H-Town Diary

Hay-soos Saves

Texan, Mexican, sergeant, stepdad

By Katharine Shilcutt August 1, 2013 Published in the August 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Dan Page

One early Saturday morning when I was 10, my stepfather took me to Matamoros Meat Market to pick up breakfast tacos. The narrow, crowded aisles of the old (and now demolished) Matamoros carnicería on Washington Ave. were packed with onions, tomatoes, and peppers, but also produce I’d never seen before: nopales, cactus paddles with the needles removed; strange, spiky fruits that didn’t look remotely edible. The stained ceiling tiles were strung with colorful sheets of papel picado. The bouncing beat of norteño music thrummed and pulsed through a tiny radio at the checkout.

A bakery case held odd, pig-shaped pastries as unfamiliar as the nopales. And the people lined up at the meat counter were all shouting in roughly lilting Spanish, both at one another and at the butcher, who paid them little mind as he scooped chicharrones and bright orange mounds of chorizo into flour tortillas one at a time.

It was too much for my tiny brain to handle. I burst into tears, the kind of tears that my mother colorfully referred to as “a snot-slingin’ fit.” My confused stepfather hurried me outside before I went into full meltdown mode. He knelt gently beside me in the parking lot, where I huddled up against our gray Suburban for comfort.

“Katie, what’s wrong?” he asked. I struggled to catch my breath between tears that had turned my throat into a hot, tight vice grip.

“There’s too many Mexicans in there!” I finally wailed, before bursting into another round of tears. My stepfather stared at me for a second and then burst into laughter big and loud enough to match my own wailing. It momentarily calmed me.

“Katie,” he finally chuckled, “I’m Mexican too. Remember?”

I was nine when my mother and stepfather married at a small but beautiful ceremony in the old Rainbow Lodge, which overlooked a verdant expanse of Buffalo Bayou just outside Memorial Park. My grandparents declined to attend the wedding. The reason: my sixth-generation–Texan mother, from an upper-class Dallas family, was marrying a Mexican. At the time, my grandfather referred to my stepfather as “Hay-soos the Yard Man” in his deep Texas drawl, an epithet thrown around to refer to basically any random Mexican you didn’t—or didn’t want to—know by name. 

My stepfather’s name is Ralph Dennis Gonzales, not Jesus, and at the time he married my mom he was a sergeant in the Houston Police Department (although he did do yard work on the weekends). Ralph comes from a middle-class Houston family, born and raised in South Park as the first of six children—all of whom had similarly all-American names: Patty, Douglas, Carol, etc. 

“Houston neutralizes you,” Ralph says now, in a thick Houston drawl of his own. “We never thought very much about being ‘Mexican,’ but rather just working hard and trying to lead good lives.”

Ralph was, in fact, one of the few Gonzales kids to learn Spanish growing up, mostly because he spent extra time in the Second Ward home of his grandmother, who’d moved here during the Mexican Revolution in 1918; her husband started his own business here as a butcher. The rest of Ralph’s brothers and sisters grew up speaking Spanglish, a pidgin language that seemed—to my young ears—to be composed primarily of colorful swears, taunts, joking insults, and slangy patter.

Ralph and his siblings grew up on Wonder bread and The Ed Sullivan Show, just as my mother had in Dallas. Ralph was voted Most Popular at Jones High School, and he became a cheerleader after an injury ended his time on the football field. My mother was the “Keeper of the Key” in her college sorority, in charge of hosting the secret ceremonies for fellow Sigma Theta Chis who got engaged in their junior or senior years.

For her part, my sweet but sheltered mother had never dated anyone but a succession of good ol’ Texas boys until she met Ralph by chance one night at the Water Wall, in the shadow of the old Transco Tower.

At a party thrown there by her advertising firm, she was a vision, slender and vivacious, with a crown of “Dallas big hair” set in elegant waves. She’d been divorced from my father for years, raising me on her own and scraping together everything she had to rent us a nice townhome in Memorial so that I could attend good schools in Spring Branch. Ralph, working a side job as security at the party, spotted her from across the room. He didn’t want to be there that night—that is, until he saw his future wife.

It took all evening, but he worked up the courage to ask for her number. Their first date, fittingly, was at a Los Tios. “I always knew I’d marry her,” Ralph recalls today. Twenty-three years later, they’ve built an impressive and loving life together—though not without a few stumbling blocks along the way.

