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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Efren Mendoza

A memorial celebrating the life of Efren Mendoza was held at the Senior Center/Veterans’ Hall in Boonville last Saturday afternoon. About 80 people showed up for this very moving and poignant occasion, with approximately half of those in attendance coming from non-Hispanic. Perhaps Efren is the only person in the Valley for whom such an evenly mixed community gathering would have been held, with many of those in attendance summing up, in their eulogies, the very significant and wide-ranging contributions Efren made to the whole community.

He achieved numerous things in his time here and no doubt has been an inspiration to a large number of people who come to this country in search of a better life. Through his work with Sueño Latino, the Knights of Columbus, St. Elizabeth Seton’s Church, the Health Center, the Adult School, and no doubt other Valley groups and organizations, he had a positive effect on the lives of countless Valley folks. Many of us can learn from his dedication and hard work for others.

I enjoyed just being around him and his positive outlook on life. He always made my visits to the Barn Sale so enjoyable with his big smile and warm greeting, not to mention the excellent burger he would serve up! Wherever he is, I send him my very best wishes and a hope that he is surrounded by some of his beautiful roses and continuing to listen to the Beatles as he enjoys some delicious Birria de Chivo.

Reprinted below is the interview I conducted with Efren in July 2010. As a result of this interview being reprinted, the planned interview with former Philo Postmaster, Joe Dresch, will now appear in next week’s edition — Wednesday, Oct 3rd. — Steve Sparks

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I met with Efren at his home in downtown Philo, the house alongside the beautiful roses that he grows, opposite the post office. As we sat in his lovely back yard and began our conversation, his wife Dary and father Juan served up some truly delicious fresh corn tamales (“I prepared the corn this morning”) with sour cream and homemade spicy hot sauce and sweet corn bread to follow.

Efren was born in 1958 in the rural town of Capilla de Milpillas about twenty-five miles from Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco to parents Juan Jose Mendoza and Maria de Jesus Mendoza — second cousins. The Mendoza’s had been in that area for generations, mainly working in agriculture in the cornfields, sometimes wheat, and with a few cows always around. Efren has seven siblings, three brothers and four sisters and most were raised in the country. However, when he was five the family moved to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second most populated city, where his father got a job as a dairy worker, milking cows by hand while his mother also worked at the same place in the city taking care of the pigs. “Over the years most of the family moved into the city although a few did stay in the countryside and we’d visit them there.”

Efren attended a couple of different elementary schools and then spent three years at a junior high school. He liked school; mainly math, English, and Spanish and he played all the sports — basketball, volleyball, and futbol (soccer). “As is the custom in our culture, the girls, my sisters did most of the housework with my mother and we boys helped out our father. He had to be at work at 2am and we would each take a turn to go with him. That was tiring work; milking by hand and I remember falling asleep against the cow’s warm udder on many occasions. We had a good upbringing but never had much money for toys and things. I never owned a bicycle until I came to the US.”

He graduated junior high and went to a two-year high school but after being there for just one year, he quit at the age of 17. “I wasn’t a very good student and I had decided I wanted to go to the United States and make some money. My brother Felipe, two years older than me, had gone a year earlier and had found work in northern California in a place called Anderson Valley at an orchard called Gowans. I also had a cousin who was in Fort Bragg and there was another apple orchard in the Valley at the time, Schoenahl’s, and so we thought we’d get work somewhere. In the summer of 1975, along with four cousins, we paid a ‘coyote’ about $250 each and crossed the border one night at a place called Chula Vista. There was a hole in the border fence and we all just ran through and hid under bushes as helicopters flew above with searchlights. Others were caught but at seventeen I could run pretty fast and moved inland to a place where a car picked us up and took us to Los Angles. We then met a different ‘coyote’ and two days later we left town, slowly driving up to Fort Bragg, which we reached about a week after crossing the border.”

