Chapter 01 – Growing Up Different

It wasn’t until I started kindergarten that I realized how different my family really was from the rest of the community I lived in. Because I grew up in a more rural country setting as opposed to a neighborhood, I never had the chance to play with other little kids. All of my time was spent playing with my eight older brothers and sisters and my nephew, who was like a little brother since he was only 3 years my junior. In essence, my family was all I understood of the world. How was I supposed to know that it wasn’t normal to burn the trash in old oil drums behind the house?

According to the fire department, it was actually illegal for us to burn our trash, which is funny because that is how my family had been disposing of our trash from 1965 to when they showed up in 1984. After that, the city delivered some garbage cans to our house and told us they would be by to empty them on a weekly basis. This was a concept I found convenient, but very strange, much like most of the things people outside my family did.

For example, I thought it was normal for a 4 year old boy to have eight older siblings and parents who were in their late fifties. I thought is was normal for a family with children young and old to work together in migrant farm fields after school, on the weekends, during spring break, and all summer long for less than minimum wage. I thought it was normal to have some sort of extended family members living with you at all times, be it an uncle, an aunt, a cousin, a grandma, a brother-in-law, or a nephew. I thought it was normal to share a 4-bedroom, 1-bathroom house with a minimum of eleven people, and I thought it was normal to use hand lotion as a substitute for hairspray or gel.

But, all that began to change when I started kindergarten.

Not all at once, but over the course of my first year in school, I learned that my family wasn’t very ‘normal’ at all. While everyone else in my class was white, my skin was brown. (Dark brown, to be exact, as all my free time was spent playing basketball on the hoop that was nailed to the back of the big red barn behind our farm house.) While the other kids had blonde hair and blue eyes, my hair was jet black and my eyes were dark brown. And while my new classmates had names like Chet, Curt, Josh, and Sam, my name was Omar Jesus Bravo.

If only that was then end of the differences. But, it wasn’t.

I remember seeing the young mothers that would volunteer in our classroom and thinking to myself two things: 1) She’s about my sister’s age and 2) Why can’t my Mom come and volunteer? Why does she have to go work in the farm fields? And why is she so much older?

From the beginning, I always thought my mother much to busy to be involved with my schooling. Likely, that had to do with the fact that she had 8 other children to attend to, a new grandchild, cooking, cleaning, working in the fields, working at the green house, etc. Or, perhaps this sentiment stemmed from my very first day of kindergarten; While all of the other kids had their (oh so young) parents dropping them off in the classroom, showing them to their seats, and snapping photographs all along the way, it was my older sister who quickly dropped me off on her way to her sixth grade classroom down the hall. Regardless, this was just another one of the ways in which I felt different.

I really hated the feeling of “not fitting in”. In retrospect, I think it has to do with coming from such a closely knit familial environment where there was always room for everyone, to an environment where I was so different from everyone else.

Fortunately, not all of my differences were to my perceived disadvantage in the classroom. While most of the other children seemed to have a hard time following the teacher’s instructions, I found it easy to simply do what I was told. It was especially easy when compared to the familial environment I was accustomed to where there were usually multiple people giving you instructions at the same time, the instructions were regularly given at an above-average volume, in Spanish, and there was always the threat of a “fajaso” (belt-whooping) if you failed to complete the instructions correctly and in a timely manner.

As such, I was considered a “very well behaved” student.

Regarding kindergarten academics, “learning” always just came easy to me. Regardless of the activity or subject matter, I was always at the head of the class. And through the praise of the teacher, I found validation and a sense of belonging, which only incentivised me to try even harder to be smart and well behaved. I guess I figured that if the teacher liked me, maybe nobody would notice how different I was.

Unfortunately, that never really worked. Because even if the other kids weren’t explicitly pointing out that I was different, I knew my family was different because of our religion: We were Catholic. And though that might not seem like a big deal, growing up in the Mormon capital of the world where more than 95% of the population is of the Mormon faith, this little Catholic boy felt quite ostracized. From not being invited to join the Boy Scouts (whose local chapter was run by the Mormon Church) to not getting to play in the Church basketball league, the fact that I was different never seemed to leave my side.

So it went for the first couple years of school: I felt different, so I sought solace in my academic abilities, and the other kids took it easy on my because I was smart and I would help them with their work if they needed it, which seemed to work out well for me.

That is, until I figured out that my family was poor.

Candidly, I never thought twice about wrapping my 99-cent chanclitas (slippers) in duct tape when the bottoms wore out or about only shopping at the second hand store for furniture. I never knew that all of our canned goods came in dented cans or that most families had air conditioners in their houses. All I knew was that my family loved each other, that we spent tons of time together, and we were always laughing, whether we were working in the fields or playing in the yard. But, when I was ten years old, my family moved from the farm house on the outskirts of town into a traditional suburban neighborhood, where the houses were right next to each other and there were always dozens of kids playing in the streets.

Though I really enjoyed getting to play with all of the kids in the neighborhood, this move was a challenging clash of my school life and my home life. Before the move, though I’m sure the other kids in my class suspected that my family was different, they never really got to see where I lived or what went on at my house. But, now that we lived in a neighborhood, my classmates could now see the old cars my family drove and hear the Mexican music that my Dad would play while he worked in the yard. Now, they could be kept up by the loud family barbecues that turned into late night parties and they could question why we dump all of our leftovers in the corner of our backyard for the stray cats (one of the many customs we brought from the farm house to the neighborhood).

But, the biggest difference happened on Sunday mornings: When everyone of the neighborhood kids walked to the neighborhood Mormon church, my family headed out to the one Catholic church in the city. While I was free to go out and play after church, all of the other kids were made to stay home, because it was Sunday, and playing with friends wasn’t allowed on Sundays.

So went my elementary years… I was different and I hated it. I would do my best to make up for my differences by excelling academically, but I always felt like I didn’t belong. And then I went to Junior High (middle school).