Book: Resilience - The Life of a Mexican American. Novel based on a true life story. Names changed to protect participants. Introduction & 18 Chapters. I´ve posted first nine chapters. Interested in reader feedback. If interested, please read and provide me contructive feedback via comments. For additional chapters and poems, email (comments emailed to me, not posted so as not to influence future readers)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Chapter 7: Dad´s Coaching

I didn’t know I was poor until I went to school.

I grew up wearing second hand clothes, living in an old house and owning very few toys.

This was not unusual in my neighborhood. All of my relatives and most of the other Mexican-American families from our church were in the same financial boat we were in.

Most of us came from large families. Our hard working Dads worked multiple, low paying jobs with no chance of getting ahead. Our mothers did not work outside of the home and stayed home to raise their children. This was common.

Poverty, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. We had strong, close knit families. We had strong Christian values. We believed in hard work. We were rich in spirit and we were good people.

All of the Mexican American families in town went to the same Catholic Church. Dad and a few other families were instrumental in getting this church established.

When our family first arrived in town, we went to the Cathedral Catholic church. Dad was very involved with the church. He often did jobs for the priests. He painted buildings or rooms for them. He painted signs. He served as a handy-man. In return, we were allowed to attend Catholic school for reduced tuition.

Dad and other Mexican-American leaders asked the church for a Mass in Spanish. Many of the migrants, all citizens, could not speak English.

The church complied and said a Mass in Spanish. We had our own priest who energized the Spanish speaking community.

Soon these Masses were so crowded Dad and his friends petitioned to have their own church. The Monsignor agreed.

Within the next couple of years, Christo Rey church was established.

This was quite an accomplishment, especially back in the fifties and sixties when nothing came easy for any us.

There were several areas of town that were segregated. No Mexican-Americans were allowed to enter certain stores, restaurants, bathrooms or bars.

A famous story that many of the early Mexican families remember was about my father de-segregating the North End of town.

Dad was one of the first Mexican Americans in Lansing and one of the first men hired at his Auto Factory. He was six foot tall, intelligent, handsome and very engaging. He was allowed to enter the local pub across the street from the factory. Other Mexican Americans were not.

The bar owner was a county law official. He liked Dad and welcomed him into his place. They were both big, strong and liked to show off their strength in arm wrestling or other bar games.

Dad was close friends with many of the Mexican American men who also worked at the factory. They set up their own section of the AFL-CIO since they were not allowed to attend meetings with the overall union.

Dad said to the bar owner, “We have good times here. I want my friends to come in and join us.”

The bar owner responded, “I am sorry. Mexicans are not allowed.”

Dad reminded him he and the men were American of Mexican descent.

Dad challenged the owner to an arm wrestling match. If Dad won, his friends were allowed in. If the Bar Owner won, Dad would never ask him to invite his friends in again. The Bar Owner, being a competitive man and believing he was stronger, agreed.

Everyone in the bar knew about the bet. Many of the white patrons tried to discourage the owner from taking the bet, but the owner was too proud to back down on his word.

The two men sat at a table near the back of the bar and began the arm wrestling match. All eyes were watching, including those of Dad´s friends peering in through the windows.

The match was long and grueling. Both men were big. Both men had sweat pouring from their brow. Arms were tilting first one way, then the other. Finally the match was over. Dad won.

When Dad won, an air of stillness and quiet filled the bar while a distant wild cheer could be heard from outside the bar.

The owner stood up. Dad stood up.

They faced each other.



You could hear a pin drop.

Then the two men embraced and everyone let out a sigh of relief.

The owner said, “A deal´s a deal!”

Dad´s friends were allowed in.

Many of the white patrons were upset but went along with the bar owner.

Within a matter of months, with this location desegregated, all the other bars in North Town were desegregated as well.

Soon, all the shops and restaurants in the North End were desegregated too.

My oldest brother Ramon told us many of the old Mexican American men in town told him this story as if it was a famous fable and our Dad was a renowned hero. Ramon was very proud. So were we!

