My ancestors were Sephardic conversos. I discovered the family connection to Judaism in some odd habits of my maternal grandmother. I found the Jewish Messiah in the kindness of Christians who showed me love when I was a hungry and dirty little boy selling “chicles” on the streets of Torreón, Mexico, abandoned to the care of an impoverished grandmother by my biological mother, who left home at fourteen to be a cabaret dancer in the red light district of Francisco I. Madero, a dusty little town on the outskirts of Torreón. I learned Hebrew dance in Poland and studied theology in Italy. I have been a tour guide in Israel and have visited other countries, including Switzerland, Peru, Ecuador, and the United States. I live in Saltillo, Mexico, where I am a life coach and teach Hebrew and Arabic dance to people of all ages and religious affiliations. My life story may read like a picaresque novel, but the tales I tell are true.
The woman he had called mi mamá for the last fifteen years was once a stranger, a kind lady named Lily Guadiana who fed him when he walked the dusty streets of Torreón, Mexico, selling candy or gum so he could take a little change back to the tin-and-cardboard shack where his brothers or his grandmother would beat him if he came home empty-handed. His maternal grandmother, Hermelinda Fernandez Caro, had been the first woman he knew as mi mamá. Her daughter, Guadalupe Leticia Mendoza Fernandez, had abandoned him, as she had abandoned his five siblings before him.
“My mother was a vedette,” he told me. His brother Raimundo had been more blunt. “She was a prostituta,” he said. The truth is that Guadalupe Leticia had run away from her middle-class home in Torreón when she was fourteen years old to become a cabaret dancer at Las Vegas Cantina in nearby dusty little Francisco I. Madero, Torreón’s de facto red-light district. She was fifteen when her first baby, Victor, was born; there would be five more by the time she was twenty-seven, each from a different father. Her older sister, Alma Angélica, took Victor in and raised him with her own three children, providing him a more orderly life than that of his siblings. He is now a veterinarian. After Victor, Raimundo, Sandra, Silvia, and Juan Carlos were born. There was no one to care for them but their grandmother, who left her husband in Torreón and took the four small children to Francisco I. Madero to try to convince her daughter to take care of them. Hermelinda and the children moved into an improvised shanty in a smelly stable. Guadalupe Leticia came home pregnant, and stayed long enough to bear her fifth child, Humberto. He died three months later.
Hermelinda slashed her wrists, maybe a cry for Leticia’s attention, maybe an attempt to escape seeing her grandchildren suffer as she did her best to keep them alive. She survived, but the razor left scars on her arms and on the psyches of the children. The errant daughter came back once more. On November 28, 1976, in that smelly stable, Guadalupe Leticia Mendoza Fernandez gave birth to a boy. She named him César Alejandro Medina Mendoza. No one bothered to register his birth. Hermelinda tied him to the family dog for safekeeping. If the dog wanted to move around, she would pick him up in her mouth and carry him. So the dog took little Alejandro out to play with the other children. Holding onto the animal’s hide, he eventually pulled himself up and learned to walk. Against all human odds, César Alejandro Medina Mendoza survived.
Hermelinda struggled in Francisco I. Madero for five years after Alejandro’s birth, desperately hoping that Guadalupe Leticia would take some responsibility for the children. When that hope proved futile, she went back to Torreón, where they moved into an improvised shelter in a squatter settlement. She sent the children out to do whatever they could to bring home a little money or food. They sold gum and candy on the dusty streets of Torreón.
I went with Alejandro to see the neighborhood and meet some of the neighbors who remember his grandmother. The street in Torreón is now clean and orderly and reveals little of its history as a squatter settlement. The lot where Hermelinda’s shack was located has been deeded to one of Alejandro’s brothers. Several nephews and nieces who live there came running to see if Tío Alejandro would give them some change. Though it is still one of the poorest houses in the neighborhood, green stucco has replaced tin and cardboard, and a crude wooden fence separates the house from the street. Neat little stucco houses up and down the street show that the inhabitants have not only survived but, in some sense, thrived.
Consuelo, a neatly-dressed woman in her mid-fifties welcomed us into one of those houses, nicely but modestly finished with proper kitchen and bathroom appliances, air coolers, and neatly painted walls on which large color photographs of graduations and formal fifteenth birthday celebrations decorated the room. After a short time, Consuelo’s daughter, an attractive woman in her late twenties, arrived from her job as a nurse. Consuelo talked about harder times when her neighbor Hermelinda, whom she calls Doña Nina, was a leader and mentor in their struggle to survive. She told how Doña Nina would go with the women from the neighborhood to the big produce market, where she knew just when and how to forage in the garbage for discarded but usable fruits and vegetables. Many of the merchants knew Doña Nina, and some of them would give her produce not yet ready for the dumpster, and even cheese, eggs, or milk. When they returned with their haul, she would encourage them to divide it up fairly.
“From almost nothing, she always found something to share,” said Consuelo. “We were all very young and very poor, most of us struggling single mothers, and Doña Nina regularly attended to our many illnesses and our children’s cuts, scrapes, stomach aches, insect bites, and runny noses. She had a remedy for everything. Sometimes she would give you tea, other times a salve to rub away the aches and pains. If you had a problem, she had good advice–usually in the form of some kind of saying. ‘Hunger may bring me down,’ Doña Nina used to say, ‘but pride will get me up’ or ‘Never show up empty-handed at someone else’s house.’
