Gabriel Nevarez shares his life story, a story that traces a family’s immigrant experience.
My story began like many other immigrant stories do. My father, not educated past middle school, was having a hard time supporting his family in México. Even though he held a decent job with the agriculture department (a government job) in Chihuahua , an income in U.S. dollars is always more enticing. My father had come several times to Texas before. He worked and lived with an aunt of his who had married an Anglo man (my gringo uncle!) a farmer in the Texas Panhandle. My mother also joined him once prior to me being born. As a matter of fact, my mother returned to Chihuahua to deliver me!
From July-December 2007 I’ll be biking across the U.S. This experience will be the basis for book that follows José Martí’s 1891 call in “Our America” for a distinctively American culture, one that embraces rather than denies, the dynamic and organic relationship between place, language, and experience that shapes the American continent. In the blog I’ll document the exchanges I have with people about the Latinoization of the U.S. as well as my own life experiences and thoughts.
As a young child I was deported with my parents as they were trying to cross over. My father was held for a couple of months and returned to Chihuahua . My parents stayed in Mexico a couple of years and had two other children (my twin sisters). My father came over to the U.S. around 1980. He worked for several months while staying with my grandfather and saving up to get us all over here. We all finally made it over here in the fall of 1981.
I was enrolled in the third grade and was immediately assign to learn English with other migrant and illegal’s’ kids. The school I attended was very small and I can only remember one person (the ESL aide!!!) that spoke Spanish. I had always been very good academically. I was taught to read, write and multiply at age four by my maternal grandmother, who had been a rural teacher in México in the forties. So having a good background, I picked up the language in a flash. By the end of the year, I not only out of ESL, I was in the gifted program.
One of the things I noticed right away was the treatment of the minorities. I remembered how the socioeconomic difference was evident in México (I had attended private school in Chihuahua ), but the race issue was not there. In an Anglo dominant area, the minority (in this case mexicanos and a couple of blacks) were clearly treated differently. Not only that, their mentality was also different. I was not able actually conceptualize this until I was an adult and read about the concept from the sixties and seventies about fighting “the man”.
Anyways, my classmates who were minorities took me in and were friendly at first. When I started excelling in school, they began to distance themselves and even mock my participation in academic and extra curricular activities. It didn’t bother me since I was used to participating in such things in Mexico and was always encouraged by my maternal grandmother and most of my mothers’ family. As the time passed I became accustomed to being one of the few Mexican participants in many things.
One of the farmers my dad worked for was a very nice man and treated me like a son. His wife and daughters took me to many places and even enrolled in the organization of 4-H. I went to camps and many activities with them and was treated very nicely. But I did hear how some people would make remarks about “wetbacks” and things like that. Being outspoken, I would confront them and ask why they spoke like that. The most common answer was that I shouldn’t worry, that I wasn’t like them, I was different. It wasn’t until later that I realized that since I had assimilated to such a degree, that I was no longer perceived to them as a Mexican! It didn’t bother me, since in my heart I knew who I was.
Also as this time was passing, I became the official interpreter-translator –aide to everything my father and any relative or family friend needed to be done in regards to finances (banks, wiring money) , job issues (check cashing, job interviews), or living needs (renting a house, setting up utilities) in the surrounding area. This was in addition to working the fields since my first summer in the states (summer between third and fourth grade).
We lived in the states for about four years (third grade through sixth grade) and were getting stable as a family. My father had been working for the farmer I had mentioned for about three years. Financially, we were better off than ever, my mother and I were constantly working for the same boss doing extra work around the farm and adding to our household income. This was very different from the first year-year and a half we lived in the states. Many bad jobs, moves, and financial hardship were a roller coaster ride. Heck, I remember living in house during the winter months that never had pluming because the pipes were frozen whole time!
As sixth grade came to an end, my father realized he had it in the states. We were going back to México! This move would prove too costly later on. We returned to México where I had to repeat sixth grade to obtain their diploma to be able to enroll in middle school. Even with family friends who worked their connections, I could not get around this requirement, even though I has passed sixth grade with an “A” average in the states. I repeated sixth grade and completed seventh grade in Chihuahua . My father had been driving a taxi cab since we returned from Texas . One night, he got a couple of American tourist that wanted him to drive them to a neighboring city. My father told them he had a son who spoke English and picked me up, like before to be his interpreter. We drove them to next town and had a wonderful conversation. They told us about immigration laws that had changed and how we had the right to a permanent residency since we had lived and worked in the states during that time. I believe it was the Simpson- Rodino Act that allowed us to request this. As soon as the school year was over, my father and I headed back to the states to pursue this.
