We lived literally on the edge of town. Across the street was an ample expanse of field that I later learned belonged to the university. It was our playground. One of them anyway. We chased rabbits, threw dirt clods, flew our kites, shot our bow and arrows in that field. There were cows when I was real small. My older siblings fed them occasionally. I think they belonged to the single white farmhouse up at the top of the hill. I can still hear the squeaky wheels of the hay bailer that passed back and forth each year. I can recall foxtails in my socks. We occasionally climbed the old oak trees out there too.
I first attended school at a considerably old, but prominent, Mission style elementary school, called Mayfield. It sat at the Eastern foot of that field on the El Camino Real. My oldest brother, at least 15 years my senior, had gone to the same school. When a new school was built nearby on Stanford property in ’62, Mom decided I would go there instead. I started 4th grade in the new Escondido school. A few others from my hood did also.
* * *
5 kids and about twenty years later, takes us to the early sixties. Pop’s gone from being a letter carrier for the Post office downtown, to the Maintenance Supervisor. My mother’s been working for IT&T, making semi-conductors for a couple years. Some friends at her work who drove every year to Mexico for a couple of weeks in their VW van, invited her and Pop to join them one summer. Pop wasn’t interested in going and stayed home. (A break from Mom!) My brother Stephen, also working at IT&T at the time in fact, went instead. Mom and Stephen loved Mexico. The following year, she was invited again and talked Pop into it this time. Turns out, he loved it also. I guess they did some serious talking thereafter and decided that they would “semi-retire,” sell the house and move to Mexico — a very bold move. They must have been quite impressed!
Being the baby, I had become the last of 5 kids to still be living with the folks by then. Both of my sisters had each had a kid by now and were living somewhere down San Jose way. My oldest brother was married living in Oakland, and my other brother I reviously mentioned was hanging out who-knows-where with the likes of the local Beats and future flower children.
The folks had been considering for a time to leave Palo Alto. They didn’t care for the changes they were seeing. Sadly, the quiet, country-fringed neighborhood street where they had bought their home back in ‘42, had become a busy thoroughfare in the mornings and evenings with people going to and from their jobs at the electronic plants that were being built amongst old cow pasture. What was once a field of dairies and small farms had become Stanford Industrial Park. Referred to eventually as Silicon Valley.
Our house sat on a corner, and people from the plants would occasionally sit in their cars on the side street at lunchtime, and sometimes toss their trash in the gutters. This did not make my mother happy. California Avenue, the street we lived on, got busier and noisier with the traffic with each new factory that was built. Meanwhile the family dog got hit by a car, then again a year or so later. The dog survived both. Then one day someone almost drove their car onto our lawn and would have had it not been for the hedge around the property. That was too much for her.
Having been looking into moving, they were into the idea of living on a houseboat in North Bay of San Francisco, or England on the Thames. I went a time or two with them up Sausalito way to look at the houseboats Sausalito was famous for. That is, until they went to Mexico. We were far from being wealthy and no doubt money would go considerably farther in Mexico. So it was decided. We had a big lawn sale, something not seen often yet in our neighborhood, and sold off much of twenty or so years of stuff. Mom stored the antique furniture she wasn’t ready to part with at Gramma’s house in Oakland. I didn’t have much as some kids to begin with, but I said goodbye to a pitch-back and an electric train set and some model cars. Even an old teddy bear. I didn’t complain. I’m guessing I was an adventurous sort even then: traveling to another country for the first time sounded like fun to me. The thought of moving to Mexico took precedence over any other childish thoughts I might have had. And well, it was out of my control, wasn’t it. And so we moved to Mexico in the summer of ’64, on our way to a new home and truly different lifestyle!
