Memories of Laredo
The rhythms of daily life in Laredo, Texas in the late 1940s, especially in the summer, depended entirely on the heat. During the long days when the temperature would hover around 110 degrees, it was actually too hot to go out, or to do anything at all. During the most intense hours of dry heat midday, grandma Emma, aunt Jeanette, and her sister Catherine, and the little one, Catherine’s daughter, Irene Emma (whose names most people pronounced as one word that sounded like “ah-renemma”), all took their siesta, resting and sweating away two or three hours of the blazing afternoons. It was so hot that you’d perspire all over your mattress in the afternoon, and then perspire all over it again at night when you’d try to sleep once the temperature dipped down into the mid-90s. They had to put the mattresses outside on the screened-in sleeping porch to dry or they’d mildew and start to smell from being constantly damp with sweat. Of course, sleeping outside on the porch instead of indoors barely helped – it was usually so oppressively hot even at night you couldn’t really sleep. When they were at home alone during the summers, the three women would strip down to their slips, and Irene Emma, the toddler in the house, would run around in her panties. Although there was no such thing as air-conditioning, like most houses, theirs was built on cement risers to allow air to flow beneath it in an attempt to keep it cool and a foot or two off the ground in case of a flood.
Irene remembers that there were two delightful times of day – the hours right after sunrise when the air was still cool and fresh before the heat settled in and took over, and the late evening after the sun went down and the air would finally cool a little. In the evenings, jasmine-like flowers around the neighborhood would open, scenting the air with a light perfume, and life would start to move again, outdoors and on to the veranda. Families enjoyed the cooler hours, sitting on their porch swings and rattan chairs, talking and reading together.
The heat dictated what you did, and when. If it rained enough, you could water the plants and tend a garden, but if the river got low, you’d let the plants die. If it rained too much, the river would flood. Irene remembers how one time the river, the Rio Grande, which was usually three blocks away, flooded and came all the way up into grandma’s back yard. She saw cows and entire houses carried away down the swollen brown river that day.
During the war, Catherine’s husband had been sent by the US Army Signal Corps Laboratories to install a brand new technology known as radar at the Panama Canal. Because there were no military accommodations for American women in Panama, Catherine had taken her daughter Irene home to Laredo where she moved back in with her mother Emma, and her unwed older sister, Jeanette. Like most people in Laredo, her husband was a native Spanish-speaker, but because he also knew math and understood radios and engineering, the US army saw him as a rare commodity, and he’d been pulled out of his studies at the University of Texas quickly at the start of the war and sent to study at the radar labs at MIT and Harvard. He then spent several years in Panama, building the first radar station at the canal and training local operators in how to use radar, which was considered extremely advanced technology and required high-level national security clearance. The recent development of new weapons like aircraft carriers and long-range bombers meant that during the war, the United States was afraid that Japan would try to invade the US via the Panama Canal, so it was imperative that air and water traffic be monitored in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Irene’s father even had to stay in Panama well after the war ended, to keep the station up and running.
Other than the men being gone and the cultural changes slowly being wrought by the new Air Force base nearby bringing more and more outsiders and northerners into Laredo, the war itself seemed far away, merely something ominous heard about over distant, crackling voices on the kitchen radio. Although Grandma Emma lost a son during the war, and another son was badly injured, the three women suffered few material hardships and forged a good life together. They shared everything in their home, divided labor fairly, and never uttered a cross word at one another. They were used to working and living together. Both Catherine and Jeanette had jobs as schoolteachers and would walk to school each morning, leaving Irene at home to spend time with grandma Emma. In the afternoons, as children in Laredo were expected to do at the time, Irene would take her bath, be dressed in pretty clothes and then play politely with other children during play dates, or engage in quiet games with the pilmama, the children’s maid who came in during the afternoons.
Aside from magazines and the newspaper, the radio in the kitchen provided all of their in-home entertainment, music, and the only connection to current events and news from the outside world – there were no televisions. At noon the three women would excitedly gather around the radio to listen to the news. Irene remembers that fresh corn tortillas and beans accompanied every meal. Tortillas were made fresh every day by several neighbors and were thrown away if they were more than a few hours old, but they rarely lasted that long. As a child, real butter on a warm tortilla was a delectable treat, better than a snack like molasses on crackers – and even rarer was a chance to get something really icy and sweet, like a coke float or orange sherbet which could only come from the drugstore in town. Grandma Emma didn’t see the use in buying a refrigerator, although some of the neighbors had them already. Instead she had an icebox that was replenished by deliveries every other day from the local ice man who’d lug a huge block of ice into the house using metal tongs, but it wasn’t cold enough to keep ice cream from turning into liquid. They had no car, so get in to town the women would get dressed up, grab their parasols and ride the bus for fifteen minutes. They ate chicken often, as all the families in the neighborhood raised chickens on their property, and some also raised doves for food that they kept cages tall enough you could stand up in. Grandma Emma called the doves Mexican wind chimes for the sounds they made. The grown-ups enjoyed steak and beef from the surrounding ranches at nice occasions and celebrations, along with lots of smooth, strong tequila sours, just like the ones from the Cadillac Bar just across the river in Nuevo Laredo in Mexico, with fresh squeezed lime juice and smooth agave tequila that took the edge off the hot days.
While Laredo’s unique civic and cultural pride still persists today even in the face of the terrors of the drug cartels that now impact the area, in the 1940s, the local customs of Laredo’s own style of polite society and old Spanish traditions still prevailed. The onset of World War II and the establishment of a nearby air force base was a force of cultural change that slowly eroded the isolation of the town, but the community resisted entering the second half of the 20th century as long as it could. Irene remembers how the women of Laredo were horrified to hear that women living at the air force base had been seen wearing pants instead of skirts. Even more shocking was the news that women there were wearing shorts. Women in Laredo would not begin wearing pants in public for at least another twenty years, not until well into the 1960s.
Along with the ladies of Laredo, the local Catholic Church was also sensitive to the cultural threats encroaching on Laredo’s community from outside, and especially from the north. Concerned that the town was becoming too secular and distanced from its spiritual and old Spanish cultural roots in the years following the war, Irene remembers when the local Catholic churches began to ring the Angelus at dawn every morning as a call to reflection and prayer. The bells would slowly peal in a pattern for five to six minutes, their clear echoes lingering and vibrating in the cool morning air, waking everyone in town. As a child, she found the sound beautiful, but the local protestant community was annoyed by the church’s new initiative, rallied, and had the practice ended, as they saw no need to be shaken out of their beds by church bells at dawn.
Despite cultural anxieties and resistance to change, Laredo was altered permanently by World War II, becoming less and less isolated, and has had its story rewritten yet again by the drug cartels that now ravage Mexico. Several years after the war ended, around 1947, Irene’s father returned from Panama, and following a common narrative of the times, as a man who’d been living abroad, returned home a stranger who disrupted the close family dynamic the women had built for themselves. To Irene, her father was a man she’d never known, yet was expected to love and obey. His return from the war signaled the definitive end of a time when the outside world was distant, known only through ink on newsprint or voices crackling on the radio - and when three generations of Spanish-speaking Irish women happily worked and lived together in a house across from Mexico on the Rio Grande.