On pleasant autumn nights, we would gather on the stage of an old weathered white open air Roman-style theater situated on the school grounds. On the adobe platform four feet above the ground, feeling closer to the heavens, me, my brothers and two friends, would recite lines like thespians: “En el otro lado del rio” (on the other side of the river),” most verses began.
Standing on the stage, gazing at the sparkling sky, with an unrestrained imagination I would try to make a connection with people that were important to my life.
From the stage, I would visualize the bucolic bluebonnet-filled green hills around Welcome, Texas where my father, Jose Guadalupe de Leon Basaldua, lived. He was a natural entertainer. He played the guitar well and had an above average octave vocal range. As a young man, he went from plaza to plaza performing. He wanted to be an artist but was discouraged by his mother, Juana Basaldua Alvarado, who believed all musicians were drunks and womanizers. With his Pedro Infante mustache and handsome persona, he made an impression everywhere he went. I was a toddler when he brought a mariachi to the doorstep of the one-room abode where we lived in Dr. Arroyo, Nuevo Leon and sang to my mother, “Que diran, los de tu casa, cuando me, miren tomando” (What will they say… those in your house… When they see me drinking). Years later, as an adult, I rediscovered the song “Andale” in Linda Ronstadt’s “Canciones de Mi Padre” (My Father Songs).
My father never became a professional artist, but it did not stop him from becoming a capable drinker. On a cold morning in Willow Springs, Texas, I recall my mother’s cries, “Lupe…Lupe!” My father was red-faced, eyes open, listless with his head leaned against my mother’s lap as the adults surrounded him dousing him with rubbing alcohol trying to rouse him. They dressed him and rushed him to the hospital in Brenham. It occurred during an overnight stay at my paternal uncle’s house; so we were sleeping on the floor. I did not know what was happening and never found out what he medically experienced. But I know when he came back from the hospital he was not able to communicate. The near tragedy induced by alcohol when he was around forty years of age caused him to reconsider his ways. Shortly thereafter he began the arduous journey to sobriety which helped extend the life of his liver.
From the stage, I also wondered about my grandfathers. Valentin Garcia Betancourt, my maternal grandfather was a teacher and a leader in his community. He wrote verses to advocate for higher wages and better conditions for fellow educators. My mother said his verses were archived in a national government building in Mexico City. She would use his memory to inspire us and simultaneously keep us from wondering off too far from the school grounds. He was at least sixteen years of age in the initial stages of the civil uprising in Mexico. My mother told a story of her father loitering on the street when a regiment of soldiers passing through the town forcibly apprehended him. He was conscripted into the army and served as a Federal during the Mexican Revolution. Valentin was born around 1893. He was twenty-two years older than my maternal grandmother Maria Coronado Costilla, his second wife, who was very proud of the name she shared with the celebrated catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a name synonymous with Mexican Independence.
My father often started sentences, “como decia mi padre” (my father would say). From my parents’ accounts, I gathered that my paternal grandfather, Juan de Leon Venancio, was a quiet and revered noble person with an agile mind who shared his wisdom via sayings and verses. In an era where electronic recording devices were not available spoken words communicated family history and synthesize moral lessons in easy to understand rhyme schemes.
My paternal grandfather died in 1952 when my father was twenty-three years old. I do not know the circumstances of his death. My maternal grandfather passed away in 1948 when my mother was thirteen years old. According to my mother, he was at a teacher’s conference dancing on stage while performing a musical skit dressed as a woman when he suffered a massive heart attack. I never met them. Both died over a decade before I was born. My father died in 1999 and my mother in 2013. Like many children, I now desperately try to recollect the stories, verses and sayings my parents shared with me about themselves and their families in the effort to piece together where I come from and who I am.
Now I realize that my experiences on the rarely used theater unwittingly exposed me to the Shakespearean idea, “All the world’s is a stage.” And, it is where I began to learn that our progenitors portray crucial roles in the production that forms our world even when they ceased to be central characters of the story.