never forgot Spanish, though we spoke it brokenly.  Many who lost the ability to speak Spanish would later grow to regret it, and I felt sorry for them.

For a Mexican born in the U.S., there was nothing more embarrassing or humiliating than to be spoken to in Spanish and not being able to answer! One of my mother’s greatest dismays was that of the many grandchildren she had, not one of them spoke Spanish, with the exception of my our son Michaelangelo, who my wife and I insured would grow up to speak Spanish, and she was proud of that.

Looking at myself in the mirror today, my red hair has grown white, and the freckles darkened, and my nopal en la frente, has almost vanished, though I still feel the prick of its spines on occasion. I had it removed surgically, so as to leave no scar. Now, I wear it proudly, by choice and I’m proud of it. After all, it cost me dearly.

(Book may be purchased for $9.95 on or at or by contacting me.)

Friday, November 27, 2015


October 20, 2015

Had a great time once again with Cathy Gillis' PUENTE English students at Napa Valley Community College! They had just finished reading my book and they were enthused to meet the author and gave my wife and I a warm welcome. I answered some well thought out questions the instructor had gathered from them beforehand. Asked by the teacher that if they would like their books signed by the author, they quickly lined up to do so. One student presented my with a special gift on their behalf: A Puente T-shirt, orale!!

After, I did a community presentation for a small crowd and spoke of my love for and lifelong delving in the arts, painting, drawing, sculpture, drama, writing, and music and ended by doing a few songs for them, "La Maldiocion de Malinche", "Rosita Alvirez", and the "Corrido de Dolores Huerta." Showing slides of Mexican muralists, Rivera, Orozco, and Siqeuiros, I read my poem, "Para Los Tres Grandes" (or the Three Great Ones). I also spoke of my love for my Mexican culture and how promoting it has been my lifelong work.

We were treated to a beautiful room at a local Westin Hotel that evening! And after a nice meal at Don Perico Mexican restaurant in downtown Napa, we were swallowed up by the plush, king-sized, down comforter bed and had a great nights sleep. Meanwhile, I had gotten a text from an ex-Puentista student, Vanessa Aguiñiga, who was a present in one of my previous presentations two years earlier, apologizing for not being able to attend the presentation, but inviting us to lunch she would "treat" us to at her place of work, Napa Valley Bistro! Like, how can you beat all this?

Thank you Cathy, Vanessa, and to your students for providing us with such a wonderful day for my wife and I!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Burial and Disinterment of “Mr. Spanish”
By Richard Rios

     I recently watched “The Children of Giant”, a documentary on the making of the 1958 Hollywood blockbuster, “Giant”, directed by George Stevens starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, in the last film before his tragic death. The story was based on the controversial novel (1952) by Edna Farber, about unscrupulous Texas cattle barons, and the racial divide between Whites and Mexicans in the early 20th century. The documentary, directed by Hector Galvan, tells of how the tiny town of Marfa, Texas, chosen for most of the on-location filming, with its large population of Mexicans, many of whom served as extras, was affected.

Funny, but what stood out to me in the documentary is one bizarre, darkly-humorous story epitomizing the phobia of racial discrimination against anything Spanish or Mexican, especially its language. Talk about English-only!

     In the local Blackwell School, a six-room adobe structure built in 1889, the racial division between Whites and Mexicans was made abundantly clear by the school’s policy prohibiting Mexican football players from using the same showers as the White players. The local cemetery was also clearly divided into a “White” and “Mexican” section. In her essay “The Politics of Tears: Marfa, Texas”, Mary Walling Blackburn, tells a story about a little-known “burial” that took place in 1954 at the school (also referenced in the documentary). Students (presumably Mexicans) were gathered at the school’s flagpole (quite appropriate) and instructed to write Spanish words on little pieces of paper. The papers were then placed in a make-believe coffin, and buried, in a symbolic ceremony that became known as “The Burial of Mr. Spanish.”

Blackburn further recounts that years later:

During the Blackwell Reunion of 2007, two hundred people assembled for the exhumation of Mr. Spanish. This disinterment was intended to symbolically reverse the previous suppression of Spanish by school authorities. However, when ceremony began, the original grave could not be located, so they orchestrated a performance, where the contents of the grave suddenly included an actual figure. This allowed for Mr. Spanish to be exhumed yet remain buried. Both dead and live, 'he' is nowhere and everywhere and language, as absence and presence, grids the ground. For myself and a few other outsiders, there was the misguided notion that something resembling the body of a man was to be pulled from the dirt schoolyard, something more like an effigy than a human. But what was disinterred from a shallow grave, dug expressly for the reunion, was a newly made child-size coffin with a book inside of it. In unremitting sunlight, Maggie Marquez, a local librarian and Ralph Melendez, the temporary gravedigger, both former Blackwell School students, held the new coffin aloft. Next, they lifted their fists to the air. Then Maggie raised the book to the sky - a small Spanish-English dictionary - and the plastic orange and red cover hovered for what seemed a while against the blue sky. The crowd, dressed in their old school colours, cheered.

     I was so moved by Galvan’s film that I immediately ordered the movie “Giant” from Netflix and watched it (again). More humor: in one scene, as Jordon “Bick” Benedict, Jr. (Rock Hudson), the tall, handsome Texas baron whose ranch “Reata” sprawls across some 500,000 acres, introduces his naïve, east-coast bride , “Leslie”, (Elizabeth Taylor,) to life in the “country of Texas,” a barbecue is held in her honor. Bick explains that it was Mexicans who actually invented the “barbecue” and that the word comes from the Spanish word “Barbacoa.” 

But as Leslie watches the Mexican cooks pull a burlap-wrapped bundle from a smoking pit in the ground, she asks Bick what it is. It turns out to be a cow’s head (Cabeza, a Mexican delicacy), but when a giant scoop of steaming cow brains is placed in Leslie’s plate, Leslie she faints and has to be carried into the house! OMG, I would have fainted too!

Oh, and as for my analysis of having watched, “Giant”, again, I fell asleep about two-thirds of the way in! Perdonenme.