Elvira: A Mexican Immigrant Woman
Book Signing Event, June 30th

A new memoir, Elvira: A Mexican Immigrant Woman – 1909-2012, by Eduardo Hernández Chávez has now been published by Ediciones Lengua y Cultura that brings to light a little-known aspect of Mexican-American history. The memoir is the intriguing personal story of Elvira C. Hernandez (née Elvira Chavez), a girl whose family fled Chalchihuites, Zacatecas in 1916, at the height of the Mexican Revolution, seeking safety and a livelihood in a land once alien, now native.
In the United States, Elvira’s father and uncles immediately found jobs working on the railroad. Traveling long distances laying track for the expansion of the rail lines, they left their families behind in El Paso, Texas, where the women were obliged to live in cramped boxcars with their children and to work as domestics.
Her restless father, Jacobo, took them from state to state and town to town seeking better opportunities. From the itinerant life of railroad workers, the men were recruited into the dank meat-packing plants of Kansas City. There, they encountered a stable and thriving Mexican immigrant community where Elvira and her future husband, unknown to each other, attended the same elementary school. It was also in Kansas City that, for the first time, she became conscious of racism against Mexicans.
Ever intent on finding a more gainful life, Elvira’s father once more uprooted his family, moving them to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. She provides heartrending accounts of this fateful move to what would be an onerous existence as laborers in the sugar-beet and potato fields. There, even the children would work alongside the adults.
As a result, Elvira herself labored in the fields during all of her youth and for most of her adult life. She describes ruefully her family’s continual efforts to scrape out a living and to become full members of the strange and inhospitable society they encountered there.
Elvira was to live in Scottsbluff for the rest of her life. After her husband’s premature death, she dedicated herself to community service, first working with a community-action program that advocated for migrant farmworkers, then creating a center for elderly Mexican- and German-American women, and eventually serving as a ‘foster grandparent’ in a daycare center for small children until her retirement at age 89.
In recounting this story of her life, Elvira consistently projects a firm sense of personal courage, determination, and dignity, qualities that she displays from a very early age.
Elvira was fluently bilingual and − in both languages − she used the down-to-earth, colloquial speech of an immigrant farmworker. Her written memoirs strove to represent as authentically as possible her own way of talking in each of her languages, that is in her own ‘voice’.
A critical aspect of this linguistic realism is the use not only of colloquial forms of expression, but also − within a bilingual conversational context − the rapid and unconscious insertion into the stream of speech of words, expressions, and longer segments taken directly from her other language. These segments retain completely their original pronunciation and structure and are referred to as “code switches”.
Elvira’s memoir is the compilation into a coherent narrative of hundreds of hours of tape recordings made by her son, Eduardo Hernández Chávez, who also grew up in Scottsbluff and is an Assoc. Prof. of Linguistics, Emeritus, from the University of New Mexico. The book was first written in Spanish, the language in which it was told. Because of this, her life history would be inaccessible to many English-speaking readers, including many of her own descendants. For this reason, the entire Spanish text was translated into English, and the two language versions are published as separate volumes.

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