We drove down in our Peugeot 403, towing a small box trailer full of just basic needs and belongings. We crossed the border at Tijuana on July 25, my thirteenth birthday in fact. Our destination? A west coast fishing village in the tropics called, San Blas, in the state of Nayarit. To this day, some people have never heard of it, even people who have been to Mexico. I have to tell them it’s the state between Sinaloa and Jalisco. I would attribute this to the fact that Nayarit has little in the way of tourist destinations yet. (The reason my folks liked it)
You hear about people getting sick, commonly referred to as “turista,” sometimes, “Montezuma’s Revenge” their first trip to Mexico, and I was no exception. I had only been there 2 or 3 days. We were still on the road to our destination and adventurous me had turtle soup for dinner in Guaymas. And who is to say it may or may not have been the soup — but let’s just say I haven’t had turtle soup ever since! (it’s unlawful now to fish for turtles). The admittance of foreign stomach flora did it. When I wasn’t lying in the back seat, sick as a dog, I was sitting up and all eyes for most the 5 day road trip.
* * *
Before arriving in Mexico, there were, naturally, many things I had never seen before. There was thunder and lightening in Culiacan outside our hotel. Crashing loud, with bright flashes, as it rattled the second floor windows in the hall where I stood watching. The water seem to come down in buckets. No, I couldn’t recall seeing this spectacle before in the Bay Area where I came from. There were dead dogs and dead horses in the roads or along the sides, sometimes swarming with vultures. There were packs of snarling, fighting dogs in the villages. There were poor, raggedy clothed and sometimes crippled people, all ages, in the streets, some with their hand out begging for money. I had never seen people living in grass shacks, or sleeping in doorways. Or seen such worn-out, dilapidated cars and trucks, others going literally a bit sideways down the road, reminding me of crabs!
I’d never seen a herder walking his cows or goats down the middle of a road before. Nor cows grazing the grasses by the roads and sometimes just standing smack in the middle! And burros? No, I couldn’t recall ever seeing so many donkeys before. Nor people driving creaky, wooden wagons pulled by them, or possibly a mule. I‘d never seen papayas, mangoes, or bananas growing on trees. I’d never eaten jicama, tasted tamarindo, or drunk the red, agua de jamaica.
We stayed a night in Navajoa Sonora, in the El Rancho Motel. It actually looked like those along 101 in California. It still does today. (This where one leaves the main highway to go East to old Alamos. We did not go my first trip down.) Next, was Culiacan I mentioned, then Mazatlan on the ocean. We stayed several days there. The folks liked a posada in the old part of town. The shrimp were huge, as long as the dinner plate was wide. Mom had made a friend there, a well-known lady in town who owned a big gift shop called “El Burrito” on the Olas Altas across from the promenade. (This area is now considered the historic part of Mazatlan) Mom liked the market in Mazatlan, and the big plaza with purple jacaranda trees. Mom was entranced with all the colorful trees and flowers in Mexico. She was continuously snapping pictures of the trees and bugambilias everywhere we went. We bought my first pair of huaraches in the market in Mazatlan. Old style huaraches with the tire rubber soles are now getting harder to find.
Leaving Mazatlan on the coast and continuing South, one begins to notice how green and dense with vegetation it is. The tropics! About halfway to the turnoff to San Blas, one comes to a crossroads, a busy “crucero”, the turnoff to Túxpan. Trucks laden with all types of fruits are parked here and there. Buses of several sorts and sizes pickup and drop off people and their personal loads of what-have-you, chickens, fruits and vegetables and kids. Open air, thatched roof restaurants are cooking up the good stuff. Men, women, children, carry any number of small bird cages, with live, colored tropical birds for sale. They approach our car. We gaze in awe while Pop shakes his head no, and smiles. Mom oohs and ahs at the darling birds, hopping back and forth in their prospective cages. We want to buy them all, then go down the road a ways and set them all free.
* * *
The 22 miles more from the turnoff to San Blas has me sitting up all the way. Tiny villages, mud and thatched houses, peasant-looking, mostly dark-skinned people wave at us as we pass. We go slow now as the road is much narrower and more alive with people and animals. The country is lush and the bushes on the road edge extend into the roadway. Arriving at a small river, we actually drive across the bottom through a couple inches deep of water. Along the banks on the rocks are women and girls washing clothes, while children splash and play in the water. As we near San Blas, lagoons, marshes and mangrove swamp make appearances on either side of the road, and exotic birdlife are abundant. At the edge of San Blas, we cross a small bridge over an estuary. A group of mostly bright colored dugout canoes are visible, resting on the muddy shore. Some are rigged with motors. A large bar-b-que is spewing smoke a few feet down the way as fish are grilled over wood coals.
