Don Felipe Gonzalez entered this curious world in 1927 in Sagrada Familia, a poor section of Guadalajara. It was not a good year to be poor in Mexico, seventeen years after the demise of the Porfiriata and a year into the Cristero War. His father was brutal, below animalic, and beat the family. Food was less abundant than they would have wished. Schools were close to nonexistent, even when they existed, which was seldom. Don Felipe was well positioned to become a useless, drunken, illiterate, bestial, dim, and wasted cabron y pendejo.
Unsung, rode-hard-and-put-away-wet champion of civilization. Stubborn as twenty mules wired in parallel.
He missed this boat. An sister taught him to read, herself having learned from local nuns. From what I later learned of Don Felipe, this may have taken as much as fifteen minutes. He turned out to be exceeedingly bright and to have, if not a photographic memory, something very close to it. He somehow got into a Catholic seminary at age ten, and stayed for four years. When he had to leave at fourteen, due to illness, he comfortably read both Spanish and Latin.
One day his father tried to beat him once too often. This is dangerous with male children who get bigger while the father gets older. Don Felipe took the club away and announced that if the son of a bitch ever tried it again, he, Don Felipe, would beat him into marmalade. He then went off to apprentice himself as a machinist. Over several decades he managed to save enough to build a substantial house in Polanco, another poor section of Guadalajara. This was pretty much unheard of for a poor worker who should have been illiterate. He married.
Violeta appeared. By this time they still weren’t even almost economically middle class, but neither were they hungry or insecure.
Don Felipe was not an ideal father but, given the circumstances, pretty near. He did not suffer fools, gladly or at all, or suffer much of anybody else. He roared and bellowed a lot, but never hit anyone. He had been hit and, I suppose, had found it unsatisfactory. He taught Violeta to read. It did not take long. Teaching a very smart and interested little girl to read an almost perfectly phonetic language of only a couple of dozen letters is not a work of ages.
Violeta. Figured her kid wasn’t going to grow up as a street urchin. Didn’t, neither.
She reached high school and found that she liked to run. She established a nine-mile circuit around the city which, then, in the mornings had little traffic. She did this almost daily. You may find this implausible. I have done uphill mountain hiking with Vi. It isn’t implausible. On her runs she carried a knife since bad things can happen in slums. She would have used it, I promise.
She decided that she wanted a university education. Back then, it wasn’t much done, certainly not by girls, certainly not by girls from poor families in Polanco. Well, almost certainly. Don Felipe had no objections. She would have to work her way through, and set out doing so. It helped that tuition was free due to a governmental desire to encourage education.
She worked as a maid cleaning the house of the Canadian ambassador, selling magical amulets at Plaza del Sol, and teaching Spanish at the US Consulate to whoever needed it. Natalia appeared, a collegiate accident. An American student would have killed it, but Vi doesn’t believe in abortion. Not because she is Catholic. Because she thinks it wrong. So now she had a full course-load, three jobs, nine miles, household chores, and a baby. Oh, sweet life of ease….
This, you might think, gave Natalia a splendid chance to grow up as an unhappy, half-educated, angry, and Prozac-addicted as an American latchkey. It probably did. Vi, however, had other ideas. She taught Natalia to read. Hoo-ah, thought Natalia , esto es buen juju. She began to read every book she could get her hands on. To this day she would read the New York phone book in cuneiform if nothing else were available.
At one point, Vi found herself without any income at all. I forget why. This was before she worked in the office of one of the big political parties, decided it was un nido de serpients, a nest of snakes, said to hell with it, and went to Ajijic to teach Spanish to gringos. Anyway, without income, perforce they stayed in their small apartment, living on very slight savings, beans, and tortillas. And they read. The International Book Fair, a big deal in Guad, was in swing. On the last day, prices drop hugely because the publishing houses don’t want to pack up remainders. They bought some twenty books for ten pesos each, sort of a buck.
I guess Vi forgot to tell Nata that she was oppressed, exploited, pitiable, trapped in an impoverished and mistreated underclass, suffering from injustice and discrimination and prejudice. Apparently if you don’t think you are in an underclass, you aren’t. Natalia entered, as her mother earlier had, that social class that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with education, brains, morals, and manners. If, at a reception at the White House, I introduced Natalia as the daughter of the Mexican ambassador, on vacation from Harvard, there would be nothing in her bearing, her Spanish, her manners or her schooling to indicate that she was a ghetto kid.
The diet of beans, books, and tortillas produced fascinating results. When Vi and I were preparing for a trip to Spain, we mentioned to Don Felipe that we would pass through Sevilla. “The capital of Andalucia. You ought to go to Tanger.” We planned to, we said, and return thorough Granada. “You have to go to the Alhambra. It’s where St. John of the Cross wrote his Meditations.” Natalia’s response was, “That’s where Washington Irving wrote Tales of the Alhambra” How many American college grads have even heard of Andalucia? The Alhambra? Wasshington Irving? (Wasn’t he the first president…?)
I had given up being surprised by Natalia. When she was sixteen, and on a kick of reading about crime and criminology, she had announced that she wanted to search Guad for a copy of Sexual Homicides, a scholarly book on serial killers by the FBI’s old behavioral-sciences outfit at Quantico—all of which the kid knew. I found her the Kindle edition.
Natalia. Pretty fair argument against abortion, I reckon. Photo: John Masquelier
What has this to do with American social policy? Lots. All of America’s various underclasses–Amreindians, deep-city blacks, back-holler Appalachians, piney-woods crackers–have far more opportunities than did los Gonzalez. Free or subsidized housing, food stamps, medical freebies, libraries, universities slathering to find an American Indian as a student to demonstrate their essential goodness. If they don’t take advantage of these, as generally they don’t, it must be because either of innate shiftlessness, or condescending, self-admiring, feel-good social policy that creates an artificial shiftlessness. Take your pick.