"...Cuca's house on Piedras Street"
Memories of a Mexican Boy Growing Up in El Paso: Cuca, Babe, Louie, and Danny
by Daniel Acosta, Jr.
I grew up calling my grandmother—Cuca-- and my aunt--Babe--by their first names; I don't know why but Louie (Babe’s son) and I always did. Babe was my mother's younger sister and Cuca was their mother. Babe, Cuca, and my mother were very close. They seemed like sisters. Louie was named after our grandfather, Luís. Louie was five years older than me and was the one who taught me about life. My maternal grandparents did not have any sons; Louie and I were the boys in the family. A good part of my early childhood was split between my parents' run-down rental home and Cuca's house, which seemed like a palace to me because it had a bathroom with a tub. My parent's home finally got a stand-up shower when I started first grade because there was not enough room for a tub with a shower. When I started first grade in the fall of 1951and until I completed the 4th grade, I remember spending many days and nights with Babe, Louie, and Cuca. Papa Luís had died when I was very young, and I do not remember him.
I really liked staying over at Cuca's house on Piedras Street. From her front door we could see the dirt-brown Franklin Mountains looming in the distance. Her house had a small front yard with a white picket fence and vines growing on the enclosed screen of the front porch. There was an unpaved driveway to park the car and further down the driveway was a detached garage, which was used mainly for storage of old furniture. Next to the garage was a wobbly gate that led to a tiny backyard with a peach tree and some scrubby bushes. The backyard was mostly dirt with a few, scattered patches of grass. The house next to hers had a large backyard; a rickety wooden fence separated Cuca's house from the neighbor's yard.
Over the fence I could see my parents' rental home on Hamilton Street, which was essentially two houses away if I wanted to take a shortcut by jumping over two fences. Instead, I ran up the rocky alley between Hamilton and Idalia, which dead-ended on Piedras. One could enter the house from the back by entering a half-door that that connected the unfinished part of the basement to another area with a locked door that was finished into a bedroom for Babe. Outside of Babe's bedroom door was a small area where an old-time washer was located. It had a wringer attached to the washer and once the clothes were washed, they were placed through the wringer and were wrung dry by physically rotating the handle of the wringer. The clothes were sun-dried in the backyard on a small clothesline. Right above the washer was a small basement window just small enough for a small boy like me to squeeze through, which I did a couple of times to get into the house.
The other way to get into the house through the back was to walk up some shaky wooden steps to a door that opened into a small breakfast room and then to the kitchen. At the top of the stairway was a small landing with a window on the side of the house where Cuca's bedroom could be seen. Next to the breakfast room, off from the kitchen, was the bathroom, directly opposite Cuca's bedroom. Leaving the kitchen there was an area I guess one would call the formal dining room, which had a dark mahogany table with six matching chairs. From the dining area there was an arched opening which immediately became the living room, where there was an upright piano under the north window and a sofa next to the piano. Later when I was older a large black and white television was purchased by Babe and Cuca. We spent many nights watching professional wrestling and boxing matches. I learned to recognize many of the fighters from Babe and one of my favorites was Sugar Ray Robinson. We would keep the front door opened so a nice breeze from the west came through the screened front porch into the living room. One could reach Babe's basement bedroom by going down a very narrow staircase which came off from the dining room.
During the winter months, Louie and I often slept together on the sofa in the living room; a large gas heater was in the dining area which was turned on in the early morning by Cuca so Louie and I could get warm before we had breakfast. During the warmer months we slept downstairs with Babe in her large queen-size bed. In the summer the basement was always much cooler than the rest of the house, and I liked the dampness and darkness of the basement, where I could read my comic books under a small lamp.
Babe and Louie
What I remember most about Babe is the way she treated me, as if I were much older. Babe, Louie, and I often watched the soap operas on TV during the summer months, and she would explain things to us about why so and so was divorcing her husband and who was stealing money from the company. We all laughed when Babe got it right and gasped in horror when someone was killed in an accident without any warning. When there was time in between the shows, I jumped up from the couch and ran down Piedras to Beacon’s grocery store to get her favorite drink--not the stubby Coke bottle but the long, thin Pepsi which was sold cold. I also remember watching "A Tale of Two Cities" with Babe, and when the novel was required for my ninth-grade English class, I already had a good idea of the plot. Through Babe and TV, I learned much about how white people lived in America. I instinctively knew that we were different from the Anglos, but it was Babe who taught me to be proud of my Mexican heritage.
