Julie Chinitz

Don José in the Desert

Now, much of what my friend don José said I didn’t believe. His stories were too good to be true, starting with the tale of how his family had settled in a tiny town in Jalisco, Mexico, sometime in the late 19th Century. It goes as follows:

His grandfather, an army captain from Michoacán, landed a post on a Jaliscan hacienda at the foot of two snow-capped volcanoes. The captain’s post was meant to be temporary. He’d been roaming Mexico for years and fully expected to go back to Michoacán. But with time the temporary post became permanent, and he forgot about the wife left behind, married another woman, and had a second family.

The captain’s first wife, though, didn’t forget. She left Michoacán in search of her husband, trekked over the mountains, and appeared on the hacienda, climbing the hill in long, heavy skirts.

“I’m looking for Captain Silverio R—,” she said. “I’m his wife.”

A mounted soldier went off to summon the captain, who established a new home, right there, with his original and true family. He had to. Honor demanded it.

With a story like that, don José had a lot to live up to—his life would have to take on an epic cast. He made a go of it by telling me the origin of his name:

He was born not José, he said, but Ligoberto Pomázar. Naturally, he couldn’t bear the flourish of so much name, and his classmates teased him and rolled their eyes at the pomp of it. (Ligoberto!) So, when he was nine, he told his father that he wanted a change. Together they walked to the Civil Registry office, where the Registry director told him they were in luck: the book in which Ligoberto’s birth had been recorded had not yet been sent to the state capital. The transfer occurred every fifteen years.

“What names would you like?” the director asked Ligoberto.

“Just put down José,” the boy said. “I don’t want any more names than that.”

Afterward, he told the other boys that he was no longer Ligoberto Pomázar. They should call him José. As proof, he showed them his new birth certificate.

“Why José?” I asked him.

“Because it’s short.”

“What about Pedro or Carlos?”

“There were already a lot of Pedros,” he explained and then told me that the name Carlos was unusual back then, in the early 1940’s.

But his answers were too clean. I was suspicious, so I pushed. “C’mon, don José, why that name in particular? Why José?”

Well, he explained, his parents had had two previous sons named José. Both had died. So, by the time Ligoberto Pomázar was born, they didn’t dare use that other, unmentionable name again. It was cursed.

“You chose the name of your parents’ two dead sons?”

“I wanted to teach them a lesson about superstition.”

By choosing José and surviving, he’d show them that the name had nothing to do with the other children’s deaths. There was no curse.

And I really could imagine my curious and adventurous friend don José as this boy, one sufficiently certain of his logic—and brash enough—to tempt fate. But I can’t tell you if the story is true. We’d have to go back to that town beneath the snow-capped volcanoes in Jalisco, Mexico, and find the folio in the original book of records and look for evidence of a Ligoberto Pomázar. Maybe it would be there, and maybe not.

***

José grows up.

He turns into a good student and especially likes studying grammar. For a while, he attends a school run by priests in a nearby town, staying with a local family. Though he’s just a teenager now, grown men consult him on questions of civic management, such as how to maintain the town’s sewer system. They also ask him to expound on the positions of the candidates for mayor, and so, after the candidates’ speeches, he stands in the center of the town square and explains: candidate x stands for this, candidate y stands for that. As José matures, so does a rivalry with his irresolute and violent half-brother. (There is an incident during a rainy downpour, a race to bring a calf in from the storm, a door slammed shut, a brawl.)

José leaves his tiny town. He boxes in the army, leaves the army for a girl (who promptly disappears from the story), then works at Churubusco Azteca Studios in Mexico City and sees the classic film star María Félix up close. He buys trucks and starts a small transportation business but can’t imagine driving merchandise back and forth forever. Although the business makes good money, the boredom is too much, so he sells the trucks.

Next stop: Guadalajara. He helps build a big hospital there and then continues to travel, town to town and city to city, working and wandering. He crosses the desert into Arizona, lining his upturned pant cuffs with garlic to repel rattlesnakes, and keeping pebbles in his mouth for thirst. In all, he crosses back and forth more than forty times. In California, he’s detained by immigration officials and held on a bus, from which he subsequently leads the whole busload of detainees in their escape: “¡Ámonos, muchachos!” he says.

An escape? I imagine this. I hope it really happened.

***

Don José is a real person, that much I can tell you. I met him when he was in his mid-sixties, still fit and working, at a meeting I’d arranged in a town in Central Washington, on the far side of the Cascades from Seattle. I was a new lawyer, working for a non-profit organization and trying to help people get better access to health care. At the meeting, we talked about hospitals’ legal obligations to provide care for free or at a reduced cost for people with limited incomes. Most people didn’t know about this law, even if they’d been to the hospital recently.

Don José loved meetings and justice, and he went on to attend all the gatherings I arranged. He showed up in baseball cap, denim jacket, and blue jeans and, after the meetings ended, he slipped away while everyone else wound down with friendly gossip. But don José and I did have con