José Lopez moves nimbly across the porch of his senior citizens’ complex in southwest Detroit. The 77-year-old laughs with his fellow residents. He greets his visitors with a beaming smile on his face. After working 40 years at the Ford Rouge plant, Lopez shows all the outward signs of a man in contented retirement.
But there is another side to this man, a part of him that has experienced suffering and hunger and the loss of his family when his family was the only thing he had. Lopez is a repatriado.
Inside his tidy apartment, Lopez sits on an overstuffed easy chair and tells his story as two cockatiels chatter in a cage nearby. There are parts of his story that he will never know. And there are parts he would like to forget.
He was born in Detroit in 1926 near Warren and West Grand Boulevard. But he has no memories of his early years in Detroit. When he was five, his family left for Mexico.
“My father was deported. My mother could have stayed here, I think, but she would have had to go on welfare, so she had to go with him. My father had been here 15 or 20 years. He probably thought that if he stayed here and behaved, no one would bother him.
“I have no idea how it happened. We just left for Mexico. It was a painful period because of the suffering we did in Mexico. The poverty. It was just hard work, from sunup to sunset. I started my working days when I was 7 or 8 years old. My younger brother, he was two years younger, stayed home with my mother. Mainly we worked in the fields with my father, wherever he was working. On sugar cane, on corn, on vegetables. Whatever it was.”
When there was no work in the fields, Lopez and his father gathered wood for fires.
“He would go out into the woods and collect deadwood. That’s how we made a living. I’d go with him. So when he found a place where he thought he’d find enough wood, he’d tell me to go home and get him something to eat and [get] water and then come back. So I would travel all through the woods and the mud with snakes and wolves. Luckily, they never bothered me. It was a lonely life.”
Lonely and at many times hungry.
“I can remember several times when we only had one meal a day. Tortillas and beans, maybe pepper. I remember one day in particular when I took it upon myself to go to a neighbor’s house and tell the lady that my mother had sent me to borrow corn to make tortillas. My mother didn’t send me. I just took it upon myself. I brought the corn to my mother and she cooked it and that was what we ate.”
Lopez’s mother died in 1936.
“I suspect my mother died of a heart attack because she used to sleep with one of my sisters and one morning they couldn’t wake her up. My dad and I were not at home because we were working. We got up early. When my mother died, we buried her in a grave where somebody had been buried before. And I saw the gravediggers take out the previous body.”
A year later, his older brother fell and died.
“My brother, he fell down and was injured and he was bleeding internally when he died. None of us went to the doctor there.”
And in 1944, his father died after a brief illness.
“My father got sick for a couple of weeks and then he died. He went to the hospital when he got sick. I went to see him on weekends and the second time I went, he must have just died the day before. What he died of, I don’t know.”
But in a way, Lopez says he does know what took away his family.
“I have no doubt that the Repatriation killed them. We weren’t nourished properly and your body becomes weak and anything can happen. They were weak from all the work and improper nutrition and eventually any kind of illness could do them harm.”
Lopez’ eyes moisten as he speaks about his family, gone all these years.
“I get quite emotional when I talk about it, because it’s something I don’t even want to think about, much less talk about. [California state] Senator Joseph Dunn had me go to California a couple of years ago. When I testified in front of the Senate committee I was unable to control my emotions. The loss of my parents. All the suffering.”
Thanks to the efforts of an aunt, Lopez, his younger brother and two younger sisters eventually made it back to Detroit. He got a job at the Rouge plant, raised a family and now has three children, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
The memories of the tragedies inflicted by the Repatriation will never go away.
“It’s something we don’t want to talk about. It’s something we don’t want to think about. It was a painful period. Yet if we don’t talk about it, how are our grandchildren going to know?”
Yet he is not bitter. There are other memories. Better memories.
“It’s been a hard life, but a happy life because in other ways, I’ve been blessed. I was lucky enough to work at the Rouge plant. Even though it was hard, it provided me with enough income so that I could raise three children and support my wife.
“And you know what?” he says, beaming, “My oldest granddaughter is now a lawyer in Toledo. So that’s quite a jump up, isn’t it?”Tom Schram is co-chair of the National Writers Union of Southeast Michigan. Send comments to email@example.com