Sunday, October 25, 2009

BARBARIA installment 3


An excited crowd was waiting for the brothers at the Vallejo station as the train belched steam and wood-smoke along the platform and screeched to a halt. Natividad, the elder half-sister whom the twins called “Auntie”, and who had assumed the role of mother in their lives from the day that they were born, abandoned all decorum and ran to Jorge as he stepped down from the car. Another sister stood back, holding her youngest child in her arms. Brothers-in-law patrolled the edge of the platform, keeping a hoard of nieces and nephews from getting too close to the train.

When the energetic ritual of greeting and welcome finally subsided, Jorge glanced up and down the platform, looking for his twin.

“Ah, that Raphael,” said Auntie, “He’s never on time.”

The family had arrived at the station in two enclosed buggies and a covered surrey for Jorge’s steamer trunks. Rain swirled about the tiny caravan, which made its way through the cobbled streets of Vallejo to the grand home of Lazarus O’Brian. The estate occupied three acres of wooded, bay-shore land just a quarter mile off the foot of Main Street. The principal house was a three-storied British Colonial mansion of 18 rooms, with a spacious verandah running the perimeter of the building. The primary outbuilding was a Spanish adobe residence of two stories, built at the water’s edge. There were six other Mexican families besides his own, living on Lazaro’s premises, all of whom enjoyed protected status as employees of Lazarus O’Brian, attorney at law.

“In fact, only four of the people that live here work for me,” Lazaro said to Jorge as their buggy came to a stop before the main house. “The rest earn their incomes on the farms and other estates around town. The wages they receive are too low for a decent life, so I provide housing and see to it that the children can go to school instead of to work.”

“Isn’t it bad for business, Mr. O’Brian? Associating with all of these Mexicans?” Jorge grinned and kissed Auntie on the cheek. She was nearly twenty years older than Jorge. A wealthy, golden haired white woman, married to a Mayan caballero. Their four children were nearly as dark skinned as the twins.

“This is California,” said Auntie. “Here, everything is business. Especially Mexicans.”

Before Jorge could respond, the carriage door flew open, and there stood Raphael in a tan Stetson and a blue oilcloth slicker, grinning. He held out his hand for Auntie to descend, then offered the hand to Jorge.

How are you?
Let me kiss you.
You look well.
So you wear the diamond, like Lazaro.
El Diamante lives on.
You look well also.
I think you’re taller than me.
It’s these boots.
Good to see you, my brother.
Are you going to stay in California?
Don’t know yet.
I hope you stay.
It’s possible.
I must go, now.
Then let me embrace you again, Adios.

Raphael climbed into a buckboard behind a matched pair of gray mules, and drove away to the east. A boy of ten or eleven years sat beside him on the wagon bench. The boy twisted in his seat and watched Jorge with dark eyes as the pair disappeared into the trees that sheltered the house from the street.

“Who’s the child?” Jorge asked his sister.

“His name is Jewett. An Indian boy from Vacaville. Raphael is friendly with the family, and the boy goes everywhere with him these days.”

Dogs of various shapes and sizes galloped about as people climbed the broad staircase to the front door of the house. An ornate porch swing, occupied by an enormous cat, hung by ropes from the beams of the verandah. Several men, women and children had emerged from the house when the caravan arrived, and Jorge was dutifully introduced. A hodge-podge of wooden and covered chairs was arranged along the porch before the arched windows of the house. There were three round oak tables as well, covered with brightly colored oilcloth, weighted down with lamps, decorative bowls of fruit and nuts, and pitchers of lemonade, water and wine. More food soon was served: tortillas, chilies, corn and beans, steaming platters of shredded beef and pork. The front porch was sheltered from the prevailing breeze off the bay. Even in dreary weather, the temperature was comfortable. Heavy coats and slickers were shed, and soon there was a fiesta in progress.

Eventually the food was consumed and the tables cleared. As the evening temperature dropped lower, fires were built in the hearths of the great house, and everyone went inside. Jorge’s eldest nephew was a musician, and was trying to teach his newly arrived uncle how to chord a guitar. Lazaro sat across the room in an over stuffed chair, upholstered in black and white goatskin. He sipped a cup of hot tea, and shouted above the distorted notes of his brother’s musical efforts.

“There’s someone I’d like you to meet tomorrow, Mi Hermano. Would you mind coming to my office in the afternoon?”

