Brick-by-Brick: An Ode to My Mexican Mother, Carmen Mejía Huerta
By Álvaro Huerta
My late mother, Carmen Mejía Huerta, built her own home, brick by brick, in Mexico. Too poor to secure a piece of the “American Dream” in el norte, during the mid-1980s, while residing in East Los Angeles, she decided to build her own home.
When she told my siblings and me—all eight of us—about her ambitious plans, we all thought she had gone mad.
“What are you going to do in Tijuana all by herself?” I asked.
“No te preocupes demasiado,” she said. “Voy a construir un cuarto para cada uno de ustedes.”
Our family, like many Mexicans, has a strong bond with Tijuana, Baja California—a poor, yet vibrant border city where countless immigrants first settle before making their arduous journey to el norte. My Mexican parents first migrated to Tijuana from Zajo Grande, a rancho in Michoacán, during the early 1960s. They fled a bloody family feud that claimed the life of my uncle, Pascual.
As a so-called “good wife,” my mother relocated with my father (Salomón, Sr.) and his large family—parents and nine siblings—to el Cañon Otay in la Colonia Libertad. Unlike the U.S., the poor in Latin America mostly live on the hillsides, while the affluent reside in the city core.
Once settled in Tijuana, she acquired an American work visa as a doméstica (domestic worker). While toiling for white, middle-class families in San Diego, California, she left us at home with our familia--immediate and extended. In her absence, my older sisters (Catalina, Soledad and Ofelia) took on the “mother” role of cleaning, cooking and caring for the younger kids (Salomón, Rosa and myself). They also worked in their teens, sacrificing their education—a common practice in developing and underdeveloped countries.
As a risk-taker, my mother, during her fifth pregnancy, arranged for me to be born in el norte. Accessing her kinship networks in the U.S., my mother delivered me in Sacramento, California. Isn’t San Diego closer to the border? Despite this conundrum, having a child born in the U.S. facilitated the process for my immediate family to successfully apply for micas (green cards) in this country.
Once in the U.S., my mother continued to labor tirelessly as a doméstica while my father never surpassed the minimum wage ($3.25 per hour) in dead-end jobs, as a janitor and day laborer. Due to their lack of formal education and limited English skills, accompanied by low-occupational skills, my parents applied for government aid and public housing assistance at East Los Angeles’ notorious Ramona Gardens public housing project (or Big Hazard projects).
Tired of the overcrowding, abject poverty, violence, drugs, gangs, police abuse and bleak prospects that plagued the projects, my mother decided to return to the motherland, Mexico, as a refuge.
During my freshman year at UCLA, I received a call from her, informing me that she purchased a small, empty lot in Tijuana to build her dream home. While initially shocked, thinking that she wasted her money, I requested an emergency student loan to support her dream. Given her unconditional love for me (and my siblings), I acted without hesitation. On the loan application, I wrote: “Help Mexican immigrant mother to escape the projects.”
Not long after acquiring the plot, my mother gave my siblings and me a tour. Like a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s architecture program, she presented her design plan and created a visual image for us of her finished home.
“Aquí es donde irá la cocina y la sala por ahí,” she said with confidence, as we surveyed the uneven, dirt-filled lot. We listened with deep skepticism.
In retrospect, we should’ve never doubted her. This is the same woman who, as a 13-year-old, hit a potential kidnapper in the head with a rock to escape. If he would’ve succeeded—abducting her for several days and returning her home—she would’ve been forced to marry him to “save her honor” or the “family’s honor”—a barbaric practice that continues to the present in many parts of the world. Fortunately for my siblings and I, she married a handsome man, Salomón Chavez Huerta, at the tender age of 14.
Moreover, this is the same woman who worked as a doméstica in the U.S. for over 40 years to provide for her family. She’s the one who forced my father to take my older brother, Salomón, and I, as lazy teenagers, to work as day laborers in Malibu so we could appreciate the importance of higher education.
“Si no los llevas al trabajo,” she threatened my father, as he watched his Westerns on T.V., “entonces los llevaré.”
For many years, my mother—with the help of the family—slowly built her dream home. First came the cement foundation and then the walls. The roof followed. Then came the windows and doors. Not satisfied with one-story, she built a two-story home. My father included a guest house in the back. While she initially protested, she later appreciated having extra units to rent.
Defying the odds, she transformed an empty space with rocks, used tires and broken glass into the most beautiful home on the block—probably in the entire colonia. She hired and fired workers, fixed leaky faucets and remodeled, (re)painted the walls and changed the kitchen cabinets like there was no end.
