By Tom Rodriguez
In 1931, when my mother, Jennie, graduated from Our Lady of Guadalupe Grade School, a K-8 all Mexican-American enrolled Catholic school, she was sixteen years old. She was a couple of years older than most American kids in the eighth grade but that was because she had started school late because her parents were newly arrived immigrants from Mexico. It was my mother’s wish to attend high school but her father, a traditional Mexican man, told her that she did not need to go to high school because all she was going to do was get a job and get married. As a result, my mother’s education ended at the eighth grade.
Like most young girls of her age, she was interested in boys. In those days, however, talking to boys could only be done in the company of a chaperone, which was very often an older brother, sister, or close relative. In addition, her father, Hilario Gomez, was a very strict man and my mother was not allowed to date boys. To get around him, my mother and her sister, Vicenta, would cook the family dinner on Sundays in an attempt to soften up her father so that he would let them go to a movie where they would sometimes meet and talk to Mexican boys they knew.
According to my mother, sometimes the strategy worked and sometimes it did not, depending on her father’s mood. On other occasions, my mother and her sister, or sometimes one of her cousins, would go shopping downtown where they would sometimes meet and talk to boys. The only other acceptable places for young Mexican boys and girls to meet and talk was at the mini-fiestas and church services put on by Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church.
In 1933, when my mother was eighteen years old, she started dating a young Mexican man named Archie. After about three years, their relationship had reached the point where Archie proposed to her and she accepted. My mother said that Archie and his parents were going to speak to the parish priest to arrange a “Presentación,” which was a traditional Mexican custom where the intended bridegroom and his parents visited the parish priest to inform him of the groom’s intention to get married. Following the visit, the priest visited the intended bride’s home to inform her parents of the intended bridegroom’s proposal of marriage. If the parents of the intended bride accepted the proposal, then the couple was officially betrothed. Following the “Presentación,” it was the custom to announce the wedding banns in church on three consecutive Sundays, after which the marriage could take place if the couple still desired.
This was a very stressful period for my mother because she had never been alone with Archie, and because she knew that he liked to drink liquor. My mother was also concerned because her father did not know that she had been dating anyone. Her father was very traditional and did not allow her to have dates with boys or allow them to visit her at their home, so my mother had been very careful to keep secret her relationship with Archie.
At that point in my mother’s life, she did not know my father very well. In fact, even though the Gomez and Rodriguez families had been next door neighbors for years, my mother said that she and my father had only spoken to each other on a few rare occasions. My mother also said that during the time she dated Archie, she had no contact with my father and knew him only as a neighbor and distant acquaintance.
In late 1933, my father, Joseph, had moved to Chicago, Illinois, and quickly found a job at the Sherwin-Williams Paint Factory. My father was soon able to start sending money home to Topeka to help his family during the early years of the Great Depression. In 1934, my father’s younger brother, Thomas, also moved to Chicago and found work. My father lived in Chicago from 1933 to 1936, and had only recently moved back to Topeka.
How my parents got together has always fascinated me and I look upon their union as a beautiful story of true love winning out. I say that because on the Friday night of the day before my mother’s intended fiancé, Archie, and his parents were to visit the parish priest to arrange their betrothal, my mother went to a movie with her sister Vicenta and her sister’s boyfriend and eventual husband, Manuel Arredondo. Unknown to my mother, her sister’s boyfriend had invited my father to go along with them. Whether that was prearranged by my father, I do not know.
According to my mother, they went to the movie and she noticed that my father kept looking at her during the movie. She said that she caught him looking at her a couple of times and that he just smiled at her. After the movie, they walked slowly home with my mother and father far behind her sister and boyfriend. She said they talked about his time in Chicago and about her job at the Seymour Packing Plant. Along the way, she said that my father took her hand and that they walked holding hands. Before getting close to their homes, my father told my mother that he had liked her for a long time but had said nothing to her about it. She said he then professed his love for her and that he asked her to be his girlfriend and she said yes. She said she didn’t know why she said yes so quickly but guessed that it had to do with their being so close to their homes and knowing that there might not be another chance to be together for a long time. She said she also knew that next day Archie’s parents and Archie were going to visit the parish priest and that she better say yes to my father if she felt that she loved him.
Many years later when I was older and married, I asked my mother why she had broken her engagement to Archie since she hardly knew my father prior to that movie date. My mother told me that even though she did not know my father very well, she did think that he was very handsome and she knew that he was a good son and was the main provider for his family. She also said that as far as she knew, he did not drink or run around with girls.
