Amanuensis Monday: It Came Back to Me in a Dream

Gilbert Cayetano Huesca 
  (1915 – 2009)

[Note:  Amanuensis is an ancient word meaning one who performs the function of writing down or transcribing the words of another.  Derived from the Latin root manu-  , meaning manual or hand, the word also has been used as a synonym for secretary or scribe.]

My father, Gilbert Huesca, August 2008

My father’s earliest memory – of the period from 1917 to 1919, when he was between two and four years old – came to him weeks before he died in June 2009, at the age of 93.

“It came back to me in a dream,” he told me that Sunday morning in May.  He had been thinking about it for a few days by then.

“For so many years I couldn’t remember how I spent my earliest years, and it came back to me in a dream, but it was reality.”

He went on to recall that his father, Cayetano Huesca, and a group of other people, including several British and American citizens, were hired on a contract basis in about 1917 to perform maintenance on the machines at a lumber mill in Coapa, a town in the state of Chiapas. Cayetano brought my grandmother, Catalina (Perrotin) Huesca, his sister-in-law, Blanca Perrotin, his mother-in-law, Maria (Amaro) Perrotin, and their children, Enrique, Eduardo, Victoria, Gilbert (my father), and Delia Domitila.

“There were two classes (on the train) in Mexico:  first class and second class.  We traveled in first class, and we were sent with the very best things.  I remember we arrived in Coapa, close to Tonalá.  I was about two or three years old.


“I believe the name of the company at the time was Coapa Lumber Company, belonging to Chiapas state, and the new railroad city was Tonalá. (The company) provided a compound of very nice homes for the employees from Orizaba.  We had a large English style home, built of lumber, a very good home.”

The homes were built across the street from the lumber mill.  The area was surrounded by a lush forest and fields, where the Huesca family often went on picnics.  Livestock and wildlife were plentiful, so much so that the children were never left unattended while playing outside.

There were a lot of people with English surnames, but my father remembered the names of two men in particular:  a Mr. Wilson and a Mr. McDaniels.   He did not know what they did for the lumber mill, but he did recall that Mr. McDaniels was a close friend of Tia Blanca’s.

“And everyone spoke in English, including my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, and us kids. Even my father.  Everyone.  No Spanish at all. . . . Everything was American or English.  My mother was always well-dressed, in a skirt and a little tie.”

The most vivid memory he had of the place was the day a massive fire destroyed the mill.  “It was the first fire in my life. We saw the flames. Victoria was there and Enrique was there and Eduardo was there, too.  And I remember the fire came right up to our house, but the house never caught on fire.

“I don’t know –  I guess I was scared, but I was very little, and to me, it was still fascinating.  There were animals like cows and oxen that were pulling little wagons to move things out of the lumberyard, but it was too late.  Big, big flames came and engulfed the lumber company.  It disappeared. It just disappeared.”

And so, too, did the contract.  “After that, we were sent back to Orizaba.  But those two years were part of our lives.  Maybe even the best time of our lives.

“It came back to me in a dream after all these years, but it was part of my life.”

   * * * * *

My father died of prostate cancer barely a month after he told me this story.  It was the first time and only time I heard it, and the more I think about it, the more questions I have, though none of these have to do with the integrity of the story.  I have every reason to believe my father, especially given his sharp memory for detail, even during his final months.  I recall that he was even quick to remind me that he was not taking any medication that would have affected his recollection.

I cannot find information about the Coapa Lumber Company, but there is a small village called Coapa in the southern state of Chiapas.  Currently, it has only about 100 inhabitants.

Chiapas, with its dense forests and jungles, definitely has a history of deforestation, particularly since the early 19th century, when foreign interests brought in a number of cattle ranchers and lumber companies, the latter attracted by the Lacandon mahogany, also called “Tabasco Wood.” These foreign-run companies began to decline in 1917, and they disappeared altogether in 1949, when the Mexican government prohibited the exportation of log lumber.

With that said, however, I remember that my father referenced the Coapan Lumber Company as owned by the state of Chiapas.  Had it originally been foreign-owned and perhaps nationalized by 1917? And what of the fire that destroyed the lumber company?  Was it accidental, or could it have been caused by arson, as part of the brewing unrest over foreign exploitation of the land and its people?

My grandfather, Cayetano Huesca, was trained by his father as a carpenter but expanded his skills and abilities to become a mechanic, an invaluable job in the Industrial Age, and one that would serve him well later upon his return to Orizaba, when he became a mechanic on the Mexican Railroad.  It would be easy to see that his skills would have been in demand at a lumber mill.  The fact that he may have also been able to speak English (his wife and her family did, having spoken English and French at home) would have made him more useful to British or American lumbermen.

At the time, Orizaba continued to have an expatriate colony of British, French, and American citizens, most of whom had come to work on the railroad many years before.  Hence, it would make sense that the city would be a good source of skilled workers to augment the (often forced) labor of the Lacandon Indians who worked in the lumber camps and cut down the trees.

I believe this is a valid recollection of an early part of my father’s life. Though sadly there is no one left today who can fill in the blanks of this story, I hope we will find those answers some day.

Copyright ©  2012  Linda Huesca Tully 

One thought to “Amanuensis Monday: It Came Back to Me in a Dream”

  1. I love that picture of your father – capturing the back of him in the reflection of the mirror. Recollection of memory and the working of our brains – a fascinating mystery. How wonderful that he had this dream to share with you. Good luck filling in the blanks.

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