APOLONIO H. ESCALERA CROSSED INTO THE UNITED STATES AT EL PASO in 1908, paying a penny to walk over the bridge rather than swim the Rio Grande.
Ahead and to the west lay California's Imperial Valley, where a brother was already doing farm work. Behind, the Mexican Revolution was brewing, and a tall, lean, sturdy man of 21 was much too desirable as a soldier.
Apolonio Escalera temporarily left behind his wife, Justina Zermano, and a small daughter, Erminia. His firstborn, Jesus, had died as an infant.
He was an easygoing man but possessed of a ferocious appetite for work, and soon was farming alfalfa on rented land in Brawley. His wife and daughter joined him, and the family began to grow. First came Natividad, then Faustino and Fidencio. Then Dolores, Maria, Jose, Faustina and Antonia, followed by Elvira and Velia.
Apolonio was a lenient father. He preferred to talk to his children rather than physically chasten them when they were unruly or unwise.
He was a religious man, too, although a shameless ladies' man. He was known for his compassion and generosity toward other families in need, and provided so amply for his own that his children scarcely knew there was a Depression going on, much less a Great one.
Apolonio couldn't read or write, but he could sing. He would gather his children around him and appoint this one an alto and that one a bass, and lead them in Mexican country songs.
He was 50 when his wife Justina died. Three years later, he married McClovia Lizarraga, who was 24 years his junior. From her came Berta, and a second Jesus (called "Jesse"), Ruben and Anna-Maria. He told his children from both marriages, "I love you all the same, and I want you to love each other that way." The most important thing in life, he told them, was "the unity of the family."
Apolonio was a man who wore hats, and he looked good in them. Little Jesse took note of that. On Apolonio's 73rd birthday, his son Faustino presented him with a new off-white Stetson, the "County Sheriff" model, made of beaver. It was a nice hat, and it became the one Apolonio wore to Mass, weddings, funerals and fiestas.
In his late 80s, Apolonio came down with the flu, and the flu went into pneumonia. Once, his daughter Faustina Escalera Sanchez came to his bedside and sang for him a song she'd composed about the family. It was called "Corrido de Los Escaleras" and included the lyric, "Siempre estaremos unidos" ("We will always be united"). The old man, who was never ashamed to weep, let his tears flow. He died January 27, 1977, two weeks shy of 90.
Jesse, then 36, asked his mother for the Stetson. His mother, however, gave it to Faustino because he was the eldest son. Faustino wrapped it in a plastic bag, put it in a hatbox, wrote Apolonio's name on the box and stored it away.
Fifteen years passed, and Faustino died. His widow, Concepcion, came upon the hat while housecleaning and gave it to Apolonio's daughter Velia. Velia kept it for five years, then decided to give it to her brother Jesse.
She handed it over at a fiesta following an Escalera family reunion in El Centro last year. The moment he took it in his hands, Jesse heard from somewhere the sound of Apolonio clearing his throat, just as he always did before breaking into song.
Jesse didn't want to hide the hat in a closet. He looked all over for some sort of display case. Finally, his quest took him to Jim's Western Wear in San Fernando. The store's proprietor, Saul Stanoff, fetched from storage a dusty but brand new glass display case of the sort Stetson had long since stopped making. Jesse gladly paid him $100 for it.
Jesse mounted the case on a lazy Susan. He had the hat dry-cleaned and placed it inside, along with a black-and-white photograph of Apolonio at age 37. An engraver affixed several brass plates to the case. One bears the names of Apolonio's 16 children, a second those of his 55 grandchildren, a third those of his 105 great-grandchildren, and a fourth those of his 85 great-great-grandchildren. A fifth is blank, awaiting great-great-great-grandchildren.
So far, 261 names--261 people descended from the lanky young man who crossed into El Paso for a penny and held fatherhood to be a man's noblest aspiration.
Jesse brought the case back to show Saul Stanoff. Saul called all the customers in his store together. "Look what this man has done to honor his father," he said.
Jesse, who is now almost 60, has two children and a 9-month- old grandson. The display case sits on a cabinet in a prominent place in the den of his Chatsworth home. He tells his son, Vincent, "This isn't mine. I'm just the keeper. When I go, it goes to you, and then to your son. And then on and on, down the line."