A novel of the modern immigrant experience
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Chapter 1: JOSÉ SILVA E FAMÍLIA
If you forgot to look into his soul, you would conclude without much effort that Joe Sylvia was a happy man. That appearance, with its neat casualness, conveyed an elderly man who managed to retain a few bright remnants of his youth: clear eyes still radiated a visible sparkle, generous lips held in new dentures, lustrous silver hair partially hid his ill-covered baldness, and always he dressed in what one would call bright sun-tones.
If you forgot to look into his soul – or at his posture at the end of the afternoon as he sat in his wheelchair gazing out the picture window of his room at what could be seen of the city – you would not conclude that you were in the presence of a happy old man. It merely sufficed to observe him when the dark pain that came from within his soul and inevitably stopped at the throat would suffocate him to the point of altering the dampness of his eyes, the pursing of his lips, the trembling of his hands.
The [nursing home] window afforded Joe Sylvia a view of a man-made landscape... Out that window he would escape to the quiet streets, gazing at houses with well tended front yards, houses covered with paint, embroidered curtains framing the windows, and rounded treetops pruned since being planted, the stop sign, and yet another similar street... However, from here one could go to the rest of town, and on to the surrounding areas that eventually gave way to other towns like Tipton, Visalia and Hanford, where ranches spread out much like their vast and protected fortunes. It was this placid and provincial air that permitted Tulare's survival, without recourse to high-rise buildings and underground tunnels – an open space where the sun still liked to shine its eyes.
From the window of that room Joe Sylvia observed the Tulare of his memory, centered in the San Joaquin Valley of the great state of California. Yet it no longer bore any resemblance to the community he had encountered forty years earlier that was seeking to shed its original rustic image, rural to the core and thus on the verge of collapse. Back then, Tulare consisted of little more than a single street... [In even earlier times] people stopped to chat on the street, while brushing off dust and flies. There were horses hitched to buggies. Fireworks and marching bands greeted the arrival of the first automobile. Soon pavement carpeted all the streets, and with it came tractors, farm equipment for planting and harvesting, and more cars. They were betting on cattle, fruit orchards and vast fields of grain. From this period, barely out of the cowboy era, there remained only stories and black and white photographs, archived in a museum of obsolete memorabilia. Even now, things continued to happen at a pace with which he, sitting there, could scarcely keep up. And so, from the window of that room, only the palm trees with their unkempt hairdos all rippling and green attracted his attention. Whenever the nurse's aide closed the mini blinds, he would stare at the colors of the sunset as they fell upon the houses and trees, transforming them into phantasmagorical silhouettes pierced by headlights and traffic noises – while he, frozen shut like accordion bellows, was unable to remember where he had left his reading glasses or the remote control for the television, implements of his disdained daily routine.
If anyone asked his name, without hesitation he would answer, “José Silva.”
Then he would quickly add, “Excuse me! Joe Sylvia!” – waving his hand and smiling vaguely over his lost mother-tongue...
More from Chapter 1
[On their island] they observed life's calendar, following a succession of yearly events: the festa of their patron saint, the carnaval performances, the Holy Ghost Sundays, the summer bullfights – from all of which they mustered enough energy to confront the harshness of the rest of the year. They only became aware of the evil in the rest of the world when they saw the first planes in the sky. It was with disbelief and amazement that they learned about the existence of a second World War and that their island was filled with foreign troops...
[Father Meneses] announced that the English troops [at the military base] would be replaced by Americans.
“All of you know how much we love America. So many of our own have gone there and they send back gold eagle coins, clothing, candy, bubblegum and chocolates to us...,” [he preached].
José Silva would listen to this laundry-list of prosperity and fixate on the chocolates. He loved American chocolates, yet ironically he had never eaten one. He could only imagine their flavor...
One day the mailman brought them a big envelope with the visas. They packed their bags.
“Just a few things! Because, God willing, we'll be able to buy American-style clothing there,” said Maria de Fátima as she distributed among neighbors outfits that were still wearable. They would write. They would send saudades. They would not forget anyone. For Christmas, the card with a dollar inside. They would not stop fulfilling their obligations as emigrants to America. And they wiped away the tears that persisted in falling. The house would be closed with the furniture inside and the curtains in the windows.
“You know, we may not be lucky. If we return, at least we have our house to shelter our bones,” added Maria de Fátima.
