Washington, DC Immersion Memoir 3

July 1, 2017

 

The Einstein statue in all its glory is now visible from the street; riding the bus back to the hotel from the Smithsonian Festival, I saw it and I gasped, quietly but it truly caught my breath. It has always been one of my favorite monuments and I am glad that they cleared the bushes around it.  When I lived in DC in the 90s, I often visited it and always took visitors to see it although it was hidden and it took effort to get there. My life in DC! I relished the way life happened in the same space where the monuments and history happened. I would visit museums—free entrance at all Smithsonian museums—during my lunch hour and on weekends. I went to lectures, concerts, and had wonderful conversations with bright engaged people–my coworkers at NEA, friends I met through other friends, acquaintances. Things were happening!

Today, Saturday, walking by the rose garden on our way to the Arts & Industries building where we are set up with Veronica Castillo’s ceramics I recalled my Saturday morning forays to Eastern Market and the wonderful flower stalls where I would buy a bunch of glorious flowers—sometimes I would pick gladiolas or gardenias, or other less common ones. Usually I bought a bunch of common seasonal flowers–sunflowers in fall, tulips in late winter–that would then grace my table all week long. Bursts of color in what I considered a drab kitchen.  Of course, I also bought vegetables, cheese, meat, and antiques. It was Eastern Market where I picked up food for the week as well as the occasional piece of furniture. I still have the antique side tables I paid $5.00 for each one. Later I had a woodworker in Laredo fix them up. When I moved to Missouri I left one with Elsa and the other elsewhere. I’ll have to retrieve them as I miss them; they are reminders of those glorious Saturday mornings in DC. Where we would have a pancake breakfast inside the market or walk over to Le Pain Quotidien for a quiche or an omelet and read the Washington Post.

The restaurants in the area were fantastic–probably still are. I loved the Greek restaurant on Pennsylvania near the Library of Congress and the small neighborhood Argentine restaurant/grill within walking distance of my friend Alicia’s home. It was not uncommon to run into DC figures dining in the eating spots in the neighborhood. One day, at a restaurant, I got up to go to the restroom and ran into Sandra Day O’Connor who was at the table next to ours. In those pre-9/11 days, things seemed more relaxed and less tense.

“El trajin” as the Spanish call the daily grind of life did affect me, though, and I developed migraines. Headaches I had suffered once before, when I was Interim Dean at Texas A&M International University came back with a vengeance. I recall one such incident. The migraine struck as I was on my way to the office in the Old Post Office Building one spring morning. I was going down on the escalator at the Eastern Market metro when I saw a distortion of the escalator steps. I was not sure what was going on and the whole ride into town and on the short walk to the office after I got out of the metro stop, I kept willing myself to not notice and be strong. But when I arrived at the office, Dan Sheehy, who was the Director of the Folk and Traditional Arts program asked if I was ok. Obviously, I was not and he sent me home. I obeyed because I didn’t know what else to do. By then, the migraine was full-blown, and I could hardly see. I took a cab home and stayed home for 3 days with the excruciating headaches. It was shortly after that episode that I sought medical help. I wish I could report that living elsewhere the headaches went away entirely, I can’t. They still come sporadically and predictably—when I don’t heed and succumb to the “triggers” of chocolate, alcohol, bright lights. But, I am happy to report that I have not had a migraine in a while and when I do feel one coming on—usually the aura is in the form of lights or sight distortion—I just take the tiny pill and voila it’s under control. Not entirely gone, but abated and minimized.

Once a month, the Chicanas in DC got together for brunch. We were a lively and numerous bunch; Elvia, Alicia and others who had been there since the 80s told me that it wasn’t always so; when they got to DC barely a handful of Latinas worked there.  Sometimes up to 50 women gathered for our monthly meal. Usually it was around 20. Brunch at fancy and not so fancy restaurants where we could talk and network became “a thing.” I loved it as it provided a sense of solidarity. I met many women there as well as got reacquainted with Tejanas like my tocaya, the attorney Norma Cantú who was there serving as undersecretary in the Department of Education. Our being in DC together did cause confusion. When HispanicLink reviewed Canícula, they put her picture instead of mine! We had met when we were founding members of the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas in the mid 1980s; she was at MALDEF and I at what was then Laredo State University. I and other women from our Las Mujeres group attended the first conference; over 200 mostly Chicanas from all over the state met to organize ourselves into an organization that still survives 30 years later.

