Living Without Dad

By Manuel M. Melgoza © Copyright

I have no memory, before my eighth birthday, of my father living with our family except for yearly visits. He was born in Purépero, a small town in the mountains of the Mexican state of Michoacán. He migrated to the United States with his brothers in the 1940’s seeking work as a 17-year-old under a Federal “guest worker” scheme for foreigners called The Bracero Program. After that, he would work for U.S. employers for temporary periods, and then return home. After years of this, he and an uncle saved enough money to start a shoe business, with a manufacturing facility and a retail store across the street from it. Their combined savings and earnings yielded enough to buy land plots upon which to build and farm. They purchased houses, and Dad bought a small retail store that featured ice cream bars – paletas). He married Mom in the early Fifties.

Operating as my uncle’s partner, their shoe business thrived. They employed more than a dozen workers (zapateros). With growth came governmental regulations, taxes, and bureaucratic headaches, which my father handled for the business. The business’ success became a mixed blessing, however. My uncle found a bride and married. With the new relationship came conflict, which interfered with business decisions.

The disputes spread to other areas, such as land they had purchased, upon which they grew avocados for market. Over time, Dad and my uncle parted ways. Seemingly without reason, Dad surrendered his entire share of the shoe business, and gifted his grocery store to my grandparents. He departed for the U.S.; to once again find work and a regular income. He left shortly after the birth of my older sister.

Once old enough to grasp the cycles of Dad’s presences and absences, I still gave no thought to why he turned over our potential income sources to his older brother and parents, leaving us with a tiny house in which we lived. My concerns centered on Dad’s absence.


Unrecognizable Father

Unlike Dad’s years working as a bracero, now when Dad left, he stayed in the U.S. for longer periods, working and sending money home periodically, and visiting us only during winter, when his work slowed. When I did see him during winter visits, it was for perhaps only a few weeks. He repeated this pattern for several years.

During one of Dad’s winter visits, my paternal grandmother came running excitedly to our house. She lived a short distance away, in a tiny house adjacent to the store she and my grandfather managed. She appeared at our door shouting, “Your father arrived! Your father arrived!” Upon hearing the news, the three oldest siblings ran toward my grandmother’s, excited and expectant.

Few people were on the street as we ran there, save a man we passed shortly before getting to our destination. We ran into my grandparent’s store asking where our father was, while catching our breaths. Someone in the store said, “Didn’t you see him? He’s outside.” We asked, “Where?” We stepped outside.

That moment, I realized that the man we had just run past was our father! A strange feeling engulfed me. Mom had constantly talked to us about Dad when he was away, telling us fun stories about him, sharing fond memories, reading his letters, showing us pictures that he occasionally sent, and telling us when money from Dad arrived. We knew my Dad through her stories and accounts. We learned to esteem him through her eyes. But this time, I sensed that I didn’t really know this man whom I was seeing in the flesh. In that moment I saw a stranger. I didn’t know whether to hug him or talk to him. Even he seemed distant toward us. To describe it as an awkward moment is an understatement.

Thankfully, Dad hastily picked up one of my younger siblings playfully, and things loosened up. Over the next several days, Dad spent time with us, taking us on family outings in his new car.

That year turned out to be a pivotal one for our family; a decision was made that changed our fate permanently, as I would learn much later.

Life without Dad was mixed with pain, joy, sorrow, fear, and longing. I was the second of seven (six as will later become clearer) siblings. In Dad’s absence, my older sister and I became Mom’s conversation companions through those years.

Unless one actually lives the experience, it is difficult for people who grow up in intact families to appreciate the impact and the dynamics of what happens when the family’s head leaves, in a culture where the man is the undisputed “king” (El Rey) of his home.


Mom had too many child-rearing burdens to enable her to do any income-generating work. Besides, in that culture and era, women with small children just didn’t work outside the home. There was no “child care” or nurseries for working moms. Men prided themselves in being sole breadwinners. There were virtually no jobs for women. Many resorted to selling fruit or food at their home doorways.

Consequently, our family lived in a continual state of waiting expectantly for Dad to send home money. At times, we had nothing to eat but stale, coarse bread. Periodically, a letter from Dad arrived (with money), keeping us afloat a little longer – until the next time. I wonder whether living with the constant fear of not having enough to eat from one day to the next contributed to my habitual over-eating as an adult. For many years, I had recurring dreams of arriving at a feast, only to learn that most, if not all, the food was gone when my turn to eat came.

Fear of insufficient food was just one of multiple concerns. When word spread that we had an “absentee father,” Mom (and her young) became targets for those who harbored ill motives. Once, an older kid from the neighborhood stripped off my younger brother’s shirt while he played in the street near our house. My brother was only 3-4 years old. The big kid laid the shirt on an active ant pile, waiting laughingly for my brother to pick it up and put it on. My brother picked it up, but my mother suddenly arrived to snatch it away before he could wear it.

