Jose Mejia Carrillo was my great-grand father. Before anyone else in my life, his influence shaped me into the person that I am today. When I was a child I feared him. He was traditional, he was strict, and he only spoke when he needed to. I grew up with some contempt for him, I saw him as a bitter old man. It was not until his final days, and the days after that I knew how great he actually was.
Jose was born in Mexico in 1915 on a ranch. His parents, who I know very little about, were relatively well off and when my grandpa was 3, they all moved to the United States. They found a home in Watts -a farming community at the time- and earned a decent living for themselves. My grandpa thrived in America; for a long time he was a pre-dominantly English speaker, he did well in school, and it is rumored that he even had a white girlfriend.
His first major struggle came in 1933, well into the Great Depression. Times were really hard for his family not only because of the general economic hardship, but also because Americans were starting to take out their frustrations on groups of people they could single out. So at age 18, my Mexican-American grandpa was forced to become simply Mexican.
In Mexico, he found work as a farm hand wherever he could. At this point he was still a part of his nuclear family, but he was very much on his own. He worked hard to earn the best that he could for himself. After a few years of working back in Mexico, he met my grandma, Carlotta. She was one year his elder, and she was half Indian. I’ve been told that this caused a lot of controversy among their families. My grandpa was a white Mexican and his family claimed that they could trace their heritage back to Spain. His soon-t0-be wife was de sangre mezclada, of mixed blood and she was dark. Jose’s family was shamed that their son would want to marry someone with a dark complexion, and Carlotta’s family was disgusted that their daughter was marrying into a family of racist, snobs. Eventually, though, everyone got over it, and my grandparents were married.
We’ll skip forward a few years, though only because my knowledge of their early marriage years is limited to knowing how many kids they had -they had 5. All girls. Somehow my grandpa did alright for himself. Mexico had an economic boom during the 1940’s called the “Mexican Miracle” and during this time he was able to find work in a courthouse as a clerk and a bailiff, and he saved up enough money to open up a general goods store which his wife operated. Remember that my grandpa spent the early part of his life in Los Angeles, so he was not satisfied with the style of homes that were common in his region. He built a large, two-story house complete with hardwood floors -many country homes at the time didn’t have any floor at all. Things were alright for him.
He was very happy and he could have lived the rest of his life in Mexico quite comfortably. So I’ll never understand his reasons for coming back to the United States. Years before, Americans had marginalized his family and forced them to return to their home country. The job experience he had would mean nothing State-side and there was no way he could come close to the level of wealth he had acquired in Mexico. By the time he came here, his two oldest daughters were already married, so he only brought his three youngest. His family of 5 found a one-bedroom home in Boyle Heights and they all found low-income jobs in downtown. They made enough to live comfortably and eventually his last three daughters got married. My great-grandpa and great-grandma lived in that duplex for the rest of their lives.
This history, I learned after my grandpa had passed on. His final months made me completely in love with him as I think I was finally old enough to understand what a great person he was. He valued education, discipline and hard-work more than anyone I’ve known. Yet he was also selfless. I never recognized it because I remember being a child and watching how he ruled his house. His word was the final authority. When he ate, he never stood up, instead my great-grandma, and his daughters if they were around, brought everything to him. His son-in-laws feared him, his grand children feared him, and his neighbors feared him, even as an old man. I was terrified of him because if I slipped up in front of him, I knew that I was in for a licking.
I never appreciated him until the day he breathed his last. The week before he died, both he and my great-grandma were hospitalized for complications with their diabetes. They were both at the Good Samaritan in downtown LA, although they were on different floors. My grandma, Esther, took me with her that day to visit them. I was 11 years old. She had me stay in my great-grandpa’s room while she went up to spend time wither her mom. She told me to make sure that my great-grandpa drank his protein drink -which was all that he could eat. When I offered it to him he refused it. He would not drink it until he knew that his wife had already had enough to eat. So he had me take the elevator up a few floors to ask her if she had had enough. It was only after I reported back to him that she was fine that he had his lunch.
That experience has always resonated with me. In this last year, as I have had to become the patriarch of my family, I look back on that day and reflect on my grandpa’s actions. Although he had needs, he put them aside to make sure that his family was taken care of. I reflect on his life and I see a man who worked as hard as he could so that his family would be comfortable. Although he led his family in the traditional Mexican way, which can be perceived as quite authoritarian, he was selfless in his decisions. My biggest regret is that my psychological development did not progress sooner so that I would have been able to fully appreciate his character during the 11 years I knew him.
So as I move into manhood, I hope that I can do my best to honor his legacy. He had no sons, and so his name died with him but I hope that I can at least carry on his memory in the way in which I live my life.