Juan Palomo

Juan Palomo


Juan R. Palomo was a journalist for more than 20 years. Most of those years were at the Houston Post, as a general assignment reporter, political reporter, foreign correspondent, Washington correspondent, columnist and editorial writer. He covered religion for the Austin American Statesman for several years and wrote a monthly op-ed column for USA TODAY. Born in North Dakota to migrant-worker parents, Palomo grew up in Crystal City, Texas. He attended Southwest Texas Junior College and Texas State University and received an MA in journalism from The American University in Washington. Palomo lives in Houston where he writes, paints and photographs. His blog is juanzqui.com.

Speed Queen, North Dakota 1983

Halfway between Johnstown and Forest River
a gravel road leads to where the migrant camp once
stood. Some twenty years have passed and it should
come as no surprise that almost nothing remains. 

The seven crumbling cottages, summer homes for our
extended clan, have long ago been razed, the weathered
walls and roofs no doubt now part of
el dompe, a mile or so
up the road, whose moldy mounds we once sifted for toys. 

A windbreak stretching half a mile behind the seven
shacks is gone now, except for a dozen or so trees. One
clue that people once lived here is a solitary telephone
pole with flaccid lifeless wires and a gutted meter 

gawking at the rows of sugar beets in the nearby fields.
A new batch of trees has been planted. Scattered among them,
Half-buried in the black earth, I come across a few of
the things we left behind, artifacts of the lives of the people 

who once called this desolate place home: a plastic
Prell Shampoo container and a shard of dark-brown glass
from a Clorox bottle. Something else we left behind:
a red-white-and-blue plastic “Loopy Ball,” 

long ago punctured and deflated yet still boasting,
“I’m different, throw me and see what I’ll do.”
A rusty wire hangs between two of the ancient trees.
At one time it was taut and clean and strong enough 

to hold a week’s load of wash flapping in the
southeasterly breeze. Left behind, also: a smooth
lump of coal, as rock-hard as it was the day it was
delivered to be fed to the voracious cast-iron wood stove. 

But the largest reminder that humans lived here is the tub
of a rusted Speed Queen washing machine – resting upside
down, its legs poking out from knee-high Johnson grass.
Standing out like an abandoned tombstone, it assures me 

that yes, there was once life here. A summer community
existed. Families interacted. Threads of white smoke floated
from stovepipes and the aroma of
carne guizada, frijoles
and arroz wafted from behind screen doors. Mothers brought 

newborns here from the hospital in Grafton. Baptisms were celebrated
with a keg of Hamm’s Beer, cheese enchiladas and the tinny sound
of Juan Guerrero’s accordion. News and gossip from letters arriving
on the noon or 5 o’clock train, were shared and commented upon. 

Faraway deaths were mourned with a sob or a sigh. At dusk,
grown-ups treated drained bodies to blessed rest after 12 hours
with a hoe while children played hide-and-seek – squealing, scurrying,
seeking sanctuary behind trees or in the still-green fields of wheat. 

As I stare at the dead carcass of the Speed Queen, I can smell
the smoke and savor the food. I can hear the accordion
and the slap-flap sound of exhausted hands shaping
tortillas de maíz.
I see Tío Adrián’s turtle-shaped Pontiac, and I observe a child, 

his shoulders sagging from the weight of the aluminum pails
filled with drinking water from the rat-infested well. I feel the weight.
I take it all in as I slip the black lump of coal into my pant’s
pocket. This, and these recollections, I will not leave behind.


In a small town, we knew between good
and bad noise. Bad noise was what
others made, and in our town, there
were no
otros; we were all us. 

In a small town, life came with music
in vibrant stereo sound. A conjunto
had to rehearse, we knew, a sloshed
neighbor had to wail,

A rooster had to crow, and a car
had to honk, a dog had to bark
and a son had to honor his
mother with pre-dawn

Life, no matter how harsh
or cruel, is a celebration,
and a celebration, by definition,
demands boisterous sounds. 

So we sat back and absorbed the rowdy
loudspeakers, the drunken guy next door,
the boasting cocks and barking dogs,
and the band rehearsing down the street. 

In a small town, back then.

© The Acentos Review 2017