In this drunken town
bitten by the whores
of Texas, I pause with
a beer to salute the dead.
Luis Omar Salina
When the years of the old family cantina come up in conversation at our backyard birthdays, sweaty-hot barbeques, and ghetto-elegant quinceañeras, smiles fall, bodies shift, quiet grows, and the crackling of the grill’s fire becomes almost deafening. I once asked one of my aunts to tell me about the old family cantina. She took a drink from her sweating Miller Light tall boy and beat her cigarette into the ground as if it had offended her. “Now don’t start bringing all that up,” she warned. Perhaps my aunt’s reticence to tell me about the cantina had to do with my timing. Earlier that day, we buried my uncle Junior, my mother’s eldest brother, the one they called Blues. He died of cancer at 52, after a life of working hard—giving his body and time laying brick and stone in exchange for money he’d spend drinking hard every night, filling his body and time with passion and poison. I remember going to Blues’ old, lopsided house when I was young and wondering if it was held upright by the stacks of history books that lined the walls. When I’d return home from college during the holidays, I’d sometimes see Blues at the Varsity Inn, his favorite bar. He always looked the same: bloodshot eyes, red face, black tangled hair, dark leathery skin, thick gray whiskers, like an old worn-out panther. Always huddled over a bottle of tequila, a beer, a bowl of sliced limes, and a saltshaker. I’d walk over to say hello and he’d put his rock arm around my neck and gurgle something about women.
When his doctor told him that he needed to stop drinking if he wanted to put up a fight against the cancer, Blues told him that life without drinking was really no life at all. Then he went home and cracked open a beer. A few months later, I’d witness Blues drink his final beer, a lukewarm Bud Light. His hand shook as he brought it to his dry, cracked lips. His frail body was a skeleton draped in brown silk, swallowed by a fleece Dallas Cowboys blanket. His scared-blinking eyes scanned each of our faces.
At his funeral, a picture slideshow set to Freddie Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” summarized Blues’ life. There were photos of Blues with his children. Blues in a sharp three-piece suit at my cousin’s baptism. Blues as a child standing on the front porch of the family’s home in the Riverside barrio. I remember thinking that the healthiest Blues ever looked to me was lying in his coffin. The cancer had erased his bloat. His skin was smooth, radiant. His unwieldy mustache tamed into sharp Clark Gable-lines, unearthing the perfect mestizo bone structure hidden beneath. In death, strangely, Blues appeared full of life. On the way to the cemetery, the procession took a detour through town to pass by the Varsity Inn. Each car honked as it crawled by. Three blue, deflated balloons were tied to the front door, hovering near the ground.
Like all families, ours carefully selects the stories we choose to tell, the memories we allow out of the darkness to see the sun again. Over the years, my family has been more open with their stories and memories of the cantina, with the caveat that those years are part of the “dark side” of our family story. The Tijerinas of Seguin have always been a proud, industrious family. My mother’s father, who everyone called Big Rudy because he was a big man with a big family and a big personality, owned a successful masonry business for many years. Many of my uncles and cousins still carry on the tradition as skilled brick and stone masons. My grandmother, Margarita, was known for her style, often designing and making her dresses without using patterns. An uncle ran for political office in a neighboring town. Another uncle owns a bail bond business. An aunt owed a café that always had long lines out the door during the lunch hour, and some cousins still run a café known for their handmade masa and tortillas. Then there are the great uncles who owned a Tejano dance hall that featured some of the best conjunto bands in the area; and the cousins that had a café near the railroad tracks that fed hundreds of northbound braceros during the Second World War.
Sometimes we wonder if we’re related to Félix Tijerina, the former president of the League of United Latin American Citizens who started an education program for Spanish-speaking children that became the model for the federal Head Start program. Or Andres Tijerina, the renowned historian who wrote of life and death on south Texas ranchos. Or Reies Lopez Tijerina, the militant Chicano activist who led a courthouse raid in Tierra Amarilla, attempting to place the white district attorney under citizen’s arrest. Maybe, but distantly, somewhere down our long lineage that winds through the region like the old Chotilapacquen.
