Some Mex Dude

My mother is of Mexican heritage and my father was of English heritage, making me of mixed parentage.  That used to signify lower status in this country.  Everybody now realizes that, if just by taking a casual glimpse at the past two presidential election cycles.  Still, it amazes me anew every time I realize how things used to be.

I was reading through an old magic magazine today (Genii, the Conjurors’ Magazine, Dec. 1969, p. 173) and was reminded of it once again.  The article concerned a piece of magic that can be seen here, as performed by my mentor, the fabulous Jeff McBride:

The article discussed who invented this wonderful and lovely piece of magic.

“Anyway, in this book it says that Dr. Elliott originated [the trick].  Elmer Ransom told me once that a Mexican fellow walked into one of the magic shops one day and [he stunned everybody by doing the trick].  Dr. Elliott saw it and evolved [the move] and a lot of other little moves with it, but he certainly didn’t invent the original idea.”

The author is interested in Dr. Elliott, and he’s interested in the provenance of the magic, but he’s certainly not interested in pursuing the name of the “Mexican fellow.”  There’s no conjecture about his identity, provenance, or what other magical methods he may have developed.  This isn’t overt racism, but instead, embedded racism–the kind that passes unremarked in the assumptions that people make about the world.  From another magician, I’ve learned that the Mexican fellow’s name was Cantinflas, the fabulous Mexican clown and movie star whose given name was Mario Moreno.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFw87NbZLro]

The author of this musing was Dai Vernon, who was known among magicians as the greatest magician of the 20th century, an estimation that includes Houdini, even though most non-magicians don’t even know his name.  He was not known as a racist, but instead, a man who was obsessed with magic above all else.

http://magicagora.com/2011/11/25/dai-vernon-the-man-who-fooled-houdini/?lang=en

But that’s just the way it was in Vernon’s day.  To be fair, his day started in the 1920s, so it’s certainly not fair to say that racism raged full bore in 1969.  It is fair to say that racist attitudes were the norm among many people who were still alive in the late 1960s, such as Vernon.  If a white guy did something great, you knew his name.  If a brown guy did it, it was just “some Mex dude.”

One of my mentors was a fabulous magician named Robert Rodriguez, who died a couple years ago.  Although I can “pass,” it was impossible for Robert to pass.  He once confessed to me that when he started doing magic in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Mexicans couldn’t perform at white people’s parties in a suit.  Instead, it was only proper for them to perform if they were dressed in ethnic costume, such as a mariachi costume and sombrero.  Dignifying them with suit and tie gave them an equal status that they simply were not allowed.

I am so glad that times have changed.  Sombreros hurt my forehead.

Adventure on Road X (part 11)

[Continued from a previous post]

It all started with a baby.

027 (2)In the spring of 1956, Donald and Sally Groves had hearts that were fuller than they could ever imagine.  They had both had difficult childhoods and gotten tangled up in their own pain and anger along the way as a runner might trip over his own shoelaces.  But finally now, holding a baby in their arms, for the first time in their lives, they had found themselves.  They knew they were doing something good and pure.  They had brought a baby into the world and they were going to give him all the love that they had never received.

Don and Sally in the woods 1a smaller cropped2

Sally had witnessed violence in her household.  Her father regularly hit her mother.  Her mother hated the pain, but in a strange way, loved it, too.  It made her feel alive in some primal way, so in some ways, she provoked it.  In fact, she was filled with primal feelings.  She put her daughter’s feet on the stove, ostensibly for coming home five minutes late from school, but actually, for beginning to grow up.  It was a confusing sin for the daughter.  Sally’s father had gone out with other women.  He longed for adulation and fame, as his grandson later would, but the progression of a Mexican entertainer in the thirties was by tradition stunted.  For his violence at home, he was rightly charged with assault and battery.  When Sally’s older brother grew old enough, he beat up the father for his violence.  As a reward, the brother was sent away from home to CCC camp.  It was a confusing and enraging childhood.  Heroes were punished, beauty was damned, pain was pleasure, pleasure was never quite pleasure, and truth was buried in the backyard along with the dead cat.

But now, with this child, it was all over.  The new baby wasn’t going to go through any of that.

I wasn’t going to go through any of that.  And I didn’t.

