A Good Father Is Worth One Hundred Teachers  

Art by Anton Refregier

There was something about the way my father’s clothes looked after he came home from work that commanded respect.  His shirts dark and sweaty from burning sun, splattered with large, small and extra large specs of hardened black tar, his pants the same, only layered in dirt from kneeling on roofs all day, his shoes, usually boots, massive and heavy.  The smell when he walked in our living room was musky and masculine, what a real man’s should be, that’s what I’d think at 10, safe and protected when he was around, we all felt.  Quiteme las botas, he’d say.  One of us would straddle his boot like a horse and tug as hard as we could, first at the heel, then at the tip, finally, after a great deal of force, both hands at the shaft, one firm last pull and both boot and kid would fall on the floor.

He was never one for many words.  When my mother would start es que tu nunca me haces caso, hay este hombre…, no te dije que dejaras los zapatos afuera…, he’d say nothing, just sit there, quietly, trying not to aggravate the situation.

Sometimes things would escalate and his rage would become untamable.  Those were the times we were afraid of him, when we’d wish we could do something to calm him down, but we were all just kids and much too little to do anything.  A true macho in every sense of the Mexican meaning: heavy handed, roaring voice, scared not of a single soul, ready to loosen his belt and yank it out from around his waist at any moment.  We knew if my mother’s chanclazos burned, his manotazos and cintarazos would leave marks, for days.  My mother knew this too, so a lot of times, unless we were extremely bad, dad would never find out about what we did.  That’s not to say he wasn’t tender and kind. He was.  And still is.  Some Saturdays he’d just hand us a five dollar bill and tell us to spend it on whatever we wanted, even when we knew he didn’t have the money.  When we were alone, he’d tell me about his childhood, the scorching heat against his back everyday, the loneliness of losing his mother at the age of five, and why we were prohibited from following in his footsteps.

He never missed any of our birthdays.  He wouldn’t dare let us suffer.  If mom sent us to work with him, he’d leave us behind at the warehouse, away from the sun, where we wouldn’t have to endure what he did.

We just never told her about it.

Dad’s skin was toasted a deep brown.  From years of quebrandose el lomo para sacarlos a ustedes adelante, mom would say (from years of breaking his back to make sure you all have everything you need).  In the pictures of decades past he was guero, no wrinkles, dark black hair, lots of it, slim, clean shaven, happy, youthful.  Not tired.  A different person almost from the father we knew, but then his laughter would fill the room and there, behind the leathered skin and graying hair, the same young man staring at the camera, smiling through time, too young and clueless to know what was waiting for him just a few years ahead.  He wasn’t so scary after all.  He was just dad.