It was the summer of ’49 in Charles City, Iowa and it was hot. I had just finished seventh grade at CeCe High, the combined junior and senior high school in this small city of 10,000, kept in being by the dwindling number of family farms surrounding this north-central Iowa community and the Oliver tractor plant where my “town grandfather” worked in the foundry all his working life. My Grandpa Williams, the farmer for all of his working life, had given up and moved to town, leaving only my Uncle Ralph to support his family of five kids at what amounted to “share cropping.” He only lasted a few more years before his “sale.”
I lived with my grandparents while my parents were going through some “hard times,” due to my dad’s drinking and my mother’s being fed up with his drinking. Seventh grade at CeCe High was my 3rd school in that grade and I was glad to see summer come. Kids could work for money in those days without worrying about child labor laws, and since we were poor (this revelation came later) I felt fortunate to get a job at the local nursery, which was more of a garden farm. We weeded and picked carrots, green beans, onions, and especially potatoes. That last crop was hot, sweaty, dirty work and we were paid by the bucket, 9 cents each as I recall. But I got to keep all the money I earned, as long as I saved some for school the next fall.
There was a whole crew of kids, minimally supervised by a couple of adults. And since we only got paid for what we produced, we did not need any outside motivation to keep us at it. Among the crew was a family of migrant workers who spoke a language I did not understand. Nor did they understand mine, so we communicated through signs and gestures. That did not stop one of the home town boys from getting “familiar” with one of the girls regularly behind a shed on the property. I was especially interested in this girl with the beautiful brown skin, dark hair and eyes, and melodic voice. I was intrigued with her laugh as well, as she kept gesturing toward me with her arms billowing out amid her shouts of what sounded to me like “el gotago, el gotago.” I kept asking her and her brothers what she was saying. I tried to find out from some of my other co-workers what these strange words meant, so that I could laugh at the joke along with them.
But no one would enlighten me. In fact, it was several years later that it dawned on me what she was saying. It was a good thing too, for I had had enough teasing about that while growing up. It wasn’t “el gotago” she was saying, but “El Gordo,” “Fatso” in our idiom. That beautiful little brown-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed girl I had hoped so much to impress was making fun of me, the “fat one,” El Gordo.
Kids can be insensitive and mean in any language and culture, I guess. I wonder about that girl, if she remembers that encounter, or if people tend to remember only the hurtful things said to them and not those they say to others.