Jorge nodded in assent. He couldn’t answer verbally, because his tongue protruded from his mouth, gripped between his teeth, in an effort of concentration. He remembered the last thing Auntie had said, before Raphael appeared, and erased all else from his mind. “Here, everything is business. Especially Mexicans.”

The next morning, Lazaro and Jorge arrived at his office just ahead of Christain Phelps, who was an important man. That is to say he was a very rich man, who owned hundreds of acres of orchards, vineyards, alfalfa, grain and vegetable crops in the western Sacramento Valley. He had made his fortune growing wheat in the eastern valley, ably assisted by Lazarus O’Brian. By the 1870’s, strip miners of the Sierra gold fields had destroyed many square miles of foothill watershed, and floods had ruined Phelps’ crops three years in a row. Lazarus had been an attorney for the mining interests at that time, but for reasons that had never been clear to Phelps, changed sides. He went on to become one of the leading organizers of legal strategy against the seemingly omnipotent California mineral kings. When the state legislature finally found the courage to clamp down on the mining tycoons, Phelps was among the principal benefactors. His fortune was saved, and he had been a favored and loyal client of Riordan, Cleary and O’Brian ever since.

“Mr. Phelps, may I present my brother, Senor Obregon?” Christian and Jorge shook hands.

“Hell, I’ve known this boy for years,” said Phelps, “Senor, my foot. Howdy, Raphael.”

Lazaro laughed and Jorge explained, and the landowner repeated Jorge’s name several times, trying to pronounce it and remember it. Phelps was having critical labor problems, since diversifying his farming operations. He had invested heavily in his west valley orchards when there was a plentiful Chinese and Irish work force.

“Used to be we had plenty wanting work,” Phelps explained to Jorge, “after the railroad was built, and after all the small prospectors lost their shirts. Then that panic hit in the ‘70’s. You know, all that Wall Street stuff. That was good for us. But now there’s plenty of other work for the white boys, you know, so they don’t want to stay in the orchards. And the Chinamen, you know, the government’s trying to send them all back where they came from.”

It seemed to Phelps and his fellow fruit and nut growers, that a Mexican labor source was their best hope for keeping pace with expanding markets. O’Brian, whose family and business connections in Mexico were well known, had become a focus for that hope.

“So we’re sort of counting on you boys, now. You know, the Mexicans, to get in here and get some work done for us, you know.”

Jorge smiled, “Don’t look at me. I don’t climb trees. I don’t think you’ll get much field work out of Raphael, either, from what I’ve been hearing.”

Phelps blushed and looked at the floor, “Naw, I mean, we’re hoping you boys can set up some kind of labor camp, you know, maybe over there around Vacaville somewhere. Bring some folks on up from Mexico, you know.”

“It’s against Mexican law to contract for Mexican labor,” said Lazaro.

“Yeah,” Phelps drawled, “Lot’s of things are against the law.”

Lazaro grinned, “Yes. And the law is, er, selectively enforced. The railroads do plenty of labor contracting south of the border, and Mexicans are doing most of the work in the farms around Los Angeles, now. Of course, the railroads and those L. A. farmers have a lot of influence in Sacramento.”

“Well, then, by God, so can we,” said Phelps, “ Why ain’t those field hands coming up here for work?” He wore the plain cotton clothing of a worker, himself. His nails were dirty and his hands callused. Short, stocky, in his early sixties, he leaned forward, elbows on knees. His thin hair was red and gray, his eyes bright blue. He liked to be called “Rusty”, but most people, including Lazaro, addressed him as Mr. Phelps.

“Well, they probably don’t like getting the shit beat out of them and their women raped,” Lazaro said. “Also, it’s a question of supply and demand right now. There’s plenty of work for them closer to the border.”

Phelps shook his head and laughed. “One thing I don’t like about you, Lazarus, is the way you pussy-foot around, always trying to look on the bright side.”

Jorge smiled, and decided to ask a question. “Lazaro. What about all of those people at your place? At your home? Why are they there?”

“I provide housing and some protection,” He said, “Otherwise, most of them would be gone in the morning.”

“You’re operating a small scale labor camp at home, then?” Jorge continued his inquiry.

“Yeah. Of course most of the people are family, but it’s still a business. Not altogether legal, but a business that pays for itself, and nobody’s complaining to the authorities.”

