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>Colonia Chapalita & We Rent a House

February 14, 2010


With this post, our two weeks of nomadic wandering, destination unknown, come to an end. Guadalajara is to be my home for the next five years; for Mom and Val, it’ll be home for the next eight years. We quickly began to settle into a new way of life. While we initially confined our contacts and friendships to other Americans, it was not long before we began to truly assimilate into the culture. 

I could not find any photos relevant to this week’s post (or next week’s). I think photos and graphics add a needed touch to liven up a blog, but there’s no point in posting photos just for the sake of having them. In any case, enjoy!

Colonia Chapalita
 Another question I wish I’d asked Mom: How did you find a house for us? At thirteen, of course, I had no interest in these things. But five decades later I’d love to know: How did Mom find us a house?

SNAPSHOT: Three large fountains mark the entrance to Colonia Chapalita. The smooth lines of the fountains and their symmetrical arcs of water are graceful counterpoint to the semicircular platoon of squat, ugly cement posts that surround and protect the fountains. Or imprison them.
Colonia Chapalita, five miles from downtown Guadalajara, was two miles from California Courts. It would be our home for the next few years. There was much about Chapalita that was familiar to me, and with the familiarity came a degree of comfort and reassurance. I hadn’t thought much, if at all, about what it would be like, to “live” in Mexico. But once we moved into our first house and I began to explore, I saw that things here looked pretty much the same as they did at home. Most people, middle class people anyway, dressed as we did. There were sidewalks, paved streets and stop signs. There were Fords and Chevies, Buicks and Studebakers parked in driveways and on the streets. Kids (and many adults – this surprised me) rode bicycles to and from their destinations. Except for the flat roofs with their ubiquitous water tank, houses in Chapalita and their gardens could have been transplanted to any suburb in the States without clashing with the local architecture. There were three schools in the Colonia, two churches, two farmacias, a grocery store, a barber shop, a post office, a small police station (called a cuiqueria, from the Mexican slang term for cop, ‘cuico’), and a beautiful park. There were few signs of the terrible poverty I had seen as we drove through other parts of Mexico, other parts of Guadalajara. No despairing barefoot mothers in ragged dresses pleading for money, their children huddled around them. No filthy children selling Chiclets, as I’d seen in the market, or lugging around shoeshine kits, asking to shine your shoes. No corrugated tin or cardboard shacks.
I also felt more comfortable seeing other Americans regularly. Although the majority of Chapalita’s residents were Mexican, more Americans, most of them retired, lived here than in any other part of the city,
Our first house was at Calle Juan Bernardino 729, two blocks off of Avenida Guadalupe, one of the main thoroughfares. Here was a gentle reminder of difference: Why did the street name come before the number?
It didn’t take long to discover and wonder about other differences, things that clearly distinguished where we were from where we had been. Language, of course, was one of them. Walking through the park, buying cigarettes for Mom, turning on the radio, the headlines of newspapers, people chatting outside their homes; Spanish was everywhere around me, inescapable. I marveled that anyone could understand a language spoken so fast. There were no breaks between the words! How could they understand one another? I didn’t worry much about learning it myself, though; it still hadn’t really sunk in that we were here to stay. Or, even if we were here to stay, that my English wouldn’t serve me just fine.
Street vendors were another reminder of the newness, of the foreignness, of our circumstances. Back home in Sherman Oaks, the only regular vendors in our neighborhood were the milkman, the Good Humor man and the Langendorf bread man who came by in his truck once a week. Other vendors and peddlers occasionally came around: the Fuller brush man, the Electrolux vacuum cleaner salesman, the deaf man with his card that explained he was selling key chains, little puzzles for kids and other trinkets, and the family in a rickety old truck who came around every spring selling porch furniture they had crafted from limbs and branches of trees. (We bought a set for our porch.)
Here, however, were vendors of a different kind, and far more numerous. Mexico’s version of the ice cream man, for example, was the paletero. He didn’t drive a freezer truck around the neighborhood with its unceasing repetitions of “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” or “Brahm’s Lullaby”. The paletero pushed around a brightly painted metal hand cart with paletas (popsicles) kept frozen with dry ice, inside. A string of small tinkling bells at the front announced his approach. On weekends and after school he simply parked himself and his goods at the park and let business come to him.
            Other vendors were regularly in evidence in Chapalita, all of them pushing wooden or metal hand carts, and most of them selling food or drink. Mom had let me know in no uncertain terms that I was to buy nothing – nothing! – from these vendors. “God only knows what kinds of diseases you’ll come down with eating or drinking whatever they sell, David.” And I obeyed. For a while. But the sight and smell of roasting corn on the cob, the hot dog vendor’s wares, the fresh fruits and vegetables, the delicious-looking drinks – all of this became too much temptation, and I began buying, eating and drinking. And I enjoyed the new flavors, the new experience. I was beginning to like Mexico.
* * * * *
There were still two months of summer vacation stretching ahead and I used the long days to explore, making sure to avoid any Mexican boys I saw. I’d no idea how I, a new kid in the neighborhood and a gringo, would be received by them and I didn’t want to test the waters.

