My family had just gotten home from our annual trip to Mexico the night before my first day of 7th Grade. (In Utah, Elementary School is from Kindergarten – 6th Grade, Junior High is from 7th – 9th Grade, and High School is from 10th – 12th Grade.) As it was a long travel day from my parent’s hometown in Central Mexico (San Luis Potosi), we had gotten home late and I was exhausted. And since I had been responsible for waking up and getting ready for school all by myself since I was in Kindergarten (because my parents went to work very early and my older siblings left for school way before me), there was nobody else to blame when I woke up late for my first day of Junior High.
I distinctly remember waking up and trying to figure out where I was: “Was I still in Mexico? Was it Saturday?” No, it was the first day of school and I was starting off poorly. Not having a ride if I missed the school bus, I threw on some close and ran out the door. I made it to bus by a mere minute or two, but I was completely unprepared. While all the other kids were wearing their new “back to school designer jeans and new shoes”, I was wearing the gym shorts, a wrinkled t-shirt that came straight out of my suitcase, carrying a backpack with nothing but my class schedule in it, and I had no money for lunch.
Despite a rough start, I was able to make it through that first day. Unfortunately for me, waking up on time would be the least of struggles over the next three years. Unlike Elementary School, the social dynamics of Junior High were far more complicated. As there were way more students, the formation of cliques was rampant and it was everyone’s top priority to belong. At least that’s how I saw things. Perhaps that was just me projecting my own insecure desires, but at the time, I was positive that everyone had to fit into a stereotype of some sort. Either you were a Jock, a Preppie, a Cowboy, a Nerd, a Skater, or a Gangster. Except that I wasn’t any of these things, regardless of how hard I tried.
At times, I felt like a walking contradiction: I was in all of the Honors classes so I kind of fit in with the Preppies, I was athletic enough to hang out with the Jocks in Gym, and of course I was Mexican, so by default I looked like I should fit in with the Gangsters. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, it never felt quite right. I was always too brown and too poor to fit in with Preppies. I was always too short and too fat to actually make the basketball team and truly fit in with the Jocks. And I was too smart and too scared of getting into trouble to really hang with the Gangsters. But, like hell if I didn’t try.
While all the Preppies were wearing their designer Girbaud Jeans, I was saving up all the money I had earned working in the onion fields over the summer just to buy a couple pairs of Levi’s 505s. And while the Gangsters were wearing big black coats of sports teams like the Oakland Raiders, the LA Kings, and the Georgetown Hoyas, I had a turquoise colored ski jacket of the San Jose Sharks that my brother sent me from South Korea while he was deployed with the Army. And my ninth grade year, when I was the last person to be cut from the final roster of the basketball team, I was asked to video tape the games and still travel with the team for away games.
Even though it was my deepest desire to simply fit in, despite my earnest efforts, I couldn’t make it happen. This fueled my insecurity and lack of confidence, which in turn created resentment toward the society in which I lived. And yet, this too was a contradiction. While I didn’t feel like I was making any headway within the social dynamics of my school, there was a place outside of school that I genuinely did feel appreciated. It was in a community youth group called Corazon (“heart” in Spanish) that was run by the county with the mission of keeping at-risk minority youth out of gangs.
I was in 7th Grade the first time I went to a Corazon activity. My older brother and sister had been loosely involved with the organization and that’s how I first met Beatrice Espinoza (who would later be known to me as Grandma Bea). Bea was in her sixties at the time and all of about 4’11” tall. She had jet black hair and wore great big grandma glasses. Despite her small physical stature, she had the respect of some of the biggest and toughest gangsters I had ever seen.
From the very beginning, Bea saw something in me that I did not see in myself. Though I was very shy and so completely insecure, Bea never missed an opportunity to put me in some kind of leadership role. At first, it involved simple tasks like telling everyone it was time to load up into the vans or collecting permission slips. Then it grew into weekly tasks of calling all the members to remind them about the meetings. Eventually, it led to me becoming the Corazon President, by Bea’s direct appointment, which entailed me running the weekly meetings and often times teaching the life skills lessons.
The funny thing is that I never asked for any of this responsibility. What I wanted was to fit in, but instead of fitting in with all of the other poor, at-risk, brown kids in the group, I was excluded and made a leader. This was definitely not what I wanted, but it was apparent that this is what Bea thought I needed.
And it didn’t stop there…
Though it was a regular occurrence for Bea to slip me $5 in a discrete hand shake because I was one of her favorites, she started hiring me to do odd jobs for her around the community. From mowing the lawn of her tiny christian church, to stripping the shingles off of her daughters house, to setting up chairs at the city amphitheater of which she was on the Board of Directors. With each new job, she paid me a little bit more, until she ultimately gave me a way out…
By the time I was fifteen, all of my older siblings were in college or out working on their own. This meant that during the summer, it was just my Dad and I who were left to go work in the onion fields. Starting at 4:30am, right as dawn was approaching, we would be unloading our tools from the station wagon in an effort to get a jump on the desert heat. The funny thing about the desert is that it is a place of extremes. In our attempt to start working early to miss out on the afternoon scorchers of 100+ degrees, we were forced to endure the chilly mornings which could dip into the 50s. The cold mornings were regularly made worse as the dew from the onion leaves would soak our jeans from the knee down, which would leave us both shivering and longing for the sun to crest over the Rocky Mountains to warn us up. Ironically, the heat from the sun which we longed for in the morning was the same heat that we would curse in afternoon.
My dad and I would often times work in silence. He would spend the time whistling iconically as he was known to do and I would rest with my thoughts. When the work would increase in intensity, because there were a lot of weeds to pull or the heat was becoming unbearable, my Dad would take advantage of the opportunity to remind me of my true responsibility:
“Do you like working out here?” he would shout at me in Spanish.
“No.” I would reply as if there was a chance he might let us quit working right then.
“Well then, you better study!” he would shout back in reply.
“If you don’t want to have to work out here, all you have to do is go to school and study hard. Then you can go get a job working in the air conditioning. All you have to do is study. Don’t get me wrong, this is honorable work. The dollars are all just laying here, waiting for someone to come pick them up. But most people are too lazy or too arrogant to come and get them. But not us! We’re here.”
… Following my Dad’s advice, I enthusiastically accepted the second Bea offered me a summer job as her teaching assistant at the Migrant School! No more onion fields for me, I thought. From now on I’ll be working in the air conditioning, making a quarter above minimum wage, helping Kindergarten students say their ABC’s, jump to shapes, and taking them to swim lessons twice a week.
So, that was my way out of the fields: I worked as Bea’s teacher’s aide for the next four summers. One summer in the preschool class, two summers in kindergarten, and one summer in first grade. I made more money than I ever had in the fields, I was gaining valuable work experience, my job entailed arguing with five-year-olds about which Power Ranger was the best, and I got to play basketball at recess twice a day.
My dad was right. Studying hard did pay off. That, and having a Grandma Bea to look out for me. I still didn’t fit in, but I was learning to quietly accept / resent it.