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Growing Up in Mexico: Inside, Outside the Walls

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    MEXICO CITY— Only a few streets separated Quinta Rosa, the flowery estate where the Richardson family lived, from the little tin-roofed adobe home of the Mirandas, the family that sold tortillas in the Barrio de San Francisco.
    It could have been a world away.
    The Richardsons' home was a 10,000-square-foot hacienda surrounded by gardens and stables and with a staff that included a cook, a driver and gardeners. The compound sat behind a tall wall, and it would have been easy for the American banker William Richardson and his Mexican-born wife to stay behind those walls, socializing with the other American expatriates and the elite of Mexican society.
    Instead, they cleared a large field outside their front gate, built a baseball field there and provided balls, bats and gloves for the neighborhood boys. They called the team Los Yankees de San Francisco, and Bill Richardson was their star pitcher.
    One of the Miranda boys, Ernesto, played on the team and became one of Richardson's best friends.
    "Bill started it," Miranda said, walking the same streets today and noting how houses now fill the space where they used to play ball. "The Yankees because it was his favorite team in the United States, and San Francisco because of the neighborhood."
    Los Yankees practiced on the Richardsons' ball field, and the Richardsons took the best of them to play in Mexico City's Little League.
    It was on those fields that Richardson started to feel the first pull between the different circles in which he traveled— a divide that would much later form the title of his autobiography, "Between Two Worlds."
    Los Yankees are mostly grandfathers now. Miranda is 59 and leans on a cane. He lost a leg recently in a bicycle accident while he was delivering tortillas.
    He said Richardson seemed at ease balancing alliances to his rich American friends and his poor Mexican ones.
    "There were a lot of American kids in those leagues," Miranda said, "and the American kids would say, 'Why the hell do we want to play with those dirty kids?' And Bill would say, 'These are my friends.'
    "They would ask him, 'Why do you hang out with these kids?' and he would say, 'These are my friends.' ''
    Miranda, like many of the neighborhood kids, was the frequent beneficiary of the Richardsons' generosity. The Richardsons bought him new Lee jeans, fed him sandwiches and paid for him to go to a private Catholic school.
    His nickname, Penguin, came as a result of receiving his first fancy clothing— a too-large black suit that was a hand-me-down from the Richardsons' handyman.
    Miranda and the other kids were frequent visitors at the Richardsons' house and dutifully followed his grandmother to Mass every Sunday morning, after which they were rewarded with ice cream cones.
    "We would all play with his toys— bicycles, big toy cars— and we didn't have a TV, so we would go watch TV," Miranda said. "His father and his mother never said, 'Not that kid— don't let him in.' Never. To him everybody was a friend, equal."
    Off the playing fields and outside the Richardson estate's high walls, there was less mixing between the groups.
    Miranda went to school in the neighborhood, and Richardson was taken by a driver to private schools, the bilingual Pan-American Workshop for elementary school and the American Crocker School for seventh grade.
    Outside the neighborhood, there were suit-and-tie parties with the children, American and Mexican, of a higher social class.
    "There were times when he'd go to a party and he'd ask me, 'Penguin, why don't you walk with me, take me to the party, although you can't come in, unfortunately.' These were upper-class functions."
    Richardson is commonly referred to as the son of an Anglo father and a Mexican mother, but the mix is much richer.
    Richardson's mother, Maria Luisa Lopez-Collada, was the daughter of a mother from an intellectual family from Oaxaca and a blond-haired, blue-eyed father from northern Spain.
    Richardson's father, after whom he was named, was also half-Spanish. His father, an Anglo biologist from Boston working in Nicaragua, met his mother, Rosa, as she got off a boat from Spain.
    Richardson's father ended up in Mexico City after postings in Italy and Cuba for First National City Bank of New York, called Citibank today. He was sent to Mexico City in 1929 to open a branch of the bank and remained its vice president and manager for 29 years.