Sally Groves with her new babyMy parents took a 2-week trip, the baby in tow, to the Midwest to visit Don’s relatives.  Don’s grandfather Charles had died six years earlier, and his widow Dora had moved in with her son Earl in the oil town of Ponca City, Oklahoma.

Sally with her son in 1956 at Dinosaur Park, located in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Sally with her son in 1956 at Dinosaur Park, located in Rapid City, South Dakota.

It was an eye-opening trip.  I don’t remember it, of course, but we visited the Black Hills of South Dakota. We drove through Oklahoma and were refused service at a diner because of my mother’s skin color.  And when we reached Earl’s house, my parents were stunned to learn another ugly fact: The old lady didn’t want to see them.

Dora lived in a back house on Earl’s property, and she wouldn’t listen to reason.

“Why did she have to marry a Mexican woman?” she told Earl.  “I refuse to give my approval to a dirty Mexican and her dirty son.”

My parents were terribly disappointed and hurt.  They had traveled halfway across the country, after all, just to be refused at Dora’s doorstep.

After that, they looked for solace with Don’s great-aunt Caroline Allen, who lived in Colorado.  When he was in the service in 1948 – ’51, spending several bloody months fighting in the bloodiest battles of the Korean War, Aunt Caroline was the only one who wrote him letters.  Don always thought fondly on Aunt Caroline, and when the baby came along, they gave her last name to their child as a middle name.  But astonishingly, Aunt Caroline disliked my mother because of her race, too.  Caroline offered a chilly reception, and they went away terribly sad.

In the years that followed, my family looked back on that incident many times, and it eventually became a defining moment for them.  They settled into the comfortable suburbs and Sally hardened herself to those who had rejected her.  Thereafter, my mother referred to all Midwestern locations as “the South.”  To her mind, they weren’t worth visiting because they were all racists.  (There was much more to this story, which I’ve written about in a previous blog post.)

v

Many years passed.  In that time, the civil-rights movement transformed the country.  Racism began to be considered as an abomination, no longer the status quo that it once had been.  The child grew up not knowing what crucible he had been born into.  A whole new generation began intermarrying–brown with white, yellow with brown, red with white, and all shades in between, even black.  The n word became forbidden.  Laws changed.  Blacks moved into white neighborhoods.  In the 1950s, my Mexican Uncle Ray had been banned from purchasing a house in Paramount, but his son lived long enough to be glad that he had been turned down.  Hispanics were elected to Congress, state office, and even became movie stars–Freddy Prinze, J. Lo, George Lopez, and many others.  And finally, as a crowning glory, a black was elected President of the United States.

It is now 2013 and the baby has grown into adulthood.  A couple months ago, he was visiting Kansas on a genealogical quest and had stopped in at the local library to peruse the old newspaper archives.  It was at that moment, sitting at the reference desk, that he discovered an odd fact.  He stared for a long time at the article from the Hutchinson News-Herald that the librarian had given him.  It didn’t fit in with anything that he knew about the situation.

Dora Groves obit date

Dora, as you’ll recall, was Don’s grandmother, who had refused to see her own great-grandson because he had Mexican blood.  But there’s something strange about this obituary: It was published on September 25, 1955, reporting that Dora had died the previous Friday, September 23.  That was eight months before their trip to “the South,” and in fact seven days before he was even born.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I questioned my mother about it.  But she was adamant.

“Your Dad’s grandmother wouldn’t see us,” Mom said.  “It was Grandma Dora.  She was living in the back house at Earl’s place.”

I showed her the obituary again.  She looked at it for a long time, puzzling over it.  Finally, she looked up at me with confusion in her eyes.

“Then who was living in that back house?” she said.

Adventure on Road X (part 4)

[Continued from a previous post]

I was rolling down country roads in an old Neon with my country cousin Preston Taylor.  We had issued from the loins of the same great-great-grandfather, John H. Groves, of Duck Creek back in the 1800s, and were acting like friends.  I guess we were friends.  At the very least, we shared some blood in common, driving past farms, fields, prairie, and every so often, a lonely tree.

A renegade thought went through my head.

Does he know that I’m half Mexican?

My DNA, you see, represents a clash of civilizations.  On one side is the English line stretching back to Henry VIII, if you believe my genealogical arboretum.  On the other side is the Mexican line that came over the border in 1915, when Pancho Villa chased them off their wealthy rancho in Leon, leaving their children in California picking fruit in the fields at age 8 rather than attending school.  Whites and Mexicans, that’s who I come from.  I’ve always been a kind of Hispanic Obama.

