by Judy Polanco
photography by Shelby Wertz
A single droplet of sweat makes its way across the ridges in his forehead, balances itself as it passes the narrow bridge of his nose, and continues to dodge the wiping motion of Emiliano’s hand.
He could feel it titter-tottering on the tip of his nose, while at the same time miniature beads sprout up tickling his lip. With concentrated squinted eyes, he draws his bottom lip over his top, engulfing the baby beads, shuffles his finger-tips across the laces one last time, and in a flurry of complicated movements, releases the baseball toward the strike zone.
The batter never had a chance against Emiliano’s curve ball. Every boy and girl on the block knew that the game was over; even though they all secretly wished that one day some lucky boy would actually make contact and send the ball flying past Mrs. Escandon’s front yard.
In the distance, muffled bell-chimes grow near, and, in a choreographed fashion that not even the best Broadway musical could emulate, all of the children simultaneously halt their activities and face their bodies toward the east.
The boys silently and quickly gather their make-shift bases off the street, each knowing ahead of time what his clean-up duty is, and then mingle among the vibrantly dressed girls on the sidewalk.
To the children’s delight, slowly making its way around the corner is a white ice cream truck postered with pictures of every type of ice cream imaginable.
Springtime Easter lilies release their fragrance, mixing with the sweet scents of hand-baked corn tortillas. As dusk approaches, the boisterous block, teeming with children, slowly grows barren. In a modest home, two families sit down together for dinner, join hands and bow their heads in prayer.
Even a stranger to the neighborhood could sense the overwhelming atmosphere of family and community. But this is not mid-town America; this was the barrio of La Verne during the 1940s. To outsiders of the neighborhood, it was bewildering how families of eight or more could live in such small houses.
However, to the families of the Barrio, the size of these homes was insignificant. They learned how to make do with what they had. It was within these simple homes that stories of success and heartbreak, love and tragedy lie. If one listens hard enough, even a piece of kitchen furniture has a tale to tell.
Don’t let her appearance or age fool you. Mary Escandon may be 85 years old, but the sparkle in her eyes is that of a 20 year old. When one meets Escandon, she will immediately welcome you into her home with a friendly smile and a warm hand shake.
If one stares too long at the pictures of her children and grandchildren that are proudly displayed in the front room, Escandon will intuitively relay a story that reflects that individual’s life.
“It is not luck; it is hard work. That is why my children have been able to be successful,” says Escandon.
She takes no credit for the success of her children, even though she should. Escandon did not receive an extensive education; she only knows how to read and write. And with what little she knew how to do, she utilized her education to the full extent for the success of her children.
“When the children were younger, I would line them up for a spelling bee,” says Escandon in her raspy voice. “I did what I could with what I knew how to.”
Getting along with what she “knew how to” is a philosophy Escandon utilized to give her children the best. She worked as a live-in maid for 10 years, starting at the age of 14. Through this experience, Escandon realized that she would do whatever it took-or would do without-for the sake of her family.
Escandon recalls the neatly dressed children in starched white-squared-collared shirts, neatly hemmed slacks, shiny black shoes and nicely combed hair.
“I knew then that my children would go to school like that,” Escandon says.
She would pinch every penny she earned from the babysitting she did for the other children of the Barrio, in order to provide for her family. Escandon even had to be crafty to get what she believed her family needed.
“The boys needed new shoes, but I didn’t have any more shoe stamps. So I would trade my meat stamps with the postman for his shoe stamps,” she recalls with a twinkle in her eye, as she prepares the dough for persimmon cookies.
In her kitchen, among numerous religious artifacts, stands a massive oak and cedar cabinet that was hand-made and carved by her father-in-law. It is apparent through the tone of her voice that Escandon feels a special fondness for this cabinet, graced with its many gashes, broken hinges and drawers that do not quite shut. She reflects upon the time when her husband was considering selling this family heirloom.
“It was during the war, and my husband was needed. The cabinet used to be in the grocery store that my husband bought from the Japanese owner who was taken to the interment camps. At the time, we had three children, and he knew that we needed money to get by while he was gone. So he came to me and told me that he was going to sell it. I told him, ‘No, that there had to be another way, and we would find that way together.’ And after all of this, on Sunday night it was V-day. My husband was to leave early Monday morning.”
When Escandon speaks of her late husband, tears form in the corners of her hazel-grey eyes. She met her husband Joe while picking cotton in the fields. Joe wanted to elope, but the 14-year-old Escandon would not hear of it.
“I knew that if I got married at this point in my life, I would probably have a dozen children,”she chuckles.
Escandon had it set in her mind that she did not want to get married until she was 24. “I wanted to learn something about life. When you’re 14, what do you know about raising children or having children.”
Joe waited for 10 years for Mary and on Nov. 28, 1936, the couple married. To listen to the manner in which Mary describes her late husband, one might think they were speaking to a woman fresh with the encounter of what it is to be in love and to be loved. There was a sense of peacefulness that attracted Mary to Joe. Mary’s thoughts immediately flash back to a time when Joe intervened between two men who were going to fight. But in the process, Joe was the one who ended up getting hurt. “He said then that it doesn’t pay to save anyone.”
Even though it has been 18 years since his death, Mary continues to harbor an admiration for her husband. Joe provided for his family unconditionally, even if it meant that he would have to work longer hours and odd jobs.
“He always tried to help them [children], and he did. Even if he had to borrow.”
Mary’s fondest memory of Joe was how proud he would look on the days that their children graduated. “He would always say to me, ‘Look, they’re doing better than us,'” says Mary with a reflective pride.
Mary slides her gold pendant back and forth along her neck before she begins to speak of the period that led up to her husband’s death. Mary and her family knew that it was coming. Joe was diagnosed with colon cancer. Immediately following the diagnosis, Joe underwent an operation remove the cancer which was unsuccessful because the cancer had spread throughout his body. His family prepared together emotionally and physically, and then Joe died.
“It was hard. Nothing is easy, but you have to get yourself together, and life has to go on.”
She was able to move on with her life through prayer. “I didn’t believe in crying; it wasn’t going to bring him back or make me any healthier. A lot of people thought I didn’t cry enough, but who knows how much you’re supposed to cry.”
It is this zest for life that embodies every ounce of Mary’s spirit. At 85 years old, she will be traveling to Spokane, Wash., to visit her eldest son Phillip and then travel to Boise, Idaho to attend her grandson’s wedding. She is a self-proclaimed go-getter who lives life “to make memories.”
Within these memories accumulated through a life that was difficult and challenging, Mary acknowledges the good fortune that she was able to make out of her life.
“There is no disgrace in being a maid or a babysitter; it’s life that you’re earning.”
And what Mary earned, no one could ever put a price on. Her goal of enabling her children to receive college educations was accomplished. Her children are her success stories, even though she refuses to admit the impact of her nurturing and guiding ways on their lives.
“The way I have struggled, life is like an episode.”
And for Mary Escandon, her episodic adventure continues rooted in the Barrio of La Verne. And even though the days of rebellious boys playing baseball in the street where mothers and fathers looked after the neighborhood children like they were their own are gone, the memories of these sights remain fresh in the mind and body of a woman whose life accounts the history of La Verne.
Mary Escandon is more than just a success story of a person from the barrios – she is a historical treasure.