In 1972, Mom and Dad were able to purchase their first, brand spanking new car off the Tipotex Chevy Dealer lot that used to sit on Elizabeth Street in Brownsville. It was a ’72 Chevy Impala, brown mustard colored, with a white top, four-door, with ivory colored interior. It had a radio and it was air-conditioned. It also had electric windows. Mom and Dad pulled out all the stops and went for the complete package of bells and whistles. The car was a freakin’ boat! When I entered high school, I was allowed to drive the Impala to school and discovered, to my amusement, that the car could also fit 8-10 of my high school girlfriends. Those were fun times . . . but I digress.
When we were kids, Mom and Dad worked hard and did everything they could to make sure we experienced a family vacation every summer. The summer of ’72 we charted out a road trip to Albany, Georgia, where my Tio Seme lived with his wife, Aunt Diane and our cousins, Eddie, Tony, Robert and Anita. My memory fails me, but I know I also had a half cousin, a daughter of Aunt Diane’s from a prior marriage.
The trip was filled with many stops and constant review of the road map. My Mom was not good at reading maps and my Dad didn’t speak or read English, so the navigation chore was left up to me and my brother. I have to say my brother and I were excellent map readers and guides for my Dad. We would let him know what interstates to take, where to exit, how far we were heading. That trip to Georgia had us stop in Orange, Texas and Mobile, Alabama before our arriving at our destination of Albany. I can still remember the putrid odor of the Houston area refineries as we drove through the Golden Triangle region, and being in awe of the majestic pine and willow trees of the coastal states.
The day we drove from Orange to Mobile was a long one. We started out early at day break and did not stop until nightfall. It was a day I can still remember like it was yesterday. It was the day my Dad pulled off the interstate at the request of my Mom because she wanted some pecans. Pecans to this day are one of her favorite nuts to snack on, after Spanish, spicy, salted peanuts. Mom had been noticing all sorts of vendors off the road selling fruit, pecans, peanuts . . . she had asked that Dad stop the next time we spotted pecans, and he did.
We had spotted an “ol’ feller” in pantalones de pechera (overalls), no shirt on, wearing a straw hat, holding a rifle at his side and petting his bloodhound dog on the other. If I’m lying, I’m dying. I kid you not, it was a picture right out of “Hee-Haw”, that show that ran right after The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday nights.
Dad parked the Impala and approached the man. We saw him trying to talk to the guy about buying some pecans. It was obvious the man was interested in the sale because he picked up a small bag of pecans to show my Dad. My Dad then waived for my Mom to come help him seal the deal. I have to tell you that my Dad was so white that he would turn tomato red when he had too much sun and his legs were so white they were blue, and Mom was color bronze, Morena, nothin’ white about her. She didn’t think twice about having to interpret for Dad. She had long grown accustomed to being Dad’s translator wherever we went. We didn’t think anything of it either. My brother and I had always known Mom to be Dad’s translator wherever we went, the store, the gas station, the movies, the restaurant, everywhere, except when in Matamoros and the rest of Mexico.
As Mom approached Dad and the ol’ feller, we could see a frown come over the ol’ feller’s face as he looked at Mom up and down and pulled the bag away from my Dad and closer to himself. The sale did not happen. Mom and Dad came back to the car empty handed and a little quiet.
We didn’t know quite what happened until a few days later when we overheard Mom telling Tio Seme what had happened. The ol’ feller noticed my Mom was not White. He was okay with selling my Dad pecans because he was white and didn’t even mind that Dad did not speak English. But, the minute that he saw my Mom, he reneged on the deal. All the adults knew why. The ol’ feller was racist. My folks all understood it for what it was and had grown accustomed to simply taking their place in society. That’s just how it was. That was the South, the South as I first came to experience it.
To this day, when I think of the South, I remember that ol’feller and those damned pecans.
I grew up not liking pecans. I like cashews and pistachios.
To this day, I don’t like the idea of having to travel through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama or Georgia.
To this day, I know why.