Although we were treated courteously in social gatherings when my father was present (during his winter visits), we were like a persona non grata when he was gone. One relative made little effort at hiding her displeasure with our company; and this grieved my mother. My father’s parents would often side against Mom on various disputes. Without the protection of a strong male, we lived in fear, bolting down our door securely at night, and wary of all strangers.

Once, as I walked towards my grandparent’s store with my younger brother, Gustavo, we approached two kids playing near the sidewalk. My brother noticed that a little girl had shaped a mound of dirt on the ground. For reasons I don’t understand, Gustavo stepped on the mound. The little girl ran home crying.

Suddenly, a man (her father) came into view, running toward us, his face consumed in fury! I froze. The man grabbed Gustavo (about 5 years old then), lifting him as if a toy. The angry man turned and ran, with Gustavo slung under his arm, toward the man’s house. I knew not what to do. Moments later, Gustavo returned, weeping, his pants soiled. The man had kicked my brother to the point of causing him to defecate, for having stepped on his daughter’s dirt pile. The man displayed no concern of retaliation for his brutality. Everyone knew we lived without a father.

During my sixth year, Mom and my godmother (who lived in the United States) persuaded Dad to submit immigration petitions so the rest of us could move to the U.S. to join him. That meant that our young family, Mom with kids in tow, had to travel by bus to the capital, Mexico City, to work through the immigration bureaucracies of both countries. We made multiple trips, each taking several hours by bus one-way. Our stays lasted for days, where we waited in long lines, sometimes sleeping on the ceramic floors.

Usually in our trips to Mexico City, we lodged in hotels. On one trip, we boarded with one of my mother’s sisters, who lived with her husband and kids in the city.

This time, we encountered daily rain. Mom’s kids and my aunt’s kids were cooped up and cramped in my aunt’s apartment. Things grew increasingly chaotic, testing my aunt’s patience. Finally, in an outburst triggered by one of us breaking a key on my uncle’s accordion, my aunt angrily put us out. Though I don’t recall her precise words, I remember the crushing feeling.

Mom, devastated and weeping, hurriedly gathered our belongings, and dragged us out of the apartment. After walking away some distance in the rain, my uncle approached us from behind. He apologized for my aunt’s words and pleaded for us to return. Mom, tears streaming down her face, continued on, holding her youngest child in one arm, and pulling on the hand of another. My sister and I continued walking with Mom. I didn’t want to go back either.

My uncle gave up, and walked away. I doubt that my mother has forgotten the hurt she experienced then, and the feeling of aloneness she must have endured in those moments.

But, there were also good times. Occasionally, Gustavo and I wandered the streets and surroundings of our town. A short distance away from our home was a river, named La Camelina, where we often played. At times, we followed the river upstream to its source, a pool of deep water (emanating from an underground river) situated in what had been transformed into a sub-tropical park. The park was cool, humid, and beautiful. Streams of water flowed in many directions, whitewater tributaries common. The water was pure and cool to drink. It was also dangerous. Many had drowned there. But, nothing like that ever happened to Gustavo and me, though we “tempted fate” many times, as they say. Was it mere luck?

Good times included food. If anyone (besides me) deserves blame for my addiction to sweets, it must be Mom. She was (and continues to be) hooked on Mexican pastries. When my older sister was about 6 years old, Mom would send her to the nearest Mexican bakery to buy pastries for the next day’s breakfast. Apparently, Mom’s penchant for sweets outweighed her fear for her kids’ safety, although I’m sure she was also concerned for the kids she had to care for at home. The bakery was several blocks away, time enough for day-old bread to become stiff and tasteless during the walk home in the typical cool weather. My sister proved unfit for the task, making poor choices on the types of pastries to buy, and bringing home mostly cold, old bread. Mom turned the task over to me. That may have been a mistake.

I knew instinctively how to pick the warmest, “hot out of the oven” pieces, and the best pastries. I exceeded my mother’s expectations in that regard, and she boasted about my efforts, initially. As the routine progressed, I continued to bring home the warmest, freshest, and tastiest pieces. I knew which ones were my mother’s favorites. By the time I reached home on succeeding trips, however, the number of pieces in the basket in which I carried them dwindled. As a reward for performing the chore, Mom allowed me to eat a piece en route. But, I couldn’t resist, and often exceeded my limit. Too bad. Mom’s vice came at a cost, and she learned to accept it, and even laugh about it later.

As I learned about my father through my mother, I also learned much about her, especially through her daily stories, for which we hungered. Interestingly, Mom spent long periods living without her father. Her dad was a schoolteacher. While seemingly a secure, middle class job to most people today, teaching was not so then. Jobs were scarce. My maternal grandfather had stayed in school rather than look for work to help support the family. Mom’s Dad then taught my grandmother what he had studied until she, too, became qualified to teach.

