A Cowboy Crosses the Border in Silence

Gerónimo González Garza was born unable to hear or speak, but this did not keep him from going as a young man to the United States to work and to make a life for himself. Nor did it stop him from returning to Mexico many years later, and traveling over the highways of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, in the middle of the drug war being waged in northeastern Mexico.

Mother throws in the cow stomach and this makes the boiling water jump from the blue tin pot. Now she drops in a little deformed thing that must be a cow’s foot. Then go in the tomatoes, the rosemary, the mint, the garlic and oregano. On weekends Home is fragrant with spices. Nowadays when the aroma of certain natural condiments hits me, I often remember the economic crisis that began in December 1994 in Mexico.

Father wakes up early and empties the stew in the pot onto Styrofoam plates. He carefully puts them in the car, as if they were recently dug-up treasure: so not a single drop spills over, so not a single precious jewel falls, so that the menudo arrives safely at its destination.

In Monterrey it’s typical to eat barbacoa on Sundays, but Father’s friends are true. On those Sunday mornings in 1995, instead of trying barbacoa, they eat the menudo they buy from Father.

During the week, Mother puts other things into the pot that always seems to be boiling water. In go chickens, rice, vegetables. Then Father places the contents into the thin receptacles and the destination of the plates is much, much closer. One goes to the neighbor next door, the other to the neighbor across the street, to those around the corner, to that neighbor who just moved to the other block, to the mean woman who punctures soccer balls and to Mother’s friends, who are also true friends.

The kitchen at Home is the neighborhood kitchen. In northeastern Mexico there are no fondas. The word fonda is not used to describe a cheap, homestyle restaurant like it is in other places in Mexico. But Home is a fonda. A fonda that offers food delivered right to your door.

And the topic everyday at the fonda is Home. For a moment Home has nothing to do with the walls and the ceilings between which my childhood and adolescence transpired. The word Home refers to a problem. Home means uncertainty, the bank, risk, evil, unemployment, struggle and, above all, a strange and very aggressive word: Hipoteca. Hipoteca—mortgage—is the word nobody wants to hear, or to say, at Home.

Some advanced future civilization will have to somehow erase this word from the dictionary.

But in that year, the word Hipoteca is there, in the everyday speech, though it is actually spoken little.

Mother’s boiling pot defies the word Hipoteca. Father’s Styrofoam plates do, too. Yet, in those times of crisis (said to have been all because of an “error made in December” which devalued the peso and sent interest rates sky-high), the word Hipoteca is very powerful. It can’t be defeated by the aroma of the oregano or by the friendships that are true.

For the word Hipoteca to leave us in peace something else would be needed.

One day Tio sends fifteen thousand dollars from the United States. That day the word Hipoteca lost a battle, leaving Home in peace.

Tio is a cowboy who crosses the border in silence. His name is Gerónimo González Garza.

I promised to one day tell his story.

***

They dismounted. They tied up the horses under the shade of the same tree. They walked, each one with his rifle. They were talking softly and sparely, the alert black eyes of Magdaleno and the alert light brown eyes of Gerónimo. A half hour and some miles later, they couldn’t find any game to shoot. Nothing stirred, not even a tarantula. The hot wind dried up life on the mountain.

They split up to increase their luck while they explored. A while passed and at last the first shot—the only shot—of the hunt was heard. Magdaleno ran into the thicket to look, but instead of an animal lying on the ground, he found Gerónimo’s hat. Gerónimo was kneeling, he had a bullet hole in his neck and it was bleeding. He died soon after.

Magdaleno went back to find the horse. He untied it, and later turned it over, along with his best friend’s hat and body. He described in detail what had happened and said that they could do what they wanted with him. The family banished Magdaleno from Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo León. He never returned. Some say that he crossed the R.o Bravo and then hanged himself from a mesquite tree on the Texas cattle ranch where he had found work as a ranch hand.

