The Pioneer of Tunkas

Story By Anjulie Van Sickle

Zenaido Parra tells the story of a long-lost version of Tunkas, a small town in the Yucatan. He tells of grass huts and oil lamps, of villagers who worked hard in the fields but barely made enough to feed themselves. His nine-member family crammed into a one-bedroom grass home.

It was a town of dirt roads without a central square. There wasn’t even electricity. He tugs at his blue jean baseball cap with “Hollywood” stitched in bronze letters. He adjusts his silver wedding band.

Zenaido was the pioneer who started a movement that changed the face and destiny of this town.

“All of these houses that you can see come from the US.”

“If no one had left, we would have nothing like this,” Zenaido says, looking out at the small village of halfway-constructed homes that make up Tunkas. “All of these houses that you can see come from the U.S.”

He left in 1968 for the United States in the hopes of making a better life for his wife Matilde and seven children, who remained back in Tunkas. Zenaido was among the first to arrive without proper documentation.

For more than 40 years, Zenaido made a life for his family in Anaheim, Calif., working as a construction worker. He and Matilde Parra raised their seven children, 28 grandchildren and eventually 10 great grandchildren in their new country, all of whom still live in different places in the United States.

His journey began in Tijuana, followed by Los Angeles, where at the advice of his brother-in-law he started as a construction worker on a 60-day tourist visa, which he over stayed. Eventually, Zenaido and his family received legal permanent residency.

Zenaido sold flowers in LA for the first 20 months and sent $20 every week back home to his family. When he went back to California, he took his wife and one of his daughters, Julia, with him. Then they went back for their four daughters, for their three boys and their caretakers.

“Our youngest one was very used to being with his grandmother,” Zenaido says. “We didn’t want to take him apart from her, so we just took my mother with us. Then we brought my dad.”

And then more. Inspiration spread among other villagers. They saw how well Zenaido was doing in the United States and soon even non-relatives began immigrating to southern California. Like other communities across Mexico, they set up a human network in which the town uproots itself and follows brave pioneers.

Matilde also had a hand in the immigration boom. She was so homesick she devoted her life in the United States to developing a small community in Anaheim that closely resembles Tunkas, right down to the saints of the region and the Yucatecan dresses with their distinctive embroidery. Many in that community were women.

Photos by Laura Jarrie
Zenaido Parra, the first immigrant who travelled from Tunkas to the United States, sits alone in the kitchen of his Tunkas home. Zenaido’s house is nearly empty now as he spends much of his time away from Tunkas after his Matilde died.
more images

In 2008, a total of 209 people migrated out of Tunkas, 79 of whom were women.

Today, Zenaido says there is a direct correlation between the development of Tunkas and migration to the United States.

Despite the prosperity they earned, he says, they can never forget where they came from. For 40 years, Matilde and Zenaido would bring their family back until the family was old enough to choose to stay in Southern California. The husband and wife would continue to make their visits twice a year.

They rarely visited their little village. But for Zenaido and Matilde, it never stopped being their home.

“I like it better here [in Tunkas], but all my family is [in the United States], so I have to go back to see my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren,” Zenaido says.

In 2012, Matilde told Zenaido one night in Orange County, “Take me back to Mexico because I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

She was dying from cancer. Alive or dead, she wanted to go back to Mexico in the dark because she didn’t want people to see how the disease had ravaged her body.

“They were married, Zenaido calculates, for “52 years, 48 days, and some hours.”

Matilde never made it back to Tunkas alive.

Her husband escorted her white-and-gold coffin back by plane. But the coffin didn’t make the connection on time from Mexico City to Merida. He waited all day and drank white tequila. As per the woman’s dying wish, the coffin wasn’t found until after nightfall. He buried her the next morning in the Tunkas cemetery, in a closed coffin ceremony.

Her husband played the nostalgia-heavy song, “Mexico Lindo y Querido” (Mexico Beloved and Beautiful) at her funeral:

My beautiful and beloved Mexico Should I die far from you Let them say I am asleep and bring me back to you.

Matilde finally came home for good.

He was 19 years old and she was 13 years old when they married. She was everything to him. They were married, Zenaido calculates, for “52 years, 48 days and some hours.”

“I cannot get used to being alone,” he says. It’s evident by his empty seven-room house.

On the front of the house reads the name of Matilde’s old boutique, Novedades y Butique Santa Cecelia, painted in black letters against cherry red paint.

It’s been three years since Matilde died, but her design touches linger all through Zenaido’s house. White lace rests on couches, armchairs and tables. Matching curtains hang from every door and window frame. The kitchen floor is checkered with turquoise and coral. Dusty glassware fills china cabinets. Pictures of her decorate many walls and shelves.

In his bedroom, the dresser is cluttered with black toothcombs, Polo cologne, and a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey. In a separate bedroom, a suitcase sits ready and waiting on the neatly made bed.

Zenaido spends most of his time in the backyard, Matilde’s favorite place. Potted plants sit under the covered, pink patio lined with duck wallpaper. A cement pathway winds through the bright trees and draping foliage to a small palapa.

In his bedroom, the dresser is cluttered with black toothcombs, Polo cologne, and a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey. In a separate bedroom, a suitcase sits ready and waiting on the neatly made bed.

Zenaido knows he isn’t staying long in Tunkas.