Part One: The Barrio, 1995
When I was 11 years old my dad graduated with his Bachelor’s Degree and was a certified teacher. He had been working two jobs plus going to school full time and working in a small mission church. Not to mention, raising two children and trying to maintain an ancient house in the drug filled Frogtown neighborhood in Saint Paul.
In the nineties there was a great shortage of jobs for teachers so my dad came home frustrated many times as he dressed in his Oxford shirt and well worn brown shoes when more and more schools lacked any job openings.
Finally, one day, my dad came home from a job fair. If Minnesota was a draught of jobs, apparently in Texas there was a plethora. Texas was the answer, surely.
We packed up our Chevy Station wagon with bare minimums and drove the 22 hours down to Texas. My brother and I slept in the back with the seats down. Our only source of entertainment a gigantic black boom box CD player that needed about 12 C sized batteries. We listened to books on tape and after every tape felt it necessary to have a fist fight just to keep from dying of boredom.
When we got to Texas my parents rented a one bedroom house in Humble Texas. There were all kinds of new adventures like lizards, cockroaches, fire ants and strangely enough–crabs. Our backyard was littered with claylike soil that the crabs would push out of the ground from that make it look like little volcanos.
Needless to say, our barefoot Minnesotan ways ceased and the backyard became like a minefield of danger. My brother Tim, who was 6 at the time, was the biggest sufferer in this backyard experience since he decided to sit down…right on top of a fire ant nest. He was a brave little solider and we brushed him off like he was literally on fire.
While we were having backyard adventures my dad was starting his first year as a teacher at a school in the inner city of Houston. The school he got to break into the career at was what was considered to be a “last chance” school. Gang members, convicted felons and at risk youth went through metal detectors to get to his classroom and try one last time to avoid being sent out of the system for good.
My big tough dad was a magician with these kids–he understood them–and they loved him because they knew he came with his own life struggles. It was a hard job, he came home exhausted.
One Sunday after church my dad announced that he had discovered where the best Mexican food was in the city. A Latino student had let him in on the best food but had followed up with, “Maestro…you don’t want to go over there”. It was in a gang ridden neighborhood where many students warned that it wasn’t safe for “gringos”.
My dad was undaunted He and my mom always have had a gift for breaking through racial barriers almost unnoticed. In fact, the word “breaking” doesn’t even begin to describe what they do. They simply saunter through the barriers, and as soon as they cross, those on the other side look at them as if to say, “oh yeah-you’re safe”.
So my brother, mother and I in our Sunday School clothes and my dad in his grey wool suit walked into a huge Mexican cantina that was literally abuzz with Spanish conversation and Tejano music. As my dad walked in the door suddenly it became a Clint Eastwood movie. We were the only white people there, probably the only white people for miles. Everyone in the place, over a hundred people at least, stopped eating, speaking or even cooking and stared at us. All you could hear was the Latina singing about her amor on the speaker system.
My dad and mom looked around the restaurant, smiled their huge sincere smiles and marched up to the counter to order, talking loudly about the smells and the possibilities of sope y chorizo tacos.
The restaurant look at us…..looked at each other…looked at us. And then collectively seemed to shrug their shoulders and go back to their conversations and eating. The fiesta regained its footing and hit full potential. And we were happy.
This is how I was raised; being in places I wasn’t supposed to fit in. Being with people that I wasn’t supposed to understand. But the spirit of my family knows no boundaries. We simply were and are and will be.