Happy Birthday, Bisabuelo

Can you love someone if you’ve never met them? It would seem silly and ridiculous to love a total stranger. After all, you don’t know quite how they will perceive you or if they’ll even love you back.

I never got to know you Alejandro, my bisabuelo (great-grandfather). You died in 1986, six years before I was born, but I owe part of my existence to you. Your blood runs through my veins and runs through the veins of all my family. I owe you both my middle and last names to you as well. I also talk at length about you to my friends who ask about my family and I will make it a point to introduce your story to my children if and/or when I decide to have some. That’s as much love as the universe will allow me to show you, since I cannot go back into time or commune with you except in a dream or a fantasy.

Today is your birthday. If you were still alive, you’d be 116 years old and we, all your descendants, would all happily surround you while showering you with nothing but love and respect for your accomplishments. Some of us would call you “Tata” or Papa Pino. I would just call you bisabuelo.

I was in 4th grade when I first learned about you. I had a project to do about my family tree, so my father introduced you to me with a photo of you and my bisabuela Carmela Arujo. It was your marriage portrait, taken some time during the twenties. Painted to give it color, I was enthralled by the photo and couldn’t wait to put it on my diagram.

But the image wasn’t enough to convey your importance. My father told me your story – the story of how the Pinos came to be in the United States. He gave me enough details to get a 100% on my project. But over the years, I’ve spent time tracing our family tree and learning all I could about you from your son Donald.

You were born Alejandro Pino Espinoza in Pitiquito, Sonora, Mexico on this day in 1900. You had seven brothers and sisters, all of whom were born to Jose Pino and Dolores Espinoza. Your grandparents were Antonio Pino and Maria Ramirez. Much like yourself, Antonio, born in 1823, was also an immigrant, albeit from Catalonia, Spain. Long after Mexico declared its independence from his native Spanish Empire, he crossed the Atlantic seas and brought your familial tradition of being a vaquero (cowboy) with him.

You, on the other hand, were born in a time of turmoil in Mexico and the sea you had to cross was the vast sandy Sonora deserts. I know, there’s hardly ever a period where there isn’t some sort of conflict. For you, there was the Mexican Revolution, which occurred before you even turned into a teen. On one side, you had Porfirio Diaz, the Europhile autocrat who stole from the poor and expanded his authority beyond the parameters of a stable democracy. On the other, you had the revolutionaries led by Francisco Madero, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa – many of whom led the disenfranchised peasants against their oppressor. Regimes changed by the year and all parties involved were either killed or ousted from power in a ten-year period. Some of these bandits even stole from the people they claimed to be protecting.

However, you were facing an enemy that both sides brought yet neither could kill: chaos. You faced a maelstrom of despair and death that stretched throughout the countryside; an abyss that threatened to swallow you whole and steal you from this world. You weren’t going to live out your dreams. You weren’t going to be a whole human being so long as pandemonium reigned supreme. You had to  make the most logical and simultaneously the most difficult decision that anyone, much less a teenager, could ever consider: leaving everything behind.

It would take Mexico generations to recover from the Revolution, which went from 1910 to 1920. You didn’t have ten years to wait nor the foresight to predict just how Mexico would change.

You were only 16 at the time when you climbed on horseback to go to El Norte. You left behind your family, your heritage, and your culture for what was for you, the Land of Opportunity. Your hero’s journey, that quest that builds the character of the protagonist, was simple: survive.

You never did talk about your arduous journey to Don. I wonder what dangers you faced and what challenges you had to go through as you journeyed through la frontera (the border). But you told another story; how you made it to Florence, Arizona, which was four years removed from admitted statehood, and met the woman you would eventually marry.

As the story goes, you had stopped on horseback into town in 1916. Carmela, who was 15 at the time, was enthralled by you. But so her were sisters Esmeralda and Maria. So bisabuela boldly stated to both of them “that one’s mine!” So, she introduced herself to you and not before long, the both of you were wedded. You married the most kindhearted, strong-willed, and beautiful woman you could find.

Carmela cropped
Carmela Arujo circa 1920

The City of Angels was booming by the time the both of you moved there. You just had your first-born, your daughter Olivia, and you were ready to set roots. After all, it was nearly the end of Roaring 20’s, Calvin Coolidge was the President, the economy was vibrant, and there were plenty of jobs for you to work. You would engage your primary profession as a vaquero for a few ranches, where you even met the legendary Wyatt Earp before he passed. You also worked as a gardener for all types of homes as well as a fieldworker during grape and strawberry seasons. You would work inside the homes as well as a plumber and an electrician. And at night-time, you’d hang out at the bars drinking loads of tequila while hustling unsuspecting novice pool players.

Needless to say, Carmela, being a devout Catholic, didn’t approve your nighttime behavior. My grandfather told me the story of how she sent him to bring you home. Obviously, he went to one of the bars you frequented. Once he found you somewhat drunk, you gave him a quarter you won from some sucker, told him to go home, and to inform his mother that you weren’t there. Needless to say, Grandpa was happy to have a quarter, which made him relatively wealthy by 40’s standards.