Our family has lived in the Riverside barrio for generations, just a few blocks from the town placita, on the street that dead-ends near the sewage plant and the cemetery founded by the town’s earliest settlers. The white kids at school used to call my mother and the other brown kids from that barrio “river rats” because of the odor hanging over that part of town. To this day, the smell of shit and chemicals falls like mist on the rundown houses that line the narrow streets, seeping through the windows like an intruder, battling scents of holy candles and cheap carne. Before he opened the family cantina in the late 1960s, my grandfather often drank at the R&R on Kingsbury Street, standing around the beer coolers with the men while my grandmother and the other wives sat in their cars with the children. Eventually, she’d get bored and go home, and when it got to be too late, she’d have the children call the R&R to ask my grandfather to bring them candy. That always got him home. Wanting to be near the family and tired of buying beer at other cantinas, my grandfather saved up some money, bought a small house across the street from the family home, leased a jukebox, took out the interior walls to make room for a pool table, and opened Tijerina’s Cantina.
The barrio’s viejos and viejas drank at the cantina in the afternoons. They became so accustomed to seeing the grandchildren there with my grandmother while she cleaned that they started calling them “little cantineros.” As the sun descended, after my grandmother had gone home to cook dinner for the family, she’d return to the cantina at night to help make it dirty all over again. After long days laying brick and stone, my grandfather would tend bar at the cantina all night. With the exception of a few white men who drank there because no one would think to find them there, most of the cantina’s patrons were Tejanos and Tejanas from the Riverside barrio. As the night deepened, the jukebox thumped and wailed Little Joe y La Familia, Patsy Cline, Ramón Ayala, Hank Williams. Gritos, laughter, threats, fights, raw revelry. Broken bodies, rock hands, deep scars, soft dancing, collective exhalation of smoke and pain and dreams into the night’s infinite void.
An old photograph shows a hand-written sign on the cantina’s wall asking patrons not to sit on the pool table. Below it, another sign reads: MEN ONLY! When I asked one of my aunts about this, she explained that women were allowed in the cantina but couldn’t use the pool table. The only exceptions were Big Rudy’s daughters, who hung out at the cantina because my grandfather didn’t allow them to go to other cantinas, where young women were often expected by the patrons to be for sale. The younger children were allowed to go into the cantina at night to grab a soda as long as they followed the one and only rule: Don’t ever repeat what you see or hear. “And you better not break it,” my aunt remembered. “I saw all the respectable men from the community in there. Good family men from Our Lady of Guadalupe that would be back at the cantina as soon as mass was over. Those were the worst ones.”
In Sandra Cisneros’ “Woman Hollering Creek,” a young Mexicana from Coahuila moves with her new husband to a small town en el otro lado. “Seguín. She had liked the sound of it. Far away and lovely.” But almost as soon as they arrive, Cleófilas’ husband begins spending his nights at a local bar drinking with other men from the town “trying to find the truth lying at the bottom of the bottle like a gold doubloon on the sea floor.” Then he begins to hit Cleófilas, “slapped her once, and then again, and again; until the lip split and bled an orchid of blood.” Cleófilas often escapes to the arroyo behind her house to sit at the creek’s edge, wondering if the natives named it for a woman that hollered in pain or anger or agony. There, she finds refuge from the violence all around her, closing in. “This town with its silly pride for a bronze pecan the size of a baby carriage in front of the city hall. TV repair shop, drug store, hardware, dry cleaner’s, chiropractor’s, liquor store, bail bonds, empty store front, and nothing, nothing, nothing of interest.”
Like many old towns in the South, what is most interesting about Seguin is often that which is most tragic. Hidden in the shadow of the “world’s largest pecan” are histories of violence rarely acknowledged in folk narratives or historical landmarks, histories visible only in the faces and stories of the town’s forgotten. In 1910, the Spanish-language newspaper La Crónica lamented that there was no public place for Tejanos and Tejanas in Seguin and other small towns, except the inferior and poorly paid jobs allowed to them. Over half a century later, not much had changed. Jim Crow may have been dying but he was still breathing, still able to lift his scabbed hand to push down any Black or brown person fighting against a life of subjugation.
