Borders Fronteras Oral History

Museum of a Migrant: The Border Between My Grandpa and I

The Border Between My Grandpa and I / La Frontera Entre Papá Toño y Yo

Migra–tion
Creates a ripple of separations
The separation of generations
a separation from your extended family
a separation from your native country
a separation from your culture and community

the U.S. – Mexico border
a different time zone
and 1,200 miles
from Durango to Hammond
Marked the separations of my migration.

Papa Toño migrated too.
He worked in the states.
He’s faced separation before
From Mama Carmen, from family.

Even now, He meets with Separacion
As he travels to Los Angeles, Louisiana, and beyond.
Pero sus viajes y cuentos
son pruebas que él ha vencido la Separation.

We’re not novices to separation
And I guess we’ll never be.
His migration, My migration, our migration.
Unity in the face of Separation.

Poem by Ilse Salas – Castro

Although immigration has existed since the beginning of time and is a part of the human experience, it is heavily stigmatized and politicized. Nowadays, immigration is treated as a topic of debate and is at the center of many harmful legislations.

The history of the United States reflects the prejudicial treatment of immigrants and migrants but it is time for this treatment to change. It is time to humanize the immigrant experience and understand immigration through the testimonies of immigrants and not a political figure’s campaign.

Having migrated from Mexico to the U.S. with my family, I have witnessed the dismissal of our experiences and testimonies. To challenge the dehumanization of our community, the voices of the immigrants need to be highlighted. It is through their testimonies of the immigrants around me that I hope to humanize immigration.

I wanted to begin by learning from my elders, those who migrated before me. This spring, I had the incredible opportunity to interview Antonio Castro, my grandfather who I call “Papa Toño.” He’s a retired Mexican thermoelectric plant technician and migrant worker.

 

 

Image created using Canva by Ilse Salas – Castro.

 

 

The interview was like a doorway into my grandfather’s life, the parts I had not heard of before. It was like walking through the museum of a migrant, filled to the brim with details of the ranch where he grew up, of his marriage, of his survival in a fire, of crossing the border, of the makeshift hispanic communities in the U.S., and of his range of emotions as he reflected on the long life he has lived. 

With the assistance of my aunt Tany, the interview became a form of collaborative storytelling with me asking questions, my grandfather responding, Tany asking follow up questions, and us all conversing and it even oddly resembled our dinner conversations.

El Antes: Mexico

(The before)

I began by asking Papá Toño to share anything he remembered about his childhood. Right away he mentioned his uncle, who took him in at the age of eight and raised him on a ranch in Durango, Mexico. Together they would sembrar maiz (plant corn). 

Papá Toño listed their care for the corn and the land, repeating how the corn changed. 

“Bueno a los 8 años más o menos andaba sembrando, sembrador, con un tío. Sembrando maíz y ya nacía el maíz y arrancar hierba y luego crecía el maíz y luego a despuntarlo y luego a piscar. Y luego la pastura.”

“Well, at about the age of 8 I was working in the fields, planting, planting, with an uncle. Planting corn and then the corn would grow and then it was time to rip the weeds out and then the corn grew, and you had to trim it and then harvest…” 

Papa Toño mentioned another significant figure of his life, his wife, right away. 

My grandmother, Mamá Carmen, resides en el cielo (in heaven) As hard as it was,  Papá Toño spoke about her and shared that she had been the one who taught him to read. 

“No fui a la escuela…. Entonces me enseñe a leer por mi señora, por Tita.” 

I was surprised to learn this but it only reflected the love and care my grandparents had for one another and their willingness to share knowledge. Growing up, I was able to see how they grew old together and raised a beautiful family even through the hardships. Their relationship was one I admired. 

I then asked Papá Toño how he had met Mamá Carmen because I had always been curious about it but now that he had brought her up I felt it was the right moment to ask. Papá Toño said he had moved from his rural town to the state’s capital, Durango, at the age of sixteen.

