Continuing once again with the YEARS of my life, I couldn’t stop this trend until I had told you about my first foray to Mexico. It was a life changer in so many ways. Therefore, 1952 was no ordinary year for me.
I had finished my first year of college at Mississippi State University. I was totally confused about my future. The Korean War was raging and it looked like I could be drafted. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I knew (and had known since I was 8 years old) that I wanted to get out of the tight confines of Mississippi living. I just didn’t conform to the local life styles which mainly focused on home, church and bigotry.
Shortly before the school year was over, a student from Mexico told me about the University of Mexico in Mexico City. He said they had a school for foreigners to study Spanish and that I might like to go there. He had his cousin send me a catalog. Once I got it and read through it, I knew this was just the thing for me. Not just leaving Mississippi but the country. My mother thought it was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard of. My father thought it was wonderful, being that he had taught himself Spanish via a home course of records from the Cortina Language Academy.
As I recounted in a much earlier blog about my father (it’s in the archives), he was a very unusual man. Even though his Spanish was self–taught, he could express himself pretty well in it. He then spoke only in “his brand of Spanish” to us his kids. Such doings in Mississippi almost ranked us in the heretical level of non-conformity, much to my mother’s complete dismay. Here I was wanting to go off to Mexico all by myself and she couldn’t understand why. My father worked for the railroad so he got me a free pass to go to Mexico City on the train. My mother fought this every step of the way. Yet, by that fall, I was off to La Capital. I felt like I was escaping from reformatory.
On the train in Mexico, I used the Spanish that had been pumped into my head by my father to attempt to speak with people. Most laughed. One even told me I spoke like a phonograph record. I guess I did because that’s how my father learned his Spanish—repeating after those Cortina recordings.
I got to Mexico City and felt as though I had been cast out into a very large, very unfamiliar world. My Mexican friend at Miss. State had told me to go to the New York Hotel. He said it wasn’t far from the train station, was in a good part of town and wouldn’t be all that expensive.
I spent one night at the New York and at breakfast next morning ran into someone who all of a sudden seemed to take over my life. Her name was Charley. She had lived in Chicago for a while but returned to Mexico eventually. She persuaded me to come to live at the private home where she worked just around the corner. She was like the concierge there. The woman who owned the place was Señora Emma Hurtado, a dyed red-headed, unfriendly woman. She apparently let Charley look after everything so I had no dealings with her directly except to ward off her unfriendly looks the few times we passed one another. Charley rented me a very nice room with a balcony. I didn’t know it at the time I rented that I was living in a very famous person’s home. I didn’t know any famous Mexicans so I had no idea who Diego Rivera was.
The house was not where he lived but where he shacked up with Emma who was to become his wife after Frida Kahlo died. Emma was his agent and ran a small museum/gallery on the ground floor of her house.
Diego Rivera was a very pudgy man who came and went and a lot of his paintings were hung in the private museum/gallery. Sometimes parties would take place there. Charley always made sure that I got in.
There I was from little Okolona, Mississippi, living and hob-knobbing with a world-class artist like Diego Rivera. I got to meet a lot of famous Mexicans. Charley also cleared all the hurdles for me to study at the University of Mexico. The school was really a small-time operation and I would have been lost without her help. She smoothed every wrinkle I had in Mexico. She even arranged for me to make a little extra money on the side by appearing as an extra in Mexican films—mainly night club scenes where they wanted American looking types.
Again I couldn’t believe that I had escaped Okolona and its overwhelming Jesus culture and swapped it for all this international living.
You can read all about it in my book CONTESSA. I not only put my later Cuban adventures in it but a lot of my Mexican escapades. Here is a paragraph from page 82 of CONTESSA:
“About a month later, Señora Emma had a big reception at her private museum in order to sell some of Diego Rivera’s art work. Charley made sure I was invited. I really felt out of place and was sure that tough-looking Señora Emma would pitch me out on my ear. Nothing of the kind. I saw how much she too depended on Charley. Not only that, when the “maestro” himself arrived, Charley was the first person he headed for. She dished him for having gained weight and all the time feeding him. He laughed and was putty in her hands (like the rest of us). Sr. Rivera was a rotund person who had the roundest face I’d ever seen on a person. His art work was an explosion of colors and depicted Mexico’s past blended with a hope for a socialist future. Historical characters from Mexico’s glorious past, Spanish conquistadores, and modern revolutionary figures made up the core of his paintings. I watched him and was impressed that he was famous—not only locally but internationally.”
So 1952 was an eye-opening year for me thanks to Mexico. This wonderful country helped me develop my zest for living—which of course I eventually transferred to the written page. Most of my writing is taken directly from life itself.