The cobblestone streets are truly unique and contribute to a bumpy ride. We stay upon our arrival for a few days in San Blas in a very basic hotel called the “Belmar.” Now there was a well known Belmar on the Olas Altas in Mazatlan then, but this was nothing like that. It was a simple hotel/motel on a corner on the road into town with a very basic room and a cold water shower. The toilets have no toilet seats, very common in those days. I recall a very pretty, teen-aged Mexican girl, with long black hair lived in the back with her family. When she smiled she was missing teeth.
My folks went out everyday for a while looking to rent a house. They found one not too many days later, a newly built one in fact, owned by a Dr. Hernandez. I believe the monthly rent for the 2 bedroom house was around $275. pesos, about $34 dollars then. It was on the main one-way return road from the beach, Playa Hermosa. It was typically painted light blue, some white with some pale pink, and had yellowish tile floors. There was a bugambilia plant against the outside wall next to the car port. The back yard was lengthly, just dirt and a few [trees. There always seemed to be birds screeching or cawing in the trees. We moved in and almost immediately met and made friends with the Mexican family next door. The señor, a real character, ran a bike repair business out of their home. My mother hunted up a local carpenter/furniture maker and had new living room furniture made, it was so incredibly inexpensive then. They bought a nice bed for themselves, and 2 big canvas cots for my room. They had screens for the windows made special. They were something of a rarity still.
* * *
Come September, like back home, I had to go back to school. It was a bit scary. I only spoke 5 or 6 words of Spanish and most Mexican kids spoke even fewer of English. The school building was a series of stalls around a dirt area on three sides, much like animal stalls, open aired, no glass windows, a cement floor and small blackboards hanging from nails. The roof was palm fronds and the walls were palm bark. I sat on the far side, like I always have.
Naturally, during class, the other kids would turn around and look at me with curiosity. Some stared, some smiled, some even flirted. This was Mexico, they were just about all dark-eyed and dark-haired. I was the only blue-eyed, blonde-haired person there. And probably the tallest too. I’ll admit, they were mostly friendly and certainly curious and spoke to me in Spanish, and I struggled with understanding them. My folks had a Spanish-English dictionary and a Berlitz book of Spanish phrases I would refer to a lot in the beginning. The first Spanish phrase I taught myself was, “no entiendo “ or “I don’t understand.”
I attended “secundaria,” equal to middle school and high school combined, for two hours in the morning, then three hours in the evening. How different was this?! This was for two reasons: the primary grades used the school in between time, and as there were older students — some adults–in the secondary grades, it kept their days free to go to work, etc. As it turned out, I was among the last students to use the old school. A new 2 story building was being finished in a different part of town, and soon would be ready to occupy. But first they needed volunteers to put together the new desks that had arrived disassembled in boxes. They requested that us bigger kids help assemble them, so I did. They fed us bread rolls filled with beans and hot chocolate.
Growing up in the states, we said the allegiance to the flag each morning. In Mexico, it’s a bit more military-like. Every week, we marched the streets of town with a drum and bugle corp! There’s a photo or two my mother took of me doing just that. I still recall the drum beat we marched to. I hear it now and then today in some of the towns. On special occasions, most everyone’s dressed in white, some girls with gloves, except for me – nobody told me! Plaid shirt, blue pants, the clueless gringo.
Life in a small, tropical town was invigorating. I don’t recall missing California for a minute. It was so unique, so exhilarating. The cobblestone or sandy streets and the thatched houses. The colors, the music. The traditions. The food and the big ocean out there and all the interesting and usually tasty creatures that were extracted from it. The mangrove swamps, the jungle, the crocodiles and caimans, the diverse bird and animal life. The ruins of Spanish buildings here and there.
Though many Americans have no knowledge of it, San Blas has a lot of historical significance. It was a main port, a supply depot for the Spanish who sailed north to California and to the Philippines. The port from which the Spanish priest Junípero Serra, Father President of the California Missions in 1768 sailed from. There are ruins of an old church, and what is referred to as a “fort” with cannons on a hill overlooking the town, actually a counting house (contaduria) and a large crumbling (when we lived there) customs house down on the estuary. Recently restored to a museum.