The years passed, and on May 24, 1953, in her house near the city’s bus terminal, María de Jesús Garza gave birth to a baby of little more than four pounds who came into the world with a full head of hair. The baby’s umbilical chord was cut and buried in Monterrey, his birthplace, as was the custom of the day. The father, Guadalupe González, was content that the baby was a boy. He had wanted a son to name Gerónimo, after his brother who had died tragically by a bullet from his best friend’s rifle.

***

Gerónimo crawls for a few seconds and then slumps to the floor. He seems distracted. Something weird is happening and his parents think they know what it is, but they take him to the hospital to find out for sure. They get up at dawn and are seen by a doctor at the public clinic. He looks over the baby, touches his ears, and speaks in front of him in different high and low tones. Then the doctor becomes grave and asks the parents to go to a laboratory so the baby’s hearing can be studied. Ten days later they return. The doctor receives them with the same serious tone from the time before. He gives them the news that Gerónimo does not hear, nor is he ever going to hear. When he sees things he will not be conscious of their sound: He is totally deaf. Everything for him will be like a silent movie.

They are going to have to speak to him with their hands like mimes, so he doesn’t go crazy. They are going to have to show him that he shouldn’t eat with his mouth open, or that when he needs to drink milk he has to say so with his hand. They will do this, and little Gerónimo will watch them and they will wait for him to imitate them. They have to be patient. It’s no small thing: they will create their own language to communicate with each other. In this way they will gradually show him how to live.

The parents listen to the doctor and his advice. More or less they know what they have to do. Graciela, one of their other children, also was born with hereditary deafness. They have investigated and know that deafness runs in the family on Gerónimo’s father’s side, at least two generations back. Due to the profound deafness, Gerónimo will not know sound and won’t be able to use his vocal chords to talk, even though they are not damaged in any way. No person born deaf can use his larynx, his voice.

***

Guadalupe González works from Monday through Friday at Trailers of Monterrey Corporation. The small company has a storehouse into which noisy trucks coming from the United States are jammed in together every day. As part of their cargo, they carry oily car transmissions, obsolete medical equipment, peeling multicolored wires, broken hydraulic tubing, loose furniture, and other things. Guadalupe’s job is to weigh the junk and bargain as much as possible with the junk collectors.

María de Jesús Garza makes red chorizo that she sells in their neighborhood in Monterrey. Before, they had spent a long time in Rancho Nuevo, a communal land in Los Ramones, Nuevo León, some ninety miles north of the city. It was a good-sized piece of land María de Jesús had inherited, but the soil was broken up and of the kind that doesn’t allow for easy sowing, and so they had to immigrate to the city.

On weekends, to cover the family’s expenses, Guadalupe travels to Rancho Nuevo in his cherry Ford pickup truck, driving through a remote landscape—one mesquite tree here, another over there. There he kills baby goats, which he later sells in Monterrey. If it is the birthday of one of his children or some other truly special occasion, he kills one of the cows that graze on the paltry pastureland at the ranch. Enough barbacoa and menudo comes from the animal to last for days, and it makes everyone happy.

Sometimes there is no time to kill animals at Rancho Nuevo, and the sacrifices are made at the house in the city. It is not unusual for dead goats to appear strung up in the patio of the small home, hanging as if they were recently washed clothes waiting to be dried.

Of the six children in the González Garza family—María de la Luz, Graciela, Teresa, Guadalupe, and Martha—Gerónimo is the one who collaborates most in the weekend slaughters. His siblings study instead, and their chores include helping with the sale of the chorizo and in the butchering and packing of the meat. They treat Gerónimo normally. They run away for hide-and-seek or jump around for hopscotch. Gerónimo spends the first ten years of his life in this way, without him, his parents, or siblings knowing official sign language. All of their communication comes from moving the hands, a voice that doesn’t emit any sound but that can be seen. They use a silent alphabet they created.

Gerónimo’s parents don’t impose on him the world of those who do hear, they try to understand his. It’s a normal, spirited, and happy family.

