“Everybody that showed up was there to stay.” — An Interview with Alfred Abeita and Ernie Abeita: Part 1 of 2
By Bob Rosebrough
Alfred Abeita is holding a framed photo of his family as he says, “My dad comes from Isleta Pueblo. My mother comes from Laguna Pueblo. We have eight brothers and one sister. Seven boys at one time, then we had a girl, then we had a boy.” In a deadpan voice he adds, “We were kind of upset.” And he pauses. When asked why, he answers, “We were upset with the girl. She broke up our baseball team that we were trying . . .” Alfred and his brother Ernie start laughing before he finishes.
“They called it the blue snow.” As a young man, their father Joe worked many different jobs, such as working at the Harvey House as a cook. Alfred says, “He was curious about the world, so he decided to work for Reclamation. At that time it was called Indian Service, not BIA. So he went out with Reclamation all over the reservation – both Navajo and Zuni – building retention dams. They’d go out there without hotels, motels or paved roads and they’d go out there for 25, 30 days at a time. They had to live in tents with no TV and no lights. They had to haul water.”
Ernie says, “Frank Devlin and my dad were tight buddies. Frank told us a lot of things that happened during the time they worked together for Reclamation like the snowstorm they got caught in where Frank almost died on them. The old-timers talked about a big snowstorm – about five feet high – that they called the blue snow.” Ernie says, “It looked like a glacier, in other words. Well, Frank had pneumonia. They were in Nutria and Dad was trying to take him to Zuni. The lone work truck they had broke down. Frank told us that my dad said, ‘This is your last chance.’ After the truck broke down, my dad, who was a big man, picked him up and carried him to the Ramah road. By a stroke of luck they heard a car coming that took them to Zuni. My dad had contacts with a lot of Zuni people. He took Frank to Martha and Huey Nastacio who live on the west end of Zuni – that little place there. Frank said, ‘I stayed there for a month. After they knew I was sick there they couldn’t move me.’ People started bringing them food and water and whatever they needed. When he recovered, he never forgot those people. On Christmas, Frank always went back to take care of Martha and Huey Nastacio. It was a big deal with them.”
“We thought we were in Italy.” As the family grew, the Abeitas moved to 406 West Wilson. Alfred says, “That’s over there by Saint Francis Church. I’m gonna tell you what. The neighbors we lived with were excellent. We didn’t even have a key for our house at any place we lived. We thought we were in Italy though, okay?” Alfred and Ernie laugh.
“Joe DiGregorio and I were born on the same day. He lived on the west side of Saint Francis. The alley was our connecting path. Joe DiPomazio lived on the other side. Both named Joe. You could hear their mothers shouting at them all the time.”
Alfred shouts an imitation of an Italian mother, “You send out Joe boy!” He adds, “I mean, they’re all screaming down the alley. And they were all so friendly to us. Any holiday and they would be knocking on your door bringing you something to eat and saying, ‘You have to try it.’ We rented from Sam DiPomazio’s grandpa. He was 4-foot zero or less and he was always smoking stogie cigars.”
Errol Flynn at Petranovich’s Bar. Alfred continues, “Burt Cresto lived right across the street from us. He was responsible for a lot of filmmaking. He had the transfer company for hauling buildings and trucks. He was a good contact for the film people. When they needed help or they had to get things, he could bring it in for them and help set up and all.”
Alfred remembers a famous movie star visiting the north side’s Petranovich Bar. They used to have those frozen schooners for beer there. Errol Flynn was staying at the El Rancho and wanted to get away. He took a cab over to our neighborhood. We had the nicest girls, high school girls. I can still remember all their names. Cookie and Beverly Mattie. Dorothy Kezele. Doreen Yurcic. They all lived right behind the bar, in that area. They were all there trying to see if they could see Flynn. I said, ‘Who the hell is he?’ ‘A movie star.’ ‘So?’ They said, ‘Yeah, he’s a star.’” Alfred chuckles. “He autographed some things, but we didn’t stay for that. We always let them do what they wanted to do.”
“They lived in boxcars.” In the early 1950s very few Navajo people lived in Gallup, but Ernie says, “The Lagunas had a chain gang on the railroad. They lived north of Gallup Sand and Gravel. The railroad guys set it up. They called it the Laguna Camp. The railroad provided the boxcars. They lived in boxcars, but they were real nice like a trailer. I was there a lot. I had a friend who used to live there. They weren’t bad, they were nice homes.”
Alfred adds, “Every little railroad town picked up Lagunas and employed them. I have many uncles and cousins that worked on the railroad. The one thing that they didn’t like was the gang showers and gang toilets. But everything was clean.”
“I wasn’t drinking at the time.” When prohibition was lifted in 1933 in the United States, the ban on alcohol sales continued for Native people, but their father seemed to be excepted from the ban. Alfred says, “My father had a gift of gab. He was very serious and very savvy and he liked people. Everyone knew him and he could walk into any bar and they would serve him. So our friends, like his buddies from Zuni and all the people he met on the Navajo Reservation would come over to our house and say, ‘Hey, Joe. Can you get me a six-pack?’ Dad would say, ‘Not today or tomorrow.’”
Alfred asks Ernie, “Do you have any idea when the prohibition ended?”
Ernie says, “I wasn’t drinking at the time.” They both laugh and Ernie adds, “I was only six or seven at the time.”
“They wanted to sit upstairs.” Ernie starts talking about how it felt to be a Native family living in Gallup in the early 50s. “We had no problems. From Italians, Yugoslavians, Black people, we just all got along. We were all a big family. We didn’t know anything about rich or poor.”
Alfred remembers one place where there was still a problem with prejudice. “Black people had to sit upstairs at the movies. They wouldn’t let them come downstairs. So we would go upstairs and sit with them, because we were with them. Sometimes they would tell us, ‘Now you boys gotta go down.’ We were kids but we argued with them. There was one guy – him and his wife – they were beautiful people. James Marincel. His wife was the prettiest lady in town. They ran the Liberty Bar later on. When he was working at the theaters he’d let us in even when we didn’t have enough money. When we were with Black friends he would say, ‘You can take your friends anyplace you want to.’ He made us feel wanted.”
Alfred continues, “You know, the other people, the non-Indian, non-Black, the white guy wanted to sit upstairs too. One guy I remember was Charlie Boggio. He was an old railroader; you could never find him without overalls.”
Ernie says, “A big guy. Cigar like that.” He holds out his hands.
Alfred continues, “He liked to sit upstairs. You could hear that match strike – Whhoot!” Alfred and Ernie laugh at the memory.
Ernie says, “The usher would say, ‘There’s no smoking in here.”’
Alfred says, “He’d use a four letter word and tell them to get outta here.”
COMING IN NOVEMBER: THE FIRE STATION, A PLAYGROUND OF DREAMS, THEY FOUGHT ALONE, GAMERCO MINERS’ BALL PARK & THE BIG FLOOD