He worked at the federal commission’s thermoelectric plant in the city. He lived in the Tierrablanca colonia (town) and one day when he was leaving work he ran into Mamá Carmen. She was on the way to the store, he was on the way home. 

Their paths crossed and as Papá Toño put it, “La invite al parque y de allí nos hicimos novios.” (I invited her to the park and from there we became boyfriend and girlfriend).

They got married in 1972 and Papá Toño  quit his job to move back to Mamá Carmen’s family’s ranch where they lived for three years. They were together for fifty years and raised twelve children. 

 

 

Papa Toño and Mama Carmen at their wedding. Image Credit: Papa Toño.

 

 

My grandfather has always been described to me as a strong man because he had survived a fire. It was in the interview that Papá Toño detailed the accident and the severity of his injuries. At the thermoelectric plant, my grandfather provided maintenance to the transformers, an important job that made sure the machinery could distribute the energy from the city of Durango to the cities of Mazatlan, Torreon, and Zacatecas. 

One night, the 1st transformer that connected to Mazatlan had a short circuit. Papá Toño and his coworker went to shut the transformer down. On their way out, the 2nd transformer also had a short circuit and exploded right next to them.

Grandpa says, “cayó el aceite y nos quemó.” (the oil fell on us and it burned). Injured and alone, the two were fighting tooth and nail to get out of the plant as fast as they could when the 3rd transformer blew. All of the machinery shut down and there was an outage in the city. 

Papá Toño says that the thermoelectric plant was in a remote area y que “no nos auxilio nadie” (and that “no one helped them”).  

“Como pudimos nos venimos al seguro …no había ambulancia …no había nada, nadie que nos trajera…no me recuerdo como llegué al seguro. Los demás tuvieron leves quemaduras. Este, un ingeniero y yo estabamos juntitos del transformador, analizando la falla cuando… explotó. El se murió y yo fui el más, el más enfermo. Duré como cuatro meses en Monterrey. Me querían amputar las piernas…Allí le pedí a Dios que no perdiera las piernas. Salí de Monterrey y duré como un año para poder caminar, no podía caminar, no caminaba. Las manos, los dedos engarabitados. Engarabitados todos los dedos. Y de allí ya no trabaje.” 

“We tried as best as we could to make it to the clinic…. there was no ambulance… There was nothing, no one to bring us… I don’t remember how I got to the clinic. Everyone else had less severe burns. An engineer and I were right next to the transformer, analyzing the short circuit when…. When it exploded. He died and I was the one, the one who was the most injured. I was in Monterrey for about four months. They wanted to amputate my legs…in that moment I begged God not to let me lose my legs. I left Monterrey and lasted about a year without being able to walk, I couldn’t walk, didn’t walk. My hands, my fingers stiff,  severely burned. All of my fingers were stiff. And after that I couldn’t work anymore.”

Two of my grandfather’s uncles worked there and once someone retired he was able to fill their spot. Apparently family ties and connections were important and influential in the 70’s because if you didn’t have a family member who worked at the plant, you were most likely not going to be hired, especially because there were only five staff positions. 

“Y ese trabajo si le gusto?” (And, did you like that job?) I asked. 

Papá Toño said “Of course I liked it, I lasted there for twenty four years.” 

He went on to say, “Ante todo me llevaba bien con el personal así que no había ninguna razón para que no estuviera a gusto… yo conocía a los compañeros, de este trabajo vivíamos y pues yo allí estaba a gusto.”

“Overall, I got along with the staff and so I didn’t have any reason to not be comfortable…I knew my coworkers, we lived off this job and well I was comfortable there.”

Apart from his relationship with coworkers, grandpa said he loved his work schedule too, one he referred to as  “semana inglesa,” a European week from Monday to Friday. Sometimes he had to work the weekend  from three a.m. till eleven p.m. 

I could tell it was hard for  Papá Toño to speak about the accident and I was honored that he felt comfortable enough to share it with me. 

Now I knew why the accident had been such an influential and life changing event and why Papá Toño constantly circled back to it and the details of it in the interview. I now understand my grandfather even more than I did before and see his strength. 