“Dad, don't forget to cultivate the yard. And Mom, come air the house out once in a while. Otherwise it will all rot,” requested José Silva.
And so, on an August morning, clear and blue, they left for America. Along the way they gazed at the island's hills, at its trees and enclosed fields, at the houses with their gardens, at the churches and impérios, at the people and animals, with that odd sensation experienced by those who only now see what has always been before their eyes and for whom suddenly one feels a life-or-death passion. They did not look at the sea. It would be from now on their biggest obstacle, their invincible adversary.
That little island was slipping away from them through a thick shroud of saudade, with the mythical certainty that nothing could make them turn back. There was no news of last-minute regrets and it was only a few weeks later that they would wish for a sure shortcut linking California to the island. They would journey without thinking of the impossible and perhaps do it over and over again. They still had no reason to imagine that being an emigrant was like being some sort of Penelope, weaving and unweaving the thread of saudade within the abysmal web of leaving and staying. Piled into two neighbors' cars, they seemed like convicts with no recourse or drop of rage. That scenery of concealed poverty tugged at their heartstrings.
“May Our Lady go with us,” prayed Maria de Fátima.
“May good fortune not abandon us,” responded José Silva.
And they said little more during the fourteen miles full of curves and potholes which separated them from the airport. And they wept over nothing and everything, coated with a layer of moss, humid and corrosive, rusty, pestilent.
Chapter 2: JOE SYLVIA AND FAMILY
...The still-José Silva began working with his son at a dairy on the outskirts of Tipton. They found a house – a wobbly tin can of a trela without air-conditioning, but that still offered some comfort. His wife and Lúcia stayed home, given over to silences as vast as the pastures, watching the wall clock in order to keep the comings and goings of the two men on schedule. Margarida and João were attending school. And that was when the problems began. João would come home crying. He did not want to go to school because he could not speak English. Margarida used the same argument, adding that she was too big to be in classes with all those little kids, and boys were mixed with girls, which she thought not very reasonable. Her memory was still quite vivid of the ten swats she had received in her island school just for throwing a wooden top into the boys' playground at recess. Lúcia and António went to night school at the local church. And they had a woman teacher who spoke Portuguese.
It had to be this way. They needed driver's licenses and to buy a car.
They mangled English grammar, because they only wanted to learn enough to speak without embarrassment. And within a year they were addressing one another with lots of sounds ending in “y”: Johnny, Maggie, Lucy, Tony, Mary and Joe – in front of the bittersweet surname Sylvia.
“My silva bush will never again bear blackberries.” And Mary added, “If anyone were to hear us, they would say we are full of foolish talk!”
“Right, my dear! Right!”
But there was less and less time to talk. Mary and Lucy began to work gathering walnuts, their backs more bent than the arch of a bow, their oily hands letting the nuts slip through, and with threatening looks from the lady foreman if by chance they took time for a deep, relaxing breath.
“We're going to die here, Mom!”
“No, we don't have to die, God willing! Look at the others. They appear to be dead, except for their arms and hands.”
They would get cleaned up and throw themselves into the housework, cleaning and cooking.
“So this is America, Mom,” Lucy would say.
“But the taste of money is good, isn't it?”
The comment, however, left a bitter taste in the mouth, from a heartburn tinged with rage.
Tony, while with his father, would make similar comments, to which the older Sylvia usually turned a deaf ear. He knew that the lives of others were the same; that in America, if you did not work, you did not eat. He consoled himself with those weekly paychecks – some bigger, others smaller – but they were enough to put food on the table, dress the family like immigrant islanders and salt some money away. They opened a bank account. Tony got his driver's license. They bought their first car, a large sky blue Cadillac that purred wearily and had passed through three or four hands, with an odometer that had already logged hundreds of thousands of miles. But it had been cheap. It sufficed for their family's needs: to go shopping, to Mass, to attend community festas and go out for the occasional short spin.
One day Joe Sylvia heard Tony declare, “Dad, did you know that in this country kids get to keep their own earnings?”
He looked at Tony but did not reply.
That night Mary confided, “Tony and Lucy are going to open a bank account where they can deposit their own money. That's the way it's done here in America. All the women who work with me tell me so.”
That was the first great blow Joe Sylvia took to the head. Until his wedding day, he had always handed all his pay over to his father, receiving back only pocket change...
Not even a year later, Joe Sylvia had two more cars parked out front. Tony's was factory fresh. They now could lead their lives with less dependence and greater spontaneity...
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