Phelps and his associates were familiar with the Lazarus O’Brian “Boarding House”. They had already approached him about expanding it, but Lazaro was reluctant to operate a larger operation in his own home.

“It’s also against Mexican law to go down there and recruit workers to leave the country,” Lazaro said, “ but there are ways around it. I’ve been in contact with some people in Jalisco State. If we can set up a labor camp over in your area, Mr. Phelps, without attracting too much attention, I think we can get a seasonal work force up here.”

After another hour of discussion, Lazaro and Phelps drew up a plan of action. Jorge, who could not help becoming intrigued by the possibilities, remained non-committal. Phelps pressed him.

“Hell, you oughta get in on this, Son. We’re gonna need someone to go down there to Mexico and organize this thing, you know? I mean, if we can get those idiots in Washington and Sacramento to give a little.”

“Oh, they’ll give more than a little, I think,” said Lazaro. “If you want the job, Jorge, you could be on your way to Jalisco within a fortnight.”

* * *

The next morning was a Wednesday. Jorge rose early and shared breakfast with his sisters and their children. Then he strolled over to Main Street to wire Professor Stanley Evans of The California University Philosophy Department, to request a personal interview during the following week.

The California University at Berkeley consisted of nine buildings, with four more under construction. The setting, in the lush hills over looking San Francisco Bay, was idyllic. The weather was warm on the day of Jorge’s visit. Squirrels and rabbits gamboled about the lawns, entertaining students who sat like squirrels on their haunches under trees, chattering between classes. The philosophers were housed with historians and anthropologists in a stately wooden structure, just a few yards from the library. Jorge had over two hours yet to wait for his interview. Captivated by what he saw around him, he could not help but hope for the best.

Professor Evans had upon his desk a few papers that he had just removed from a file envelope labeled “Royce”. He slid the folder to one side, then began to study the contents of the file. There was an application for admission from Jorge Obregon, as well as his Cambridge record and a telegram. A second telegram from the Dean of Graduate Admissions at Harvard was also in the file, and a letter from Josiah Royce. In response to a rap on the office door, and Evans called out, “Come in.”

“Good morning, Stanley. I have your note here. I must say you’ve aroused my curiosity with it.” Walter Dervish was a portly man with a bristly mustache and heavy glasses, who liked to wear brown tweed. Stanley invited him to sit down and asked that he wait just one moment.

Professor Evans, a tall fellow with pomaded hair and a prominent Adam’s apple, was near sighted, but didn’t like to wear glasses, so he did his reading and writing with his nose just a couple of inches from his pages. He had dipped his quill pen, and was engaged at the moment, apparently bringing an important sentence to completion. “Ah,” he said at last, “There we are.”

Walter raised his eyebrows, wondering just where they were. He was a professor of Anthropology who specialized in the study of California Indian People, with a special interest in their anatomy and physiognomy. He had studied with Herbert Spenser at Harvard, and focused his academic endeavors on connecting the intellectual and cultural inferiority of the Coastal Indian to the shapes of their heads, as well as certain bodily proportions. “What’s all this about an intellectual Indian?”

“Yes, well you’ll soon see for yourself, I expect,” said Evans. “Have you set aside some time for the interview today?”

“By all means. Wouldn’t miss it, you know. But who is this fellow, anyway. And what sort of Indian? Plains? Athabascan? Full blood, or a mix?”

“Mixed with negro, apparently,” said Evans. “He attempted to gain entrance to Harvard, in Philosophy. But I have a letter from the Dean of Admissions at Harvard. You know him, do you?”

“Everett. Of course. Excellent fellow. He was assistant Dean of the College when I was there.”

“Yes, that’s the man. He’s in charge of graduate admissions, now. They don’t accept Negroes, of course, so they’ve sent the boy along to us, it seems. You know Josiah Royce, eh? He’s very keen on this bloke. Says we should give him a go here.”

“Well I certainly know Royce by reputation, but never met the man. Not very interested in his sort of thinking, if you know what I mean. Very weak on scientific method. So this student is a Negro Indian, you say. Probably Cherokee or Seminole then. A lot of those mixed-bloods down there in the old Confederate states. What’s the boy’s background, then?”

“He’s taken a special certificate in Colonial Administration from Cambridge College, but managed to do quite a bit of work in Philosophy as well, and wants to earn a doctoral degree in the good old U.S. of A. Royce refers to the boy as ‘brilliant’, and says he has strong family connections here in California.”

