WRITES OF PASSAGE
Austreberto Aguirre's big vision is a shadow of its former self. This week's edition, anyway.
La Gaceta, the newspaper he's published in one form or another since 1947, today is little more than a few Xeroxed pages stapled together. Inside, where Senor Aguirre, editor and founder, once ran hard-hitting exposes of Mexican politics side by side with stories such as "Joan Collins, Devourer of Men," now are a dimly copied portrait of Jesus, an exhortation to "get interested in mexican art" and several almost hysterical pleas to contact him at his offices.
This should not be difficult. Unless he is out partaking of a free meal at La Alma center, Austreberto, more commonly known as Beto, is in his office day and night, because it is also his apartment. The two small rooms in a senior housing block near downtown are crowded with the trappings of Beto's life--the Book of Mormon sharing space with a big-skirted doll who has the power of brujera, a selection of slippers and hats, intensely strong tea perking in a stained electric pot. Not that Beto really cares about his surroundings. At 79, he would prefer to be seen as a newspaperman of longstanding. Fortunately, he has three typewriters and a photocopier on hand, and happily introduces visitors to the intricacies of each.
"I am going to explain this to you," he says in Spanish, paving the way for an onslaught of facts. By the time his explanation ends, Beto hopes you will fully comprehend his dream. You will grasp the need for a truly excellent Spanish-language newspaper whose sphere of influence is nothing less than the world itself. More important, you will understand that, although Beto intends to retain complete control over his publishing empire, he needs help. Three cataract operations have ruined his eyesight. Although he moved to the United States in 1956, he does not speak English. But no problem is without a solution. For starters, Beto would like to have a secretaria--someone to take dictation, research the occasional color story and drive him around on his circulation and ad-sales routes. "We can take my Mercedes," he says, attempting to sweeten the pot. "It's a nice car."
Then, like a true old-school journalist, he cuts to the chase. "I am going to explain to you what the problem is," he says. "The problem is that no one will help me. Not even a Mexican! I am going to tell you what the problem is with them. They are always telling me to come back tomorrow."
To Beto, it is painfully evident that tomorrow will be much too late. Now more than ever, he needs to get his newspaper going. He would prefer that his oldest son, Virgil Aguirre, once his partner in the business, make a real commitment to the writing life and help him out. Virgil himself would prefer that his father take it easy--participate in senior activities, or attend church. Upon hearing this, Beto sighs impatiently.
"Virgil is smart," he says, "but let me explain something. Virgil is not smart enough. He cares too much about making money. He does not care about helping me. I am willing to be a patient man, but Virgil does not have patience."
In fact, as anyone who knows him could tell you, at fifty Virgil has all the patience in the world. "Let me tell you what I remember," he says. "My father started his newspaper in 1947, in Morelia, Michoacan. When I was four or five years old I used to grab a bunch of papers and sell them on the street. I was the best sales kid around."
From that first job until he married Rosa Linda in 1970, Virgil's destiny was not just tied to his father's--it was his father's. "Virgil's father was a very strict man, real proud," Rosa Linda remembers. "I thought, okay, he can have his newspaper. I just wanted his son."
She got him, and in 1985 they started Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe, at 33rd Avenue and Tejon. Today it is successful enough to support the Aguirre family, Beto included, as well as feed nearly 2,000 hungry people at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Over the past two years Rosa Linda's myriad volunteer jobs have kept her from the restaurant more and more, but Virgil is almost always around, from the time he begins cooking in the early morning until whenever the last customer leaves. In the afternoons his five children, ranging in age from eight to 22, help out. Whenever there is a lull, they do homework in one of the booths. At last count, three of the five intended to be journalists.
