Ciudad Fort Worth
The threads of Hispanic culture hold together a community — and remake a city.
By STORY and PHOTOS BY ALYSSA BANTA
“I’ll toast you a bollito,” Mari says, the moment I step into her house, and she cuts a thick bun in half, laying it face down directly on the flame of her gas stove. The weather has been mild and cold alternately, and on this February day, with ice still on the ground, she’s keeping her house warm by turning on the four burners. She boils water for coffee and pulls out a creamy white cup trimmed with gold flowers and a matching fluted saucer. “The two viejitas I clean for on Wednesdays gave them to me,” she says and pours Nescafé and sugar into the cup.
Mari sits down at the table. The coffee is scalding and I spoon it into my mouth. With her chin in her hand, she watches me, interrupting my questions with her own — would I like jam, would I like some roasted meat, would I like juice, would I like more coffee, is the house warm enough? I ask her about her work, about moving through Fort Worth with no car and no English, about the cost of electricity, about her sister and daughter in Mexico.
“Es difícil aquí,” she says, “but much better than any life I’d have if I’d stayed in my Mexican village. I can work here. I’m taking English classes, and learning to decorate cakes with colored sugar frosting on Tuesday and Thursday nights after work.”
In a practice room as big as Mari’s house, Kayla’s petticoats, spreading over her jeans, look like sugar frosting frills on a wedding-cake bride. “This little girl isn’t just having a quinceañera, she’s having a dream come true,” choreographer Armando G. Robles says. Kayla Rodriguez is walking around in the petticoats to get used to having long skirts twirling around her — she’s worried about tripping on her gown at her upcoming party, the traditional 15th birthday celebration and her entry into womanhood. Her court of male classmates and friends are in military dress uniforms, swords and scabbards pushed under their belts. They’ve been practicing for weeks the choreographed routine they’ll perform in front of hundreds of guests in just a few days. As part of the tradition, Kayla will dance the first dance with her parents. Later, they will present her with the last doll of her childhood.
Several blocks away, Guadalupe R. Patino is walking through the crowd at Galería de La Rosa, located in the North Side’s Rose Marine Theater. It’s the opening reception for her exhibit of portraits painted on hand-stamped, polished metal. She steps into a group of people circled around her piece showing Mexican artist Frida Kahlo with orange and blue flowers in her hair. “It’s a tedious and beautiful art” to produce, she says, and begins to explain the process she learned in Mexico. In the middle of the gallery, smaller framed pieces share a table with vases of heavy, nodding flowers. At the gallery’s wheeled-in bar, the chardonnay and shiraz are flowing, and guests are offered goat cheeses and whole apples. The polished metal of Patino’s portraits catches the glimmer of gallery lights.
Hispanic Fort Worth isn’t a homogenous cup of café con leche set down in a few defined neighborhoods around the Stockyards. Perhaps it’s more like the varied texture of a homemade tortilla, tan and pale and toast-colored by turn. It’s some 185,000 people or more, approaching a third of the city’s population, who come not only from Mexico but from El Salvador, Colombia, and Honduras. The community has spilled beyond the North Side and now fills neighborhoods on the South Side and east of I-35 as well.
But its vibrancy and diversity may not always be so apparent to Fort Worth’s larger community, which often sees only the expected mask of mariachis, Mexican food, and Spanglish. It’s at once rich and poor, highly educated and illiterate, fluently bilingual in some cases, and doggedly Spanish- or English-only in others. There are owners of businesses, both the small, multi-generational kind and large, multi-million-dollar types. There are divas and day laborers, anti-gang programs and gallery openings that celebrate artists working in updated, Mexican folk art traditions. As they reach for a bigger share of the Fort Worth postre, they keep their traditions alive and their eyes on the American Dream.
