Book Review - "Hi! My Name is Chicken"

  
Hi! My Name is Chicken, by Rosie Lopez Schlereth, September 2nd, 2008, 232 pages, 8-1/2″ x 11″ spiral bound copy.

    I always jump at any opportunity to further my knowledge about an artist in my collection, especially a living artist that I hold in very high regard. Emigdio Vasquez is one such artist, and I was thrilled to hear from his ex-wife who had recently completed an autobiographical book that had been in the works for 11 years and included a candid look of their married lives together.

Rosie, or should I say Rosie Gloria Burgos Lopez-Vasquez Acosta-Schlereth, contacted me via email recently asking if I’d like to have a look at the third printing of her book titled, “Hi! My Name is Chicken – A Life Story – My Autobiography – Also My Married Life With Emigdio Chavez Vasquez Painter & Muralist.” She knew of my interest in Emigdio’s work through my review of a painting by him I used to own, and wondered if I’d be interested in reviewing her work, too. I sent back an enthusiastic “Yes!” and found her spiral-bound book in my mailbox shortly afterward. The publication is a full-sized, 8-1/2″ x 11″, 232 page affair that resembles a manuscript with a glassine cover and flexible backing. It lays perfectly flat on any surface, and is especially comfortable in the lap, with no binding of the pages as they are turned. It simply feels good to hold, which makes a great first impression once you get past the fact that it contains no color photographs, but the gray scale images contained within the book are noteworthy and plentiful.

Rosie has compiled 84 chapters in this fairly monumental genealogical work which begins with her birth on February 7th, 1942 in Yuma, Arizona. She has employed a story telling technique I have always admired, and always find myself doing when contemplating my own personal past, is what was going on in the rest of the world at that point in time. This is an incredibly interesting and important tool for the reader, be it a relative or a researcher, for the author to establish a reliable time frame in which a person’s key life experiences had occurred. And Rosie is quite generous with her historical notations by providing original, dated clippings from local newspapers (“TWO JAP SHIPS SUNK NEAR AMBOINA” – The Yuma Daily, February 7, 1942), background information such as the Poston War Relocation Center in Yuma County for the internment of Japanese citizens (The facility was composed of three separate camps which the internees named, Roasten, Toastin and Dustin, because of their desert locations), and an impressive recollection of events that were verbally related to her by several generations of family members.

I found the information about the impact the five million Braceros that were imported by the United States and Mexico had to the town of Somerton, Arizona, to meet our agricultural needs enlightening, and what life was like for her young family living in that rural town in those days, but what really drew me into her story was her life experiences in Anaheim, California. Rosie’s father, Benito Perez Lopez, was a farm laborer and had built the small house for her mother in Somerton around 1941. Rosie’s mother, Elvira Burgos Lopez, was raised in Anaheim, California, in a home built on north Lemon Street in 1921. Rosie goes on to chronicle her mother’s upbringing by mentioning the local schools and attractions that her family attended or visited, and I knew every one of them. What I wasn’t familiar with was the segregation Mexican-Americans had experienced in those days. Pearson Park (previously named Anaheim City Park), was a favorite summer haunt for us kids since it had the “plunge;” an enormous public swimming pool. Hispanics could only swim there on Mondays, which was the day before the pool was cleaned. At our favorite movie theater, the Anaheim Fox Theater, Hispanics were only allowed in the balcony. La Palma Elementary School was known as the Mexican school, and so on and so on. These things were non-existent by the time my Hispanic friends and I came along decades later, but it is a sobering reminder of what these proud people and their families were confronted with when they returned home from fighting and/or supporting our war efforts. Most of them understood and accepted this social inequality with grace. I was born in southern California in 1952 and raised in Fullerton; a small town bordering the north side of Anaheim. My best and oldest friends were Santos and Arlena Torres, along with the Cruzes and the Valdezes. My neighborhood was well integrated by the mid 1950′s and every family cared for each other, but even then a degradation would occasionally be heard (Santos Sr. would jokingly tell us kids that they weren’t “Wetbacks,” but “Scratchbacks” – they crawled UNDER the border fence!).