“California? You mean his Indian blood is Californian?” Walter surged forward to the edge of his seat. “Where does this family live in California?”

“Not far from here. Just across the bay, in Vallejo,” said Stanley.

“You don’t say. Why, that’s incredible! A local Miwok who is literate? Intelligent, you say? You know, the Mendelians say that there’s such a thing as ‘hybrid vigor’. Maybe…”

“Yes, well, we we’re hoping you’d be interested,” Evans interrupted. He had no interest himself in Dervish’s area of expertise, and was not in the mood for a lecture on Mendel and Spenser.

He explained to Dervish that the Philosophy Department was not going to take a ‘darkie’ into the fold, and especially not a Harvard reject foisted upon them by Josiah Royce. One of the professors even suspected the entire enterprise was a fraudulent joke, cooked up by Royce and his Ivy League snobs to make California University a laughing stock. At the same time, neither the department nor the University wished to risk offending Royce and that bunch by rejecting the fellow outright. Someone had suggested Anthropology as a compromise.

“Oh, yes, by all means,” exclaimed Dervish. “If he’s all that he’s cracked up to be, I’ll gladly take him on as a research aide. Not as a graduate student, of course. That would be a bit much, sending a Negro-Indian Professor off to represent the University at academic conferences and such, hee-hee,” giggled Walter.

That afternoon, at the interview, Evans proposed to Jorge that he begin his career at California University as an aide to Doctor Dervish in Anthropology. In a year or two, if all went well, they would give further consideration to his application for Graduate School in Philosophy.

“I’m not sure that I understand,” said Jorge. He was seated in a stiff-backed chair, facing Evans across his desk. Dervish sat in a cushioned chair to one side. On the floor at his feet stood a polished oaken case, with a reinforced leather handle, brass hinges and a latch.

“What is it that you don’t understand?” said Evans.

“Why I cannot begin my studies in philosophy immediately. Why must I work in Anthropology?” Jorge said in a soft, even voice.

“Well, frankly, Mr. Obregon, it’s a question of availability of opportunity at this time, as well as a limitation of funds.”

“But I understand that your University is publicly funded, and that at present there are only six graduate students in the Philosophy Department.” Jorge raised his voice in a questioning tone.

“Of course we are publicly funded,” said Evans, “but such funds are nonetheless limited, you see? Doctor Dervish, on the other hand, has been granted a stipend for a research aide. A quite handsome stipend, I might add.”

“Yes, quite,” said Walter. “And we are most interested in working with a man of your particular …eh … qualifications. Yes, indeed.”

“Why do you want a philosophy student in your Anthropology Department?” asked Jorge.

“Well, Mr. Obregon. Anthropology is the study of the human species, is it not?” Stanley interjected, “And what is philosophy, if not the highest manifestation of the reasoning abilities of that species, you see?”

“Yes, yes. Quite the case,” said Dervish, “Quite the case. I say. Would you mind if I took a few measurements, this afternoon. For research purposes? Just to give you an idea of the sort of thing we’re up to in Anthropology.”

“Measurements?” Jorge, caught off guard and confused by the question, did not respond further. Walter took his silence for assent, and opened his case of instruments.

“These are cranial calipers,” said Dervish, holding aloft an instrument of finely tooled brass. “We’ll also do some bodily measurements, if you don’t mind. Of course, you’ll have to disrobe for that. But we can do all of that after the interview, back in my laboratory. Would you like me to show you our facilities? I’m sure you’ll be quite favorably impressed.” Walter was nodding and smiling, glancing back and forth between Jorge and Stanley.

“Good day, Gentlemen,” said Jorge, rising from his stiff backed chair and leaving the room.

* * *

Two weeks later, Jorge took a train to Los Angels where he purchased a supply wagon and two sound mares for his recruitment tour of Jalisco State. He was carrying an official California Government Permit, allowing him to bring 20 Mexican citizens back with him across the border. He and Lazaro had made arrangements by mail and telegraph to interview workers in the villages of San Jacinto and Guadalupe. He selected twelve men, and checked their reputations carefully among the people of the barrios where they lived. Four of the men opted to bring their wives and children, so the expedition consisted of 19 souls plus Jorge, They would acquire their twentieth person quite by accident, on a beach in California, just north of Los Angeles.

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