Remembering Grandfather 'Papu,' A Former Bracero Worker With 'A Twinkle In His Eye' Two cousins remember their grandfather, who came to the U.S. from Mexico during World War II and often masked his experiences with discrimination with humor.
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Remembering Grandfather 'Papu,' A Former Bracero Worker With 'A Twinkle In His Eye'

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Remembering Grandfather 'Papu,' A Former Bracero Worker With 'A Twinkle In His Eye'

Remembering Grandfather 'Papu,' A Former Bracero Worker With 'A Twinkle In His Eye'

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Time for StoryCorps. Martha Escutia and Marina Jimenez are cousins. Growing up in East LA, they lived in awe of their grandfather, who everyone called Papu. He came from Mexico during World War II as part of the Bracero Program, the largest guest worker program in U.S. history. Papu was small in stature, but to Martha and Marina, he was a giant.

MARTHA ESCUTIA: My grandfather's name was Ricardo Ovilla. But the kids in the block only knew him as Papu.

MARINA JIMENEZ: He was very dark-skinned and incredibly strong for his size.

ESCUTIA: He had very large hands, you know, the hands of a worker.

JIMENEZ: I always picture him in his Dickies work pants dancing along to the marimba.

ESCUTIA: He also had, like, a twinkle in his eye. I remember him looking like Winnie the Pooh.

JIMENEZ: (Laughter) But I never understood how Papu endeared himself to so many of my friends. I'd see them talking. And then I'd think to myself, he doesn't speak English. And they don't speak Spanish. So how are they doing this?

ESCUTIA: I knew he knew how to curse in English. I heard him one time cuss at somebody over the fence calling him a son of a veechee.

(LAUGHTER)

JIMENEZ: When Papu would talk to us, it was like a king holding his court. He lived for seeing the kids laugh. I think because he suffered so much to come to this country, he never wanted us to experience any of that.

ESCUTIA: And thank God that his humor allowed him to bear a lot of indignities. When he came here as a Bracero, he had to take these showers with some kind of disinfectant. But he would say, ah, you know, they disinfected me to make sure I didn't have the lice - los piojos - the head lice. So to him it was just a joke. You know, he traveled all over the country picking sugar beets or laying down a railroad track in Oregon. When he was in Montana, he was denied food because they would not give food to Mexicans.

JIMENEZ: My grandfather hid those ugly memories.

ESCUTIA: But even though he became a citizen, his fear of being deported never dissipated. He would always wear his passport in his shirt pocket. And I told him, you know, don't do that. You can't be walking around to the supermarket with your passport. And he told me he would carry the passport because he was afraid that people are not going to believe me, a dark-skinned man, is a U.S. citizen. You know, what can you say to that?

He died in 1999. And I am just grateful that he is not alive to see today because it would scare him even more. That passport was a shield for him. Though when he passed away, at the open casket, I put his passport in his shirt pocket. And then I remember I ordered it closed. I don't think that you need a passport to get to heaven, but just in case, you know, just in case.

GREENE: Martha Escutia with her cousin, Marina Jimenez. They remember their late grandfather over StoryCorps Connect. Their interview is part of American Pathways, StoryCorps's new effort to collect stories of immigrants.

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