Rosie then continues for 49 chapters covering historical events in southern California that her family were part of including the Big Earthquake of 1933, the flood of 1938 when 22 inches of rain fell in the San Bernardino mountains for five days causing an enormous wall of water to invade the flatlands killing 20 migrant workers, the snow that fell in Anaheim in 1949, and a less severe flood in 1952 complete with a photograph of a 10 year old Rosie and her brother, sister and cousin standing in ankle high water in front of their home. These chapters also chronicle, in amazing detail, her moves back and forth from California to Arizona to take care of crucial family matters, the year to year events that took place from her birth to 16 years of age, and a through accounting of each ancestor for both her father and mother’s lineage going as far back as 16th century Spain and the Conquest of Cortes. The photographs that accompany the text show a proud and noble people, with an air of dignity, appreciation and love for all of those who surround them.

Emigdio Chavez Vasquez

Chapter 50 begins with Rosie’s introduction to Emigdio Vasquez. Her sister’s boyfriend would bring Emigdio along with him when visiting. For money in those days, Emigdio painted portraits of Popes for Mater Dei High School, a parochial high school located in Santa Ana, CA, which was also the school he attended. He completed four paintings of Popes and was paid $50 for each.  Rosie eventually met Emigdio’s mother, Guadalupe Chavez Vasquez, and with her blessing, the two were married in 1959 at the old Orange County Courthouse in downtown Santa Ana. Rosie was only 17 years old at the time, and Emigdio, 19, so his and her mother had to legally stand for them. The newly wed couple lived with Emigdio’s sister for a time, until they located a $50 a month apartment in the city of Orange. Emigdio soon found work at Electra Motors in Anaheim and they settled into a very modest domestic life.  I was touched by a passage Rosie mentioned about their first purchase together. A visit by a door-to-door vacuum salesman while Emigdio was at work had Rosie signing a contract for $245, “and heaven knows what the interest was!” All she had to vacuum was an overstuffed chair since the floors in their tiny apartment were wall-to-wall linoleum. “It was very foolish of me…,” she admitted, but I can imagine the elation she must have felt with her newfound ability to buy something “on time” like everyone else, and then the remorse that followed when she reckoned with the reality of the unnecessary debt.

The couple’s first son, Adolph Arthur Lopez Vasquez, was born on Emigdio’s birthday after a 34 hour labor. Shortly after Rosie returned home from the hospital she developed a 106 degree fever as a result of an afterbirth infection. Since they did not own a car, Emigdio had to run to his sister’s home on Cypress Street to get her to drive them back to the hospital. The other women in the hospital had cautioned Rosie to stay an extra day after giving birth since it was her first child, but they were eager to return home with their new baby. The infection resulted in a two-week hospital stay.

Rosie’s coverage of Emigdio’s family history is informative, and gives us some insight to the painter when he was a young boy. Thanks to the author of the family tree, Santiago Chavez Vasquez, their lineage is traceable back to 1720. Emigdio, one of ten children born to Santiago and Guadalupe, was named after his grandfather, Emigdio Chavez, and his grandmother was Emiliana Coyazo Gonzales, the maternal side of the family. On the paternal side were his grandfather, Panfilo Vasquez, and his grandmother, Micaela Gonzales. Rosie goes on to describe the young couple’s immigration from Mexico to Jerome, Arizona where Santiago found work in the copper mines. They eventually relocated to Orange County, California where he worked in the shipyards and prospered well enough to purchase a nice home in the city of Orange in 1942 and begin a family. There were, of course, sacrifices made along the way, including cultural compromises since there were no Spanish churches in those days and they had to practice their worship in English. They used this to their benefit since they wanted to be considered, “Real Americans.”

Rosie and Emigdio’s second child was Rosemary, delivered August 14th, 1960 by a inept pediatric intern and a, “crazy nurse that hates women!” Their third child, Dora, was born to a very medicated Rosie in 1963. That was also the year JFK was assassinated and when the “Breaking News” appeared on the TV set, Rosie grabbed her new born child and held her close, “sort of like a security blanket for mom.” The last child that Rosie and Emigdio were blessed with was Carlos Emigdio Vasquez (Higgy), born in 1968.  Emigdio obtained an AA degree in Art from Santa Ana College in 1973, then his Bachelors in 1978 and Masters in 1979 from Cal State Fullerton. It was also in 1973 when Rosie decided to divorce him. She had finally learned how to drive, and was hired at Sears to work in catalog sales, but she couldn’t see them being married another 14 years. “I was too young when we married,” Rosie said. “He told me, ‘I never promised you a rose garden.’ I think he meant the sacrifice it would take him to get to where he is today. He was forever in school and became a respected teacher in his field.’”

Over my correspondence with Rosie after reading her book and writing this review, I was surprised by the total lack of animosity between her and Emigdio. But this must have been a very sad time for them both, and the weight of her decision is clearly shown by her expression in a very poignant photograph taken of the couple at their home in 1973. I’ve seen that look countless times before and each time it broke my heart knowing the end of a long term relationship was near.