SNAPSHOT: There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the house; it’s the attached garage. The garage door is open and several people are inside. There are things sitting on a counter and shelves line two of the walls. A woman is on her way out carrying two full cloth bags.
Each day I left the house I passed Dona Elena’s tienda, a little store tucked in a garage. (Dona and don are terms of respect used throughout Latin America). She was an older woman, in her seventies, always dressed in black and wearing old-fashioned high-top black shoes. She smiled at me and sometimes waved when I walked by and I returned the courtesies. One day, primarily to satisfy my curiosity, I decided to go in: what did these little stores sell?
Save for dona Elena, no one else was in there. She was behind the counter standing in the doorway that led back into the house, her back turned to me. She was quietly saying something and even though I didn’t understand it, I could tell it was the same thing over and over. Not knowing what to do, I turned and began quietly retracing my steps back to the street. Then, a torrent of Spanish, of which I understood only “¡No!” I turned and she vigorously beckoned me back in, tucking her rosary beads into a capacious pocket.

SNAPSHOT: The tiny tienda-cum-garage has shelves on three walls and a counter that runs its length. Merchandise is everywhere: rice and beans in bulk; fresh masa and warm tortillas wrapped in a towel; cajeta, a caramel-colored candy made with goat milk and sugar, similar to dulce de leche; Coke, Fanta; Teotihuacan and Caballitos, Mexican soft drinks; seasonings, manteca (lard), produce, coffee, big urns full of fresh milk from which any amount could be ladled into whatever container the customer brought. Delicados, Del Prados and other Mexican cigarette brands sat next to stacks of match boxes.
I nervously made my way back, wondering what she wanted. As I reached the entrance a young woman brushed past me and walked up to the counter. She greeted dona Elena and pointed to the bins of rice and beans. Dona Elena came around the counter with a scoop and two large pieces of brown wrapping paper which she deftly rolled into cones. She scooped up rice first, then beans, weighing them and then cascading them into their respective paper containers, folding over the tops to prevent spillage. As the transaction continued I quietly slipped back out.
These tiendas were usually tended by the woman of the house and her children and served two purposes: they brought in extra income and they filled long hours when there might be little to do in houses where servants took care of all the household quehaceres, the chores, and where the husband would often not allow his wife and daughters to leave the house unaccompanied. It was also an opportunity to socialize with friends and neighbors who came by to make purchases. 
 As I extended my wanderings I found a tienda every few blocks. I started going in and buying things. Sometimes Mom had me buy her Del Prados. Often I bought candy, starting with the familiar: a Snickers or a Hershey Bar. I kept eyeing the cajeta, wondering if it would be good. It’s sickly-brown color put me off, as did the fact that it came in loafs that weighed half a kilo; you had to ask for the amount you wanted.
After a while I tried the cajeta and a pink and white coconut confection that I could never get enough of. It was to these tiendas that I owed my first halting acquaintance with Spanish and with Mexican money. And with Mexican candy.
Over the summer I learned which of the principal avenues were bus routes and it wouldn’t be long before I’d venture onto them and extend my explorations to downtown Guadalajara.
I enjoyed walking along the tree-shaded streets, looking at the houses, watching the people. I enjoyed the feelings of confidence I was experiencing, learning to adapt and get along in a foreign country. Life here, I was beginning to understand, was just as normal, just as routine, as it was “back home.” I no longer felt as apprehensive about the differences between life Stateside and life in Mexico; I was beginning to appreciate them.
The enjoyment I derived from my Chapalita walks, taking in both the new and the familiar, has stayed with me. Whenever we travel, my wife, Debby, and I spend time walking through neighborhoods. We enjoy taking in the new and the familiar, seeing how people live, their yards, their homes, their neighborhood, stopping to chat. Travel, they say, is broadening, and it is, particularly at the level of common people. “People Like You and Me” as the Glenn Miller song puts it.

We Rent a House and the One Next
to Us Collapses
Just a block down from our house, toward Avenida Guadalupe, was Colegio Guadalupe, a private Catholic girls’ school. Come November, it would be Valerie’s school. Houses, quite nice ones, lined the block from corner to corner across the street from the school, living behind a row of stately old trees that lent dignity as well as shade to the street. Our block had neither trees nor a school and darn few houses, besides. There was our house, which we rented, the two across the street and a handful more scattered down from us. More were being built.