In my twenties, I would often ask people what nationality I looked like.  The answers were varied: Greek, Russian, Jewish, Italian.  Never 50% Mexican, 25% English, and 25% German.  And obviously, this Taylor fellow didn’t know, either.  I wondered if he would ask.  I wondered if I should ask him about his racial politics.  And furthermore, how does one ask about that?

David Groves, age 17

David Groves, age 17

Do you hate Mexicans?

No, you can’t ask things like that.  Nobody ever answers yes to that.

City boy, I don’t hate nobody.  Hate the sin, love the Mexican, that’s what I say, although I don’t cotton to the word love, sounds kinda queer.

Or maybe I was being too hard on him.  Maybe he’d react with acceptance and open arms.

My wife was born in Juarez, so that makes me half Mexican myself, don’t it?

It was definitely too touchy of a subject, so we talked about other things, like his significant other.

“No, I don’t have a wife,” Preston confessed.  “I have a girlfriend that I’ve lived with for 21 years.”

“Well, maybe it runs in the genes.  I’ve lived with mine for 12.”

“Mine is 14 years older than me.”

“I had one of those when I was 22.”

I didn’t ask his girlfriend’s ethnic heritage.  I quickly did the math, and realized that she must be 71 years old.  I recalled that Raymond Chandler had married a much older woman, too.  When he got famous at age 48, he was tempted to stray, but didn’t, not because he didn’t have offers, but mostly because he was so socially inept.

I looked around at the wheatfields speeding past us and wondered, as I sometimes do, what this place looked like back in 1854, when the federal government passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, opening up Kansas to settlement.  At the time, it was already occupied by the Sac and Fox, a proud native American nation that stretched from Nebraska to Oklahoma, and whose name meant People Arising from Water (and really, aren’t we all?).  The Sac and Fox were excellent athletes, the best example being Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox man who won two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics and played professional baseball, football, and basketball.

In 1857, the first white man moved to this area, to a location he called Duck Creek.  His name was Phillips.  Two years later, so the story goes, Phillips was notified that he had settled on Indian land.  I smiled when I read the word notified.  I wondered how the Indians had notified him, perhaps with a well-placed arrow?  The Phillipses promptly moved to the present site of Reading, but the Indians still sometimes bothered them, walking into their home as if they owned it, taking whatever food and items they liked, and leaving.

Once, the Indians entered the Phillips home when Mrs. Phillips was sick, a white cloth wrapped around her head.  They began searching for items to expropriate when Mrs. Phillips confronted them.

“I hope you like smallpox, because that’s what I have, and you’re going to get it,” she said.

They understood smallpox, and immediately skedaddled.

John H Groves royal society of the union 2a closeup

John H. Groves, kneeling

My great-great-grandfather John H. Groves settled in Duck Creek, too.  He grew up in Sullivan County, Missouri, and when he was 25 years old, joined the Missouri Volunteers (23rd regiment) and fought on the Union side.  In 1878, he drove his young family in a covered wagon from Missouri to Kansas, settling in Duck Creek.

Preston and I weren’t in a covered wagon, for sure, but in a Neon speeding along at 40 mph.  And as we were driving towards the Reading Cemetery, Preston dropped a bombshell that clarified things considerably.

“After the Civil War, John Groves walked from Missouri to Kansas,” he said.  “That’s what my Uncle John told me.”

“Walked?!”

“Yes, walked.”

I wondered why anyone would walk to Kansas.  Well, the walking part was easy, I guess: because he didn’t have a car.  But with regard to leaving Missouri, perhaps it was because Missouri itself was such a boiling roux of Confederate racists and Union abolitionists.  He didn’t want to live in boiling water.  In fact, the Missouri Compromise had been all about slavery: Congress had allowed the slave state of Missouri into the Union only if it was balanced by the free state of Kansas.  When the Civil War broke out, Missouri had its own internal civil war, while Kansas had been established from the outset as a free state.  So perhaps John Groves’ move had to do with his own moral convictions.

I liked the sound of that: moral convictions.  It was ironic, though, given all the ugliness that happened to later generations.  John’s great-grandson Donald married a Mexican woman in 1951, and endured a lot of flak from the family.  Don’s father ridiculed her for eating beans and cooking “oochiladas.”

