Friday, May 31, 2024

Family Cars and Other Things Over Time: Mom and Me

Mom, Ramona Piñon Barajas, worked seasonally in Oxnard’s packing and canning plants—Sunkist’s Seaboard Lemon Association, Stokely Van Camp Frozen Foods, and La Chileria of Heublein, Inc. With adjacent ice works, these food factories lined along Oxnard Boulevard, Fifth Street, and railroad tracks that redoubted the predominantly ethnic Mexican barrio of La Colonia.
The parents and grandparents of many of my friends, past and present, sweated there, too, after graduating from working out in the sun into the shade, so to speak. As detailed by historian Vicki L. Ruiz, in her poetically composed narrative Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950 (1987), women and men struggled to provide via a culture that coalesced commercial forces of industry and media with their lives of community, family, and identity. For example, my ethnic Mexican parents—mom an immigrant from Chihuahua and dad first-generation US born in Rancho Sespe—met at the Seaboard packinghouse, Ramona later became a Teamster at La Chileria, and over time they became compadres several times over with like mixed-citizenship, lower-middle class coworkers.
At the kitchen table, Mom regularly recounted in Spanish Teamster matters with Dad. The words uniónpenciónsalario, and a union rep named Arturo (Chevarria) were often discussed. From these conversations and forced more than once as a boy to cross United Farm Worker picket lines at a small market along Wooley Road to complete mom’s mandado to purchase needed vegetables or a pound of ground beef for dinner, I learned how unions fought for workers. Later I would eavesdrop on repeated stories at my paternal grandparents’ home about how they and other union families were evicted from the Rancho Sespe citrus workers camp during the Ventura County Citrus Strike of 1941 to make room for los missouris, scab replacements of the Great Depression era Dust Bowl.
Mom worked the swing shift at canneries from about 4:30 pm-1 am. Dad commuted from Oxnard to Northridge to his job as an aerospace, electronics assembler. He left the house at 6 am. As a child, I was half awake as he prepared breakfast and lunch while listening to Spanish-language news and music on KOXR radio. As dad returned home from work around 5:30-6 pm, my Aunt Connie, my Nina, too, and Dad’s hermana, picked up my sister and me at our “I” Street home before Mom left to work for us to stay at her house on Popular Street until Dad picked us up. (Later, as adolescents, we became latchkey kids) While my Nino Ray was alive, my Nina did not work after they married as he would not allow it; her job was to take care of my two cousins and the house.
I enjoyed Nina’s inimitably tasty Mexican food, particularly her homemade flour tortillas and fried beans. Mom’s cooking was just as delicious; palatably, however, their fried beans (sometimes refried if any were ever leftover, which was not often), rice, and homemade tortillas (produced hot off the comal as fast they were eaten) were different. The ingredients (butter, lard, pepper, garlic, salt, water, etc.) used or not, and at varying amounts, made their cooking delectably unalike. No wonder I was a "husky" boy up until high school.
After my Nino Ray succumbed to a brain tumor in 1983, Nina resumed work at Seaboard.
I enjoyed my Nina’s car rides as she drove a muscular—now considered a classic—1965, Pontiac GTO. It was black with a thin blood-red pinstripe to match the car’s snazzy bucket-seat interior. I was also intrigued by how my Nino, a carpenter by trade, and Nina each had their own flare maneuvering the GTO’s Muncie three-speed stick shift transmission. My Nino Ray showed off the engine’s torque by rapidly accelerating the car to a high rpm before entering the next gear. Nina, on the other hand, drove the GTO in a cruise-like manner; the engine unstressed as she efficiently increased the car’s speed.
The GTO’s red interior with chrome trim also had a unique scent. Not a new car smell but of a particular pleather as its seats were not of cowhide. I believe.

 Cowboy Frankie P. Barajas and my Aunt/nina Connie in her 1965, Pontiac GTO. You can see bucket seats and red pinstripe, faintly, below the car door window.

1965, Pontiac GTO, almost identical to my Nino’s and Nina’s, sans the interior color and lack of pinstripe. Image courtesy of the internet.
The interior of my parents’ 1969 Chevelle whiffed of the canning season in which mom worked. For strawberries, the car smelled, well, like fresas. Broccoli like brócoli. And during the season of chiles, the Chevelle (aka the Malibu. I don’t know why) acidly wreaked of peppers. The ineradicable smell of the preserved product was intensified as Mom left her translucent plastic slickers and gloves in the car. I imagine she did not want our Levittown-styled house to stink as such as she had a preternatural olfactive sense.