With one of his cousins, Efren moved to Philo but there was no work for them in the apple industry at that time so for a few weeks they found a little work planting grapes for Ted Bennett at Navarro Vineyard for $3/hour, very good money at the time, which was very helpful because they still had to pay the ‘coyote.’ “You never paid the ‘coyote’ up front as there would be a good chance you’d never see him again. Of course, if you didn’t pay him later he would not be happy and some people have bad stories about that situation but it never happened to me. Some of those guys are really bad but not all them. They hang around bus stations in Mexico and ask people if they want to go to the US. We trusted each other, I guess, and I always paid them. We then had to wait until the grape harvest before James Gowan hired us at $2.10 hr to pick grapes. We lived at ‘La Casa Café,’ the brown dwellings on the Gowan property, but after six months my cousins wanted to go back to Mexico so I went too.”

On his return to Mexico, Efren became sick with severe food poisoning and had to spend his $600 in savings from his time in the US on hospital bills. He lived at his parent’s house and couldn’t find work so in April 1976 he crossed the border once again with his brother and two cousins. He arrived in Philo a few days later but there was no work for a couple of months until Gowans hired him to work the harvest. In November that year Efren moved to Fresno for work and stayed with his father’s sister there. There was no work in the fields so he got a job as a dishwasher and cleaner in the restaurant business for $2.50 hr before moving to just outside Fresno where there was a promise of a good job. Once again nothing was available so in April 1977 he returned to Philo and worked for Gowans with a 25¢ per hour increase. By this time Gowans had workers from different states of Mexico but mainly Michoacan, with quite a few from Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Jalisco, and a few ‘Chilango’s’ from Mexico City.

By the end of 1977, Efren had returned to Mexico again. “My time in the States had not been great but I had saved some money, played a lot of soccer, and even dated a girl briefly. We’d go to Fort Bragg on a Saturday night and all day Sunday, going to the movies sometimes, but most of my time was spent working.” In March 1978, Efren crossed the border once again, this time in the trunk of a car with four others. “It was a terrible time in that trunk. I thought we’d suffocate, but we got through the Border Patrol’s inspection place in San Clemente and headed up to Philo once again. I worked for Gowans until October then at the Lathe Mill in Philo owned by the Island Family. I got two days off a week there!”

At one point, Efren hitched to San Francisco on his weekend off and made his way to Mission Street where he had cousins. “I had planned to return the next day but they told me there was a good job in construction so I stuck around. A month later and I was still there with the only jobs available being $6/hour in restaurants instead of the $13/hour construction work. Looking back that would have been fine but I was young and ‘proud’ and decided to return to Philo. There was no longer work at the mill so once more I went to Gowans where I worked for the next year until November 1979 when I went back to Guadalajara for a couple of months. During that time I bought a house with some money loaned from my Uncle. Then, once again I paid the ‘coyote’ and crossed into the States with my brother, Felipe, on January 1st, 1980.”

This time Efren stayed for three years at Gowans, apart from one trip back for a couple of months over Christmas 1982/83. By December 1983 he was basically unhappy with his life and felt he needed a change from this lifestyle of uncertainty. He returned to Mexico and while out in the Guadalajara one day he stopped by the mercado (outside market) where his cousin’s wife worked on a store selling milkshakes, orange and carrot juice, and pastries. “Working alongside her was her sister, Dary Alvarez — she was beautiful. I’d been looking everywhere for such a girl and here she was, right here in my home town. She had recently broken up with a boyfriend and was not sure if she wanted a new one and so after a few dates she broke up with me. I was very upset. It was a tough time for me, and besides that, I felt like a stranger in my neighborhood as I’d been away for basically over eight years and had no close friends there. I found a job in a wood shop and began training as a carpenter. I really liked it and six months later Felipe and I opened our own wood shop. We got lots of work, saved a lot of money, and had six employees. I bought a car and suddenly girls seemed interested in me! In June 1984 I decided to ask Dary out one final time and she said ‘Yes’. I proposed to her in December 1984 and we were married in February 1985 at the registry office and then a real wedding in March in the big church in the city. It had been a dream of Dary’s to get married in that church one day; she had been baptized there. We moved into the house I had bought a few years earlier and for a time everything went well. The business did well and I even had enough money to buy tickets for the World Cup that was to take place in Mexico in 1986. Then over a few months worked dried up and a friend said it would not change and that I should go back to the States. I wanted to stay. I was happy there after being back for almost two years and was finally settling down; plus Dary was pregnant. A cousin kept saying ‘let’s go’ but I was very unsure. But, with work not going well and the chance to raise a family in the States, I decided we should leave Mexico. In August 1985 we contacted a ‘coyote’ once again and with Dary five months pregnant we crossed real slow — there was no running this time. A car met us and we were taken to a hotel, had a shower, changed our clothes and went to the San Diego airport and flew to L.A. Both of us were very afraid and instead of telling the coyote to get us a flight to San Francisco I had just said LA without really thinking about it. My brother Pepe picked us up in LA and drove us to Philo. I was back in the Valley again!”