The Back and Forth

Without being able to work, Papá Toño dreamt of traveling to the U.S. He visited Dallas, Texas in the 70s with five other guys from his town. There they worked “en un plantío de rosales” (in a rose bush plantation), “podando los rosales” (pruning the rose bushes). Papá Toño only stayed for a week and says he only went to “conocer a Estados Unidos” (get to know the United States) and once he had done that he headed back home to his life in Durango. 

After the accident, he had the opportunity to travel to Florida for about twenty days working at an orange orchard. At the time, my uncle Pilo, grandpa’s only son, lived in Los Angeles so Papá Toño ended up working there, too. 

He found a job on a ranch and said that movies were filmed there. He remembers that while filming, there were these carts used to move the cameras and they would create lines on the grass that him and another worker would fix later. Papá Toño took care of the ranch’s horses too. On the weekends Papá Toño would go into the city. He says that overall he enjoyed that job and that being so close to the mountains was a beautiful experience.  

Su Vida Ahora 

When I asked Papá Toño to pinpoint a memory or moment he remembers the most he said he loved all of the times he would travel with his family. Like when they would go to “la sierra para un dia de campo” (the mountains for a camping trip) or to “Fresnillo o San Juan de los Lagos.”

 

 

Papa Toño and his family at the mountains. Image Credit: Papa Toño.

 

 

 

Papa Toño at the mountains. Image Credit: Papa Toño.

 

 

 

Papa Toño’s children in the forest. Image Credit: Papa Toño.

 

 

When all of his kids were married and began their own families Papá Toño and Mamá Carmen would still go on trips, especially to San Juan de los Lagos. They loved going to the markets there, the food, and the church. Papá Toño continues this tradition, even though he goes alone. One of my dreams is to visit San Juan de los Lagos with him so he can give me a tour and show me all the places he and Mamá Carmen would go to together.

 

 

Image Credit: Papa Toño.

 

 

Mama Carmen in the mountains. Image Credit: Papa Toño.

 

 

After Mamá Carmen’s passing, we brought Papá Toño on trips with us as much as we could. We have continued to take him to the beach since that was one of our traditions when he and Mamá Carmen would visit. In 2022, he drove up with us to Maryland for Christmas and we went to Delaware too. Now that I attend college in Southern California, he has visited Claremont and even more of Los Angeles. So far we have gone to two packing houses and enjoyed different types of food and desserts from the vendors there. 

We even took him to DisneyLand in Anaheim and I remember how surprised and excited he was when we told him where we were. That day Papá Toño told me with eyes wide open and a smile so bright that he had heard of Disney but never thought he would be able to visit it in person. At Disney he met Coco and we watched the night show with all the lights and fireworks. We did so much that day and I know it is definitely one we will always remember.

 

Papá Toño y Yo

 

Papa Toño and I at my graduation. Image Credit: Ilse Salas-Castro.

 

 

Papa Toño and I. Image Credit: Ilse Salas-Castro.

 

 

My relationship with Papá Toño is one that has evolved throughout the years and has been influenced by the physical distance between us. My mom always says that when I was little I loved chocolate so much that at one point she had to hide it from me. 

Papá Toño, however, never hid candy from me. Funny enough, he had a drawer next to his bed full of all sorts of chocolates and sweets. Papá Toño spoiled me with candy and now that I’m older I know he was just letting me be a kid, letting me run around, and be myself because he believed we all deserve a little chocolate in our lives. 

Once we moved to the states, I didn’t see my grandparents as often and usually only for Christmas or a couple weeks during the summers. I think that is why it was a bit harder for me to feel like I could personally have a relationship with them and then adding on the language barrier also complicated things.

I think I also had never asked questions about Papá Toño’s life until now because I feared I would ask the wrong questions, but does such a thing even exist? As I got older, I began to value my relationship with Papá Toño even more. 

