La Companera Moreno

a *biomythography of the journey of Rosa Blanca to Luisa Moreno

I joined the Communist Party. I had already read some of Marx, but in the party I gained a deeper understanding of surplus value, means of production, imperialism, and even dialectical materialism. 

Most of all, I came to see how capital feeds and functions through the evisceration of our very bodies, alienating us from ourselves and our labor power. 

Grace’s baby was not dead through random chance. I did not grow up wealthy in Guatemala by sheer force of my father’s work ethic alone.

If there was a logic to our suffering, there was also a solution.

I started to address neighborhood concerns in Spanish Harlem through Centro Obrero de Habla Española, a leftist community coalition. 

I quickly learned to get my rap down and, being fluent in Spanish, French, and English, proved an asset in getting folks out to meetings and actions.

I took what I learned in Centro, and organized my compañeras on the shop floor. We formed La Liga de Costureras, a small garment workers’ union.

We were affiliated with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), but we were still pretty much on our own receiving little support or dollars for our work.

In ways good and bad my labor career had truly begun.

Because we were largely ignored by the larger ILGWU we built a supportive community among the workers, turning La Liga into a family affair.

At the time, some male unions formed ladies auxiliaries to provide aid.

We flipped that and organized a ‘fraternal group’ charged with fundraising!

Fathers, husbands, and brothers of Liga members took on the traditional women’s work of selling tickets, publicity, and refreshments. They organized weekly bailes to raise funds for our local.

It was a strange site - our men helping us in the workplace.

At home things were a bit more normal. Miguel stayed absent by hiding in his brushes and bottles. He still couldn’t get work as an artist and decided to apprentice as a drunk.

I became a tireless organizer and was rarely home. Activism was my refuge and in short order I became a full-time organizer with the ILGWU. It became apparent though, that like my husband, union leaders had little interest in Latina workers. 

The union saw me only as a worker - a class position, and by now you know I have never been that simple. Looking for spaces that were willing to address my concerns as a Latina, a mother, an artist and on down the list,  I started going to a lot of other leftist meetings and events outside the union. 

It was during these forays searching for political recognition that I met him. Gray Bemis, a Nebraska farm boy turned New York Cabbie of all things. He would offer me rides home from meetings and I would always accept. Gray was an activist with the International Workers Order. He wasn’t especially attractive or dashing (thank Dios), but he was so … tu sabes …

Meeting Gray would give me the courage to finally do one of the few things I never thought I would. 

Mytyl Lorraine, my beautiful daughter, was born in Spanish Harlem. Her childhood would not resemble mine.

Instead of a sprawling coffee estate, Mytyl had to make due crawling the narrow confines of the tenement we lived in.

Months after we arrived in New York Miguel was still unemployed, a condition he would come to enjoy, and soon after giving birth I found myself bent over a sewing machine and stream press so we could eat.

I didn’t want my mother’s life, and now all the romance had been stripped from that desire.

While I suffered work, Miguel got to know the local bars. He often took little Mytyl along, and just as often forgot she was with him.

We argued about many things. He was no longer so dashing, and I wasn’t as young and exciting.

There are things that happened between us in that time and place that I will not speak of here.

I was no longer married. I was stuck. But what could I do? There was Mytyl now.

Then it happened. 

That moment that pushes you from being part of yourself to being whole. From being afraid, to having no other option than feeling your own power.

I was walking home from work with my amiga Grace when she invited me to her apartment to see her baby.

We had barely started up the stairs when we heard an infant crying. As we climbed, Grace soon recognized the screams as her child’s voice.

We rushed to reach her door which we found unlocked. No babysitter in sight.

Grace picked up her baby and carried her through the dark room to the window. The fading sunlight struck the child’s face and we fell silent in horror.

A rat had eaten off half the baby’s face. Grace fell to the floor, still cradling her mijita, sobbing. 

The baby died soon after.

Like so many times before, I felt trapped and unsure what to do. But now I knew I had to do something, I would do something. For all of us. We could no longer go on living in these conditions. 

Mexico felt like the edge of the world. A place beyond reason where I could practice being.

I guess you could say I was a Flapper - Las Pelonas they called us. Which just meant we cut our hair as short as was our tolerance for acceptability. We wore lots of makeup, drove cars, and had sex who whoever we wanted.

