Chloe by Margaret Garcia Photo copyright Martha Benedict

Margaret Garcia: Her Grandma Overcame So Much; Her Own First Breath Was A 'Criminal Act'

Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@losjeremy) asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

Today, we hear from artist Margaret Garcia:

"Grandma Ruth was born Refugia Marmolejo in El Paso, May 25, 1909, part Tarahumara Indian and the eldest of twenty-four children.

"Tarahumara Indians are border people, as are the Basque from where her name comes. Both of these people have a very long history of smuggling goods across the borders.

"At the age of thirteen she was forced to marry my grandfather, because he at the age of thirty had taken her virginity. Her Catholic family no longer viewed her as viable marriage material. They forced her to marry him, told her to be a good wife, and submit to what all husbands are entitled to.

"The harshness of this Yaqui Apache Indio matched the harshness of his land. By 1926 at the age of seventeen, she had had three boys and was pregnant with her fourth.

"She fell down during an incident at Lincoln Park and miscarried. Grandpa disappeared for more than six months, leaving her without support. When he returned, she was already living with a widower and his nine children.

"Accused of adultery, she chose not to return. Grandpa legally took the children to Mexico -- it was a period of Mexican repatriation.

"The eldest of the three boys drowned during a flood in Tijuana. Grandma received a telegram informing her that her son Gregorio had passed, and it was the last communication she received until she found my father Fernando and his brother Enrique. She searched for him, putting ads in the newspapers in Mexico.

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"Grandpa told my father that his mother was a whore and didn't want her children, and that was why they no longer had a mother. My dad shined shoes and begged for change on the streets of Ciudad Obregon so he could buy food whenever his father left them alone.

Refugia Marmolejo, Margaret Garcia's grandmother. Photo courtesy Margaret Garcia

"Though he endured beatings at the hands of his father who chained and shackled him to the bed every time he beat him, he still professed his love for his father. When my father was reunited with my grandmother when he was fifteen-years-old, they worked to mend the relationship.

"My birth signaled the first-born grandchild that she could hold, as my cousins were still in Mexico. This put me at the center of her universe.

"My grandma was a nurse at the County General Hospital, where she had gotten her nursing degree through practice. She worked as a midwife. This allowed her to file birth certificates.

"She then became of use to those looking to create documents showing they were American citizens. In effect she became a coyote of sorts, helping people get their documents. She'd go in and say I delivered that baby and just didn't get around to filing the papers.

"This is how she met my mother, who she introduced to my father her son. I was then conceived out of wedlock to an undocumented worker. I have always said that my first breath was a criminal act, my existence from the start was to identify as outside of what was legal.

"My grandma had adopted a little girl who was named Lupe. This little girl died of tuberculosis of the bones in the communicable diseases ward there at County General Hospital. So she lent her birth certificate to my mother.

"My mother used this certificate as her identity when I was born. My birth certificate then has the name of my father and his deceased adopted sister as my parents. She later had it changed so my certificate is a two-page document.

"By second grade, Grandma would come to school and tell the nurse that I had a doctor's appointment and that I had to go with her. From there we went downtown and boarded a bus to Hollywood Park Race Track in Inglewood. We bet on the horses. I learned to pick horses and she gave me an allowance to choose tickets she would buy.

"She said the reason she took me to the track was that I brought her good luck. Every time we went together she always won at least $100. My mother would get upset because I was going to the track and missing school, but Grandma would call her and promise to buy me a winter coat. My mother would calm down and negotiate for more, but under her breath I always heard her say, 'libertina, callejera' -- a 'woman of the streets.' That's what Mother called Grandma when I was at home.

"During one of these excursions on a rainy night we were returning from the track. As we stood at the back of the crowed bus holding on to the metal poles, a very old drunken white man began ranting.

Margaret Garcia. Photo copyright Martha Benedict

"There were no seats for him as he stood in the middle of the bus and he began spitting out racial epithets. 'I hate n-----s and Mexicans!' I pushed closer to my Grandma, burying myself in her side. My Grandmother lifted up my face with her hand and asked, 'Are you scared?' I nodded silently as my eyes grew wide. She said, 'Don't be. He is just an old drunken fool.'

"My grandmother at 4-feet and nine-inches tall turned around and pointed her umbrella at the man. She said, 'I am a Mexican and I am from Texas, and if you don't shut up I will put this umbrella right through you.'

"The entire bus broke out in applause. Then I heard someone say, 'That's right! And we're going to help her!' The back of the bus was filed with mostly black people. He could see he was outnumbered. Though he was a fool, I see now he wasn't an idiot. He shut up and rode silently back to Union Station."

-- Margaret Garcia
(as e-mailed to Jeremy Rosenberg)


Top Image: "Chloe" by Margaret Garcia. Photo copyright Martha Benedict. Photo courtesy Margaret Garcia

Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Follow Rosenberg on Twitter @losjeremy

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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