As the story goes, when my father declared his love for my mother, she told my father about her pending engagement but promised him that she would break her engagement to Archie. The next morning, my mother summoned her courage and bravely went by herself to Archie’s parents home and told Archie and his parents that the engagement was off. Ironically, my mother said that when she broke the news to Archie, he immediately accused her of breaking their engagement because of my father. My mother said that Archie had accused her on several occasions of secretly liking my father. My mother said she was very surprised by Archie’s accusations because she hardly knew my father.
My father told me that at the time he declared his love for my mother, he was working in a good paying job at the John Morrell Meat Packing Plant, but because he was the primary support for his family, which at the time consisted of five brothers and a sister, plus his two parents, that he could not afford to get married. It was not until my father was able to find a job for his brother, Joseph, at the John Morrell Plant, that he was finally free to marry my mother. As it turned out, even though they started dating in 1936, my parents did not get married until April of 1938.
In February of 1938, the “Presentación” took place and the parish priest visited my mother’s home accompanied by my father and his parents. It was a Saturday morning and “Pan de Huevo” and hot chocolate were served. Pan de Huevo is a light Mexican sweet bread made with eggs and is usually served with Mexican chocolate. At that meeting, the priest and my grandfather Rodriguez approached my grandfather Gomez and formally requested his Plazo. The “Plazo” was the father of the bride’s formal approval that officially sanctioned the betrothal. As was the custom, shortly after their engagement, my parents arranged for the banns of marriage to be read at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on three consecutive Sundays during late March and early April of 1938.
My father and mother made a handsome couple. My mother, however, was a striking contrast to my father. She was only about five feet tall, thin, fine featured, and fair skinned, and had light brown eyes and long light brown hair. She was pretty, feminine, and had a wonderful personality. On the other hand, my father was six feet tall, lean, and ruggedly handsome, had dark curly black hair, soft brown intelligent eyes, and deep dimples on both cheeks. He was a man of few words, his silence, however, was not a silence of indifference. My father’s quietness was the result of a deep inner reserve rooted in the heavy responsibility of having to become the sole support of his family of eight when he was still a teenager after my grandfather Rodriguez lost his job due to the Great Depression.
My parents engagement period was an exciting time, especially for my mother who was deeply in love and excited to be planning her wedding day. Together they went downtown to buy her wedding ring and dress. My parents were married on April 30, 1938. It was a big wedding by the standards of the time and my mother was attended by four “Damas” or bridesmaids. In addition, my father had his “Padrino” or best man, and my mother had her “Madrina” or Maid of Honor. She was given away in marriage by her father.
Following the wedding, a large reception was held at the Gomez home and there were so many friends and family that the party spilled over into the Rodriguez house next door. Following the reception, the wedding party traveled by car to Gage Park where a professional photographer took photographs of the wedding party at the beautiful Reinisch Rose Garden.
On the evening of their marriage, my parents returned to my Grandparents home and listened to Mexican and American music with family members. They did not have a wedding dance, which was a tradition among Mexicans in Topeka, Kansas, because my parents simply did not have the money to have a wedding dance.
Humorously, my parents spent their wedding night, and the following two weeks, living apart in the homes of their respective parents. It seems that neither household had the space to accommodate my parents since both homes had only three bedrooms and there were eight people in my father’s family and nine in my mother’s family.
In two weeks time, however, my parents were able to rent a nine room house for fifteen dollars a month. Unfortunately, they only had enough furniture to decorate one of the nine rooms. For that reason, when the opportunity presented itself to move to a smaller house they took it. They lived in that smaller house for seven months and then moved into a tenement apartment building called “The Flats” where they rented two large rooms on the second floor.
At the insistence of my father, my mother quit her job at the Seymour Packing Plant and spent her days cooking, cleaning house, sewing, and shopping for food. After their marriage, the world of my parents expanded significantly. As a young married couple, they explored on foot and by street car all of central and south Topeka, the west side of town as far as Gage Park, all of the east side and most of North Topeka. A year and a half after their wedding, on Saturday, June 10, 1939, their first child, Richard, was born. My mother said it was the happiest day of her life.
When the decade of the 1930’s began, the Rodriguez and Gomez families were heading into one of the most difficult periods of their lives in this country. A period during which my Grandfather Rodriguez lost his job with the Rock Island Railroad, and my Grandfather Gomez had his job at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad cut back to two days a week. Because of the Great Depression my father was forced to drop out of high school which ended his formal education and that placed on him at the tender age of sixteen years of age the unwelcome burden having to become the sole support for his family. The 1930’s had been quite a decade for the Rodriguez and Gomez families. It was a decade that started with fear and deprivation, but ended with my parents falling in love, getting married and starting their married life with much happiness and hope and their first child. Life was good and was going to get better.