    The union that produced Bill and his younger sister, Vesta, was not love at first sight. The American banker lived next door to the Lopez de Collada household, and Maria Luisa and her sisters knew of him only as the eccentric American neighbor.
    He gruffly called the police on the girls when their suitors came around and serenaded them at night. And he wore a homburg hat everywhere he went, even when he rode his horse down the middle of the famous Avenida de Reforma.
    Oddest of all, he owned a misbehaving chimpanzee. The chimp knew how to open the refrigerator door and peel the top off the milk bottle, turn the bottle up and take a drink.
    Maria Luisa and her sisters would peek through the gap in the wall and say, "Look at the gringo loco!"
    But when Maria Luisa finished business school at 19 and wanted a job as a secretary, she applied at the bank.
    Without looking at her, Richardson reviewed her qualifications. Then he looked up and told her she would not get the job.
    "You're too young," he told her. "I don't like to hire young, pretty girls because they immediately start fooling around with my boys."
    Furious, she walked out, telling him, "I cannot grow up just to please you."
    Of course, she got the job. And although he was 25 years her senior, he asked her to resign after two years so they could begin dating.
    They married in 1936, and 11 years later William Blaine Richardson III was born. But not before his mother decamped to Pasadena, Calif. The birth on American soil was partly due to his mother's hypertension and a doctor's suggestion that she spend the last months of her pregnancy at sea level and partly due to his father's wish to have children who were American citizens.
    It was a propitious decision for someone who might one day want to run for president of the United States.
    But Bill Richardson was American on paper only. When he was 3 weeks old, he was back in Coyoacán.
    Although his family was the wealthiest in the neighborhood by far, Richardson grew up with a common touch.
    "He used to go to our house, our little humble house, and he would walk in and say, 'Mmmmm. It smells like beans. How about I get a little bit of that? '' Miranda recalls. "He would rather give you his ham sandwich and eat a tortilla and beans. That was Bill. We got the better food."
    Richardson was following his parents' direction.
    Vesta Richardson said someone from the neighborhood would knock on the Richardsons' door once or twice a week and ask for a loan. Her dad would hand over the loan, and when the person left he would blow a kiss.
    "Goodbye, money," he would say. "You're never coming back."
    But it was done with good nature, she said. Her father explained, "He needs it more than I do."
    "My dad had this philosophy of life that he transmitted to us very clear," she said. "You cannot help the whole world, but it's your duty to help whoever is within your reach."
    At 13, Richardson left the familiar embrace of the Barrio de San Francisco for New England, a place where, he said, he felt like an outsider until baseball gave him distinction.
    He returned home at Christmas, spring break and in the summer. And when he was away he kept in touch, asking Miranda and others to send him newspapers so he could keep up on Mexican boxing— and in one letter telling Miranda he had been to the zoo. "You'll never believe it," he wrote, "I saw your relatives— penguins!"
    "Even when he went to American schools, he never lost that sense of being who he really was among us," Miranda said. "He never treated us like we were from a different place, from a different society."
  • Richardson's father used to make Bill and his sister, Vesta, learn a new word from the encyclopedia each night before dinner.
  • Richardson is half Spanish; one quarter Mexican and one quarter Anglo American.
  • Bill and Barbara Richardson considered Florida and Texas before they settled in New Mexico.
  • One of Richardson's favorite childhood snacks was a tortilla with salt.
        Bill Richardson grew up caught between the privilege of private schools and barrio street life in Mexico City.
        JAN. 28
        A frenetic lawmaker, Richardson became a player in Washington and was known as "undersecretary for thugs."
        FEB. 4
        Richardson won high marks as U.N. ambassador but found his career stalled by a series of scandals while Secretary of Energy.
        FEB. 11
        Hard-charging Richardson, known to some as King Bill or GovZilla, has seemingly been on the run ever since he became governor.
        FEB. 18
        Despite an impressive resume, Richardson has much work ahead to become a serious presidential contender.