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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bertha E. Troncoso

I should have written this on Mother’s Day, but I was traveling. I did phone my mother, Bertha E. Troncoso, the E for Estela, on the day, and my wife Laura and I did send her flowers. My kids, Aaron and Isaac, created cards for Laura, our tradition of preferring handmade drawings to anything store-bought, and our family had a delicious brunch at G.W. Tavern in Washington Depot, Connecticut, the GW for George Washington. My mother has been my family heroine for a long time. Here are snippets of her story.

She was born in a rancho near Chihuahua City, and anytime I whined in El Paso about throwing out the trash or hosing down the trash bins she would remind me of not having shoes until she was ten-years-old. She had a beloved dog named Sultán, and a mother, my abuelita, who was tough and sometimes cruel. Doña Lola was a single mother before she married the genial man I would know as my grandfather. She survived the Mexican Revolution, machos in el rancho, and grinding poverty, so maybe my abuelita had reasons to be la generala.

My mother’s family moved to Juárez when she was a teenager, and Bertha Estela was so beautiful that she began to model clothes for local department stores. I have seen pictures of my mother in her wedding dress, particularly a close up my father has enshrined in our living room in Ysleta. My mother looks like a Mexican Jane Russell.

As my mother recalls, she met my father at a plaza in Juárez, and when they married she had saved more money than him. My father Rodolfo was a poor student studying agronomy, and my mother had a steady job as a saleswoman. When my father is feeling nostalgic, he retrieves old newspaper clippings of my mother modeling the latest post-war fashions.

I remember my mother being the strictest mom on San Lorenzo Avenue. Doña Bertha, as the neighbors called her, definitely inherited the steel from her mother. Mamá would never allow us to play at neighbors’ houses; our friends had to play at our house, under her watchful eye. And on weekends and after school, boy, did we work! Polishing furniture. Cleaning up after our dogs. Painting the house. Pulling weeds from outside our fence next to the canal. I was head of Sanitation. Our neighborhood, a colonia next to the Mexican-American border, had gangs, Barraca contra Calavera, and drugs, so in retrospect perhaps my mother had a point. As my friends in New York have said, I grew up in an “at-risk neighborhood,” and how you gain the drive and discipline to succeed with that beginning is to have parents who are tougher than the dirt at their feet.

As I grew older, I began to notice how intelligent my mother was, yet how she confined herself to the role of dutiful wife. Mamá still has dozens upon dozens of her friends' phone numbers committed to memory. Once, before I left for Harvard, I tried an experiment with her. I said a friend’s name, and she would give me their phone number. We got up to 36 before we stopped. She made thousands of dollars as a manic Avon lady in Ysleta, enough to buy a sleek Buick station wagon with a tinted moon roof, which I used on hot dates. My mother was and still is a voracious reader of everything from Selecciones to the Bible. I buy her a yearly subscription to The El Paso Times, which she reads from front to back.

Yet she was happy to first take care of my abuelitos when they became infirm and had to live with my parents. My mother fed and bathed them until they died in an apartment my father built in our backyard. Now that my father can shuffle but a few feet without his walker, my mother is taking care of him. They are the same age, but my father is weak and insular while my mother is indefatigable, funny, and quick to ask when my next book will be published.

I don’t know how she does it. Bertha Estela could have done anything she wanted, but she chose to take care of her family; she chose love and sacrifice over personal accolades and accomplishments. Now you know why she is my heroine. I hope I will always follow in her footsteps.

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