For the family, we considered the Tijuana home our mother’s obsession. Yet, for my mother, it represented a Mexican dream come true. This home symbolized the product of a long journey for a woman without formal education and lack of employment opportunities to get ahead. At the end of the day, she wasn’t going to let anyone derail her dream. For the first time in her life, my mother cleaned and improved her own home, instead of the affluent homes of the privileged, white Americans she “served.”
I only wish I could see her beautiful face one more time so I could tell how proud I am of her.
Álvaro Huerta holds a joint faculty appointment in Urban and Regional Planning and Ethnic & Women’s Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Among other publications, he’s the author of Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: The Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond. He holds a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley and an M.A. in Urban Planning and a B.A. in History from UCLA. He’s been featured in Somos en escrito for his fiction and research publications.
"I love the United States, but it is hard to continue loving this country when you are constantly hit with the reality that it does not love you back."
Reflection on Being Afro-Latina: Cuba vs. US
by Shayla Moya
Growing up as an Afro-Latina with Dominican heritage in the United States, Cuba was always an enigma to me. It was the one country in Latin America that was never truly discussed in depth in terms of history or culture, whether that was at home or in Spanish classes at school. The most I was allowed to know was that it had a Spanish accent unique to their country (as each Caribbean islander does), Celia Cruz comes from there, and it is controlled by a very mean communist dictator. Like any other college student, I was in search for the truth of everything and anything, especially when it came to my AfroLatino roots. After a semester abroad in Costa Rica where I learned about Latin American human rights (mostly the lack of them) and its history, I became obsessed with finding the truth about Cuba. Specifically, how progressive the country was in terms of human rights.
Over a year and a half after my trip to Costa Rica, I boarded on a flight to Cuba for a ten-day academic trip. I was in search of sources and interviews that could help me uncover the evolution of human rights in Cuba from the 1952 regime of Fulgencio Batista to the 2019 presidency of Miguel Diaz Canel through the lens of the historically most oppressed groups in Latin America: women, Afro-Latinx, and LGBTQ+. My intentions were to collect the information I needed, get some on-the-ground insight, and enjoy the warm weather. I never anticipated falling in love with the artwork that covered the streets. It was one of the best welcomes I have received upon arrival to a new country. Walking down the side streets of Havana with my brown skin that was only getting darker with every passing day, I fell in love with the paintings that served as mirrors to my own Afro-Caribbean identity.
I was able to appreciate the majority of the paintings during the walking tour of Havana. They could be found hanging outside art shops located around every corner. I loved how the Afro Cuban art was so in your face for every passerby to see, not in the National Art Museum where people would have to pay to see it. Through these paintings, it was portrayed how the Cuban people appreciated and even proudly identified with their African roots as the blacks located in these paintings were seen draped in the Cuban flag or smoking a cigar. The ones that caught my attention the most were the ones painted on older versions of the national newspaper Granma. “Granma” was also the name of the boat that Fidel Castro and the rest of his guerrilleros arrived to Cuba in at the start of the Revolution. It is a key component of Cuban history so to see a brown skinned woman with an afro that reached the corners of the page, a smile on her face while covering her body in the Cuban flag painted on a copy of the Granma, it screamed to me “THIS is Cuba. I am Cuba. Your country may see me as ugly but here I am so beautiful that I get to have my face on the walls.”
At the end of my trip, after all the warm feelings of love and admiration towards seeing such beautiful Afro Cuban paintings and artwork faded away, all I was left with was envy. It has long been my belief that living in the U.S. and being a person of color is like living in a house but never seeing your picture decorate the walls.
I love the United States, but it is hard to continue loving this country when you are constantly hit with the reality that it does not love you back. Through its artwork, Cuba showed me love. It showed me the beauty of femininity, of being black with an afro, curly hair and pigmented complexion. It is hard to find the beauty in these core parts of my identity in the US when everywhere I look Latinas are portrayed as light skin with straight or wavy hair, if represented at all. Whether it is in People’s “50 Most Beautiful People” only including one designated black women or movies where black women are secondary characters. Even within my own Latino culture, black women in telenovelas are always the maid or the slave. Never the one worthy of the love from a handsome prince charming. Or something as simple as seeing myself on the walls of my university. Like many POC students at my university, I am underrepresented in the current student body and the lack of black dignified alumni on the walls reminds me nothing has changed. Each portrait of an Anglo-Saxon man with his equally white privileged wife standing beside him is reminder to me that a college degree was never meant for me. It is a privilege for me to be walking the halls of the academic buildings that HIS money paid for because a black person could never afford it. The closest I can get to seeing a large group of beautiful black women in American culture is in a rap/reggaeton music video where they are rarely fully clothed, serving as a reminder that is where I am supposed to be.
