Chula’s Story


by Clarisa Morales Roberts

I’ve found that as an adult child of aging parents, I have a number of duties that are expected of me. These range from dealing with my parent’s rental properties, to finding a trustworthy cleaning lady, to driving them anytime they need to go out. The last one I imposed myself. I’m just not comfortable with my 75-year-old mother driving anyplace.

Thus, it falls to me to drive my folks to see their closest relatives. In my mother’s case, this means the grave of the grandmother who raised her. We usually go to her cemetery twice a year. As a kid, I can only remember going there once. We were there for another funeral, and I remember we had a hard time finding the grave. At the time of my great grandmother’s death, my parents couldn’t afford a headstone. At some point after I was well into adulthood, an adequate marker was added. It has an engraving of the Virgin of Guadeloupe and her picture. I recognized it as one from my mothers wedding. She said it was the only picture she had of my great grandmother smiling.

We drive about sixty minutes so we can stand and admire this headstone and leave some flowers. Since my mother has developed arthritis in her knees, it falls to me to get down on my hands and knees to clean things up and arrange the flowers. I don’t mind doing it. All I’ve ever known of this woman is from the stories my mother has told me. It’s feels good to have a connection to Soledad, which was her name, but she was called Chula.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about Chula. She was married at a young age to man in Mexico, but was abandoned for her inability to conceive. As an abandoned woman she “did what abandoned women do,” is what my mother said. She had affairs, and was a quereida, or mistress of a Mexican General. From this union came my mother’s mother. She was Chula’s only child, and her name was Cuca.

I don’t know if Cuca was born on this side or that side of the boarder. Apparently, in those days the idea of the Mexican boarder was ambiguous. What I do know is that Chula and Cuca remained with the larger family clan. Chula had multiple siblings and they all traveled and worked together in agriculture. Cuca worked in the fields her whole life. It’s where she grew up and where she met my grandfather, in the spinach fields of Crystal City, Texas.

From what I’ve been told, in those days my grandfather was at best a slacker. He was prone to “headaches” and would leave the field before the workday ended, but then would be well enough in the evening to serenade my grandmother outside her window. Apparently, he was very handsome, but known as a ne’re do well. My mother said that among the worst of his transgressions was the fact that he regularly smoked pot.

But love is love I suppose, and Cuca married him. It wasn’t long before my mother was born in a migrant worker barrio. I don’t know what Cuca’s marriage was like, if she was happy, or really what kind of mother she was. She died of Tuberculosis when my mother was only two. What I do know is that after Cuca’s death, she was buried in Crystal City. I’ve been to her grave only once. Cuca’s grave marker is now worn, no longer bearing her name, but is recognizable by a heart that is part of its design.

After Cuca died, my grandfather took my mother to live with his family. But, Chula, who had been abandoned as a wife and only had but one illegitimate child was not going to lose her only grandchild as well. Through a family member, she threatened to have my grandfather deported for being a pot smoker. He gave up his child to her and fled back to Mexico. And that’s how it came to be that my mother was raised by her grandmother.

Chula’s grave is in an older part of one of the California Mission cemeteries. Many of the graves that surround her are long forgotten. And, it occurred to me recently, that when that time comes for my own mother, her grave will likely be many miles away from this graveyard. Chula’s children will be scattered from here to Texas and likely beyond. But despite this, I know that Chula’s spirit and strength are not lost. My boys who are the descendants of a Mexican general and this abandoned woman, have her shrewdness. And this, I know is her legacy. I’m sure of it.

Clarisa Morales Roberts was born and raised in Northern California. After serving 9 years in the U.S. Army, Clarisa returned to California where she committed to working in the nonprofit sector. She has a strong interest in increasing communication opportunities for women, people of color and the disenfranchised. Clarisa is currently the Executive Director of Independent Arts and Media, a San Francisco nonprofit with a mission to increase access to independent voices.