The first word I learned in Spanish was cállate, slang for “shut up!” After that came mijito and mijita, the Spanish diminutive terms for “my son” or “my daughter” all smushed together in one quick, nearly monosyllabic burst: meeh’tah

Such terms are vital when you’re surrounded by dozens of raucous niños at family get-togethers. Every child—whether related to you or not—is “mijito” or “mijita.” We all ran our mouths enough to merit more than a few cállates, along with a stern warning that we were going to get smacked with a chancla (any potentially punitive sandal, slipper, or other light shoe an adult was wearing) if we didn’t behave. Other than these affectionate terms, however, English was the lingua franca of the Gonzales family. 

At one of our initial family gatherings with the Gonzaleses, a female cousin shut down the room with a fit of her own, protesting that my mother and I shouldn’t be in the family Christmas photo that year. At that young age, I thought it was because we were white. It turns out we were just too new.

Newness made other things difficult too: while my mother’s nimble fingers took to tamale-making as if they were designed for the task, I was politely asked to leave during the first Gonzales family tamale-making session I attended one Thanksgiving. I was spreading the masa far too thick. “Go watch TV, mijita,” an aunt chided me.

Despite her tamale-making successes, my mother was having a difficult time adjusting to a society that assumed that anyone with the last name Gonzales was a Spanish-speaker. Checkers who noticed her credit card at the grocery store would start chatting with her in Spanish. The new ad agency she began working for put her in the Hispanic marketing division, assigning her to work boxeo events in San Antonio and the Valley, where she could not have been more out of place.

Mother had to unlearn some of her own old-school Texan epithets, too: “beaner” wasn’t the nicest thing to call a Mexican, and “yammering” wasn’t the politest way to refer to someone’s language. I got a slap in the face when I first learned the word pendejo and crowed it out in front of Ralph. A sneaky cousin had told me it meant “white person.” It does not. 

Aside from difficulties with his initially cold in-laws, Ralph didn’t have the same hard time adjusting to a cross-cultural marriage. After all, he was the one who could speak both languages, exist in both cultures at once. We were the odd men out.

Over the years, however, something wonderful happened. It occurred to me in college that I too felt comfortable existing in both cultures at once.

Ralph took my mother and me to Mexican panaderias and taught us how to make migas. I badgered him to teach me Spanish and practiced my high school lessons on him at home. “It’s not el bolígrafo,” he would laugh. “That’s ridiculous. Just say pluma.” Eventually, my Spanish improved to the point where people assumed I was a native speaker, despite my red hair and fair skin. Ralph’s own aunts and uncles were similarly complexioned thanks to their Castilian roots; we could have passed as blood relatives.

Ralph helped me to understand that the Houston Hispanic community was diverse in itself, not limited to what my 10-year-old mind viewed as “Mexicans.” The Salvadoran and Guatemalan day laborers that we’d occasionally pick up outside Home Depot to help with yard projects were the same kind of “Mexicans” I’d been so afraid of when Ralph first took me to Matamoros Meat Market: usually dark-skinned and small of stature. But Ralph treated them no differently, buying them lunch and dinner for the day before paying them well in cash and dropping them off at their homes.

And in time, Meemo and Granddaddy in Dallas grew to love Ralph too—as if he’d been their own son. In an ironic twist, he always made sure to take care of any yard work they needed—cleaning the gutters, clearing branches off the roof, planting bulbs—when we visited. One of my grandfather’s greatest regrets was his initial reluctance to welcome into the family the warm, kind, generous man who’d married his only child. By the time Granddaddy succumbed to cancer several years ago, the two men had grown incredibly close.

Ralph’s family came to accept my mother and me as their own too. They loved hearing my Spanglish, that secret, special language that now came from my lips as well: mocoso, for a snot-nosed little nephew, nalgas when the posterior of a big-boned aunt wobbled past, mijito indio for an adorable half-Mexican, half-Pakistani cousin. My mother often made the enchiladas at family gatherings (and perfected her own, much-requested black-bean–and–goat-cheese version along the way), and we all danced like maniacs to the mariachis she booked for Ralph’s birthday one year. We were family.

Now when I hear a Hispanic friend talk about her own mocoso little brother, I can relate. When I listen to friends discuss buying marranitos and pan dulce from the bakery, I can relate. When someone tells me he ate migas growing up, I can relate—even if Ralph was always better at smoking a Texas-style brisket than making eggs scrambled with tortillas—a dish my mother, stepfather, and I always ate with ketchup on top. We were Texans first, after all. 

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