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  • Patricia M. Perea, PhD

Following the Manito Trail: During Tornado Season, A Manita Granddaughter Asks Some Questions

Patricia M. Perea Ph.D.

Adjunct Faculty

Chicana and Chicano Studies Department

University of New Mexico

Dominga Olguin Perea (left), Jacobo Velasquez Perea (center), James Martin Perea (right) and Max Joseph Perea (center) outside of Friona, Texas, 1967. After leaving New Mexico and living in California, Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho, they finally settled in Friona (just on the other side of the state line from Clovis, NM). Here they worked chopping cotton until Jacobo got a job at a cattle feedyard.

Tornadoes are a common feature of my memoryscape. Notes screeching over radio waves twist into a tangle of thick air and heavy silence. It is the heart of spring, the end of the school year approaches, and the clouds build every evening in the southwest. It seems I have known since the beginning of time that tornadoes are creatures of habit moving northeast across the southern plains.

N. Scott Momaday told us a story once about tornadoes as horse beings, unbroken in the sky. This made a lot of sense to me: as he spoke I remembered Dad’s unbroken horses, colts with names like Let ’Em Go, Recycled Cash, and Liberty Lad, standing in the corral fenced in by railroad ties that still smelled of tar. Dad was always the first to ride them and for that reason I never went near them; I’d seen them move forward and back, up and down, too many times to think my 5-year-old, pecheras-wearing self could ever get even semi-close to one. The same was true for tornadoes – they fascinated me, but I kept a respectful distance.

I loved tornado season. I knew that when the air changed and the cotton began to sprout in the fields that it was almost tornado time for Friona, Texas. It was time for trips to the Moses Five and Dime, the Allsups, and on special occasions, the K-Mart in Clovis, New Mexico. It was time to settle into the routine of scrambled eggs, fried bologna, pressure cooker beans, photo albums, and stories. My life was going to change from the dull grays and browns of pre-tornado season to the green and violet kaleidoscope of tornado season – from the sound of dry, stale wind to the sound of thunder and hail.

I was ready to go to sleep burrowed between my grandparents, listening to the rain outside at night and already impatient to wake up to the smell of wet dirt in the morning. And I knew that when breakfast was done, when the plants were watered, and when The Price Is Right was over, Grandma would take out her photo albums. She would let me run my hands over the plastic sheets and would answer every question I had - what had it been like to grow up in Tecolotito, NM? Why were Dad and Uncle Tony born in Dilia, NM but Uncle Max born in Texas and Uncles Mario James in California? What had it been like to live by the ocean? What were sugar beets? What about the baby who died? Why had he died in Idaho? Why were you always going somewhere else? And why did you decide to stop in Friona, Texas?

For every one of these questions there were at least three different answers and all of them rested with my grandpa. He had wanted something different; something away from the small village of Dilia. Or after the land was sold, he could not find work anywhere so he had taken Grandma, Dad, and Uncle Tony to Pueblo, Colorado where he worked for a few months in the steel mill before relocating to Canyon, Idaho. I don’t know what their work had been but I do know that is where their first-born baby died, and rather than bury him in Idaho, they put his body on a train back to Dilia. Once, during a family reunion at some hotel in Santa Fe, we had all had a bit too much to drink and the stories began to fall; my great-aunt remembered her parents unloading the baby’s coffin at the train station in Vegas and listening to her felt like confirmation. I only vaguely remembered the story, and Grandma had already been gone so long that I thought of the story as a dream, and here it was real. Here was a person who had seen that coffin; who had remembered that baby.

And what about California? Uncle James had been born in Martinez, California just 37 miles northeast of San Francisco. Grandma had said there had been an earthquake and her morning sickness had been so bad she mistook it for the usual lightheadedness of pregnancy. Because she was alone, no one has confirmed that story. It lives only in what a six-year-old can remember.

Dominga Olguin Perea and Jacobo Velasquez Perea in Stockton, California, 1947. Originally from Tecolotito and Dilia, New Mexico, both migrated to northern California to work. They married at Saint Mary's Church in Stockton, California.

And what about Texas? Last summer after a dinner of beans and homemade chicharrones, my cousins sat outside on the deck of Sef’s house in Tesuque and they asked about my family, my uncles, my dad. Why had they turned into Texas Republicans? I have my theories but Sef answered them for me. He talked about going out to Friona and to Muleshoe to chop cotton with my grandpa. “They expected us to live in chicken coops,” he said between gulps of beer. “My dad, your Tío Lino, said ‘no way’ and came back to New Mexico. He would have rather struggled in Dilia then live there, but your grandpa, Tío Jacobo, he stayed.”

I sat back in that moment feeling dizzy thinking about all the stories of Dad and my uncles being called “spics” or “beaners.” Stories of being the only Mexican family in town and then there were my stories. My own memories of the Texas Panhandle and being called all those same names and knowing the only way to survive was to try to become invisible. By the end of the night, Sef had decided Texas had driven my family crazy and they had lost all the connection to their home, their connection to Dilia. But I knew something different. I knew the land Dad bought on the edge of Palo Duro Canyon looked just like Dilia, the same red dirt, the same scrubby cactus, the same endless llano. I also knew the stories – these New Mexican names, these New Mexican towns, even these New Mexican bars that were always close by. And they captivated me. That there was a place where we – where Mexicans – had land, ran stores, drove around without fear. It was like hearing about Oz, except Oz felt more real.

I took the backroad from Tesuque to Santa Fe that night. It was so dark and I wondered what roads were around in the 1940s. What roads had my grandparents driven when they went from Friona to the Santuario to pray for Uncle James after his first seizure? Had I driven one of those roads? Probably I had. I thought of the baby who traveled from Idaho to Las Vegas entombed in a coffin I can only picture. What was the landscape he passed through as he returned home? We know he is buried somewhere there – somewhere in Dilia or Anton Chico – but we have never found him. We look for markers but there is nothing, only a death certificate and a story. But what I have learned is that stories, like water, are life.

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