Mi familia

young EM - Version 2I am a Stealth Latino. By this I mean that although my ethnicity is Hispanic—specifically, Mexican American—I don’t look the type (or fit the stereotype), so I don’t show up as Latino on most people’s ethnic radar screens. A Germanic surname completes my ability to evade detection. Does this situation mean that I willfully avoid being “spotted” as Latino? Not at all. I’ve always been proud of my multicultural heritage, just as most other people are proud of their own backgrounds. I haven’t made a big deal of it; I don’t hide it, either; it’s just part of who I am. Over the years, however, I’ve often felt amused when people who don’t know me well express astonishment about my ethnic origins. The usual comment: “I never would of guessed!” True. Most people don’t. Except perhaps during my boyhood, I’ve never looked particularly Mexican American. And except for a few incidents during my youth, my looking non-Latino has spared me the full brunt of ethnic hatred.

The situation feels different now. At a time of widespread ethnic tensions and growing anti-immigrant attitudes, when Americans of many different minority backgrounds are being viewed with suspicion and animosity, I find it difficult not to feel somewhat paranoid. A Stealth Latino like me rarely ends up the target of ethnic abuse, but I find this personal exemption cold comfort in our current sociopolitical climate. Precisely because I’m not easily identifiable as Latino, I overhear white folks expressing derision, contempt, or hatred toward Latinos precisely because they don’t spot me as “one of them“; and I overhear similar, very offensive expressions of derision, contempt, or hatred toward Americans of African, Asian, or Arab descent. Vermont is still a fairly civil place compared to many others . . . but I’m deeply troubled by the trends I see taking shape.

I don’t want to wade into the quagmire of the current debate on immigration at this time. I do, however, want to describe what one Latino family experienced in the not-so-distant past. Will my commentary illuminate any aspects of where immigrants fit in American society? That question isn’t really mine to answer.

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My maternal grandparents were Gustavo Montemayor Dávila and Elvira Villarreal Vidaurre. (Mexicans, like most Latinos, use two surnames: the father’s first, the mother’s second.) Both families were long-time residents of a town called Múzquiz, located about 100 miles south of the Texas border in the Mexican state of Coahuila. Members of the landed gentry, both Gustavo and Elvira grew up in middle-class comfort. Born in 1888 and 1892, respectively, they married at some point around 1910. The Montemayor family owned ranches, warehouses, and a dry-goods business. During the decade that encompassed the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), however, both families lost their land and businesses in the ensuing strife. Gustavo and Elvira emigrated to the United States during that decade—tentatively in 1913, then permanently in 1920. They lived first in San Antonio, Texas; then in Chicago; and then in Janesville, Wisconsin. The family story is that Gustavo—who, as the patriarchal “decider” typical of Mexican culture, called the shots—felt so outraged about the family’s losses that he rejected everything Mexican: the country itself, the Spanish language, and the Catholic Church. I recall asking my mother why her father chose Janesville as the community for starting over. Her answer: “Well, he wanted a place as unlike Mexico as possible.” 1920’s-era small-town Wisconsin fit the bill. Gustavo was a classic example of the immigrant who fully disengages from the Old Country rather than romanticizing and longing for it. In any case, he and Elvira were intent on starting a completely new life in the United States.

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677708 Myers_0011_011Gustavo found employment as a mid-level executive at the Parker Pen Company and worked there until his retirement in the late 1950’s. The early and middle decades of the twentieth century were an era in which high-quality pens held as central a place within the business world as high-tech gadgets are in our own time, so working for Parker Pen was a good post. Gustavo headed up the department for Latin American sales. Elvira, meanwhile, gave birth to six children and raised what all relatives and family friends have described as a loving, harmonious brood.

Elvira #1

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The Montemayor domain: a Victorian-era house in the white-bread town of Janesville.

RCG - Janesville house #2

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The Montemayor kids were two girls and four boys. In a photo taken around 1940, five of the six offspring posed with a young man who had married into the family. Pictured here from left to right are Bertha, Román (nicknamed Rummy), George, Estela, and, in front of Estela, Charles (“Charlie”). Not pictured is Gustavo Jr. (“Gus”). The tall, shy-looking fellow standing next to Estela: a philosophy Ph.D. candidate, Francis M. Myers, who hailed from a German/Scottish-American family rooted in Kansas City, Missouri. They had met while both were attending the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and had married in August of the preceding year.