Teachers’ pay was meager, forcing them both to work in order to raise a large family. Worse yet, they had to accept many undesirable assignments. That often meant that my grandfather would be assigned by the government to teach in remote locations, some days’ travel from home, while my grandmother worked at other schools closer to home.

Pay was erratic. The scarcity of finances made food a constant preoccupation. Mom volunteered to run errands for grandmother to the local mercado just so she could sneakily eat one of the items on the way home, something I apparently learned to do much later.

My grandfather died at a relatively young age of cirrhosis of the liver, from his heavy drinking due to alcoholism. My grandmother and her children would have to fend for themselves.


El Paricutín

My grandmother taught in a school near San Juan Parangaricutiro (aka San Juan) miles outside my hometown of Uruapan. The town of San Juan, inhabited then virtually entirely by indigenous people (which I will describe as “Indios”) lived in a volcano’s lava path. The volcano, named El Paricutín, began its violent, explosive eruptions in February 1943.

As a young girl, Mom’s family lived in that area of intense volcanic activity. One day, El Paricutín erupted violently, shaking Mom’s house incessantly, even though the volcano was miles away. By now, El Paricutín had turned a cornfield into a mountain, its lava flows covering some 10 square miles. Many people died following its eruptions, and several were killed by lightning strikes that accompanied the weather and atmospheric changes brought about by the volcanic activity. Many panicked evacuees believed this was “the end of the world.”

Mom’s family members fled into the streets, with my grandmother imploring Mom to hold on to the hands of two of her siblings, as they ran for what they hoped was safety. Safety was nowhere to be found.

When they attempted to run in the streets, my mother described, it was as if they were sinking in sand. Debris flew from the sky, hitting rooftops and people. Snakes and lizards, disturbed from their normal abodes, found their way onto the paths of the rushing crowd as they fled along with my mother’s family. The spectacle of awe and terror were the focus of her memories.

All but forgotten to my mother was the fact that not a single member of her family was killed or injured in the event. Was it mere happenstance?

Had I possessed a relationship with God, through Christ, in my early years, I would have realized that He is “a father to the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5), who looks after the fatherless in their distress. (James 1:27)

But even if we don’t, or are too immature, to pursue such a relationship, God bestows mercy and grace. For me, he provided two “father figures” in my early years, who effectively acted as surrogate daddies. Uncle Abraham Melgoza, Dad’s brother, was one of them – kind, generous, and friendly. When he transported his large family on weekend pickup-truck rides, he invited us along joyfully. He was the most generous relative when giving us our Domingo (monetary Sunday gift), a common tradition in the day.[1] The other surrogate was Mom’s brother, Uncle Abél, also a kind, warm, and generous man. He would often relieve Mom of the stress of having to care for several of us at a time when people did not own televisions, clothes and dish washers, refrigerators, and so on. He would load us into his Jeep, and take us for rides in the surrounding countryside. He was always available when Mom summoned him for help. Each uncle filled the void, when Dad could not.

I am beyond thankful to each one. Even more so, with my Lord and Savior, who is not merely our Creator, but also our “Daddy” (Abba Father) when we need Him to be, and a protector and provider.

I was spared the pain and loneliness orphans undoubtedly endure, since I had the hope of eventual reunification with my Dad. That hope helped drive me forward. We have an even greater hope in our Lord. He is Jehovah Shammah, who does not leave His children, and is ever-present among His people. (2 Corinthians 6:16) He dwells inside Christians. (1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 John 2:27). His is Jehovah-Jireh, our Provider, in times of need. He loves His children with an everlasting love (1 John 3:1; Psalm 36:7; Jeremiah 31:3).

God prepares a place for his children, those whose trust is in Him. He prepares not a tiny, cold, and crowded one-room house like my childhood dwelling; but, rather, a mansion fit for the heirs of the King of Kings. (John 14:2-3 [NKJV]; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Revelation 17:14.) His children will not experience His absence, but will dwell eternally with Him. He is continuing to draw men and women to Himself.

My life testifies to His eternal love, provision, protection, forgiveness, and grace.


[1] Look for my later chapter on “El Domingo.”

One thought on “Living Without Dad

  1. Salvador Moreno

    I thank the person respectfully who wrote living without dad thanks for sharing part of your life …I wasn’t expecting to find something about my Dad
    “Uncle Abel” that went really deep in my heart just to know this especial details
    About my Dad …how he was…
    Is just very special to me..
    My Dad die last August and that hit me really hard in my heart ,,I really appreciate primo that you do this in
    Sharing part of your life.
    God bless you


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