The house at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Iturbide Street, the one with a big mural on the west side, belonged to the Salazar and Chapa families —Sarita Salazar Chapa, her sister Conchita Salazar, and Miss Chapa, a daughter of Sarita.
They loved Mamá and were very good friends. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, my mother and father and my older brother and sister and I lived right across the street at 402 San Pablo Avenue.
Miss Chapa was an elementary school teacher. I loved going with Mamá to visit because the expansive dining room table was constantly full of home-made cakes and pastries. And I could tell who ate the food. Conchita was corpulent, and her niece was not too far behind. Both of them continually enticed me to eat, but Mamá oggled at me so that I had no choice but to hesitatingly say, “No, thank you, I already ate.”
With a sweet smile on her face, Miss Chapa admonished me for looking at Mamá and repeated the offer, and then proceeded to scold her for putting words in my mouth.
The Salazar-Chapas had a wealth of children’s books, which was the main reason I went to visit them almost every day. I read Jack and Jill, The Cat in the Hat, Winnie-the-Pooh, Bambi, Johnny Tremain, The Little Prince, The Little White Horse, and many others.
Miss Salazar and Conchita affectionately nicknamed me, “mi prieto,” or my dark one.
At Christmas time, they put up a big tree in their living room that reached all the way to the high ceiling, full of decorations and glittering lights, and surrounded with an overabundance of colorful wrapped gifts. I always wondered who gave them all those presents.
An incident I will never forget happened outside their house on a cold day. Mamá and I had just returned home from visiting them when I decided to walk on the sidewalk with my hands in my coat’s pockets. I suddenly tripped and fell flat on my face. It all happened so fast that I did not have time to get them out. My gums were bloody and I injured my front teeth. Mamá came running out with her apron flying to one side when she heard me crying.
During our visits across the street, Conchita noticed my enthusiasm for reading and decided to open a big room located in a separate high ceiling one-story building contiguous to the west side of their house where the mural is located. At one time, this space was used for a small grocery store. So every morning, around nine o’clock, I sat next to her and she taught me science, geography, literature, and arithmetic skills. I can still feel her huge puffy hand over mine as she helped me improve my cursive writing.
Around 1952, Sarita unexpectedly passed away at the age of 61. Conchita became very depressed and my classes were cancelled. Mamá asked me to keep her company in the afternoons, so I sat on one of the kitchen chairs while she mainly cried. Her grief was overwhelming, and that made me feel sad. But I could not empathize with her because I had never lost a dear one to fully understand the meaning of death and the finality of a human life. I just knew that she was not around anymore.
In the summer of 1995 Jo Emma and I visited the barrio El Azteca. We walked all over. I wanted to reminisce about growing up and living in this beloved neighborhood and I wanted Jo Emma to take photographs. The whole barrio El Azteca has become like a cemetery. I couldn’t even take a step without pointing out the houses where my friends, acquaintances, and former classmates from St. Augustine School used to live or remembering those who have passed away.
It was very sad and depressing —the sidewalks empty of any human traffic. In my times, the sidewalks were full of the hustle and bustle of the people going and coming. Not too many people drove cars, so we did all the errands, shopping, grocery buying, etc. on foot. Now, my beloved barrio is but a relic of the past, with only fond memories to keep it alive.
The mural you see in the photograph is different than the current one. Jo Emma took these photographs in 1995.