Over the years of their marriage, Emigdio painted Rosie’s portrait, a lake front landscape for her mother, and a portrait of her father. He also painted a picture of a court jester that was stolen in 1962, a painting of JFK shortly after he was assassinated (now part of her sister’s collection), a portrait of her sister’s in-laws, and one of Emiliano Zapata completed in 1973. He executed a 3-Dimensional painting for an art class of two ladies wearing shawls carrying a candle, in which Rosie posed. He also painted a mural in the patio of his parent’s home of Pancho Villa on his horse, as a dedication to his father. When the house was sold in 1998, the new owners expanded the wall when they remodeled but they preserved the mural.

Rosie said Emigdio admired Renaissance painters and how they utilized contrasting gold highlights in portraiture, and that Emigdio often employed those techniques to capture the true skin color of his subjects. I can personally attest to the fact that Emigdio knows what’s he doing in portraiture, for the painting I’ve owned, and those that I’ve personally viewed, have not only realistically depicted the light of the environment surrounding them, but they also give you a believable glimpse into the personality of the subject. And that ain’t easy. I had only experienced such penetrating immersion when viewing the old masters, and I was overjoyed to discover it from a contemporary artist, and a local one at that.

Rosie remarried in 1975 to Benjamin Quintero Acosta, a Railway Engineering Supply supervisor in Orange. She gave birth to Sarah Ana Lopez Acosta in 1976, and Vera Carmen Acosta in 1977. Benjamin was 13 years her junior, but again, Rosie was seeking independence, something she never really had fully experienced, and divorced Benjamin just before the new year in 1980.

The remaining chapters deal with Rosie’s personal trials such as her mother’s passing, health issues, and life’s experiences vividly recalled and lovingly notated in a way that makes you feel like you were part of her family.

Rosie met Paul Schlereth in 1992 and married in 2004. They met at that time when Rosie’s mother was very ill and she would say, “God took my mother but he gave me Paul.” By coincidence, Paul had purchased the same house in 1998 that Rosie used to walk by on the way home when she was eight years old. She remembered peeking into the front window and thinking, “This is suburban living!” Paul is of German decent, and that made Rosie think she had now come full circle since it was the German immigrants that originally settled Anaheim. Also included in the text is an interesting reprint of the life journal written by Paul’s mother titled, “The Almost Life Story of Gertrude Schlereth – Schrieshein Baden Germany.” Today, Paul and Rosie enjoy volunteering their time to the American Legion by helping our veterans in many different ways, and being the first one on the road when a family member needs help.

Emigdio never remarried, but he is a welcome guest at Paul and Rosie’s when the family gets together for the holidays and enjoys helping out with the festivities. In 2007, Emigdio, with the help of his son, Higgy, completed an eight panel mural for Cal State Fullerton depicting life sized images of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, and others. Emigdio Vasquez has completed 22 murals in Orange County, several in Fullerton including one in the Museum Center Auditorium and several along Lemon Street. Rosie’s oldest daughter, Rosemary, married Steve Tuthill in 2008 and works as an aerospace engineer in Anaheim, California.

Viewing the photographs on the final pages of this work left me feeling a little sad as I said goodbye to Rosie and to those who had meant so much to her in her life. It was a sentimental journey for me as well since I was so familiar with the places and a lot of the times that she writes about. The people she lovingly describes seemed very familiar, too.

This is a wonderful genealogical work, and her family is fortunate to have a member that was willing to put so much effort into the preservation of it’s memories for the current generation, and for those that will follow. It also serves as an excellent example of how to compile a comprehensive and informative journal for future family members, and is a great resource for students researching Hispanic cultural history.

You can order a copy of Rosie’s book by contacting her at rosie42@pacbell.net.

vaya con Dios mi amigos!
Mike

4 comments:

  1. This is one of the most detailed and fine book review I have ever read. This book review follows the traditional format. It really touches our heart.

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  2. Shreyash,

    Thank you for the kind remarks!

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  3. Hi Mike,
    It appears quite a nice book review to me as well. You have paid attention to each twist and turn and expressed the same in a natural way. I really like this quality.

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  4. This is my family and THANK YOU for this!
    Chicken was my 2nd cousin..firts of my mom..and my Grandma's Philys Burgos Ramirez niece.

    Shawn Soulfunky Drew

    ReplyDelete