It was 1956 when Beto Aguirre left Mexico. Typically, he did so under a cloud of drama and intrigue. A longtime journalist, Beto had started his own newspaper, Antena de Michoacan, a decade earlier. By the early Fifties, Virgil remembers, his father not only put out the most controversial paper in town, but also had decided to get into politics--in particular, to mount a vicious campaign against the current governor. It wasn't long before Beto's editorial stance came to the attention of Lazaro Cardenas, then president of Mexico. In a midnight meeting, Cardenas reportedly gave Beto Aguirre three choices: Learn to love the current regime, leave the country, or dig his own grave, lie down in it and die.
"I was there when Beto told my grandfather," Virgil recalls. "He was drunk and crying. And my grandfather said, `I prefer to see you whenever I can than to see you dead.'" It took less than 72 hours for Beto to get his visa, "because they really wanted him out," Virgil says. "They knew if he stayed, either he or someone in his family would start up another newspaper." And indeed, once in Denver, Beto immediately established El Sol and set about chronicling life in his new home. The few English words in the publication advertised it as "the only Mexican paper in USA." Meanwhile, Beto's family remained in Mexico, waiting to be summoned. Of his original eight children, only four had survived childhood, and his wife, Maria Trinidad de Martinez, had been crippled with arthritis ever since Virgil, her oldest, was born. But Maria remained self-sufficient. "My mother always said she didn't need anybody to survive, and she didn't," Virgil recalls. "She made things with her hands and sold them, and it encouraged us. What I got from her was that if I struggle, sooner or later that stone is going to break down."
In 1961, with his only daughter safely married off, Beto brought his three remaining sons and wife to the United States, even though his own marriage was breaking up. Knowing he might have to support his mother, seventeen-year-old Virgil sought work in the business he knew best.
"I went to the Rocky Mountain News, the Post and the Catholic Register to apply for a job, even to sweep the floor," Virgil says. "But I didn't speak English, so I ended up washing dishes." He also signed up for English classes at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School. Four years later Virgil was hired as a printing-press operator and began saving his money.
He spent his first paid vacation in Mexico, visiting printing presses. Back in Colorado, he showed his father a contract he'd signed with a Mexican printer. "My dream was to give my father a newspaper, to show him I could do it," he recalls. "I said, `Okay, Father, here it is. Now we work.'" Beto had been struggling with El Sol, and the idea of starting fresh appealed to him. He graciously consented to act as founder and publisher for the new paper, which he decided to call Antena de Michoacan en Denver. "Every two weeks, we did the layout and sent it to Mexico," Virgil remembers. "When we got the papers back, we folded them in our living room. I was editor, circulation director, ad salesman, whatever it took." And whenever he had time off from his full-time job.
Antena's circulation, which started at 500 copies, gradually climbed to nearly 5,000. Virgil's newspaper knowledge increased exponentially. "My father taught me everything," he says. "Especially when he went on vacation. Then I learned the hard way." There were just two things Virgil deliberately decided not to emulate: Beto's writing style, which tends toward the emotional and self-aggrandizing, and his fondness for alcohol. "He was the reason I don't drink," Virgil says. "The way he punished me for no reason, hit my mother, I thought: I will never be like him."
Instead, Virgil made the rounds of Denver, photographing weddings and writing up local events, while his father stayed busy writing about himself. A quick perusal of past Antenas reveals a preponderance of items related to Beto Aguirre: his travels, his thoughts, his seemingly off-the-cuff acquaintance with celebrities from the worlds of academia and entertainment, even his burgeoning family--after Maria, he remarried and divorced four more wives.
"This little cowboy is Vicente H. Aguirre, future Denver journalist and none less than the darling son of our director," read the caption under a front-page picture of a young boy in a suit. A story headlined "Spanish Language Library Opens Here" featured a picture of library personnel in the august presence of Austreberto Aguirre. "Principals in Mexican Fete" noted that "Austreberto Aguirre, a mexican newspaper editor, will keynote Mexican Independence Day ceremonies at the Rialto Theatre." Finally, readers were treated to a reprint of a story from the Mexican paper El Heraldo de Zamora--in which Austreberto Aguirre stops by the office to discuss his life and times in journalism.