Dad never bragged about his accomplishments. Instead he continued to coach us. He was a strong supporter of our family and wanted each of us to be successful in life.

Dad often said, “If you want to be successful in this country, expect to work hard, maybe twice as hard as everyone else. Nothing will ever be handed to you.”

“America is a land of opportunity. Always know and understand you are Americans first.”

“However, in this country, Mexican Americans are not expected to succeed. We are expected to fill the low paying, back breaking jobs. That’s what I have done, but I want you to have a better life.”“If you want to do better in life, first you much speak English flawlessly. Next, you must complete your education.”

“Then, you must work hard all of your life. Don’t expect anything to be easy. Work for everything you achieve and learn to appreciate whatever you get.”

“You will be expected to follow the rules created here in this country. You will see so many people breaking the rules and nothing happens. All of our people, however, are expected to obey every single one of them. If we don’t, we pay a heavy price.”

“Success will take courage, my children, Courage! God gave you the ability, now it’s up to you to make it happen!”

Dad taught us these lessons. He often preached to us, on and on.

When I was a young girl, I didn’t understand everything he said. I didn’t begin to understand until I went to school. There, the lessons sunk in. There, the differences between the rich kids and the poor ones, the Mexican-Americans and the Whites were very obvious. It was expected that I was not intelligent and I would fail.

I surprised them.

All through school, I followed the rules. I worked hard and proved that I was capable. I had to work hard, sometimes twice as hard to be recognized and acknowledged for my work.

I didn’t have many friends, but the ones I had were very close. I had my friend Helen, in kindergarten. Even though she tried to rub my color off, she was a good friend and we played very well together.

In first grade, Celia, my future sister-in-law, was a good friend and role model. She taught me how important it was to believe in yourself. The rich kids teased her too, but she didn’t care. She stood proud.

I learned another important lesson in first grade. “Following the rules helps you reap rewards.”

The nuns were strict disciplinarians and they always stressed the importance of following the rules.

“Fold your hands.”

“Sit up straight.“

“Speak only when spoken to.”

“Write Neatly.”

“Do your homework and turn it in on time.”

“Study, study, study.”

“Know your lessons!”

You were rewarded for following the rules. If you did a good job, a gold star was placed on your forehead or you may receive a Holy Card of one of the patron saints. If you did a really good job, you might win a Holy Statue.

At first, I never won anything. I was so nervous about standing up in front of the kids and speaking or reading aloud. The first time I had to do it, I nervously stumbled over my words and stuttered.

The kids all laughed.

Some said, “She’s a stupid Mexican, what do you expect!”

The Sister, though strict, stopped the children from laughing at me.

Compassionately, she stood next to me, put her arm around my shoulder and said, “Someday, Dee is going to do so well you will ALL be proud of her!” The kids were skeptical, but I knew, inside, if I tried hard enough, I could do it!

The Sister kept calling on all of us and pretty soon, we all stopped being nervous. I liked winning gold stars and Holy Cards. The gold stars were placed on our forehead. I remember running home and saying, “Dad, Mom, I won a gold star today.” I beamed proudly as they hugged and congratulated me.

If I won a Holy Card I placed it gently in my pocket and proudly showed my parents after school. Then I gave it to my mother to place in her Bible as a bookmark.

I didn’t think I had a shot at winning a Holy Statue. I won stars for memorizing my prayers, having good posture or writing the correct math answers on the black board.

The big prize, the Holy Statue, came with winning the spelling bee.

The words in the spelling bee were pretty tough for a first grader. The sister selected colors as the category. She sat us in a circle in the room. The early words were easy, R-E-D, B-L-U-E. Kids were dropping out like flies as the words got harder. Y-E-L-L-O-W. It started getting tough.

Finally, I was one of the finalists. I gathered my courage and spelled, “O-R-A-N-G-E!”

I did it! I won the Spelling Bee and my prize was a statue of St. Therese.

What was really neat about it was that I set my mind to win. I studied and watched my teacher´s every move as she conducted the quiz.