“Sometimes there was just not enough to eat in any of our houses, but when there was food, Doña Nina could stretch it beyond belief. Once someone gave her a whole chicken. She made soup from the bones and feet, adding rice and vegetables from the market forage. She shredded the meat and made mole with spices that she had guarded carefully for such an occasion. She made tortillas, and we all ate for days from that one chicken. From time to time,” Consuelo recalled, “some young women would come from Francisco I. Madero, bringing bread, milk, and a few groceries.”
Consuelo, who apparently didn’t know the whole story of Leticia, thought that one of the women was Doña Nina’s daughter who worked in Francisco I. Madero. Alejandro vaguely remembers some “aunts” who would come to the house, but none of the women was identified to him as his mother. It seems that Leticia occasionally brought a little food for her mother and the children, but there were never any gifts for the little ones, never any signs of affection for them, he recalls.
Alejandro remembers his grandmother. “She always covered her head, whether she was in the house or outside. She knew a lot about herbs and teas for ailments. If someone came to the door begging for food, she would never turn them away, even when there was not enough for us to eat. If someone sent food for us, she always cooked something for them and returned it in the same dish. Some people said she was a witch; others praised her wisdom. Among the children, we used to say she was a good witch. Many people came to the house for her advice. Some had physical ailments; others had personal problems. She would always ask the seeker three questions–always three, no more, no less, before giving her advice or her remedy. Even though people often brought gifts of gratitude to her, it was hard for her to accept anything from other people. She spoke often of God, but there was no mention of formal religion, and we never went to church.
“I assumed we were Catholic since just about everyone we knew was Catholic, and I remember a painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on one of the walls, but every Friday Hermelinda would spend the whole day cleaning the house and baking bread in an adobe oven that she had built herself. Since she sometimes baked things to sell to people, neighbors would smell the delicious aroma and stop by to see what she had, but the Friday bread was special. She wouldn’t sell it. On Friday evening, she would light candles and set us down to tell us stories. Sometimes she told about a family she knew who had traveled many years ago from Israel to Turkey, and from Turkey to Cuba. It was only later that I understood she was talking about our family. She would send us to bed early on Fridays, and before dawn every Saturday, we could hear her softly saying something like prayers in a language we didn’t understand. By the time the we got out of bed, she was sitting outside knitting. She knitted all day, but when the sun went down, she would unravel all that she had knitted. She was always working. She wore a large key on a chain around her neck, but I never saw her open anything with it. Once I asked her what the key was for; she said, ‘It’s for good luck.’
“I watched and listened as she treated people with massages or mixtures of herbs, all the while saying prayers that started like Catholic prayers, but no one else knew them. Everyone in the family brought her their problems. My sister once confided that she was being treated badly at work. Abuelita asked, ‘How many people work there? How many men? How many women? What is the owner’s name?’ After my sister answered, Abuelita told her to cut seven roses from different places and put the petals in water and then take a bath in that water the next day. I didn’t understand what that had to do with anything, but my sister did what she was told. Two days later, she came home saying that they had promoted her and that suddenly everybody was being nice to her. Something that seemed very strange to me was the importance people’s names had for my grandmother. When we told her something about another person, she always asked the person’s name, and then before we finished talking, she could describe that person as if she really knew him or her.
“One time I was begging her for money to buy some candy, and she told me no. About that time, someone came looking for her, and she sent us kids out of the room, like she always did, ‘to protect us,’ she said. So she left her coin purse in the kitchen, and since my cousins were there, I took some money from that purse and bought the candy that I wanted, thinking that with so many kids, she would not know who took it, and she wouldn’t scold my cousins. When the time came, she asked me, ‘Who took money from my purse?’
“‘I don’t know,’ I answered, and I left feeling smug, thinking that she would never find out. We went to bed, and the next day, it was as if nothing had happened. But when I woke up the following day, my grandmother was staring at me.
“‘Why did you take that money?’ she asked.
“Thinking that I could fool her, I played dumb and said, ‘What money?’
“Then she asked two more questions that had nothing to do with it, so I answered them, thinking that it was all over. When I finished answering, she beat me with a belt. I cried and screamed, ‘Why are you hitting me?’
“‘Because you took the money, then you went and bought candy and washed your face and hands after you ate it so I wouldn’t notice!’
“I kept insisting that it wasn’t true, although she was describing exactly the details of what I had done. She said, ‘You told me yourself.’ From that time on, I was afraid of my grandmother. On another occasion, my brother did something he shouldn’t have, and, pretending to be asleep, I heard how, while he was sleeping, she asked about it in a very normal way, and my brother, completely asleep, told her everything, with all the details, but the next day, he remembered nothing about it!”
Hermelinda was cheeerful and helpful among her neighbors, but the family sometimes saw a troubled person. Raimundo told of holidays when more prosperous family members would invite Hermelinda and the children for food and celebrations. “Always, always,” he said, “she would be offended because someone did or said something, and she would whisk us away in a huff before we had even had a chance to taste the delicious food!”
When Alejandro started to earn a little money, he wanted to honor his grandmother on her birthday or Mother’s Day by buying gifts for her. “I remember she talked a lot about some expensive glass cookware called Visions. It looked like Pyrex, but it could be used on the stovetop as well as in the oven. Well, I saved my money and bought her a set one Mother’s Day.
“She always wore the same long dresses, but I wanted her to have something pretty, so on her birthday I gave her a pretty dress with a belt that tied at the waist. When she died, we found a lot of things under her bed. There was the Visions cookware, still in the box, and the beautiful dress, carefully folded and never worn. We dressed her in that new dress for the funeral. I don’t know how this happened, but a few days after the funeral, the belt of that dress appeared mysteriously draped on a chair.”