My grandfather grew up one of eight children in a family that farmed rice. Three of his siblings did not survive childhood. When he was 13, the Second Sino-Japanese War interrupted his education. He remembers bowing to the occupying Japanese soldiers whenever his family took their goods to market.
He married my grandmother in an arranged marriage. The eldest of five, she had spent her childhood looking after her siblings, never attending school. Staying in the village meant that you would always be poor. After his daughter—my mother—was born in 1950, my grandfather left by himself for Hong Kong, and eventually, America.
He opted to come by plane rather than ship, a choice that would get him to America faster but cost three times as much. It took almost three days, making connections in the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii before landing in San Francisco, where he was detained by immigration. To relieve their boredom, the detainees pooled their money and asked a janitor to buy a TV for them. Although they didn’t understand much English, they watched the images of this country they hoped to join.
After two weeks, my grandfather was released, and took a train to El Paso. An ancestor had come to America to work on the railroads, and his son—my grandfather’s uncle—had trained at Fort Bliss for several months before being deployed to Europe for World War I. He liked the sun so much that he returned to El Paso after the war. This is how my family ended up in the Texas desert.
Like many immigrants, my grandfather went to work for relatives, slowly paying off the debt he owed them for bringing him to America. He learned English and Spanish on the job, working his way up from stock boy to the assistant manager of a grocery store. After seven years, he sent for his wife. After 17 years, in 1967, they struck out on their own.
Because they had little money, they could only afford to buy a store in a low-income neighborhood. Everyone told them that that particular store was a bad idea. It wasn’t in a good neighborhood. It wasn’t on the corner. It cost too much for what it was. But what other chance would they get? My grandparents and their American-born children moved into El Segundo Barrio, living right behind the store. The living quarters were behind the utility room, which was behind the retail space. Like the cardboard house my siblings and I built, each section was arranged one behind the other, all contained within one building.
They never took a day off; the store was open every day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. They learned what their customers liked and kept the store well stocked. They ordered apples and pears—oranges not so much. They kept more tortillas on hand than bread. They sold loose cigarettes and single postage stamps and toilet paper by the roll. They sold veladoras, tall candles with images of saints, gentle lights that burned many hours for prayer.
The store, in the ’90s
My grandparents paid off their little store in two years. Income from the store supported not only their three American-born children, but also my mother and my great-grandmother who was raising her in Hong Kong. The long hours they put into making their store successful meant that they could finally send for my mother. She immigrated to the U.S. when she was 19, a stranger to her family. My mother worked in the store, as everyone in the family did. She clashed with the rest of her family, having gone from being in essence an only child to a grown woman with much younger siblings.
At the store, teenagers attempted to rob my grandparents, and thieves made mad dashes out the door with armloads of beer. Customers with bills on credit skipped out; checks bounced. But they persevered. I asked my grandfather once why he thought his store was successful. He knew what his customers wanted, he said. That—and luck.
In the ’90s, as big, brightly lit grocery store chains became commonplace, sales slowed at my grandparents’ store. In a photo I took of my grandfather during that time, he stands with his palms flat on the counter. He looks as if he is bracing for something.
Behind him in the photo, wooden shelves run to the ceiling, stocked with cigarettes, shaving cream, candy bars, padlocks, and a jar marked “Beef Jerky” filled with plastic combs. Items at the top, like stockings and shoelaces, hung from hooks and could be retrieved with a long metal stick. In front of him sits the high-backed cash register, its keys smooth and substantial. At the center of the white counter is a large patch of brown. The top layer had rubbed down to its foundation after so many decades of transactions across its surface.
In the photo, my grandfather stands behind the counter, his white apron worn to near translucence. A customer in a white T-shirt and red cap is at the door. I took the photo as he opened it, and a line of light crosses the floor of mismatched tiles. The door had a screen, which swung open on a spring. A little bell hung from the spring and chimed pleasantly whenever anyone walked in.
If I close my eyes, I can hear it chime, and I can hear my grandmother sweeping. Every evening, she started from the back of the store, sweeping the day’s dust and dirt out onto the sidewalk. Then, she swept the sidewalk.