It’s not unusual to see Gerónimo in bloody jeans after he’s spent the whole day with his father in their improvised slaughterhouse at home. Killing a goat is arduous work: first you have to calm it down, later bury a knife in its jugular, let it die as it screams, hang it up so that all the blood drains from it into a pot, take out its intestines by hand and strip it of its coat. There is one Saturday when Gerónimo, alone, without his father’s help, kills all eighteen goats to be eaten at a wedding to be celebrated that same night in Monterrey. He is ten years old.

***

Someone knocked on the door on a summer night in 1965. Guadalupe went out to see. A young visitor approached him and gave him a white card on which was printed many small hands drawn in different shapes—the hieroglyphics of the sign language alphabet. On the reverse side there was a message in Spanish: “I am deaf. Please donate to my school.” Ger.nimo’s father took out some change and gave it to the boy. He kept the card and the following afternoon took his son to the address written upon it.

It was a big house on Madero Road, one of the most important avenues in old Monterrey. There they taught Mexican Sign Language. (One might assume there is only one sign language for all deaf people in the world, but that’s not the case. There are many differences even between the sign language of one country and another. Deaf gringos speak American Sign Language. The language of deaf Mexicans even includes its own regional slang, and a deaf person from Monterrey doesn’t speak the same way as a deaf Mayan.) The place had few windows, three rooms, and a large area where in 1951 the first school for the deaf in northeastern Mexico was established. In the entranceway there was a sign that gave its welcome by offering the Greek definition of man: zoon logon ejon, “the animal that has language,” as well as photos of a deaf lucha libre wrestler who, at that time, every once and a while shared the ring with the famous fighters El Santo or Blue Demon. He was called El Prisionero, the Prisoner. There were also images of “Deaf” David Rodr.guez, another lucha libre performer, who was lesser known but a native of Monterrey.

The school was affiliated with the Mexican Association of Deaf-Mutes Corporation. Its symbol was a squirrel. The incessant movement of the hands of the sympathetic nut-eating rodent seemed to the professor Abel Sauza to be similar to the deaf students during their class discussions, and so he adopted it as their logo. It was Professor Sauza who involved Gerónimo in the rest of the activities at the school. The place doubled as a recruitment agency. The young deaf children who traversed the populous neighborhoods of Monterrey asking for money for the school were attentive, so if they came across any other deaf people they would invite them to join the community they were trying to form.

The deaf students, once they learned how to communicate through Mexican Sign Language, would form soccer teams and compete in amateur tournaments, or they would go out together to get to know other cities in Mexico. They would sell key chains, pens, or toys which they offered with cards bearing signed phrases on them, like “Te amo” (right hand with two bent fingers making a type of horns to be placed at the chest, at the height of the heart) or “Que D.os te bendiga” (left hand and right hand symmetrically in the form of horns).

The professors presented these trips to parents as a way to integrate their students into the world, though they had a commercial logic to them as well, as part of the sales went to the school and another, smaller part went to the young deaf entrepreneurs.

Gerónimo made his first trip at 14 years old. It was like going to another planet; the never-ending asphalt of Mexico City contrasted with the loose topsoil of where he had grown up, as much so in Rancho Nuevo as Monterrey. He spent four months there. He made short visits to the other states of Puebla, Aguascalientes, and Guanajuato. He met deaf people from Mexico City who were infamous for being abusive to those from the countryside, but some of them became good friends of his for a long time. The Monument to the Mexican Revolution was Gerónimo’s preferred site to sell key chains. The tourists behaved generously, especially the regular evening customers of the neighboring cantinas. Whereas outside the nearby offices of the Federal Security Department (DFS), a shadowy organization that coordinated paramilitary and “counterterrorism” efforts at the time, the pickings were quite slim.

Before returning to Monterrey, the group traveled to Guadalajara for a few weeks. While he was there, Gerónimo decided he would go as a mojado, or “wetback,” to the United States.

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