With Louie’s guidance, I learned to play all the sports, especially baseball. I was able to play with boys 4 or 5 years older than me and picked up many tricks on how to become a skilled ballplayer. I became interested in organized Little League and Pony League baseball, playing first string as a centerfielder and shortstop for two different teams. Babe, Louie, and her long-time boyfriend, Johnny, were the only ones in my family who saw me play baseball during the summer months. Cuca called Johnny El Árabe; there was a large contingency of Lebanese families (but not really Arabians) living in El Paso. I was not much of a hitter, but I played first string because I was the best defensive outfielder and shortstop on the team and made several outstanding plays each game. They would be in the stands each night rooting for me. After the games, we often walked down Piedras to eat out at two greasy spoons which were near Beacon's. There were two bars directly opposite each other on Piedras—Jimmy's and Pike's--and both had small kitchens. When we were in the mood for good tacos we ate at Pike's Bar and when we wanted great hamburgers we ate at Jimmy's. We leisurely ate and listened to songs on the juke box that the bar customers had selected.
Babe and the Authorities
One summer Babe decided to paint the interior of the house and she said let's go, Danny, and get some paint on Paisano Street, the supposedly dividing line between the Mexican and Anglo neighborhoods in El Paso. Cuca's house was in Manhattan Heights where there were mixed neighborhoods of whites and Chicanos. We got into her old 1950-something Ford Fairlane and took off. Along the way she pointed out the differences in the neighborhoods and the types of people. We both laughed when we saw a man turning left using both his blinking turn signal and sticking his arm straight out with fingers extended; Babe said he wanted us to know where he was really going. On the way to the paint store, we were pulled over by a cop for not coming to a complete stop at an intersection. Babe was very polite and smiled nicely at the policeman, who eventually gave her only a warning ticket. Babe told me that it pays to be always friendly!
When my cousin Louie and I were both going to Rusk Elementary School in El Paso during the 1950s, I remember seeing Babe talking fast and excitedly about her son, Louie, to the principal and some teachers after school. He had been reprimanded for speaking Spanish on school grounds during recess; it was a school rule that only English could be spoken at school. It is a cliche to say now that Babe was a woman before her time. I only wished I could have heard her take down the authorities for what they did to Louie. A few days later she told me what happened, and broadly smiled that Louie would have no demerits on his school record.
One night, when all three of us were sleeping in the basement bedroom of Cuca's house, I heard someone jump over the back gate and look through the bedroom window next to the gate entrance. I nudged Babe and told her that I saw a man outside. She jumped out of bed and took Louie and me to Cuca's back bedroom upstairs. We sat on her bed while Babe called the police and made sure the doors were all locked. It was fortunate that were two locked doors in the basement which made it difficult for the intruder to get into Babe’s bedroom. However, while Babe and Cuca were in the front of the house, Louie and I heard steps on the back stairs. When he reached the back door, we saw his profile against the moon light through the thin curtain of the window. He banged on the back door to make it open but was unsuccessful. He then ran down the steps because police sirens were now getting louder. We heard him yell when he slipped and fell. It was on that same bed that Cuca would often tell us stories of her life and family in Mexico. We learned from her that David Siqueiros, the famous Mexican muralist, was a distant relative. She smiled wickedly that he was a Comunista!
The last thing I remembered seeing was Babe in the living room calmly talking to the police about the intruder, who had fled the scene. A few years later Louie told me that the intruder had recently been paroled from prison and made the mistake to try to break into Cuca's house. He had to go to jail again when he was caught by the police. I also learned much later in life that he was Babe's former boyfriend.
When I was in my fourth-grade class later that same year, our teacher, Mrs. Shlanta, gave an in-class assignment to write a personal story about our family, all within an hour of class time. I thought quickly and decided to write about the intruder. I titled the story, "The Burglar", to make it more interesting and which I could write about without much difficulty in one hour. I left out the part of seeing the intruder a second time on the back stairs. She was very impressed and asked if I was scared. No, I said. It was because Aunt Babe knew exactly what to do to keep the burglar out of the house. Louie and I were really scared to see the intruder so close to us and to hear the banging on the door. I guess we were so lucky that he did not get in. But I couldn't tell Mrs. Shlanta that. I was given an A for the story.