Sometimes, you’d take long forays into your native homeland, where you’d be gone a few weeks at a time. You never did explain precisely why you went back. I always figured that you were simply homesick and wanted to see your family again, especially since you left them at such a young age. I know I would.

When you weren’t out working or having fun, you helped raise several children at your small house and farm, all of whom would start families of their own. There was Olivia, Pearl, Alejandro “Alex” Jr, Reynaldo “Rey”, Donald, George, and Henry. Most times, you had to feed them simple beans wrapped in corn tortillas with a soup accompanying it. Meat and milk were luxuries to a fieldworker’s salary, no matter how much you got from the pool hall. You had to make best with what you had to keep your children fed and growing.

Some of them just grew more than others.

Alejandro with his son Reynaldo.

As you know, your tallest son, Donald, would marry a woman named Joan and move up north to San Francisco before eventually settling in Sacramento. They raised one son, Daniel, who you got to meet several times. You passed before Daniel had his first-born, myself, and followed by two daughters. As you undoubtedly notice, I took after Donald and his son’s height, since they were 6’2 and 6’3, while you and the rest were shorter than 6’0. No worries, I’m 6’6 so I long surpassed the both of them.

However, you probably also notice that I’m Black, with my slightly different textured hair, my larger nose, and fuller lips. I’m a child of both Aztlan and Africa, proud of both heritages which arrived to this country amid different hardships. Nevertheless, I fight for all of us, especially for both the Black and Brown people just trying to survive here in America. My own family places your picture with Carmela on top of the bookshelf next to the photo of my maternal great-grandparents John Henry and Ella Louise Price. That’s Black and Brown pride and heritage resting side by side where it should be.

Now legally, my middle name is Alexander, although I introduce myself as David Alejandro Pino just so I can honor you and your legacy. To my own regret, I still don’t currently speak Spanish very well, though I do understand it. My father can. He also has your gardening skills and your ethic of hard work.

And yes, we all have that Pino sarcasm. I write with it all the time.

Immigrant experiences and narratives around citizenship have largely remained unchanged since your time. You have those who propagate proudly of how America is the land of immigrants and welcome to all. The tall green statue that stands proudly before the eastern shore says “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” We usually point to immigrants such as Andrew Carnegie, the billionaire Scotsman who became proof to many that the myth of the American Dream was a reality.

But we both know the reality of immigrant experiences, especially here in the west, where the children of European immigrants spew xenophobic rhetoric and policy to anyone they deem undesirable. They shout “go back home,” claim a heritage that isn’t truly their’s, and offer platitudes on how immigrants are somehow destroying the fabric of this country. As of today, we have an orange skinned tiny fingered Presidential candidate, himself a descendant of a German immigrant, threatening to build a wall to keep your brethren from crossing the border. He characterized you and the others as being rapists and killers “with some exceptions.” He is not unique insofar as he represents the reality of what immigrants endure, especially without papers.

You worked hard all your life, but you were never going to be Andrew Carnegie. Chaos of the universe as well as the mechanism of capitalism dictates that no matter how hard someone works, you won’t be a 1 percenter. Shattering the glass ceiling of wealth and pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps is a fantasy – an illusion we use to motivate ourselves into working hard for those who profit immensely off our labor. It serves its pupose and it will line our pockets enough to keep the lights on and feed ourselves, but never to own the very means of production. Even moreso, we always expect our immigrants to be exceptional if they want to be accepted, even if most citizens born here are anything but.

However, you didn’t need to be a super-genius, businessman, or a politician to be admired and respected. No one does. Your closest experience to a formal education was a mere ten minutes inside a classroom in Arizona. This was commonplace. Hell, you didn’t even have papers until 1947. A lot of folks don’t. You weren’t perfect at all. No one is.

Yes, you had your flaws. You didn’t always do Carmela right by her and it strained your marriage, much to your children’s chagrin. My dad and grandpa also made no secret to me about your separation from her, which lasted more than a decade before your death. Relationships are never perfect, but they can always be better than what they are. It’s nothing to throw dirt on you over, but an understanding of how the chaos of this world can impact someone’s character to the point where we don’t want to look into the mirror all the time.

It would also be self-serving if I offered the usual nostalgic rhetoric offered by the descendants of immigrants, i.e,. “you worked hard so could have a better life.” No. You worked hard to survive and find you could carve a space for yourself in this otherwise chaotic world. You succeeded in some aspects, failed in others. You were no different from anyone else in that regard. Because of your drive to survive and thrive, you started a family whose roots will remain here in the Golden State long after I join you in death. For this, we thank you.

I regret that I never got to meet you. I regret that I never got to hear your voice, get piqued by whatever flaws you had, and listen to your stories.

But to answer my question I asked earlier, yes, you can love someone you’ve never met. Te quiero mucho bisabuelo. Te amamos. Tu sangre es mi sangre. Tu sangre es nuestra sangre.

Alejandro (left) w/ Donald circa 1970s



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