Left to right, Sally Groves, Roy Groves, Emily Groves

My other (L) and Roy Groves (center).

In 1957, Don and his wife Sally drove to Oklahoma to show their new 2-year-old to the remaining grandparent, Dora.  But Grandma Dora refused to allow her into the house.

“You think I’d allow a dirty Mexican into the house?” Dora said.  “Over my dead body.”

“But they’ve driven all this way,” her son Earl said.

“I’ll see the baby, but not her.”

Sally Groves and her new half-Mexican son

Sally Groves and her new half-Mexican son

Appalled by the insult, Sally and Don refused Dora’s kind offer.  They visited with Earl for a while and then left.

That mixed-race 2-year-old was me.

On the way back, we all stopped at a diner for some lunch.  They served Don, but not Sally.  Oklahoma, it seems, didn’t want their kind.  They left insulted and hurt.

Over on the western side of the state, they didn’t want darkies, either.  That’s where my girlfriend Claire grew up, in a tiny town just outside of Hayes, Kansas.

“They used to say that the sun never sets on a black man in Hayes,” Claire once told me.

Strangely, though, Kansas had pockets of racial friendliness.  In my research, I discovered a couple negro boys in the 1922 yearbook of Sherman Junior High School, 120 miles southwest of Reading (see photo).  It can’t have been easy, but they managed it.

Sherman Jr High black students 1922 1b cropped smaller

In fact, my own great-uncle Earl graduated from that same school system in 1917 (see the photo below), the same great-uncle who took in his mother, Dora, when she was widowed in 1950.

Earl Groves, Sr.

Earl Groves, Sr.

As you can see, there was a lot going through my mind during that 20-minute drive.

When Preston and I finally reached the Reading Cemetery, I got out and took a deep breath.  Looked around.  It was sobering.  This, I thought, is the grassy plot of land where they took my dead relatives.  This was the setting of their final act.

The Reading Cemetery

The Reading Cemetery

“I haven’t been here in about 20 years,” Preston said, “but I think the graves are somewhere on the east side over there.”

We finally found them on the west side.

“It’s been a long time,” Preston said.

I stood for a long time in front of those headstones.

There was Daisy V. Groves, who was born in 1880, turned out to be mentally impaired, but lived to the ripe old age of 86, when she died a curious death.

IMG_3059 smaller

There was Orlando and Frank Groves, who never married and made their living on the farm, “true mechanical geniuses,” as Preston put it.  They died curious deaths, too.

IMG_3060 smaller

And there they were, the patriarchs.

John H. Groves, who walked 230 miles to create a new life for himself in a state with less prejudice.

IMG_3061 smaller

And Caroline Hayward, who took care of her mentally impaired girl for 3 1/2 decades, and whose nephew Cy took care her for three more.

At one point in that graveyard, I stood face to face with Preston Taylor and just asked straight out.

“Being out here in the country, I’m guessing you’re a conservative,” I said.

“Yes, I surely am,” Preston said.

IMG_3084 closeup 1b

“I’m guessing you listen to Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.”

“Yes, I do listen to both of those.  It all started in the 1980s when I started listening to this man in Florida, I forget his name.”

I thought about who I listened to–Rachel Maddow, Randi Rhodes, Thom Hartmann, Chris Matthews, and Lawrence O’Donnell–and realized we could start a new civil war with just these combatants.  Luckily, the cemetery would be nearby.

All the way on the drive over, I had been tuning into the conservative stations to see what Sean and Rush had to say about the government shutdown, and I was appalled at their ignorance.  It was like listening to an infant scream, “But I want to touch the stove!”  It was easy to think of them as stupid, ignorant, victims of Fox News, and identifiers with the aggressor, as some blacks are these days when they vote Republican.

But here standing in front of me was one of them, and he was me.  I didn’t want to kill him.  I didn’t want to argue with him.  I just wanted to talk about family.

“Well then,” I finally said, “we probably shouldn’t talk politics, because I’m on the other side.”

In death, I mused, there is no more Civil War.  There are no more waitresses who insult you because of your race.  There are no more grandmothers who refuse to see their “dirty Mexican” daughter-in-laws.  There are no more ranting talk-show hosts.  All is quiet, all is past, all is done.

[To be continued]