In Cuba, the paintings of all the Afro Latinas served as a personal reminder that my outer beauty is also seen and appreciated for more than sexual gratification. I was no longer “pretty for a black girl” or “pretty for a dark-skinned Latina” but just pretty. It could be such a simple adjective, but the words attached after it could be the difference between tolerance and acceptance.
While in the US, the closest I get to Afro-loving art is on my Pinterest. Maybe that is why the painting of the black Cuban schoolgirl with the crown on her head has stayed with me. I found this painting while taking an evening stroll with some friends down the streets of downtown Havana. While walking, we came across an art studio who had an artist working on his next masterpiece inside. He invited us in to see the rest of his work and that is when I saw her. She was HUGE with hair that matched the color of the night sky, with rope glued throughout her afro to portray its kinky texture. Her skin was only two shades lighter than her hair, a contrast so subtle it blended beautifully across her face. Her eyes were wide open as she pierced into your soul with the innocence only a child can carry. She was dressed in the white shirt, red overalls and blue handkerchief tied around her neck, the typical Cuban schoolgirl uniform. It was the silver crown so beautifully placed a top of her curly afro that stood out to me the most. She was a Cuban princess in all her glory. The existence of that painting gives me hope that one day all little black girls will be able to proudly wear their crowns. That they will believe in their own beauty that everyone around them tells they have, instead of feeling like people are lying to them. It is hard to believe you are beautiful when you do not match society’s idea of beauty. It is an insecurity I always had growing up, and sometimes still have today.
For me, Cuba is a haven for people of color because we finally get to see our picture on the wall. We see the reflection of our common African ancestors in the artwork, the music, the historical monuments and it is all seen as beautiful. People forget that it is not only about seeing your picture on the wall, but “White America” praising your picture the same way it has been praising the rest of the white historical figures and accomplished individuals for centuries.
Representation matters which is why I work so hard to one day get my picture on the wall to serve as a reminder for all colored girls after me that they will always belong. To be the Afro-Latina draped in a US flag painted on a copy of the New York Times and have it scream “THIS is the United States of America. I am the United States of America. Here I am so beautiful that I get to have my face on the walls.”
Shayla Moya is a senior at Norwich University pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, International Studies and Spanish. An Afro Latina whose parents are originally from the Dominican Republic, she was born and raised in Lowell, MA. She possesses a global perspective through various travel experiences to Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Poland, Czech Republic, Mexico, Cuba, and a semester abroad in Costa Rica. She has genuine passion for international human rights activism, and hopes to continue her education with a Masters in International Human Rights centered in Latin America. This is her first magazine publication with many more to come.
Mamá me dijo que estaba sentada en el regazo de su madre y que le agárro su trenza pero estaban tan chiquita que no podá pasarle la mano por la trenza.
Mother [Juana]told me she was sitting on her mother’s lap and grabbed her braid but that she [Juana] was so little that she couldn’t wrap her hand around the braid.
Papá nos depertaba en la madurgada. Trabajabmos todo el día, y nunca fui a la escula. Solamente recuerdo una vez cuando jugamos.
Father would wake us in the early morning (while it was still dark). We would work all day, and I never went to school. I can remember only one time when we played.
Carmen se miraba tan bella. Pero Pedro no le hacía pareja.
Carmen looked so beautiful. But Pedro didn’t match her looks.
Mi guelito estaba sentado en la cama. Me dijo, “Tráeme mis zapatos, mi hijita.” Eran los botines del retrato. Y otra vez, cuando hacia mucho calor y mama estaba cocinado en la chimenea para papa y los oberos, mi guelito le compro pan y le dijo, “No hagas tortillas, hija. Darles pan para la comida.”. . . Mi guelito era muy buena persona.
My grandpa was sitting on the bed and said to me, “Bring me my shoes, child.” The were the same booties from the picture. Another time, when it was very hot and Mama was cooking lunch for my grandfather and his laborers in the open-hearth, Grandpa [Marcos] bought some bread. “Don’t make tortillas, child. Let the men eat with bread instead.” . . .My grandpa was a very kind-hearted person.
A Writer's Life
La Pluma Y El Corazón
La Virgen De Guadalupe
Our Other Voices
Puerto Rican Diaspora
Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales
Sonny Boy Arias
Spanish And English
To Tell The Whole Truth
Treaty Of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Welcome To My Worlds
William Carlos Williams