The hype failed to move young Rosa Linda Garza, who came to America from her native Monterrey for a brief visit in 1967. She remembers being unimpressed by Antena, as well as by the city it covered.
"The newspaper was nice-looking, but there was no money in it," she recalls, "and Denver was a huge, beautiful city, but no one was ever on the street! It was dead! Where I was from, everybody got all dressed up and went downtown."
During her visit, Rosa Linda did manage to go downtown for dancing at La Fiesta, where she subjected every potential suitor to the strict quality standards she had learned as a convert to the Mormon church. "I grew up around men who smoked and drank, and it was so nice when they didn't," she explains. "I had a lot of real cute, handsome boys who were after me, but they drank, and I said forget it. My friends thought I was weird, but whenever someone asked me to dance, I smelled him first."
Virgil Aguirre passed that initial test, but he was by no means home free. "He didn't drink or smoke, but his dancing was terrible," Rosa Linda recalls. "He danced the mambo too fast. I thought: I don't think I'll dance with him again."
Despite the protests of her sister Hortensia, now a co-owner of El Noa Noa restaurant, Rosa Linda was happy to leave Denver. She had her future planned: Although Mexico boasted few female sales magnates, she would become an Avon lady, as well as a sort of itinerant beautician. "I was born to sell," she says. "Right away I won a promotion about how many bottles could you sell of Avon bubble bath. I sold nearly five cases. I went to every neighbor, and I told them all, `If you buy two of these and bathe in it every night, you will get lighter!' This was 1967, remember, and I could get away with murder."
By 1969 she yearned for more lucrative pastures. Lured by the American economy, she returned to Denver for good. One of the first to welcome her back was Virgil Aguirre, who began bringing Rosa Linda presents and cards. Soon they were dating regularly, although exactly what happened on a date was a matter of contention.
"Back where I'm from," Rosa Linda explains, "you don't hold hands, you don't kiss a boy on the first date--or the second or third or fourth date--but Virgil, he'd gotten used to all these mushy, mushy things. So I told him: Sit there, keep your hands to yourself and talk to me."
Twenty-four years of marriage, one business and five children later, it is not unusual to find Rosa Linda and Virgil sitting in one of their own booths, still talking--and there is still plenty to discuss.
Shortly after Rosa Linda and Virgil married, it occurred to Virgil that he could not "raise a family and a newspaper at the same time." This realization didn't stop him from trying, though--until the week he told his father to take the printing money to Mexico and his father used it to buy drinks for his Denver friends instead. "That was it," Virgil recalls. "I gave up and went to work in construction. I thought, I will bury my pen ten feet underground and just make a living. Everyone thought I'd last about three hours, but I kept on for thirteen years."
During this time Beto abandoned Antena and began producing La Gaceta de Antena, which he calls "a regular magazine of life and truth." For at least a few issues, these subjects were enough to interest even Rosa Linda, who contributed a series of articles on nutrition, including "Proteins, Key to Life" and a think piece comparing dry beans to their canned counterparts. Beto wrote the rest of the paper himself--veering between exposes of dirty politics in Michoacan and opinion pieces such as "The Controversy of Success," inexplicably illustrated with glamour photos of Rita Hayworth, Dorothy Lamour, Vivien Leigh and other circa 1940 stars. At one point Beto even printed his own phone number, not as an editorial contact but as a potential spiritual counselor.
"I am prepared to resolve the questions that everyone has," he wrote, "and I want to improve your intellectual and spiritual life. Whether you are man or woman, if you have been badly treated, or have not been able to have good romantic relations, or have had bad luck--consult me and I will find the right advice for you. Talk to me about the unlucky star under which you were born, or your sexual relations, work or love. I am here to serve you. Remember, nobody but you and I need to know--our relationship will be absolutely secret."
