The El Cargadero Social Club

How a Mexican ghost town lives on in Anaheim

There's no way to verify the story of Lino Rodarte because most, if not all, historical records in Zacatecas were burned by guerrilla fighters loyal to Pancho Villa during the revolution. War touched almost everyone in Zacatecas, including both Sabas and Jesus Fernandez, another of Arellano Miranda's great-great-grandfathers. Jesus Fernandez fled the revolution with Pancho Villa's army at his heels and eventually became a prosperous mine operator in Arizona. His original home in El Cargadero, still owned by the Miranda family, bears to this day the door that—legend has it—was cracked open by the butt of a Villa-ista's rifle.

Revolutionary turmoil generated the first northward exodus of Cargaderenses. Some wealthier people fled because they feared Villa; many others fled because of the so-called Cristero rebellion, the anti-clerical movement that swept the country a decade or so later. Still more fled because they feared being pressed into army service.

Arellano Miranda's 86-year-old grandmother, Marcela Miranda Fernandez, automatically became a U.S. citizen because she was born in Metcalf, Arizona. Her father, Jesus Fernandez, had fled there in the footsteps of another couple, Anastasio Fernandez and his wife, Lupe Carillo, who in 1912 were among the first Cargaderenses to reach the United States. She has childhood memories of the revolution's final stages, when roving bands of drunken Villa-istasterrorized middle-class travelers in the Zacatecan countryside. Although her family eventually regained its footing—and its house—in El Cargadero, times were tough at first.

"We had no shoes on our feet and nothing to eat for three days other than acorns and cactus," Miranda Fernandez recalled over pan dulce at her house in Anaheim one recent afternoon. She and her family remained in El Cargadero until the late 1950s, when a major drought hit Zacatecas—and El Cargadero in particular. That's when the family returned to the United States, settling first in Hollister and later in Anaheim.

But it wasn't forever. Two decades later, she and her husband, Josť Miranda, moved back to Mexico, leaving their grown children behind. The couple finally returned to the United States in the late 1980s, shortly before Josť Miranda's death. Her greatest desire is to go back to her old house and finish her old age in El Cargadero. She's not likely to make the trip. "The conditions there are too hard for me to return," she acknowledged.

Arellano Miranda counts exactly 155 direct family members from El Cargadero now living in Anaheim. The exception is one uncle, who still lives in El Cargadero. Anaheim has been home to Cargaderenses since at least 1907, when the Avila family became the first to emigrate there from El Cargadero.

The second may have been Sabas Miranda, another of Arellano's great-grandfathers, who in 1908 arrived in Anaheim in pursuit of seasonal work in the city's famed orange groves. He eventually returned to El Cargadero for good. By the 1920s, about 30 families from El Cargadero had made it to the United States. During the wave of anti-immigrant hysteria that came with the Great Depression, many Cargaderenses were either forced to return to Mexico or left voluntarily. The situation reversed itself, however, with America's postwar economic boom and the advent of the U.S. government's bracero program during the 1940s and 1950s, through which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were encouraged to work in California's myriad fruit orchards and vegetable farms.

In the early 1900s, many Cargaderenses who had temporarily emigrated to the United States gave birth to children in California and Arizona who automatically became U.S. citizens. The next generation therefore had an advantage over other Mexicans seeking to emigrate to California. Soon, the population of Cargaderenses in Anaheim numbered in the hundreds. Of course, segregation—in fact, if not always in law—reigned well into 1960s Orange County, during which time Mexicans were prohibited, among other things, from using public restrooms.

"Many people decided to go home to El Cargadero in the 1960s because they weren't happy," recalls Alicia Miranda, Arellano Miranda's aunt. "In 1967, my father decided to bring us back to El Cargadero. It was like moving back into the past. The cows! I didn't know until then where milk came from. It was very hard for us to start all over in Mexico. We had to do our washing in the river."

Her sister Angela eventually returned to Anaheim and became a successful small-business owner. But her happiest memories still revolve around El Cargadero. Both she and her two sisters, Maria de la Luz and Angela, the youngest of the four, were born in El Cargadero and spent their childhoods there.

"I was the happiest child in Mexico," Angela said. "My parents had a big ranch at La Cueva, right outside El Cargadero, that was right on the river. My entertainment was to chase chickens, playing games with the eggs. I want to return there one day to write about everything. For me, it's very important."

Angela says hard times hit El Cargadero in January 1955, when a freak frost ruined the town's avocado crop. "I was 6 years old when people woke up and something felt strange in the air," she recalls. "What was it? The avocado trees were very dry and hard. They split open from the frost. The crops were ruined for many years afterward. We had to cut the trees apart for firewood because they were destroyed."

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