Hidden in the shadow of the “world’s largest pecan” are histories of violence rarely acknowledged in folk narratives or historical landmarks, histories visible only in the faces and stories of the town’s forgotten.
Many of the cantina’s patrons were not part of the Mexican-American middle class that emerged after the Second World War. The good-paying jobs were in the cities, not the dusty little towns littered along the interstate. The cantina was a much-needed escape from the daily violence of lives dominated by the same white families that have held power and wealth in Seguin for over 100 years. Anthropologist José E. Limón has written that coming together to dance, drink, talk shit, and laugh allows Tejanas and Tejanos to maintain a “centered historical subjectivity” that continues the war of culture and ideology that began when waves of Anglo settlers first arrived in South Texas. In the dark, smoky, raucous space of Tejano cantinas, degradation commingles with resistance, destruction with regeneration, life with death—all twisting together like lovers in a dance of phantasm and violence. Through collective intoxication, in the spirit of Dionysus, one transcends self, hierarchy, power. One embodies the words of sixteenth-century Aztec poet Nezahualcoyotl:
I am intoxicated, I weep, I grieve
I think, I speak
Within myself I discover this:
Indeed, I shall never die
Indeed, I shall never disappear.
By the late 1970s, my grandmother’s health had deteriorated so rapidly that my grandfather closed the cantina to devote more time to caring for her. Everyone knew that my grandmother drank—usually at the cantina with the other wives from the barrio—but no one knew the extent of it when she was at home. While she cooked for her husband and sons, while she watched the children and grandchildren, while she ironed the clothes of white people. No one knew the toll it was all taking on her until it was too late. In her final years, my grandmother rarely left the house, often drinking alone in her bedroom. My mother, a teenager at the time, remembers hearing Johnny Cash’s thunderous voice from behind her mother’s closed door. Somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringing, and it echoed through the canyon like the disappearing dreams of yesterday. She remembers how their house was always filthy, piles of trash and dirty laundry everywhere. How she took it upon herself to keep the house clean, an impossible task with eight brothers and sisters and their children coming in-and-out. When my mother finally got a house of her own years later, she kept it spotless, dusting and mopping and scrubbing every Saturday morning as Aretha preached on the stereo.
In the dark, smoky, raucous space of Tejano cantinas, degradation commingles with resistance, destruction with regeneration, life with death—all twisting together like lovers in a dance of phantasm and violence.
A few days before Thanksgiving, 1980, they rushed my grandmother to a hospital in San Antonio for another emergency surgery. While she lay in a coma, the doctor told the family that the surgery wasn’t successful, that they should say goodbye. The children took turns speaking to their mother. When my grandfather leaned over and whispered in her ear, tears fell from her eyes. She died that night.
For the next few weeks, my grandfather became increasingly depressed, didn’t sleep, drank heavily, and listened to George Jones songs over and over. He kept her picture on his wall. Went half-crazy now and then. He still loved her through it all, hoping she’d come back again. He told the children that their mother had come back again, at night her spirit sat on the corner of his bed, watching over him. She’d always told him she’d come back for him. When he’d stumble home in the early morning hours after a long night drinking at the cantina his sister opened in the barrio’s old general store, his elderly mother would walk from her home down the street to make him coffee and eggs, just like my grandmother used to do. On the night after Christmas, my grandfather told one of his daughters that she would need to look after the younger children because he would soon be leaving. The next morning, when his masonry crew arrived to pick him up for work, they found him lying on the floor, face down, barely breathing. It took four men to load him into the truck. By the time they got to the hospital, he was dead. And soon they’ll carry him away.