Clearly, Beto carried on, but as the years passed his paper shrank. By 1983, when the Denver economy collapsed and Virgil lost his construction job, there simply wasn't enough Gaceta to support two men. Virgil went back to his old printing press looking for work, haunted construction sites and even offered himself as a dishwasher, but he could not make ends meet. "We spent eight months on welfare," Virgil says. "We were ashamed of needing it."
Oscar, now 22, is the only Aguirre child old enough to remember those tough times. "Dad said this: You want something, you pay for it," he recalls. "I bought my first bike that way, collecting cans. It was a dorky bike, but I'll never forget going over to my friend's house with it, knowing it was mine; I paid for it. I remember going to some government thing for free Christmas presents--otherwise we wouldn't have had any--but I don't remember thinking it would last long."
His father was not as optimistic. "It wasn't just the toys," Virgil says, "because after that they sent us to eat a free Christmas dinner at Currigan Hall. We ate the food, but I thought, Lord, give me the opportunity, and I promise to you I will feed people, too. And then it was like the Lord said, okay, let's see if you will."
Virgil was not accustomed to making deals with the Lord. "I was always going to church, but not him," Rosa Linda remembers. "He used to say, `You really prefer three hours of church to three hours with me?' And I would say, `Oh, yes.' He had these weird ideas, and his father was worse, but I told him, look, without God, you can't do nothing."
During the Currigan dinner, while Virgil was deciding to join the Morman church, Rosa Linda was having her own epiphany. "I was pregnant with Eric, and there wasn't enough money, and all I could think about was these people doing things for other people. I thought, if I could, I wanted to do that," she says. "I went home and became the chairman of the Head Start in our neighborhood, even though I only spoke a kind of broken English. I went to all the meetings and stood right up there in front of the room so I wouldn't miss anything."
A few weeks later, while Rosa Linda worked in her front yard, she was approached by a neighbor who asked if she would like to attend a meeting of a Highlands residents' group. She went, and accepted a position on the neighborhood council. At home that night, Virgil asked what her new title meant. "I'm not sure," Rosa Linda replied, "but it's going to be great."
That's how Virgil got the idea of starting his own restaurant and naming it after his wife. "I thought, everybody knows her, it will be easy," he recalls.
In fact, it wasn't easy at all. When the restaurant opened in 1985, Rosa Linda's had to serve food continuously from nine in the morning until three the following morning just to make ends meet. There wasn't enough money to hire waiters or cooks, so the restaurant was staffed entirely by Aguirres. Oscar, who was fourteen at the time, remembers a typical day's schedule. "I went to middle school, came home and did homework till about nine, went to the restaurant to help my father clean up, and then woke up and did it all again," he says. "After I graduated from high school, I wanted to hang out at nightclubs, and my dad let me leave at 9:30--but I had to be back at 1:30 to handle the bar rush. People ask me how come I didn't get involved in drugs and gangs. Hey, ask me when I had the time."
As business increased, the restaurant's hours decreased. Today Virgil has three part-time employees. But all Aguirre hands are on deck for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve when, true to their word, Rosa Linda and Virgil feed any hungry person who cares to show up. The first year, 90 came. Last year there were nearly 900, served by 120 volunteers. The publicity that always attended the late Daddy Bruce's similar meals has eluded the Aguirres, but that doesn't bother them. "No," says Virgil, "because at the end of that kind of day, I feel happy." This afternoon Virgil's second-oldest son, also named Virgil but known as Junior, goes straight from North High School to Rosa Linda's. A senior, he has been waiting tables since he was thirteen. During any lulls today, he will do his creative-writing homework; he, too, has hopes of becoming a journalist. Junior greets his father with a gentle "ÀQui pasa, viejo?" and a kiss. He is softer-spoken than Oscar, who has just blazed in, dressed in his trademark pleated pants and silk shirt, and is already yelling about what's going on, where are his sisters, any calls for him? (If a drunk becomes obnoxious while eating at Rosa Linda's, it is Oscar who kicks him out.) Oscar goes off to look for his sisters in his new Geo Tracker. Outside on the sidewalk, where two outdoor tables have been set up, youngest brother Eric throws around a baseball.
