(The following is a guest post by poet Rachelle Linda Escamilla, July 11, 2018, Library of Congress, Hispanic Division.)
My grandfather, Alejo Hernandez, told me about his multiple crossings into the United States over a bowl of menudo and corn tortillas; the first time he crossed was through the Bracero Program, but in later crossings he would come on his own terms. Grandpa Alejo had a way of shaking his head, fists and sucking his teeth at injustices, and in this moment he did all three before lifting a red, broth-soaked tortilla to his lips. The despiojado — the delousing made him feel like a dog. I could never stomach that comparison, remembering stories of another family member who drove a Greyhound bus, but wasn’t allowed to use restrooms at every stop because of signs that said: No Dogs, No Mexicans.
I came to the Library of Congress, Hispanic Division to record my poems for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape, and to conduct research for my courses at California State University Monterey Bay in the fall. I had not intended to research my Grandpa Alejo, but the night before I left California, my mom reminded me that her father had once testified in front of Congress. When he returned from DC, a woman had come to their house to take photos of the Hernandez kids running down a hill. My mom said that the local library had a copy of the book, but her brother (a moody teenager at the time) was embarrassed of the photos and claimed to have thrown the book away. Nobody knew the title of the book, the only information I had was it had been published after Grandpa’s trip. That was it: I had to find the photo of my family. I began by searching for my Grandpa’s testimony – once I found his testimony, I had a time-frame: early 1970s, a place: San Benito County, a preliminary subject search: migrant labor, and painful secondary searches: wetback, illegal.
The search for my family comes at a contentious time in United States history for families not unlike my own. Their experiences are rooted in my grandfather’s story. When he was being deloused at the border, the national rhetoric further stripped my grandpa and his compadres of their humanity with headlines like: “The Wetback Cure, Peons from the West Lower Culture” published by the New York Times.
Soon after Alejo married and decided to stay in the United States, his son died in infancy from malnutrition due to a lack of food. - Despite the inflammatory landscape, Alejo dedicated himself to advocating for poor migrant families like his own. On August 8, 1969 my grandpa testified before the 91st Congress at the Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Powerlessness Hearing where he said he “…earns less than people on welfare receive and has less available for food for his children than is spent in the state annually for seeing-eye dogs.” Here I am, almost 50 years later, locating my grandfather’s words, as they echo from the pages in today’s headlines.
“We have ducks, chickens and a dog that bites” I read on a page in a book that has just arrived in the reading room for me. The image of the girl looks familiar, and as I continue to read the story I realize that it’s a picture of my Tia, my aunt. Her name has been changed, but I’d recognize a Hernandez nose anywhere. During my commute to the Library I added Miguel y Miguel, a conjunto duo, to my travel playlist in an attempt to conjure up the gods of los ranchos (the ranchs) and perhaps the fruit of my labor early in the week would feed me today. It does. As I turn the page, I recognize the words: “Hollister Canning Company” — the name of the place where my family worked during the winter. The next photo is of children, running down the hill. My mother’s face is in shadow, but at least five Hernandez kids are there, running down the hill, just like my mother told me. In one of the photos, I recognize my grandfather in a frame on the wall, and I realize — this is it. I’ve found my family.