I wasted no time of course and did much as the natives did. I swam in my underwear in the estuary, caught shrimps in a net in the shallows, dug for clams on the beach, rode horses, and even drove a mule-drawn wagon. I played on a intramural basketball team. I played the futbolito machines some days for hours, and made the first skateboard, patin, in town. I played marbles, pichas, learned to use a balero and a slingshot and a sling, resorteras. I climbed trees and knocked down fruit. Mangoes, guavas. I ate many things I’d never eaten or seen before. Papaya, cherimoyas.
There were seemingly frequent festivities or religious celebrations or parades and carnival-like rides that either came to town or to a different nearby village. I went to the movies some nights, they showed John Wayne movies frequently those days. There were no TVs yet in the homes. But plenty of squaking radios with interesting music. I can still recall some of the jingle ads and top tunes. A well known Mexican singer, Javier Solis had passed away recently, and we heard him frequently on the radio or in the juke boxes.
As a young teen-ager, the hormones were waking up. I did my first real flirting in San Blas. The Mexican girls were very friendly and flirtatious. My blue eyes and blond hair were noticed. (The Mexican men noticed my mother too for the same reason.) The girls were quite forthright and genuine and sweet, not at all self-conscious. Eventually, nature took its course. Thinking about it now, I probably had a few choices. Consa lived just down the street. She had noticed me as I had her and our maid introduced us; I was 13, Consa was 15. I fell right in with the rest of her family. I was at her house more than home. My mother thought I was going to school in the mornings and evenings. Consa didn’t go to school much as she had too much to do at home with the family. Lupe, Consa’s mom was a kick. A little crazy, who both laughed and yelled a lot. They made tortillas and sold them out of their house. I also spent a good deal of time with her brother, Quique. We shot sling shots and I learned to use his sling Goliath-like, for the first time. I was pretty good with it. It’s was lethal! We played marbles, and a toy called a balero, the ones that have a heavy, cylindrical, carved wooden thing with a hole at one end that hangs from a string, connected to a stick. You swing the cylinder just so, so that it flips and lands on the stick.
Enrique Sr. was a slaughterer for the meat markets. I was invited to see what he did. Nothing fancy, just a sharp knife in the right spot and it was over for that cow. As the cow lay on his side, he cut the jugular and the blood poured out. I immediately saw the cow’s body sink in size. Enrique cupped his hands together and drank of the blood. Then he reached down inside the cow’s neck and stabbed the heart. I learned much about the Mexican way of life hanging out at the Toscano house. The language, the mannerisms, the gestures. I was young and I absorbed the culture like a sponge.
The Huichol Indians live nearby in the Nayar Mountains, part of the Sierra Madres, and they would walk through San Blas on their way to the ocean to pray. Sometimes they walked past our house. Across the estuary is continuation of the mainland. There’s a small lighthouse sitting on top of a bluff. The locals simply called it, el otro lado (the other side). I found many of their gifts to their gods amongst the big rocks below the light house or simply lying on the beach, those that had washed up after being deposited in the sea. Small arrows, carved boats, yarn and beeswax “paintings,” Ojo de Dioses, “God’s eyes,” and bead and beeswax bowls made from gourds. My brother brought home a crudely stuffed ocelot once. My brother Stephen eventually bought a complete Huichol outfit for himself.
* * *
San Blas is known by birding enthusiasts for its concentration of birds that migrate from the north for the winter. There are more than 300 species of migrant and resident birds within 15 miles of San Blas. Mangrove estuaries, springs, fresh water rivers and tropical jungle create a great biodiversity.
Life in San Blas was never boring. Sometimes lazy, slow going and hot, but never boring! The Mexico experience affected me and my family deeply. They all fell in love with the place. We loved the gentle, friendly people and their beautiful language, the music, the food, the tropical climate, the warm ocean water, the colors, the big blue skies, and the simplicity of life far from the hurried mess up north in Gringolandia!
PERRY GASPAR ’17