High Hopes

Emily Herrera soars toward stardom

She looked off in the direction where the young man had disappeared, her mouth slightly twisted. Remembering, perhaps, when her best was never good enough.

A small girl with wild black hair scrambled up the old pecan tree to the peaked roof of the garage. She was following her older cousins, who had already crossed to the other side. As usual, they were where they weren't supposed to be, but the adults in the backyard below didn't notice.

Ten-year-old Emily paused, hidden from adult view by the tree's branches. Watermelon juice stained her chin...it just wasn't a picnic unless there was watermelon to cut through the summer dust of San Antonio, Texas. A cross-shaped wound on her round left cheek struggled to heal, slapped there by a branch of the pecan a few days before.

"Emilia, you're going to put out your eye someday, climbing around like a boy," her grandmother, Celia Delgado, had scolded after the accident, using the Spanish pronunciation of her name.

From the garage roof, Emily could see a good part of the neighborhood, only a few miles from the famous old chapel known as the Alamo. It was no barrio, but neither were the residents well-off. The people who lived in this area were what white San Antonians called "the Mexicans," although some families--like Emily's maternal grandmother's--had settled in the area before Mexico was even a country. Neighborhood activities centered on the Catholic church on the corner; every family attended the baptisms, weddings and funerals of every other family.

Even then, Emily knew she didn't want to stay forever in this neighborhood where her own mother had grown up. The girls here, including some of her older cousins, all seemed to have babies before they were out of high school. Then they spent the rest of their lives in one of the small houses in the neighborhood, or a neighborhood just like it, lucky if their husbands or boyfriends stuck around. She had other dreams.

As Emily began to inch out of cover, sounds floated up from the backyard. Looking down, she saw her grandmother, Celia, sitting in a chair, surrounded by Emily's uncles and neighbors. Many of them were playing instruments: a guitar, a violin, a trumpet, an accordian. But it wasn't the impromptu band that held Emily's attention. It was her grandmother, who gripped a long-necked bottle of Lone Star beer in one hand, the other reaching out as she sang.

A donde era veloz y fatigaza
La Golondrina que ve aqui se va

The song was "La Golondrina," The Swallow, a traditional Spanish ballad about the heartbreak of leaving one's country for another, and missing small things.

Celia Delgado was small, less than five feet tall. She was round as a pumpkin and had a large mole on the side of her nose that never ceased to fascinate the two granddaughters--Emily and her younger sister, Christine--who had come to live with her almost three years earlier. She dressed in black, still in mourning for her husband, Antonio Delgado, who had died a few months earlier.

The dark-skinned Celia had taken great care to explain to her granddaughters that they were of Spanish, not Mexican, descent, and that their people had settled north of the Rio Grande when Tejas was still an outpost for Spain. Family legend had it that another ancestor had been Apache--a princess, no less.

Antonio Delgado's people were also from Spain, but they'd settled first in the Caribbean before immigrating to Louisiana. There, Spanish blood mixed with German, which accounted for the light eyes and fairer complexions of some family members who'd since moved to Texas.

Antonio and Celia had purchased their two-bedroom house just before World War II. Then, while her husband was away with the Navy, Celia had saved every cent and paid off the mortgage.

After the war Antonio landed a job with the civil service at nearby Lackland Air Force Base, where he remained until his retirement. But he was truly happiest working around the house. Whatever carpentry or plumbing or electrical work needed to be done, he did it, taking great pride in his craftsmanship.

Antonio would add on to the house as their family grew. He and Celia eventually had four children. Emily's mother, Velma, was the fourth and something of a surprise, coming along twelve years after their third child.

Celia was a true character in the neighborhood. No wedding was complete until she seized the microphone and launched into "La Golondrina." But Celia didn't limit her singing to weddings. She was quite a pool shark at the local cantina, where she'd won numerous trophies and had been known to belt out a ballad or two while hustling games. Velma spent a good part of her childhood sleeping on a cantina bench or playing beneath the tables while her mother shot pool or sang, always with a Lone Star in hand.

Velma's father, Antonio, was his wife's opposite. More than a foot taller, he was a quiet, reserved man with a receding hairline who liked to work quietly with his hands or sit in an old chair on the porch and watch the world go by. Antonio and Celia were very different, but their love had lasted through the years.

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