It’s a New World

Immigration transforms the aisles of a Texas supermarket

By Melissa Musick Nussbaum

The latest political buzzwords all have “immigration” or “immigrant” in them. We hear reports of warehoused children and stalled legislation. But if you want to know what immigration and its results look like, go to the town where my maternal grandparents lived; go to Plainview, Texas.

Plainview’s name is truth in advertising. Look around and see miles and miles of plains, land settled originally by farmers — mostly white and Protestant — from further east and further south. They did not come for the scenery, or the climate, but for the opportunity to buy land cheap, and make a home they owned on a farm they owned.

On a recent visit I meet Cindy Cates, the longtime church secretary at St. Alice Catholic Church in Plainview. It’s not unusual to see a Catholic church there now, but around the turn of the century, the Catholic families numbered four, one fewer than the total number of Catholic churches today. The families were the Jueschkes, the Keliehors, the Seipps and the Gidneys.

From its founding in 1887 to the time when the Santa Fe railroad built a line into town in 1906, all supplies came to Plainview by wagon south from Canyon. In the same way, a priest would be brought in once monthly, like so much religious equipment. He came first by wagon and then by train from Amarillo to celebrate Mass for the 35 or so who attended. Those first Masses were held in private homes or at the Elks or Oddfellows Halls. By 1911, funds were raised to build a parish, which was named in honor of Monsignor William O’Brien’s mother. (Cates and I agreed that she is an unlikely saint for these parts. Plainview is no place for a princess. Or, as Cates said, “She was kind of a little toot, you know? Just sayin.’”)

There wasn’t even a parochial school in Plainview until 1959, when St. Alice School opened its doors. The project was short-lived. The school closed in 1967, with only the 1963 First Prize for Penmanship (awarded by the National Board of Penmanship examiners in Kissimmee, Fla.) hanging in the halls of what is now the CCD building, to suggest its brief and former glory.

From 1911 to 2014, the journey can best be understood by leaving St. Alice and heading to the nearby United Supermarket. United Supermarkets dot the region. But in Plainview it is known, as the bright blue sign proclaims, as Amigos United. The word “Amigos” is probably five times larger than the word “United.” On either side of the main sign and the double entry doors, there are smaller signs indicating what may be found inside: Taqueria and Farmacia. I head inside to the store bathroom. It smells not like air freshener, but like salsa, and I think this is the first time I have ever experienced such a thing. And, as my mother might have said, “It’s got Glade Fresh Meadow beat all to pieces.”

Once in the store, I see that every sign is in English and in Spanish, or, more accurately, in Spanish and in English. The clerks and checkers switch from one language to another with ease. The tiny old lady in front of me is talking to an employee in rapid Spanish. I decide I need to look for someone else to help me when the young woman turns and begins talking to me in fluent English marked by traces of both a Mexican accent and the nasal Texas twang. It is odd and charming.

There is an entire aisle of hot sauces and salsas. But I find the biggest surprise a few aisles down. I see the large sign hanging from the ceiling: “Veladores,” it says, “Religious candles.” In my childhood, Baptists and Campbellites (members of a southern sect of the Church of Christ, and, no, it has precious little in common with the current UCC) drove back roads from their own dry towns to buy beer and whiskey from Catholic-owned liquor stores in towns like Nazareth and Umbarger. I can’t imagine how far one would have driven to find a glass votive candle. El Paso?

But here they are: rows of candles below rows of crosses, all for sale near the light bulbs and the paper towels. I find a large display of Pope John Paul II candles. “Santo Papa Juan Pablo II,” it says above a picture of the man holding a processional cross and smiling. On the back it reads, “Cuando la familia se va, asi va la nacion y asi va todo el mundo en el que vivimos.” “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.”

I look for a John XXIII candle, but don’t find one. So I buy five JPII’s and some fruit and head to my car, thinking, “I’d like to have this as my neighborhood store.” Imagine the pleasure of grabbing some taquerias at El Patio, the store delicatessen, when I stop for milk and the laundry detergent. It’s a new world, certainly, but it sure tastes better, and smells better, too.

Melissa Musick Nussbaum is a regular columnist for Celebration. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colo.: mmnussbaum@comcast.net. This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Celebration.

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