Efren and Dary lived on Indian Creek Road for three months before finding a house on the Gowan property just before son Ivan was born in December 1985. In time Dary worked as a babysitter for Ivan and other children while once more Efren was back at Gowans and this time he was in charge of the vegetable gardens, a job he held for sixteen years, until he finally left in 2001. In November 1987, now with a Resident Card granted to him as an agricultural worker, Efren, Dary, and their baby boy were able to visit family and friends in Mexico without worries about border crossings anymore, returning in January 1988 with no problems. They have continued to visit Mexico every other year since. Efren’s life became much more settled and routine as he attended mass every Sunday, regularly played in informal pick-up futbol games (cascaritas), and went to many of the weddings, birthdays, and quinceaneras that were more and more frequent as the Mexican community in the Valley quickly grew in size.

Another son, Michel, was born in 1988 and then a daughter, Veronica, in 1991. They moved into a seven bedroom, two-storey house owned by the Gowans near to Hendy Woods State Park (the yellow one not far from the entrance) and Efren continued to work for the Gowans all through the nineties. However, in 1993, on one of their visits to Mexico, they discussed whether they should move back there permanently. Dary wanted to and even enrolled Ivan in the school. Efren was then offered the opportunity to run his own ice cream business with other family members working for him. “I really thought this might be a chance for me to make it there and seriously considered it. In the end the investment would have been too much and, even though the kids had been looking forward to ice cream every day, I felt I needed more money to be comfortable with the decision and I was not convinced. We returned to the States. Maybe one day we will return to live there but not anytime soon... My father, Juan, first came to the states in 1953 on a 45-day permit. He came back every couple of years but then was able to work here from 1981 and came every year until he retired. In 2002 he moved into our house here in Philo with us and my mother spends her time in both Mexico and here.”

By 2001 Efren was earning just $6.25/hour at Gowans and, at that time, a new job opportunity came along, working on clearing a large amount of acreage to plant grapes on the Piper Ranch. It would pay $12.50/hour. “I told the Gowans and they accepted the situation, saying they could not pay me anymore. That was fine and I was given a month to find somewhere to live. I could not find anywhere in the Valley and was very upset. I would have regarded a move out of the Valley as a defeat, as if I had been a failure after all this time. We even began to look in Fort Bragg. Then, Mary O’Brien, a teacher at the school, said we could stay at her two-bedroom home in Christine Woods until it was sold. We ended up being there from August 2001 until May 2002 during which time, with Dary now working at the lathe mill for Gary Island (she is still there after eleven years), we had saved enough money to begin looking to buy our own place.”

Efren saw a ‘For Sale by Owner’ sign at a home in downtown Philo opposite the post office. After lengthy and often confusing negotiations, in which both Efren and the seller thought the other was doing the paperwork, Efren’s offer was accepted. “I had no idea about this process but we really liked the house, although there was lots of work to be done on it. We borrowed some money from my brother Pepe and added it to our savings for the down payment. I learned a lot about the process and now people ask for my advice on these things. We were so very happy when the deal went through and we moved in on June 1st, 2002. We felt so lucky. This was our house!”

Efren continued to work on the Piper Ranch for three years, getting overtime for any day he worked more than eight hours, which he often did. Then in 2004 his boss, Chris Stone, wanted him to work at his vineyard at the south end of Ukiah. He did that for four years before taking over the management of Stone’s housing complex in Ukiah where he has worked for the past two-and-a-half years. “Chris wanted to buy a vineyard in Chile and I went there twice with him to look around. Eventually he left to live there and his partner, who I did not know very well, became my boss. It was a little strange at first but I pointed out that Chris had trusted me, so he could too. It’s five days a week and I am in charge over there and like my job.”

