Sunday, October 11, 2009


I drove to Sacramento, where I grew up, to see my mother who turned 76 last week. She lives in the house my grandfather built for her next door to the house where she was born and which my grandparents built together. My grandfather was a Yaqui -- an Indian tribe from Sonora, a state in northwestern Mexico. The nineteenth century Mexicans advanced into the Yaquis' ancestral homeland and took it by force, exterminating most of the tribe and sending those who survived into exile across the border; my grandfather was born in Arizona in 1905.

My grandmother's family arrived in Sacramento in 1920, refugees from the Mexican Revolution which was not so much a revolution as a civil war that sent a million Mexicans -- out of a population of 10 million -- into flight. In family lore, my grandmother, her parents and her siblings traveled up the spine of California as migrant farm workers -- picking cotton in one place, oranges or hops or pears in another and coming at last to the tomato fields of the Sacramento Valley.

By enormous dint of effort, my grandparents worked themselves up from poverty to working-class stolidity. I remember their house, filled with heavy, brocaded furniture and decorated with framed pictures of Jesus; praying in the garden of Gethsemane, parting his robe to reveal his burning heart. Everything about their house proclaimed lives of toil and stoicism.

Their house was in a neighborhood called Gardenland, populated by the other families of Mexican immigrants. I grew up there, in my mother's house. Everyone in Gardenland was poor, some poorer than others, some, a little better off, but the hard edge of poverty I see today in the homeless encampments in the streets of San Francisco was absent. Our poverty was softened because it was shared; families took care of each other, neighbors pitched in. And, of course, because we were descended from rural people, most families had vegetable gardens and a few chickens.

The values of our community were the values of the poor everywhere. Family as a collective was valued more than the individual members because there was strength and survival in numbers. Material possessions were utilitarian and used until all were too broken or too old to have further use. The pace of life was unhurried, following the seasons, the important religious holidays, and we lived in the eternal present that exists among people for whom the past and future are seen as changeless.

I was the first in my family to attend college -- and the only of my five siblings -- and to enter a profession. When I entered the world of the educated, I entered a very different culture than the one into which I had been born. This new culture was characterized by almost a cult of the individual that emphasized individual initiative and individual achievement. It was also a materialist culture that measured success in money and possessions in a way that was entirely foreign to me. It was a future-oriented culture because the future was expected to bring more, bigger and better. And it was a culture in which there were very few other Mexicans and I was often mistaken for something else: Italian and Jewish were the most common. (In law school a girl asked me my last name and when I said, "Nava," she asked me what it had been before my family shortened it.)

When I was a younger man, the values I had observed as a child did not seem to be very helpful in my striving to make for myself a place in the world where achievement seem to matter more than character. But today, sitting with my mother in her backyard, surrounded by fruit trees my grandmother planted 50 years ago, I see the beauty of the Gardenland and of the people among whom I grew up.

Today, I am grateful for the gifts that were given to me as a child of poor people; not measuring the value of people based on what they have and gratitude for what I have with the greatest gratitude reserved for the people in my life, and not the possessions. Gratitude for this moment.

And this place and these people who I thought I had had to leave behind to succeed I realize now that I have always carried within me.

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