After Mamá Carmen’s passing, I faced the very hard reality that tomorrow isn’t promised and I put even more effort into my relationship with Papá Toño. My senior year of high school, Papá Toño lived with us and I brought him along to all of the events I could. I wanted to share my academic achievements with him and make him an even bigger part of my life.

Now I call him as much as I can and we talk about everything but especially about the California weather because he loves nature. I love to Facetime him and show him the mountains, how pretty the sunset looks on campus, the Pitzer farm’s plants and chickens, or the sequoias on Marston Quad. His spontaneous spirit is what I admire about him the most. 

One time he even made fun of how I had lived so close to the mountains for months but hadn’t made my way out there. I remember I told him I would go up to the mountains soon, and he replied saying I should “aprovechar” (enjoy) the nature of California more. At the age of 78, he is still ready to travel anytime and he is my biggest supporter. 

One of the things Papá Toño is most known for are his “apodos” or nicknames. One of my aunt’s nicknames is “Titan.” There was a Mexican soda with the same name and they came in these tall bottles and so he gave my aunt the nickname because she was so tall. Another one of my aunt’s nicknames is “conejo” or bunny. 

Papá Toño told me it’s because she had a bunny growing up and she loved it so much and would take it everywhere. Papá Toño even had a nickname for Mamá Carmen, he called her “Tita.” My little cousin and I have nicknames that go hand in hand. Since we were always together, Papá Toño nicknamed me, “Ilsota” for being the oldest and, “Sarita” for being younger.

In the Latino culture, nicknames are so significant and long lasting because they follow you for the rest of your life. This apodo (nickname) tradition my grandfather has started in our family is one I hope to continue as our family grows even more. 

Something else I’ve noticed about Papá Toño is his love for nature and animals. Even before our interview, he was feeding his chickens and cutting up lettuce to make sure they were all well fed. Anytime we take Papá Toño anywhere, whether it is a park, a museum, or a beach town, he loves to walk around and admire the area, almost as if he was just taking it all in. When we’re together we take it all in together. I think my admiration for the world and nature comes from him. 

Now Papá Toño spends his days watching his family grow. He always tells me that one of the things he loves the most is when his house is full, with grandkids running around, the adults cooking, and all the noise. It makes him happy to see us all together, enjoying each other’s company. 

Archiving through Oral History 

This semester, I had the amazing opportunity to take an Oral History class at Pitzer College. Before taking this course, I was not aware that testimonies or the sharing of an experience orally could be used or was being used in the academic world of History.

Storytelling and testimonies are an important part of so many cultures but especially the Latine and Mexican culture. My childhood was marked by stories of Mexico, of folktales, and knowledge being passed down from one generation to another. 

Through this course, I began to recognize the value within the storytelling that had been present in my life. There is just so much that can be learned when you dedicate the time to simply ask questions and understand someone’s life experience through their own memories. I decided to begin a form of archival work using oral history or “storytelling” with my grandfather to preserve his memories. Interviewing Papa Toño allowed me to finally meet the parts of him that I did not know. 

Oral history can be used to bridge these gaps and I think that even though there is fear in asking elders questions about their past, What if asking those pondering questions brings you closer and transforms not only your life but theirs, too? My main takeaway from this experience is that we should recognize the importance within every one of our testimonies. 

 


Ilse Salas Castro | Immigration Correspondent

Ilse Salas Castro is a Freshman at Pomona College studying Chicane / Latine Studies and History. In her role as an Immigration Writer for Latina Republic this spring, she aims to share the stories of immigrants in the Latine community residing in the states of California and Louisiana. Ilse will highlight the resistance of this community in Louisiana and its continual growth against all odds, legal challenges, and racial tensions placed upon them. Through the sharing of these stories, Ilse hopes to raise awareness and address the impact a state’s actions on immigration directly affect the lifestyle, wellbeing, and availability of opportunities for the immigrant community.

Ilse has recently begun to delve deeper into her own family’s immigration stories and made efforts to preserve the memories and experiences of her own grandfather about his time in the United States. She hopes to do the same with other generational immigration stories of other Latine elders.