We became legalized in the following years. Eight and ninth grade were especially tough. During these two years I attended six different schools (four in one year!!!!). All this time I continued to do well in all the schools I attended. My last three years of high school I was able to finish in same school. This is town that I have called home, when people to this day ask me, “Where you from?” or “Where did you go to high school?”
During this whole time, I noticed the different attitudes, and how they had changed and is some cases progressed very little. Being the new “kid” in many different schools could classify me as a permanent outsider. On several occasions, Anglo counselors would put me in regular classes or even remedial, when I would enroll in the schools, when clearly my transcript would say what I was taking at the last school. I would fight this and had to constantly speak out for myself. I even heard one counselor tell a friend of mine, that he couldn’t attend college because he was Mexican!!! The interesting thing was that my friend was second-generation Mexican-American, but was not as outspoken as I was. The same counselor never told me such thing. A funny side note, my wife experienced this same type of blatant racism at a high school when she lived in the LA area a couple of months in high school!
As time passed in high school, I continued to be involved in the gifted program and got involved in the science fair in high school. My high school science teacher was an individual who saw you for who you were and not your race. If you could handle his curriculum, you were welcomed in his classes. Needles to say I took every course he had to offer. He got me interested and involved in the science fair project competition. His participants had a long track record of success. He had participants win and compete in the International Science fair for many years running. I competed and won my division and qualified for the International competition. With the win I was awarded a full scholarship in chemical engineering to Texas Tech University in Lubbock , Texas . That was my senior year and high school had come to an end. After dozens of schools and as many moves and working every summer, I had graduated high school (A average!!!!).
After high school kept working on the farm and attended several semesters at Texas Tech. In 1995, around the time when Selena’s tragedy was bringing Tejanos into the national spotlight, I moved to Raleigh , North Carolina to live with my aunt and uncle who had his own business. The move was nice, but the change was also drastic. North Carolina was going through a big boom. Construction was at full speed. Several publications had rated it the best place to live in the U.S. at the time. What people didn’t realize was that all that growth brought Latinos from many different countries to do their manual labor and construction. My uncle had been living there a couple of years before he married my aunt. He would tell me how difficult it was to find any Mexican food or products. When I lived there, businesses were starting to spring up to service the needs of the growing immigrant community. One particular incident that happened to me while living there, I was my uncles’ assistant and helped set up appointments for his flooring business. I called a customers and set up the installation date. When we showed up to do the work, the lady didn’t believe it was me who called. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t have an accent!!! During my time in North Carolina , I continued college taking some classes at a community college there.
After living there for a year I moved back to Texas , by then my parents had moved to El Paso . I enrolled at UTEP that year and fell in love with the place. I had never lived in place where you could be a Mexican and American at the same time!!! Spanish is common around campus and town. At times, English becomes optional!!!! I had changed majors by this time and was studying psychology. While at UTEP I met my lovely wife, who having been born in El Paso , had been raises in Juarez all of her life. She herself grew up speaking Spanish all her life and only English when at school. We have even had people who think she is the one born in Mexico .
After we married, I took a job for a state agency in Lubbock . I was hired because I was fluent in both languages and that very useful on the job. My wife was expecting our daughter at the time, so the good benefits were a reason for taking the job. During the year we lived in Lubbock , it was very hard for my wife to adjust. People made faces and remarks because of her accent. She applied at a school district and was told assistants were needed, even thought she as applying for a professional position. Since she was not used to this and the lack of opportunities for a young professional couple, we decided to move back to El Paso closer to family and better job opportunities. We also didn’t want our children to experience that kind of environment at such an early age.
Since then, have both worked for school districts here on the border. She has already obtained her master’s and I am about to finish mine. We have experienced other situations as we have traveled around the country with our friends and family. As a matter of fact, we visited Monterey , California this summer with some friends and their family. As we crossed the street, we had an older Anglo lady remark,” They look like a parade crossing the street!”, as there was eleven of us strolling the tourist area around the beach. People will continue to judge and make remarks. What we must do is to not stop in our efforts to become well rounded individuals. Like your phrase, latinoization will continue as long as we are present!!!