From YumaSun.com, Mara Knaub, Sun Staff Writer, 16 Aug 2011.
When Erika Vazquez-Aguilar’s grandmother offered her jewelry to “remember me by,” she told her grandmother there was only one thing she really wanted: a collection of letters written by her grandparents when her grandfather worked in the United States as a “bracero.”
Vazquez-Aguilar, 38, had learned of the letters years earlier while working on her undergraduate degree with a focus on sociology. She was researching the Bracero Program, which allowed more than four million Mexican farm laborers to work the fields of the U.S. during World War II.
The U.S. and Mexico governments instituted the program in 1942 to fill a demand for manual labor. As a result, “thousands of impoverished Mexicans abandoned their rural communities and headed north to work as braceros,” according to website http://www.farmworkers.org.
The name “braceros” refers in Spanish to “strong arms.”
Vazquez-Aguilar’s grandfather, Eleuterio Vazquez Sanchez, was one of those farmworkers separated from his family while working in labor camps in the United States.
She knew her grandfather had worked as a bracero in Arizona and she asked her grandmother, Juana Vazquez, about it. Her grandfather had since died.
“In talking to my grandmother, she mentioned the letters. I asked to see them.”
Her grandmother, who now lives in Phoenix, initially rejected her request, telling her the letters were “personal, private.”
It took Vazquez-Aguilar about a month to convince her grandmother to let her see the letters.
Finally the elder gave in and let her granddaughter read them. Inspired by these eight letters, Vazquez-Aguilar wrote the first poem that would become the anchor of her new book of poetry: “Soy Bracero.”
“I came to realize that not just the men were affected by this program. This phenomenon impacted families, families that were left behind. My grandmother was affected by that, his children were affected, his land was affected.
“This was about something deeper than being here and being mistreated and ripped off.”
It took several years to convince her grandmother to let her see the letters again.
She finally consented, bringing out a box packed with letters. Vazquez-Aguilar thought there were only eight letters, but this time “the stack was this big,” she said, gesturing with her hands.
Her grandmother showed her about 30 letters, noting, “That’s nothing. I burned a lot of them.”
Vazquez-Aguilar could only respond with dismay. Her grandmother would have none of it. “They’re my letters. I can do whatever I want with them.”
Reluctantly, her grandmother turned them over to Vazquez-Aguilar.
“Immediately I started dissecting them. It gave me much more insight into the type of man my grandfather was, as a husband, as a worker.
“He was an amazing man. I already knew that, but this confirmed it. He was a hardworking, honest man. My respect shot up, and it was already through the roof.”
The letters told of a love story. “They were very affectionate to each other,” Vazquez-Aguilar noted.
Juana was 14 when she met her future husband. Her best friend had invited her to a dance at a neighboring town. Eleuterio, in his mid-20s, saw her and fell for her immediately.
He introduced himself and found out they were from the same place, the little town of Ahualulco in Jalisco.
He started courting her, but she liked another guy. It took him awhile to convince her.
“You know how they say the way to the heart is through the stomach? This was in reverse. He took her out, bought her food and an extra plate for her mother,” Vazquez-Aguilar said.
They married in 1944 when Juana was 19, and they had six children, two of whom died in infancy. Vazquez-Aguilar’s mom, Gabina “Gaby,” was the oldest.
Her grandparents were farmers and fieldworkers all their lives. They retired from it. “That’s all they knew, that’s all he knew,” she said.
“Although it was hard, he always carried a love for the fields. He would come home tired, I would massage his hands, fingers, and he would say, ‘That was a good day of work.’ He loved his work,” Vazquez-Aguilar recalled.
She noted that he started working at a young age.
“His dad died when he was very young. At the age of 11, after the fifth grade, he went to work. He was old enough to work.”
After farming in Mexico, he decided to try the Bracero Program. During their separation, Eleuterio and Juana kept in touch through letters.
Vazquez-Aguilar said the letters could typically be divided into three sections. The first addressed business, such as bills. Then they sent greetings to family members. Then came the “love words.”
“He was the more romantic,” Vazquez-Aguilar said. “He would say things like, ‘You are my whole life, my love.’”
Later Juana joined him in the fields around Yuma, crossing the border daily from San Luis Rio Colorado.
Although they worked all their lives as farmworkers, they never wanted their children or grandchildren to do that. So they took their children to the fields for one day.
Of course, that’s all it took. After that one day, their kids didn’t want to work in the fields for a living. Eleuterio urged his children to get an education. Vazquez-Aguilar’s mom, Gaby, pursued a vocational education and earned a technical certificate as a legal secretary.
“For us grandchildren, it was the same concept. He taught me to read when I was 4. He was wise for not being educated. He would us buy books and encyclopedias.”
“She wanted to be able to support us kids and give us an education. She thought we would have a better chance here.”
But it was a turbulent time for her. “It was culture shock. I couldn’t speak one word of English. I had to take ESL classes, the works,” Vazquez-Aguilar recalled.
Her grandparents also had a difficult time. “When we moved to the United States, it was big for them. So a year later, they left everything behind to be with us.”
Eleuterio died in June 1994 from complications of diabetes. Vazquez-Aguilar learned of the letters five years later, and it set off a domino effect. She started writing poem after poem, both in English and Spanish.
But she never publicly shared her poems until she met Manuel Cuen of the Mexican Consulate in Yuma. He encouraged her to share them and invited her to poetry readings.
She finally gathered into a collection and self-published them into a book. “Soy Bracero” was published July 8. It’s available online at http://erikavazquezaguilar.com/, http://www.barnesandnoble.com and http://www.amazon.com.
“It feels like I had a baby because it’s so personal,” Vazquez-Aguilar said.
The book is a tribute to her grandfather “for doing what he did, for going through what he went through.” She dedicated it to the braceros and their legacy.
“They did something significant. In a time of war, they had a reason to be here and they did their job, leaving behind their wives and children. They sacrificed, and to me that’s inspiring.”
The cover painting, “Jornalero,” by her brother David Vazquez, features her grandfather. “My brother depicted him the way he remembers him,” Vazquez-Aguilar said.
Vazquez-Aguilar now works as a transfer specialist at Arizona Estern College and as a karate teacher with her husband, Francisco “Taco” Aguilar They have two children: Kamyla, 16, and Keilem, 9.
Crumb of Gold
By Erika Vazquez-Aguilar
I came here,
My home so far away.
Left what was my life
In search of something better,
A morsel of hope.
A sack on my back
Holds what possessions I own,
Except my dignity;
I carry that in my heart.
With my head held up to the sky
I stand here in line
Waiting my turn for a chance
To get a crumb of gold.
MEET THE AUTHOR:
Erika Vazquez-Aguilar will introduce and talk about her book, “Soy Bracero,” a collection of poems, at a reception from 1:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Yuma Main Library, 2951 S. 21st Drive.
Vazquez-Aguilar will be signing books, and books will be available. She will also have the original letters written by her grandparents, upon which she based her book. She also expects her grandmother, Juana Vazquez, and her brother, David Vazquez, with the original painting “Jornalero,” to be there.