SNAPSHOT: This house, next to ours, is under construction. The foundation is in place and brick walls are going up. Each row of bricks follows its own unique path and gobs of mortar squeeze out from between the rows, trying to keep them in line. Wooden ladders, made on site from scrap lumber, scale the walls at several spots.
Shortly after moving in to the house on Juan Bernardino we had a rainstorm along with heavy winds. I was at the window, watching, awed by the torrents of rain being swept almost horizontally past the window when the near wall of the house under construction next to us came crashing down, leaving a jumble of bricks and mortar.
“Mom! Val! Take a look at this!”
They both came quickly and peered out the window. Mom shook her head in disbelief. “It’s a good thing the wind wasn’t blowing the other way, kids, or that wall would’ve toppled onto our house.”
The next day, Friday, the albaniles worked feverishly to rebuild the wall, only to come back on Monday after another storm to find another jumble. We started keeping an eye out for storms and an eye on the walls, wondering when the next one would collapse. The wall nearest us survived the next storm, but not so the one across from it and it went through the same up-again-down-again-up again cycle. Finally, by the end of summer all the walls were up for good. But seeing the regular Jericho act of that house made us wonder, and worry, a little about our own.
Our house on Juan Bernardino was a comfortable one, laid out in a familiar way with three bedrooms and a bath, kitchen, dining area, living room, and a garage. There were some touches of difference, though. For one thing, there was no carpeting; floors were tiled. Carpeted floors in Mexico were rare. For another, our house, like most middle-class Mexican homes, had a flat roof, rather than a pitched one. The flat roof held a holding tank for household water. It was filled by the pump in one corner of our garage. The roof was also where the maid’s quarters were, ‘quarters’ being nothing more than a small bedroom and tiny bathroom. But just the idea of having a maid was radically different and difficult to accept. Until we hired one. It didn’t take long to come to think of having a maid as a normal state of affairs.
We experienced regular power outages during the rainy season. This was more a nuisance than a problem, unless the water level in the rooftop tank was low. With no electricity, the pump couldn’t kick in to refill it. The first time this happened to us Mom was washing her hair. I’d never heard her swear like that before. Valerie had to bring potfuls of water from the five-gallon water bottle in the garafon to her to rinse out the shampoo.
My room, reached by stairs on the left of the sala, was above the garage. It was the only room on the second floor (actually more like a mezzanine). The stairs made a hairpin turn at the landing where the door to my room was and then continued up to the roof.

SNAPSHOT: This is a shot of the maid’s quarters on the roof, a small room with cinder block walls. A metal-frame bed with a bare mattress takes up most of one wall. An old wooden straight-back chair lies on its side under the window on another wall. A second window looks out over the cornfields that our house, and the others around us, are encroaching upon. There’s a girls’ swim club not fifty yards away.
This was my refuge. Mom hadn’t yet hired anyone to work for us and for the time being this small room on the roof was my place to go to be alone; being thirteen, I wanted to be alone a lot. And I was really into rock and roll. My introduction to rock and roll had come two years before when I first heard Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. With his powerful singing, hoarse shouts, and growly, raspy voice, Little Richard jolted me. There was energy and life and soul to that song, to that kind of music, and it roared and powered its way into me. It brought into being a new way of listening, a new way of experiencing music. I liked it and wanted more.
I’d brought quite a few of my 45 RPM records with me and Mom bought me a small record player which joined the chair and bed as the only furnishings in my roof room. I played my music loud and I sang and danced, things I would be too embarrassed to do in front of Mom or Val. But here? No one could hear, no one could see. Even better, no one could object.

SNAPSHOT: That’s me, holding the camera backwards, looking through the viewfinder. I’m standing at a window in my sanctuary, looking over at the girls’ swim club.
My little dance floor on the roof afforded me frequent opportunities to watch the girls at their swimming lessons at the nearby swim club. I kept track of the days and start times of lessons throughout the week and soon I knew just when to look for them. Then I serendipitously discovered that the viewfinder on my camera acted as a low-power telescope if I looked through it backwards! I was now the keeper of a very low tech audio-visual facility.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2010 5:38 am

    >This post is really very interesting and impressive to read about.The concept discussed over here is truly awesome.houses to let

  2. February 15, 2010 3:53 pm

    >Thanx for your comment, although it's not clear where "over here" is – UK? And what is the discussion?

  3. February 18, 2010 2:09 am

    >You continue to create a very interesting story, and although it is true – at least from you memory – it also reads like a good fiction line. Your physical descriptions of things are getting better now that you have "landed". Hope the memory keeps working and the fingers keep typing.Old pep

  4. February 18, 2010 4:47 am

    >I owe much to the Braille and Talking Book Library in Seattle for the "snapshots" in my postings. I recorded books for them for a number of years, as well as reading the Seattle Times every Thursday. Pictures, photos, graphs, all had to be described for the visually impaired user. Gave me lots or practice in verbal descriptions.

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