NOTE:This is the story of Catarino Escobar Chavez, a Carson City resident who is teaching me about the cover of books and how they shouldn't be judged. Catarino's own "book" is a story of a boy who came to America searching for the money he thought flowed through our streets like water. He contacted me after reading recent articles and letters in our newspaper about the problems with gangs and about how our Hispanic community is often blamed. Many of those stories and letters were filled with innuendo and stereotypes common in such public debate. Terms such as "wetbacks" and "low rider" are hurled with relative ease as we look to put a finger on our own problems. Catarino is 40 today and an American citizen. He works as a correctional officer at Nevada State Prison, where he and his fellow officers are tasked with keeping some of America's other problems under lock and key. Over the next couple of weeks, this column will be dedicated to Catarino's journey to a New World and will hopefully knock down the walls that keep us from constructive dialogue.)
Catarino Escobar Chavez was born a peasant. He was one of 10 sons and daughters born in Central Mexico, in the state of Aguacalientes, in the county of Cosio, in the town, or "rancho" of Zacatequillas.
And yes. Just like us, Mexico has states, counties and cities.
The rancho was home to 50 or so other peasant families when Catarino was growing up and it was a farming community. "Cows were kind of sacred," Catarino explained. "Most peasant families had one or two cows, and in case there was an emergency you sold one."
His family ate what they grew. "We had corn and beans, otherwise known as rancher's chicken," said Catarino, whose adobe home resembled something you might find inside the Nevada State Museum today. He showed me photographs of his mother cooking from a primitive oven. "It's what you might call a Mexican microwave," he laughed.
Catarino's home consisted of two rooms and a kitchen a third the size of an executive bathroom.
"We didn't spend too much time indoors, though," he said. "Where I lived, you started working as soon as you started walking."
In Mexico children were required by law to go to school at least up to the sixth grade. "When you got home from school your chores were waiting for you," Catarino explained. "We had to water the cows and the mules (used to plow the dirt), feed the cows and mules and then make sure that the harnesses for the mules were set up for the next day so that Mom and Dad and my older brothers could sow the corn and beans."
It was a social workers nightmare, really. "If I took five social workers to my hometown they would lock up every parent for child abuse," said Catarino. "But where I come from children work."
Catarino believes that most illegals come from the same environment.
"When I finally decided to go to America, I didn't notice my lack of money or clothes," he explained. "How would I know that brand new cars even existed? We had an old antique radio in the house, no local newspaper, no magazines, no Newsweek, no Hemingway or HBO. Our means of communication came from the cows or the roosters on top of the house who told us when to wake up."
Neither the cows nor the roosters had ever told Catarino about low riders. "Some Americans think all Mexicans are low riders and that we brought them here from Mexico," he said.
Nor had the cows or roosters told Catarino about racism or discrimination. "That did not exist in my village," he said.
When he was 16 Catarino made up his mind to go to America.
"My uncle had been to the U.S. and he agreed to take me there," he said.
The day came on Dec. 12, 1976. "Prior to leaving we had a big dinner. My brothers were telling me what they wanted me to bring back. Everyone in the village knew I was going. The day before I took off everyone was sad. They knew it was going to be a long trip and that I could die. It was the first time I saw my father cry."
His mother took him into one of the little rooms and made Catarino kneel on the dirt floor. "With her trembling right hand she blessed me in the name of God, praying that I would make it safe to the States."
He didn't sleep well the night before. "I didn't know what to think. I didn't really have any plans except to come to the States where money runs through the streets."
Planning to return in six months, Catarino and his uncle headed for a bus that would take them close to America. "We first had to walk around 10 kilometers to the next town where we could catch the bus to Mexicali (located on the Mexico side about an hour from San Diego)."
They spent the next several days watching the border, looking for patterns in border patrol shift changes, or any edge they could find that might make their crossing successful.
For a 16-year-old boy from a village where cows and roosters were the source of information, entering the United States for the first time was like stepping on the moon.
"I was scared to death," said Catarino. "I wondered if I would be killed and it didn't help that Christmas was just days away."
When the time was right, Catarino, his uncle and a stranger named Pancho crawled under the fence and into America.
"We found a hotel in Calexico and spent the night there," he said. "I thought it was the finest place on earth. They had white towels and a shower where hot and cold water came from the same faucet."
Some 24 years later, Catarino doesn't view that crossing as something sinister or criminal.
"In the United States they believe it's horrible to put welfare people to work," he points out. "Where do you think the labor comes from? We can send a man to the moon, but we can't stop immigration? Why should they stop it? "
With California agriculture accounting for roughly 60 percent of America's produce, Catarino wonders what kind of agricultural revolution would occur if they really closed the border.
"They have around 180,000 illegals working in the fields in California. Do you see anyone in California doing anything about it? How much would a head of lettuce cost if they had just Americans working the crops or fields?"
Next week, Catarino will provide an insider's glimpse of those fields and how he waded through them on his way to Carson City and a better life.
Jeff Ackerman in publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.