My grandfather’s death certificate lists “Pickwickian Syndrome” as a cause of death, a condition that occurs when the blood has too much carbon dioxide and too little oxygen. Named after Charles Dickens’ 1837 novel, The Pickwick Papers, the symptoms include obesity, fatigue, high blood pressure, and a red, bloated face. When my grandfather had a heart attack a few years before he opened the cantina, his doctor urged him to stop drinking and smoking if he didn’t want to die. But like his son would do years later, my grandfather ignored the doctor’s orders, laughing as he brought another cigarette to his mouth. The loss of their father only five weeks after their mother threw the family into a spiral of grief and confusion. Fifteen years old with an infant and nowhere to go, my mother was sent to live with one of her brothers and his wife. It wasn’t long before my mother gave in to the pressure to marry my father and rent a place of their own. She got a job at the local bank where a strict German woman took her under wing. My father, who had already quit school to work on my grandfather’s masonry crew, got a job at a wood mill near Lake McQueeney. She was 16, he was 17.
If only echoes through our family stories, our memories, across the generations. For most of my life, I believed the narrative that if only my family had been better, stronger people, then perhaps the rest of us wouldn’t have had to struggle so much. If these are common narratives in Black and brown families in the South, it’s because it’s what we’ve always been told to think about ourselves. It does not originate within us; it comes from the outside. We’re told we’re lazy, dangerous, and treacherous, but not that Anglo elites portrayed us this way for centuries to undermine our collective power. We’re told we wallow in cultures of poverty, but not that Anglos stole our lands then prohibited us from accessing credit and capital. We’re told we’re passive and docile, yet our resistance is met with ropes and bullets.
When I was young, my dad always made sure to show me the buildings my family built as we drove through town. Looking back, I think he was trying to show me, even without naming it, how the skill, labor, and art of Mexicanos and Mexicanas continue to be exploited to construct the infrastructure of white wealth. Yet another chapter in relentless exploitation began in the early 19th century with Anglo reliance on Mexicano stock-handling expertise for the rise of American capitalism in south Texas. My family worked hard their whole lives, built many homes and buildings that still stand today, still make money for the white families that have owned them for generations. Our name adorns no facades or cornerstones, but our fingerprints will always remain in the mortar.
If trauma results from loss of control and the threat of annihilation, what results after centuries of violence? If an individual develops self-destructive habits to cope with the pain, is it the same for whole families and communities? What power do psychohistories of violence have on the bodies of the living? At what point do the wounds of history become self-inflicted? If acts of violence are rooted in feelings of rejection and shame, how far and for how long will the waves of destruction crash across the Southern landscape?
My family worked hard their whole lives, built many homes and buildings that still stand today, still make money for the white families that have owned them for generations. Our name adorns no facades or cornerstones, but our fingerprints will always remain in the mortar.
These are some of the questions that run through my mind when I think about those in my family that died young; those whose bodies deteriorated ahead of nature’s calm pace. The destructive ideologies initiated during the Anglo colonization of the southwest are not imposed on us like laws; they are a part of us. We enter the world dense with the blood-histories of the past. We feel as if life is not ours to live. We feel that we need to be somewhere else. That we need to be someone else. We split apart from ourselves and from each other, Gloria Anzaldúa said, when we come to see the alien within us. When these cold feelings arise, a warm, numbing embrace is always there calling to us in a whisper: disappear. To escape the grasp of ideology, even for a moment, is an inherently violent act. Like punching a brick wall trying to get through to the other side. It is a violence that is misdirected toward ourselves instead of the ideas that keep us centered in the crosshairs. When we are able to escape, we see that we shall never die. That we shall never disappear.
If an individual develops self-destructive habits to cope with the pain, is it the same for whole families and communities?
In a photo from their wedding day in 1948, my grandfather, slender and handsome like a young Flaco Jimenez, wraps his arms around my grandmother, a flawless muñeca. They both smile. In a photo taken a year before they died, my grandmother puts her arm around my grandfather, who sits shirtless with a cigarette between his fingers, a “little cantinero” on his lap. They look as happy as they did on their wedding day. I never had the chance to meet my grandparents, but I see them in the cosmic beauty of my mother and her sisters. I see them in our family gatherings, traditions, dramas. I see them in my cousins and their children. Sometimes, when the mirror catches my reflection, I see them in me. I saw them in the mourners that passed around a bottle of cheap tequila as Blues’ coffin was lowered into the ground. When the bottle came to me, I looked at my mother. She nodded. I paused to salute the dead, then took a long drink.
All photos credit to Shannon Smith.