Over the years Efren has been involved with a few of the organizations in the Valley. For eight years he has been President of Sueño Latino, the Hispanic organization that helps the community in its dealings with the Health Center, the Housing Association, and on other social issues, and he is a member of the Health Center Board. For three years he was the Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus and was a member for nine years. He is vice president of the Church Council at the St. Elizabeth Catholic Church and started the chicken bbq fundraiser at The Fairgrounds and organized many dances for the church. When Gloria Ross became President of the Council she started the spring Crab Feed and for a time Efren ran the Mexican Fiesta Dinner in the fall by the Mexican members of the congregation. “The congregation is about 3% Anglos — Gloria, The Schultzess and Eva Holcomb — ‘The Beautiful Lady’ as we have always called her. They work so hard and we as a community have to help more at the Church and stop putting all the responsibility on others. We sometimes just go to church and expect all the events to be organized by others.”

For the past three years Efren has taught Spanish at the adult school and for a time he was in the Fire Department. He attends many Valley events and he and Dary love to dance. He works very hard on his garden and is very proud of his wonderful roses that brighten up downtown Philo for all. “The rose is the most beautiful flower — the most rich and full and most beautiful. This whole Valley is a beautiful place. I thought it was paradise when I first came here. The vineyards look beautiful; I know many people here and have many friends. On the negative side, the fact that there are so few affordable houses is not good. Then there is that terrible building at the south end of town in Boonville — the first thing visitors see. It should be taken down. And the drug situation is a concern. Marijuana has my people involved but that is not nearly as bad as the cocaine and methamphetamine that have come here in the last 20 years or so. It seems to attract outsiders here who do no good at all.”

I asked for Efren’s thoughts about various Valley issues.

The wineries and their impact? “They provide employment for many people but I feel that they should provide housing for their workers. Some do of course but more should do this. They need the people to work for them so they should do a little extra for their people.”

The AVA? “I read it once in a while.”

KZYX local public radio? “I listen sometimes. Alma Latina on Saturday at 3pm, and sometimes when I’m driving.”

The school system? “Well, since my son Michel was born on the same day and at the same hospital as Principal J.R. Collins’ son Devin, I am good friends with him. My own kids are proof that the school does a good job. They all graduated and Ivan graduated college at U.C. Riverside, Michel went to Sonoma State, and Veronica is at U.C. Davis.”

I posed a few questions from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” plus some I added.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Being in good health and saying my prayers every morning.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “The continuing battle between the ‘narcos’ and the government in Mexico making it unsafe and leading to the death of innocents. It is so sad.”

Sound or noise you love? “Music — all sorts. I do love the Beatles; I’m a Beatlemaniac.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Rap music.”

Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Birria de Chivo — goat meat with lots of peppers, onions, and spices.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “He’s dead, I know, but I’ve always admired Che Guevara and his ideas. I would love to talk to him.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “Pictures of my family; rosebush clones so I grow and tend my flowers; and a soccer ball.”

Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “I love the film ‘The Gladiator’ and have watched it many times; I cannot of think of just one song; I’m not much of a reader but I did enjoy Homer’s ‘The Iliad and the Odyssey.’ I watch too much TV these days; I watch Mexican soaps with my wife. They are addictive.”

A smell you really like? “Jasmine and gardenia flowers.”

Favorite hobby? “Woodworking; gardening — a hobby and a job; and playing guitar. I’m not very good.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “A civil engineer or an architect.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Underground in a mine.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “The day I was married.”

The saddest? “When one of my cousins died at 19. He and another cousin grew up together with Felipe and me and we were all very close.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That’s very difficult. I don’t like to say such things. (I pressed Efren for an answer.) Err, that I like to help others. I teach Spanish here because the community has given so much to me. And that I try to be cheerful. I even have a crazy laughing sound on my phone that I play if I feel a little down or stressed.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I think going to church gives you a solid foundation for life. It means that you may be less likely to mistakes and will treat others well. So if I get to heaven I’d like him to say, ‘Welcome, Efren, come in,’ then I’d know I’d done right and it would make it all complete.”

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