A few minutes later eight-year-old Esmerelda and Linda, now in sixth grade, jump out of Oscar's car and run into the restaurant. "Teacher pinned up my paper on the wall today," Linda tells her father, with journalistic pride. "She told me it was really good. I just used the spelling words and it all fit together."
"We must have it in the blood," Virgil decides.
"It's a thing we have," Oscar says. "I was raised and born in it. Maybe I sound cocky, but I'm bilingual and I can communicate with both worlds. That's what I have to offer." He stops to greet another longtime customer. "How you doin', bud? Long time, man, long time. You want a table?" When he returns he says, "Restaurant work sucks. Why do you think I'd rather be a reporter?"
Since enrolling in Metro State's journalism program three years ago, Oscar has won the Greeley Tribune Hispanic student journalist award --with an essay about his grandfather--and worked as a radio producer. He likes to imagine a future in which he is a war correspondent, in Europe, perhaps, with a briefcase full of clips and writing awards. But the newspaper closest to his heart is his grandfather's, and the family often speculates that Oscar will turn out just like Beto.
When Oscar hears that, he rolls his eyes. "Until recently," he points out, "my grandfather was an alkie. He always smelled like cigarettes and beer, and he was always loud. We've never been close, but we serve a purpose to each other, and it's true that he's always been there for me. And he's right about what a newspaper should be. All my life I've sat in discussions about how are we going to revive the newspaper. I can't help wanting to revive it, too."
At a table near the back, Rosa Linda agonizes over a jury duty notice--not because she wants to avoid it, but because, though she can't imagine anything more exciting, she has not yet become an American citizen and so would not be allowed to serve. "I'm a legal resident," she explains, "I just haven't taken the citizenship exam. I don't have time. On the other hand, when I do, I will invite the whole city! It will be wonderful!"
But the ceremony will have to be squeezed between Rosa Linda's other pressing entanglements. Her duties as head of the bilingual parent committee at Bryant Webster Elementary School, where her recent introduction of school uniforms was a resounding success. Her participation in the church relief society. Her side job selling Park Lane jewelry door-to-door. It appears that citizenship will have to take a number. "Although," Rosa Linda theorizes, "as a citizen, I could run for office, and then..."
At another table, Oscar and Junior dive into a pile of homework, one typewriter, a stack of newspapers and the schoolwork between them. Oscar informs the family that he has just been given a summer job supervising a corps of high school kids who will maintain the Colorado Trail. "I know I'm a pretty boy," he tells a customer, "but I love to get sweaty and dirty."
Meanwhile, over at the senior complex, Beto has dressed up in his best black suit, his hair newly dyed black to match. Perhaps he is going out into the world to secure a lucrative advertising contract from King Soopers. Or maybe he has a hot tip on the possibility of a sixth wife. Or maybe he's about to make good on his threat to learn English and go to work for Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena. In any case, he has one more explanation to deliver before he departs. "Here's what I will explain to you," he says. "The secret of success is: Open your eyes and shut your mouth. And as for love, remember this: Jealousy kills love. Love kills jealousy." That said, he heads out into the world, pen in hand.
Half an hour later, Virgil enjoys his first slow period of the day. His children are engrossed in homework, his wife has zipped over to church to counsel a parishioner in crisis, and his father, whom he wishes would settle down, is out in the neighborhood, trying to get someone to help him. In the Rosa Linda's kitchen, two employees have things under control. Virgil has a moment to think, and that's what he's doing.
"I'm thinking about writing," he confesses. "I want to write some columns, maybe--about kids, and school, and how hard it is for a Mexican to make a living. "If this business really goes," he adds, "I might dedicate some time to my father's newspaper.
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