My grandfather, Papa Chava, had an amazing life. It was a difficult one sure, but he lived through incredible times and had many stories to tell. Maybe it was from him that I learned my storytelling/writing skills. Maybe not, but I remember sitting on his lap as a child listening wide-eyed to the stories he had to tell me. Salvador Medina Camarillo was born in Mexico on June 1, 1900. He always liked to say he came from the place of “los mumias de Guanajuato” (the mummies of Guanajuato).
It ’s hard to research because the church that had his birth and baptism documents was burned in the Mexican Revolution, taking with it all records of my grandfather’s birth. I’m not sure what village or town he was born in, but he grew up in Irapuato, Guanajuato. Irapuato is located at the foot of the Arandas Mountains (cerro de Arandas) in the south central region of Guanajuato. In pre-Conquest times, the land belonged first to the Chichimeca, then the Tarasco or Purepecha, then back to the Chichimeca.
It was a hard life, being indigenous and poor. He always told me I was so lucky to be an American and to have been born here. He told me stories about going out to work in the fields with his father when he was just three years old. It was firmly etched into his memories because that day, his first day of a lifetime of hard labor, he made money. Just a few centavos. Enough, he said, to buy his mother a pot and to press the centavo that was left into her work worn hand. That day set a tone for his life. To the day he couldn’t get out of his bed due to illness, he worked hard and took care of the family he loved and was proud of. Irapuato is still known for growing strawberries and in the little garden at the back of the house on Goodwin Avenue, he grew the best strawberries I ever tasted. Maybe they reminded him of home. This photo I found on the Library of Congress circa 1900 of strawberry pickers in Guanajuato gives me a little glimpse into a life that might have been his.
He immigrated here sometime during the Mexican Revolution. His stories grow murky there. There are tales of him working in “Cheecago” where he met Al Capone. He told me a story of sitting in an old casino in Las Vegas and of being hungry, starving really and watching people play the one-armed bandits. He started to notice a pattern, people would come, put in change and keep at it, finally getting disgusted and trying another machine. Someone else would sit at that machine and they’d win. My grandfather had very little money so he sat there, belly rumbling, watching like a hawk. Finally, someone who had put in tons of change into a one-armed bandit left it to find better luck elsewhere. My grandfather sat there, put in money a few times and sure enough, he won. He collected his coins and went back to his seat still hungry. He repeated that routine several times until he had enough money to eat well and leave Nevada.
I’m not sure when or how he ended up in Piru, California on a small ranch picking oranges, but it proved to be a choice that would change his life completely. That is where he met my grandmother. She taught him better English and how to read and write. Together they raised four children, one of them my mother.
Some of the best times of my life were sitting with my grandparents outside in their patio listening to stories, watching my grandfather carve the faces of monkeys into cherry stones while my grandmother and I sat in patio chairs embroidering dishtowels. I don’t know where those cherry stones disappeared to, or the stone monkeys he’d carve out of porous rock but I can see them clearly in my memories. They always made me smile.
As I sit here, a day before the day he was born so long ago, eating cherries with an Italian chef, I look down into the stones in my palm and weep. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing,” I say, “Only I can see the faces in these stones my grandfather would have carved just to make me smile.” I shake my head, wipe away a tear and force a smile. He’s been gone since 1987 but I miss him still so much. The wound of losing him is always fresh again at his birthday. I wish that we had more than old Polaroids, old still photos that my Aunt Jessie so thoughtfully scans and sends me. I wish that I had my Nokia phone back then. I would have taken scores of photos, caught him on video carving, audio taped his stories. Technology, you happened too late for him, but I spend my current days documenting my life, my stories, my memories and hope that it’s enough. I’m blessed to have good equipment that gives faces, sound, and life to my stories beyond my ability with words.
My own grandchildren sit near me with my Nokia Lumia 2520 tablet in hand, taking video of me writing/typing my stories. My Nokia Lumia Icon phone sits at my side while I write, every so often I pop into social media or chat with my cousin Julia on Verizon Messages about how much I miss my grandfather. We share stories and memories via technology and count ourselves lucky. We miss you Papa, but your stories live, held here on this blog I built in honor of you and Grandma, a testament to your lives.