Louie and Danny
Two years later our family had moved to another rental house, still on Hamilton Street, directly across from our first house. Louie was now in high school and was driving a cool, light green Studebaker. I did not spend as much time at Cuca's house as I used to, but I still went over to see Babe and Cuca after school. Having a car and being a teenager, I did not see Louie as often. But one evening around 10 PM my mother and I heard Louie knocking at our front door. He was out of breath, and he told us that a Mexican gang from Chivas Town (several blocks west of Piedras near Alabama Street) was chasing after him. He had left his car up the block on the corner of Piedras and Hamilton, next to Mr. Wicks' house. We called Babe and she said for Louie to sneak over to the back yard, just a few houses from ours. She would be waiting for him at the small basement half-door. About an hour later, we heard police sirens and saw police cars parked near Mr. Wicks' side lawn. My mother and I walked up the street and saw that Louie's old Studebaker front windshield had been completely smashed in with rocks and bricks. Again, I saw Babe calmly talking to the police and asking them what would have happened to Louie if he had been in the car? Louie was not at fault; the police had to go after the gang members. That was my Tía Babe.
The only gangs near my neighborhood were Mexican. There were two Mexican gangs who fought mainly among themselves over territory and if you did not belong to either gang, you had to be careful about showing any preference for one gang over the other. There were no white gangs at my school, and I never saw any whites trying to beat up Mexicans in my neighborhood. Louie taught me to avoid any interactions with the Mexican gangs, unlike his run-ins with some of the gang members. Seeing his front car window completely smashed on that summer night made a deep impression on me. I kept a low profile at school and stayed away from gang members. It didn't hurt that I was known for being an A student, who academically outperformed many Anglos in the classroom. The word in the street was to not hassle Danny. However, there was a time when I had to intercede when some female Mexican gang members were trying to beat up an Anglo girl, who I knew in one of my classes. This incident occurred as I was walking home after school down Piedras about a mile from Cuca's house. Luckily for me none of the male gang members were around and I was able to convince the Mexican girls from hurting the white girl."
I was friendly with many of my Mexican classmates, and several of them advised me to not associate with the gringos and to keep my Mexican identity untainted. But I wanted to be accepted by the more popular whites at school. I tried out for the 8th grade football team and started as the first-string end, offensively and defensively, which gave me status with some of the white elites. I began to walk a fine line between my white and Mexican classmates by trying to please both groups. In the end, I had problems with my ability to accept my Mexican heritage and my desire to be part of the elite whites in school. It was later in high school that I became proud of my Mexican background. My deficiency in speaking fluent Spanish, like the rest of my Mexican friends, was beginning to be more difficult to hide from everyone
In my 8th grade Spanish class, our Spanish teacher, Mrs. Curry, complimented several of the Mexican students for their excellent pronunciation of Spanish words. Because I was the straight A student in all my classes and recognized openly by many of my teachers, it became noticeable to several of the Anglo students that I was not highlighted for my proficiency in speaking Spanish. An Anglo member of the football team in the class jokingly asked Mrs. Curry about my Spanish abilities. There was dead silence in the class, except for a few giggles. Mrs. Curry quickly started a new topic, and that started my decision to be less sociable with my classmates. Throughout my years at home and school I refused to speak Spanish. I thought by being less Mexican I would be more accepted by my white classmates. Of course, when I spoke in Spanish to my Mexican friends, it was terrible, and I was mocked for trying to be more Anglo. Still, I had some good Mexican friends. Many of my Anglo classmates attended Austin High School and were cordial and somewhat friendly, but I knew my secret was out and that I really did not belong entirely to any one group at school.
By the time I was three, I had decided on my own to not speak Spanish at home or at school; I thought that I would be more accepted by my white neighborhood friends and classmates and by my teachers. My parents would talk to me in Spanish and English and did not force me to respond in Spanish. Babe never made me feel ashamed when she spoke Spanish to me and did not care if I responded in English. She mainly spoke Spanish with me when she wanted to make an important point about some matter.
I learned a lot from Babe: she was a forthright woman, who was proud of her Mexican heritage and spoke out when confronted with discrimination and racism. She had a long and good life, passing away when she was in her late eighties. Louie became a captain in the El Paso Police Department. and later in his career, Chief of Police at El Paso Community College. He received a letter of reference from Mr. Wicks when he first joined the department.
Daniel Acosta is a Mexican American born and raised in El Paso. His grandparents emigrated to the US in the early 1900s. Daniel's parents never completed high school, and he was the first in his family to graduate from college. He has a professional degree in pharmacy and a doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology. Daniel's career spanned 45 years as an educator, scientist, and administrator in academia and the federal government. He recently retired in Austin, and plans to write about his experiences with discrimination and bias during his career. He hopes that he can help young minorities with their careers by writing about the barriers he encountered in academia, professional societies, and the federal government.