Montemayor clan

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All of the Montemayors of that younger generation went on to complete college degrees. With one tragic exception, they proceeded to successful careers and raised families. My mother, Estela, specialized in Romance languages and taught Spanish in a variety of roles over the years, including as an instructor at the University of Denver. In addition to her linguistic abilities, she had a great love of Mexican traditional dance. Her frisky intelligence and irreverent sense of humor made her somewhat controversial in suburban Denver during the buttoned-down Fifties, but her warmth and lack of pretense won over almost everyone who met her. She was a patient, loving mother who somehow managed to retain her sanity while raising three sons. Following many years of struggling to control her high blood pressure, she suffered three cerebral hemorrhages in 1980 that proved fatal about a year later, just a few days after her 68th birthday.

Estela #2

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Bertha, the second daughter and the third-oldest among the Montemayor siblings, possessed both great beauty and a strong gift for languages. She taught for many years at a private academy in Indianapolis, Indiana, and simultaneously raised three children. Bertha died in 2007 at the age of 86.

Bertha #2 - Version 2

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According to every account I’ve heard, my four Montemayor uncles were all smart, kind, thoughtful men. I knew Charlie best—he was always my favorite, and he outlived his brothers by many years—but I also have fond memories of George and Rummy. I never knew Gus (for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.) All four Montemayor sons served in the American armed services during World War Two, and three of the four went on to successful careers in their chosen fields. Gus joined the army and served honorably for several years. He died on September 16, 1943, when the military plane in which he was a passenger crashed during a training exercise in advance of the D-Day invasion that began nine months later. Gus was 28 years old at the time of his death.

Gus #1

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George joined the Navy, survived the war, went on to become a successful patent attorney in Wisconsin, and helped to raise three daughters. He died in 1968 at age 42 shortly after receiving a diagnosis of acute myelocytic leukemia.

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Rummy was especially close to my mother. Along with his brothers, he joined the war effort and served in the U.S. Army. I can’t recall his post-war profession, but he may have emulated his brother George by training as a lawyer. I have warm recollections of this gentle, playful man only up to when I was six. At that time, in 1956, another family tragedy cut his life short: Rummy, age 32, died in a car accident.

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The youngest of the brood, Charlie, joined the Army during the final years of World War Two, served in Korea, then returned to civilian life and trained as an urban planner. He was the executive director of the planning commission for Dane County, Wisconsin, which  encompasses most of the Madison area, and he held that position for several decades. Charlie was warm, funny, and the most optimistic person I have ever met. Following a long struggle with prostate cancer, he died at age 80 in 2008.

Charlie #1

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Estela #1When I view these and other photos of the Montemayor family, and when I reread the handful of letters I’ve acquired that describe their formative years and adult lives, I’m aware of both how lucky I’ve been to know my Mexican American relatives and also how little I know, ultimately, about them. Even my mother, whom I knew far better than I knew her siblings or their parents, was in some respects a mystery to me. It’s not clear, for instance, whether her intermittent struggles with depression were a consequence of biochemical factors or a side effect of the difficulties she faced because of mid-century gender roles—or because of being Latina within American culture. Maybe all of the above? In any case, I believe that her combination of shrewd intelligence and girlish vivacity—not at all uncommon among Hispanic women—prompted some non-Latinos to find her puzzling, even exasperating. I’ll never know the answers to my questions about her or her family members. As a youth, I was too self-involved to inquire about their interests or past experiences; about their difficulties, delights, victories, and defeats; or about their relationships to one another and to people in the wider world. Now they’re all gone.

What I do know is that the Montemayor clan was simultaneously remarkable and ordinary. All the members of this family were intelligent, talented, and loving. They excelled in their professions and in their relationships. They thrived in many ways and contributed to their communities. Of course the same is true for most immigrant families. Which means, ultimately, that the same is true for all of us in this nation of immigrants.  So, when some people ask, “Who knows what will happen when they come over here?” all I can say is:

Who indeed?

Who indeed.