I noticed she was following the colors in the order they were displayed across the front of the room. When it was your turn to spell, we had our backs to these words.

I counted off the colors and I knew when it came to my turn, I was going to have to spell one of two words, Purple or Orange. I concentrated my efforts on memorizing just those two words.

I made it! I won the Holy Statue of St. Therese! I received the prize!

Dad was right. It was important to follow the rules. The nuns taught us HOW to follow the rules. I learned that if I followed the rules, I had the ABILITY to compete with anyone. I COULD WIN!

I kept that statue of St. Therese for years.

In second grade, when I transferred to St. Mary’s school, I decided to stay on the winning teams.

I wanted to be in the highest reading group. The highest group had the same name as my old, middle group, the Marions. So, I didn’t really fib when I said I was in the Marion’s reading group.

In first grade, they automatically put me in the lowest reading group. Some kids were automatically put into the middle or the highest group. I had to struggle and study to move up to the middle group.

In my new school, I came right into the highest group. When I was in the highest reading group, the teacher and the kids treated me like I was smart. I didn’t have to take any grilling tests. From second grade on, I stayed in the highest reading groups. It was easy to keep up when they expected I would do well.

In third grade, I had a terrible experience. I was swinging between two chairs. Mom warned me, “Quit doing that. You’ll fall.”

She was right. I fell flat on my face. I was knocked out. Mom picked me up and sat me on her lap. My front tooth lay on the floor.

When Mom thought I was hurt, she cradled me close to make sure I was all right. When she saw I was ok, she cupped my face in her hands and said, “Never swing on two chairs like that again!”

I knew I should have stopped swinging. She was worried about me and she cared about me.

As far as my missing tooth was concerned, there was never any thought about taking me to a dentist. We were poor.

In fourth grade, my parents moved us to public school. They couldn’t afford the Catholic School tuition anymore, even at the reduced rates.

While I appreciated all I learned in Catholic School, I liked going to public school. Cedar Street School was only a block and a half from my house so I could walk to school instead of waiting for the bus. I also liked the fact that public school was about a year behind Catholic School.

I was being taught the same curriculum in fourth grade that we were taught in third grade. While I mentioned this to the teacher, she still thought I was some sort of a genius because I always had the right answers.

I met up with my Kindergarten friend Helen again. She didn’t seem to mind my front tooth being missing. I was teased horrendously at home. My brothers and sisters called me Ollie after a kid’s show about a one-tooth dragon.

Helen didn’t tease me. The other kids in school didn’t bother me too much either. I was marked as a very good student and I was often placed in the elite advanced group.

The advanced group sat in a special section of class. We were given special privileges. Often, we went on field trips and were allowed to come and go from the classroom for special assignments.

That year, we had a student teacher named Miss Jones. She took me under her wing and often told me how smart I was. She said I could do anything I set my mind to. I believed her.

Miss Jones stayed and provided me special coaching throughout the year. In April, the month Miss Jones left, the regular teacher, Miss Hertel, put on a play in Miss Jones’ honor.

Miss Hertel identified the cast and called us all up to the front of the room, one by one.

When she didn’t call my name, Helen said, “Something must be wrong. Why don’t you come up with me when I get called.”

I did just that.

I went up when Miss Hertel called Helen’s name as one of the townspeople. Finally, she called my name last and asked where I was.
“I’m up here,” Miss Hertel. “You called me earlier.”
“I did? Oh my mistake. I was going to have you be the announcer instead of one of the townspeople. I guess I’ll have to name someone else,” she smiled.

There wasn’t any use in arguing. It was my own fault for being impatient.

When Miss Hertel asked if anyone had a tea set they could bring in for the play. I raised my hand. Mom had given me a nice, silver tea set the previous Christmas. I brought in my tea set and since it was so pretty, it turned out to be the star of the play.

In fifth grade, I was placed in the advanced math class. Math was my favorite subject.

My teacher, Mr. Somes, took a special interest in me. He noticed that I had a severe lisp and when I laughed, I covered my mouth with my hand. He asked me to stay after school one day.

