The Story of Carmen

View of a large crowd of people on Broadway looking south from 7th St, 1934. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

A beautiful tribute to Carmen Castellanos who passed away on August 16, 2010. Submitted by reader Estella Tinajero Medina and written by her brother Art Tinajero.

My Aunt Carmen’s first memory of America was the glorious reception she received upon her arrival. It was the summer of 1917 and her family, her mother, father and little brother, had finally arrived in El Paso, Texas after a long train ride from Aguascalientes, their hometown in central Mexico.

As they pulled into the station they saw the buildings were all draped in red, white and blue bunting. A military brass band burst into patriotic marches while hundreds of tiny U.S. flags were waiving in the hands of cheering well-wishers. Along the tracks, rows and rows of fresh-faced uniformed soldiers stood at attention in perfect alignment. For a wide-eyed, six-year old little girl, it was an over-whelming welcome that would be ingrained into her memory for the rest of her life.

As the family stepped off the train onto the wooden platform, Carmen tugged at her mother’s long dress and asked, “Is this heaven?” Her mother smiled and simply said “no”. She didn’t have the heart to tell her little Carmen that the exuberant revelry was not for her. The crowds were really there to see the soldiers going off to France. The United States had just joined the fight in the First World War.

Like thousands of other families suffering the political unrest and religious persecution that plagued the bronzed land south of the Rio Grande from 1910 through the 1920’s, Carmen’s family fled the chaos and danger of Mexico to the relative safety of the United States. From the time they arrived through the mid-1920’s, Carmen and her family followed the railroads north. Wherever there was track to be laid, stations to be built or travelers to be served, the railroads provided work. They lived and worked in towns like El Paso, Texas, Columbus, New Mexico, Tombstone, Arizona and Abilene, Kansas.

The life memories of my Aunt Carmen span nearly a century. I always enjoyed any opportunity to sit with her and probe for the stories that would flow from her memory as fresh as if they had happened just a few days ago.

“Mommy”, as she affectionately came to be known to the scores of her extended family, witnessed the entire 20th century first hand. She lived the gamut of time that took her from the horse-drawn old west to the uber-fast paced high-tech era of today. A natural story-teller, she had a way of painting pictures with words that made the past come to life for her listeners. She was more than a living history book, she was a living newsreel.

Around 1925, the family moved to Los Angeles, which had beckoned as a place with plenty of work and opportunities for those wanting to make a new life. The Gonzalez family now consisted of Carmen, her younger brother Guillermo and three new siblings: Aniceto, Refugio and the newest baby, little Lucita (my mother).

Years later, recollecting the years leading up to World War ll, my Aunt’s gaze would drift off happily as her memory would float back in time seeing again in her mind’s eye the look and style of the fairy land that was Los Angeles. She would describe the beautiful restaurants and department stores that lined the streets downtown like magnificent palaces. The scent of expensive perfumes, wafting into the street in gusts every time shoppers scurried past the twirling revolving doors, still lingered in her memory.

Broadway, or “Theater Row” as it was known, was no less fabulous. Until now, she had only seen these fabled movie houses in magazines. Now there they stood, majestically lining the famous street, lavishly ablaze with a million light bulbs that illuminated the marquees like beacons.

Carmen worked as a hair dresser in a shop downtown so she had a front row seat for the parade of ladies and gentlemen as they shopped. The women wore beautiful dresses, matching hats and gloves and always were perfectly made-up. To her, they looked like porcelain dolls on display. The men wore well-pressed suits, colorful matching ties on crisp white shirts and hats that were always tipped in the presence of a lady. Chivalry was still young then and the men were as courteous as Knights of the Roundtable. (My aunt emphasized this constantly as a point of difference to today’s lack of dress and manners.)

By 1930 Carmen’s parents once again longed to return to Mexico. Perhaps it was the distance of family and friends; or the sound of their own language that they missed so much. Maybe it was the nuances of culture and customs that they feared would soon be forgotten in this new country. Still, it may have been the growing gloom of the Economic Depression that was rolling across the U.S. like a dark and heavy cloud. More than likely, it was a combination of all these things that decided them to return to Aguascalientes.

But Carmen had met a young man while living in Los Angeles. His name was Jose Castellanos. They were in love and planned to get married. Carmen’s parents however, disapproved and would not bless the marriage. Heart-broken, she dutifully obeyed and returned to Mexico with her family. Undeterred, Jose would not take no for an answer. In movie-script fashion, he set out after her. He arrived in Mexico confidently bearing gifts for Carmen: a ring, a wedding gown and a promise to Carmen that he would not leave without her. Her parents, seeing the couple’s love and the character and determination of this young man, relented. Jose and Carmen were married in the town’s church and left for Los Angeles the next day.

Jose and Carmen settled into their life in Los Angeles. Their family grew and they worked hard to prosper. But Carmen’s world would change many times in the near century that spanned her life. She lived through a Revolution, two World Wars, a Great Depression, a child’s death and a husband’s death.

Despite more hardship than any one person should bear, she endured. She never showed fear to her children, so as to instill confidence in them. She never showed hopelessness, so as to instill hope in them. She never showed self-pity, so as to instill strength in them. She did, however, show faith, piety and the power of prayer, to teach her children that there was always light in the face of darkness and that they never had to endure sorrow alone.

Her legacy to the four generations that know her as “Mommy” is her strength, character and faith.

As life slowly unfolds and reveals to us our share of challenges, hardships and joys, our entire family will be forever blessed by the gift she bestowed to us: A beautiful example of how to live a life despite adversity.

“Mommy” passed away this summer. She was 99 years and four months old. I like to believe that her welcome reception into Paradise was no less glorious than her memory of that day she first stepped off the train in El Paso, in 1917. With one difference to be sure, there will be no doubt in her mind, this is indeed… Heaven.

Adios Mommy, adios mi bien. Adios para siempre, adios.

-Art Tinajero

3 thoughts on “The Story of Carmen

  1. Beautiful tribute to a woman who lived through so many great times.
    The other day I was browsing an LA history picture book and thought of my grandma who arrived in 1915, she passed at 98yrs five years ago and my mom who passed at 80 last year. Looking at those old pictures I remembered all the stories they had about seeing LA grow and change.
    Thank you.

  2. Beautiful story Art! And so familiar to so many of us. My own family history as told by my late Grandmother, who migrated to LA in the 1920’s as Mexican Hillbillys from the New Mexico and Southern Colorado mining towns and burned out pueblitos sounded very paralell to your family’s.
    Just a question to you, and certain answers I find curiously shared by many of our first LA families. Did they first live in our around downtown LA? Bunker Hill, Temple/Court St area, Alpine/Macy St? Was the family eventually held together by a strong matriarch? Did the women of the family become even stronger and independent culturally and economically in LA as the years went by? I know my own Grandmothers really started to thrive and grow as individuals when they became “Rosie The Riviteer” workers in the defense industry during WW2. Was this also the case in your family? Were those women also very religious as was the case in my family? It seems those women’s Roman Catholic faith had such a huge influence on thier lives. I’m not making a judgement or any pro or con religious statement I’m just curious.
    Great post!

  3. And least I forget, thank you also Estella! See! That old chauvinistic behavior can raise it’s ugly head at any time!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *