March is Women’s History Month, so in that spirit I wanted to explore my own family history, or more specifically, the history of my mother’s family.
My mother was raised in Texas, the youngest of nine children. She grew up in an area that was predominately white, which made it difficult for a Mexican family in the middle of the 20th century. My mom tried her best to assimilate and fit in with the other white “All-American” children in her neighborhood, and was constantly embarrassed by a mother who didn’t speak English and didn’t act like the other housewives.
But what she could not appreciate as a child and teenager growing up in Fort Worth, was that Carmen Gonzales Morales (her mother, my grandmother) was an amazing woman who had defied incredible, unlikely odds, living an impossibly difficult unhappy life and coming out the other end stronger and wiser.
I was always told that my grandmother’s life was similar to Cinderella’s story, but without the happily ever after or the charming Prince. Born in Mexico in 1910, Carmen was the oldest girl of five: three older brothers and one younger sister. After her mother’s death at the age of three, her father remarried and a stepmother brought along two other young siblings. Her stepmother was jealous of my grandmother’s relationship with her father (she was the favorite), and though she was still quite young she was made to cook, clean, and watch over the younger children. If she was unable to do as she was told or didn’t do a good enough job, her stepmother would complain and then her father would punish her. Her new stepmother was incredibly cruel and did her best to turn her husband against his own daughter, making him believe that Carmen was “no good” and a disobedient, disrespectful child. Despite his love for his eldest daughter, he always took his new wife’s side, and Carmen was left with no one in her corner, no one to believe in her or stand up for her.
After suffering years of emotional and physical abuse, Carmen was finally propositioned by one of the family’s ranch hands—a man nearly twenty years Carmen’s senior named Juan Morales (my grandfather). He told her that they could run away together if she married him, that he would take her far away from her difficult life with her family. Believing him, she eloped with Juan and was married at 16. He lied about their ages (making Carmen older and lowering his own age) so she wouldn’t need parental consent and there wouldn’t be such a large difference in years between them. Together, they traveled across the Mexican border into Texas, but life was not fated to be a bed of roses—out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say.
Carmen immediately started having children. She gave birth to her first son, Thomas, shortly after they were married, and then another son followed not even a year after. Juan worked for the railroad and was often away from home, leaving Carmen alone in a small house in the middle of the dusty Texan desert with two small children and no one to help her. Juan was also a drinker, and was rowdy and violent when he’d had too many. On many weekends he would disappear on booze-filled binges, spending the money he earned on liquor, women, and God only knows what else, then coming home and scaring the life out of his poor young wife. I was told there were times she feared for the safety of her young children and would have to sneak them out of the house, hiding outside while her husband raged through their shared rooms, screaming and tossing things around.
She was incredibly unhappy, but she had no way to get out of her situation. Despite her wishes, she continued to have children—one after another, all the way up until her 40th year when she gave birth to my mom.
She’d had no formal education, she’d never really learned English, and yet she raised nine healthy children (the tenth child, who would have been my mom’s closest older brother, was stillborn after Carmen fell down the stairs on her 8 month pregnant belly). Despite her hardships, despite her misery and difficult life, my grandmother survived. As my mother grew older and learned more about her family history, she developed a new-found respect for her mother, respect that the young embarrassed teenager could never have grasped or understood. Carmen Morales was a survivor—a female warrior who fought one of the only ways a poor woman at the beginning of the 20th century could: she carried on. Though she was oppressed from an early age simply because she was born a girl, she lived 96 years and was the head of what is nearly a dynasty (nine children led to 21 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren, and even great-great grandchildren in her lifetime).
Her story has fascinated me since I was a young girl. Though the time and place is so different from my own life experience, there are important lessons to be learned: it is possible to live even amongst the unhappiest of situations—where there is a will, there is always a way.