My mother has always loved the movie Sophie’s Choice. She was riveted by the decision Sophie had to make, to choose between the death of her daughter and the death of her son.
“It’s impossible to choose,” she said. “How could I choose between my children? If I did, it would haunt me for the rest of my life.”
I always thought my mother’s fixation on this movie was based simply on the quality of the movie. After all, Meryl Streep was the lead actress. The other day, however, I realized that there was a bit more involved. Her grandmother had faced a Sophie’s Choice of her own.
The grandmother in question, Conchita Rodriguez, had three children, one of them her father Jesus. (For those of you who know my cousin Rudy, this is our common forebear.) In 1913, when Jesus was 12, the Mexican Revolution was raging. It wasn’t a simple war, but it sure was a bloody one. Bands of revolutionaries roamed the countryside waging war on whoever stood in their way. Whole towns and even states were decimated. And their method of drafting soldiers was brutal: Soldiers would come up to a house, put a gun to the head of any males in the household, and ask a question that had only one answer.
“Do you want to join Pancho Villa’s army?
In fact, this is exactly what happened to Conchita’s two sons.
Some mothers cried their hearts out. Some went crazy. But Conchita was different, as many of the women in my family are. She was as tough as nails. She marched up to Pancho Villa’s headquarters and demanded to see the boss. She ranted and raved. It probably helped that she was a pretty woman, too. She soon found herself in the company of Senor Villa himself.
“And what do you want?” he asked.
“I want my sons back!” she screamed.
“We need them for the revolution,” he said calmly.
“They’re my sons! They’re not your sons!”
“You can’t have them!”
“I’m afraid you don’t have a say in the matter.”
Somehow, though, Conchita made headway with Villa. Perhaps it was her tone. Perhaps it was her will. Perhaps it was her looks.
So at a certain point, Villa gave her a Sophie’s Choice.
“You can have one back,” he said. “Which one do you want?”
But Conchita would not make that choice. She insisted that both her sons be returned and that was that. Perhaps there was money involved, or perhaps feminine wiles. We don’t know. The only witness, my grandfather Jesus, died in 1970. The best information comes from my mother, who heard the story growing up, and all she says is that Conchita was so strong willed that she convinced Pancho Villa to release both of her sons.
Conchita died at age 54 following complications of a viral infection. She developed acute encephalomyelitis (a disease of the brain and spinal cord), chronic bronchitis, and an enlarged heart. They lived in the barrio in poverty. Antibiotics were just starting to be used. But she waited to go to the hospital, and when she finally did, her strong will was not up to the task. She succumbed on August 13, 1937. A lioness died that day.
Strong will runs in my family. My mother used her Herculean will in getting her education. I used my strong will to become a featured performer at the world-famous Magic Castle within seven years of picking up my first magic trick. And nobody is going to force us to make a Sophie’s Choice if we don’t want to. We won’t stand for it.