“Dee. I know about your teeth.”I quickly put my hand over my mouth and put my head down.

He came up to me and lifted my chin. “Don’t be shy or ashamed of your teeth,” he said gently. “It’s not your fault. I’ve talked to some people from the Crippled Children’s Fund. They’ve agreed to pay for your teeth. Is this ok with you?”

I thought about it for a quick second and quickly nodded my head. I wanted my teeth fixed.

I was very embarrassed by my teeth. He didn't know about the constant “Ollie” teasing I received at home. He didn’t know I spent many nights crying about my missing tooth. I didn’t think there was anything that could be done since we had no money.

Once, I was so desperate I even tried to put a piece of white metal in my open slot to cover up my missing tooth. This worked for a short while but I removed it when the metal made my gums bleed.

Mr. Somes asked me to have my parents call him. He said he would make the arrangements with them.

I ran home quickly that night and told my parents about the generous gift my teacher had secured for me.

Mom and Dad saw my happiness and I saw their reluctance.

Mr. Somes followed up with a phone call to Mom and Mom hesitantly agreed to take me to the dentist.

The next week, Mom took me to the described dentist.

The dentist examined me and said, “Her remaining teeth are very strong. I have two choices. I can pull out her other front tooth and put in a two teeth partial or, and here is what I’d rather do, I will put braces on her teeth as they are. She will have the braces on her teeth for one year. Then we will put in a false tooth. That way, all of her teeth will be straight and we’ll keep as many of her real teeth as possible.”

What he was asking had astounding consequences in my twelve year old mind. A year of braces with a split tooth equated to forever. A lifetime!

I asked, “I have to wear braces for a whole year with a missing tooth in between? You can’t fix them now?”

Mom told him we would think about it and call him back.

Mom gave Dad the news. He was still reluctant about the whole thing. “I know she wants to get her teeth fixed, but I don’t like taking a handout.”

Mom added, “She didn’t like the idea either.”
“You didn’t like the idea either?” he asked.

I shook my head. I could only think of all the taunts I’d get from the kids. A missing tooth and braces. What could be worse?

Dad looked relieved. He said to Mom, “You just call back the dentist and tell him we will save money to get her teeth fixed ourselves.”

I still had a great time in Mr. Somes class. All the kids in his advanced class felt privileged. Mr. Somes talked about politics often. We learned about the Nixon and Kennedy Presidential Campaign. Mr Somes didn’t tell us his preference of candidate. He let each of us decide who we thought was best based on the issues.

After reviewing the issues, the class was divided about 50 – 50. I decided I liked Senator Kennedy best. He was a man who was for the people.

I wrote Senator Kennedy a letter letting him know what we were doing in class. I also said I would vote for him if I were old enough.

A few weeks later, Mom said an envelope came for me. It was in a brown envelope about eight inches long and six inches wide. I never received mail for me before. Excitedly, I opened up the envelope. It contained a letter from Senator Kennedy thanking me for my letter and a signed, autographed picture of him.

I showed everyone in my family the letter and the picture. I also showed everyone at school my new prized possession.

When I brought the picture home, I proudly hung his picture up on the wall in my bedroom.

At this same time, Dad watched the news every night. He liked Walter Cronkite and told us he was an honest man.

Senator Kennedy came to Lansing that summer for his Presidential Campaign. I begged Gloria to take me downtown to the Capital to see him. Thousands of people had the same idea. We were all on the Capital lawn listening to his speech. We felt like we were watching history when he visited.

My parents said they were voting for Senator Kennedy for President. That November, we were so excited when Kennedy won. We all knew my father voted for him and we felt we had a personal stake in this election.

Mr. Somes was my teacher in both fifth and sixth grade, so we followed the campaign through the election with him. This made the whole event very relevant to all of his students.

In sixth grade, Mr. Somes, always so caring about all of his students, asked me why I didn’t have my teeth fixed the year before. I told him what happened. He just shook his head.

I still enjoyed his advanced class. He made learning fun and our group remained friends throughout the year.

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