At the North Point Stables off Angle Street, almost six miles from downtown, Gilberto Marquez-Rodriguez pulls out his Mexican identity card when I ask his name. He’s grooming a black stallion with wild eyes, scolding him in Spanish when the horse rears up, then pitches forward again to kick. The sun is sinking, and the light is orange and warm. “His name is El Siete [The Seven],” Gilberto says in rolling Spanish. He and El Siete have been together for four years. “Fifteen days ago, the police came and said we couldn’t ride in the park [Buck Sansom Park] any more, so today we went to the mountains behind it,” he says.
In the parking lot, between the stables and paddock, cowboys on their horses surround me. They explain that the wide, flat-horned saddles are for the charreadas, Mexican rodeos that test horsemanship. One cowboy moves his chestnut a few feet from us and clicks his tongue until the horse twirls in a tight circle of white dust. Another rider leans down from his saddle and asks, “Are you going to speak badly about us?”
Down the street is Milagro’s Botanica, filled with seeds and perfumed soaps designed to bring love, keep away the evil eye, call on luck. “Everyone comes her to look for a solution and peace in their life,” Milagro Montero says of the shop she started over 20 years ago. In a small back room she reads cards and does consultas; it’s decorated with candles, photographs of her daughters, statues, beads, and a vase surrounded with water-filled goblets. “The water takes away the bad,” she says.
In a school on the other side of town, 11-year-old Chris Rios translates a conversation between Nancy Castillo, Nancy’s 5-year-old son Rodolfo, and art teacher Jo Dufault. Hubbard Heights Elementary School, near the intersection of Hemphill and Felix streets, is at the southern limit of Hispanic Fort Worth.
The trio talk about Rodolfo’s talent for drawing. Nancy, her husband, and their two children have been in Fort Worth for about 18 months. He works construction, and she takes care of the children and their duplex home. Her husband makes $9.50 an hour, and she’s been able to send $50 back to Mexico three times since they’ve been here. “Sure, we make a lot more here” — and she begins to cry, Rodolfo turning to face her — “but then there’s the rent, the electricity, the food, the gasoline, everything costs ... .” As Chris translates, Jo sets her hands on Nancy’s.
Heading north on Hemphill, the Monterrey grocery store has a meat counter, a small restaurant, and a bakery. They make their own tortillas. All signs are in Spanish. You can get smoky fajitas, spicy chorizo, even stewed pig’s ear served with corn tortillas.
Back on the North Side, a single lunch plate is on offer at Aguilera’s, the tiny five-table café that’s a favorite of courthouse workers, cops, and others who know to come for the fried chicken on Thursdays and enchiladas on Fridays. Three generations of Aguileras have kept the little restaurant on a side street going thus far — and three family members are currently the only employees.
When he’s not rehearsing at The Rose Marine Theater, Teatro De La Rosa troupe member and playwright Robert Bosquez teaches in one of the city’s poorest, toughest Hispanic neighborhoods, in an after-school program designed to keep kids engaged in constructive, non-gang activities between the end of the school day and the end of their parents’ workday. He’s directing “Once Upon a Time in Diamond Hill,” a play written by his 15 students. “I can’t say I created anything,” Robert says. “The kids wrote this.”
When the play opens in May, it will be the first theatrical production Meacham Middle School has put on in over 20 years. The plot revolves around two cousins, one who gets fatally lost in gang life and the other who manages to escape; it’s about how you can be torn between a gang family and your real family. In rehearsal, Bosquez talks to his students as though they are trained actors. They put down their cell phones and don’t interrupt.
Backstage at the Rose Marine Theater, Rachel Loera, lips painted bright red, prepares for a different play. She moves her fingers through her hair, loosening the curls, pulling out the rollers. That night, she will dance the mambo, her performance set in a nightclub in 1930s Mexico. She’s a full-time stage and movie actress who has just finished shooting a feature film.
From behind the scenes and out front, from courtrooms and quinceañera shops, Hispanics are helping stitch together Fort Worth’s cultural quilt, adding a heritage that reaches across several continents. Their future stretches forward toward political power and majority status and toward greater differences within their own community.
“I am not going back,” Mari says. “This is my life.”
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