I was even naive enough to think I was a poet. Yes, I have a book of poems. El Vendedor de Cocuyos.

                ‘and i have lived/ i have dreamed/ held in the fire of your arms

If the world had proven just, I hope I would have been a poet writing a life of love.

But the world is not just, and like a fad hairstyle, such sentiment never stays in style.

Miguel Angel de León pursued me. And I wanted him to. He was so romantic in the beginning that I forgot I was trying to be someone else, and was content just being with him. 

He played at being dashing and mysterious, and I was too young to know the difference. 

Diego was not impressed by Miguel’s caricature drawings, and refused to call him an artist. Nor was he moved by his professions of love for me (but I would not be deterred by Diego’s protests after wiping away Frida’s tears over so many lunches at the Blue house).

Miguel Angel de León, 16 years my senior, was to be my husband.

Any illusions of a life full of verse were shattered on our wedding night when he took me to a horrible hotel and left me for other business … womanizing.

I cried myself to sleep, and woke up a year later pregnant. Mexico was magical, but bohemians don’t make the best parents. So we headed to New York where my child could be a ‘Latin from Manhattan.’

We arrived in August of 1928 on the SS Monterrey. The depression waiting to greet us. 

The convent taught me things it  did not intend. Meant to civilize and bind my soul to silence, I learned I would rather be a savage.

Back home in the shade of my fathers estate I did not know what it was to want. But at the convent, I watched the nuns get fat on sumptuous food, while us girls made due with stale bread and water. Hunger is the best teacher.

I learned to fight for myself when the nuns, who were supposed to serve, proved unwilling to do so. When that girl, the one who never bathed, came across me and Alma in the garden and called us “Spanish Pigs” the nuns did nothing. She was their favorite. I always imagined this was so because they mistook her blond hair for a halo. I had no such attributes with which to seek redress, so I belted her!

I misbehaved my way back home to Guatemala.

Back home nothing was the same. It couldn’t be. I still carried the hunger with me, a gnawing ache that would not relent.

So at 15, I decided I would get a university education. However, it was quickly impressed upon me  that intellectual pursuits were not a privilege extended to women.

Was that all there was for me – a nun or peacock?

No. And I was not the only one who was hungry.

I organized my compañeras, and we formed the Sociedad Gabriela Mistral to push the gates to the university open to us.

We held petition drives and lobbied for change. We would later be called “una generación que hizo historia.”

And we were. But as I looked around, not enough was different. My father still filled the fountain with Veuve Cliquot champagne for parties. Migrant workers still traveled the back roads on a perpetual search for sustenance.

I could enter the university, but all I would be was a smarter peacock.

So I ran away. Hoping Mexico City offered me something else to become. 

When I was born Blanca Rosa in 1907, there was no doctor. Only a midwife my mother looked upon with disgust as she worked between her legs to bring me into the world.

But now there was a doctor. I couldn’t see him through my fever, but I could feel his cold hands and smell him sweating. He didn’t want to be the one to tell my father there was nothing he could do. Tell my father that I was dying. At nine years old.

My family was important.

My father, Ernesto Robriguez Robles made his money from coffee, or rather, as I would come to see, from workers forced from their lands. Forced to come from the highlands and harvest our coffee trees for less than their labor was worth.

 

My mother was a peacock. The kind of woman I would spend my life living not to be. She woke up just in time for lunch, and spent the day dressing for dinner.

She was what women were supposed to be. Pretty, with no point of view beyond the tips of the long white gloves that were her favorite to wear. She had not the stamina to stay by my bed, waiting for my fever to break.

So it was left to my father. He prayed for my life. And prayed with my life.

Promising that he would give me to God and send me to a convent. If only I lived.

The doctors prognosis proved wrong. I recovered. And my father, always true to his word, took me on a steamship bound for California. Where I would spend the next four years of a life that was no longer mine at the Convent of the Holy Names.

 

It would not be the last time others would attempt to determine my life. But I would never again go along so easily. And for that I would pay.

*all images, except for coffee plantation, from the scrapbook of Luisa Moreno in the Southern California Library collection. 

* Biomythography: ‘the elements of biography and history of myth … fiction built from many sources.’

- Audre Lorde 

La Compañera Moreno inspired and informed by the work of Vicki L. Ruiz