Post 84: The Rooming House Gallery – Connecting the Dots

Excerpts from The Rooming Gallery – Connecting the Dots

Bella Briseno Rodriguez

Andres’ mom was tiny, maybe five-feet tall, and looked like she was in her mid-thirties, not forty-five. She fell in love with the old place and exclaimed over and over about all the space they had and their idea to turn it into an art gallery. She was enthralled with the old photos and information about the diaries and secrets. Andres didn’t tell her much about the community art center idea. It was too soon, and he knew Josh had some reservations. That Friday evening, after dinner, they met in the living room over wine.

“Mom,” Andres began, “can you tell us your life story? Until reading the first diary, I never grasped I’m actually a first generation U.S. citizen. Can you tell us what it was like, coming here, how you met Dad and had me?”

Bella paused, and sipped her wine. In a mix of Spanish and English, she began talking. “I guess knowing a bit more about this place does make my story seem less trivial. I just know so many people, most Mexicans, that have similar stories that I’ve never thought much about it. Also, I didn’t have time to when you were little. I was too busy.”

She took another sip of wine. “My maiden name was Bella Briseno and I am seventeen years and six months older than you.” She nodded at Andres, he smiled back. “I arrived in Chicago from the barrios of Mexico City. There were many poor people there and struggling to survive seemed normal too me. My mother, your Grandma Briseno, had almost a full high school education and knew there was life beyond the barrio and wanted better for me and herself. I don’t remember my father, he disappeared when I was little. In 1970, when I was seven, my mother agreed to borrow two-thousand dollars from a distant cousin in Texas who arranged for us to be smuggled into the country. He contracted with a coyote. It would take Mother, with my help, eight years to pay the debt off. The cousin was not a nice man. He had friends in Chicago who collected for him.” Bella leaned back on the couch and stretched, her face somber, like she was remembering the hard times. “The trip was horrible. We were crammed in the back of a big truck with little air. People tried to sneak my water bottles away from me, or steal our food, but I stayed awake. In the middle of the night, they dropped us off and began sneaking us in small groups across a low spot in the river. I don’t remember the name of the farm community in Texas. I do remember sneaking into some barn where we refilled our water bottles, slept in the hay and straw and before it got light, we got into a camper trailer pulled behind a pickup truck. It was very crowded. At least the windows could open and we got some fresh air. We never got out. When the truck stopped for gas, we had to be quiet so no one would know there were people riding in the trailer, that was illegal. I think people may have been riding in the back of the pickup, too. It had a top over it. The little bathroom in the trailer soon flowed over so the place stunk. We were glad when we were moving, at least there was fresh air coming in.”

All three were quiet. Andres wasn’t shocked, but almost. He heard snippets of similar stories as a child and just now realized how little he truly knew of his mother’s journey and the hardships she endured, as did many others in their Pilsen community. He wondered if Josh heard of stories like this, and if he knew anyone who experienced such a trip. He glanced at Josh, who looked stunned.

You can read more about Bella when the book comes out in June…Stay tuned…