DC in summer. Hot and humid. Sudden thunderstorms with thunder and lightning electrify the air, cool the afternoon that minutes before had been hot and sticky as we sit drinking a mango smoothie on the mall during our break from working at the festival booth. The light at dusk on a Saturday evening as we walk to the theater reminds me of so many similar evenings over 20 years ago when life was a dream. We walk past Jaleo the tapas restaurant that opened just about the time I was leaving DC to go back to Texas. I let go of that past, yet treasure the memory. Forever keep the good feelings and the newness of first-time experiences in my heart. A heart that feels weary and sad these days of political incredulity, of “I can’t believe it”ness at every turn. But a heart that also harbors hope, like a magnolia bud about to burst into bloom. A heart that rejoices in simple things. A mango smoothie. A sudden breeze to offer respite from the heat. A hug from a friend. A smile on a child’s face when they see Veronica magically shape a face from a tiny ball of clay.

Washington, D.C. Immersion Memoir 2

June 30, 2017

A prom dress, the NEA and just me being me…

In September of 1993 I arrived in Washington DC to begin my Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) position at the National Endowment for the Arts. I had been in DC before working on the American Folklife Festival in 1987 and again in 1992. So when Dan Sheehy, then director of the Folk and Traditional Arts at NEA asked that I apply for the Senior Arts Specialist, I did. I went for the interview and loved the people I would be working with not to mention the work in support of traditional arts and artists.  A few years earlier, I had been a recipient of an apprenticeship grant from Texas Folklife to work with Maria Soliz, one of the expert quilters we had taken to Washington in 1987. So I was familiar with the Folklife program at the NEA.

Today’s forays back to the past included a visit to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History where I saw my prom dress in display in a new exhibit. I was carried back to 1965 and the Martin High School gym where I had the time of my life! My friend Tony Vela was my “date” and we hung out with other friends and danced the night away. At one point, I was leading the bunny hop! I love to dance and did so whenever I got the chance; that night was no exception.  I made the pale pink lace bodice beaded with tiny pearl beads that spring. I remember spending hours looking at magazines and pattern books deciding on the style; once I had chosen what I wanted—simple and elegant were my criteria—we went to the fabric store to purchase what we needed, including the 20 inch zipper the same color as the fabric. A pale pink like the underside of a seashell. I had wanted sleeves, but opted for sleeveless after debating in my own mind, the difficulty of sewing in sleeves. All along Mami was there coaxing, clarifying, assisting, but she wanted me to make it myself and offered only instructions.

How is it that the Smithsonian acquired my prom dress?  It’s not a long story but it is an example of serendipity. I had worked on a report to the Smithsonian on their Latino collection. And Nancy and Steve had been pleased with my work. They collected several important pieces, including a complete Escaramuza outfit from the hair ribbons to the boots of one of the leading young women in the tradition donated it all to the Smithsonian. She was married and had two young children and although she was still actively involved in the tradition, she was no longer riding and performing, so she felt she could donate the traditional outfit. So, when the museum was looking for stuff from teen culture in the 1960s, they asked if I had anything. I said I would think about it, but all I could think of were the albums I had in storage. As it turned out, I couldn’t get to the storage shed in San Antonio and they only got one for Los Peppers, a group from Laredo.

About a week after my  conversation with Nancy, I went home to Laredo and my sister and I started cleaning out a hug “colote” an industrial sized bin where my mother had stored clothing. Among the various items we found several dresses from when I wore a size 2.  And the prom dress. I remember when we saw it, I was moved to tears and immediately tried it on. Miraculously, it fit! Although now I am wearing a size 8 or 10, depending on the style. So I took it as an omen and when I got back to San Antonio, called Nancy and the dress was soon on its way to them.

But coming back to DC has also spurred memories of when I lived in the district, on 7th and D street NE, in fact. Memories of the many friends I made during that brief stay that was cut short by the Congress led by Newt Gingrtich cut the funding and I had to return to Laredo earlier than expected.  My two Puerto Rican friends—the only other Latinx in the institution—at least that I knew of–were let go, I lasted till the end of the year, but soon I too had to go.

The time in DC was well spent and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the city—its theater, its music, its large central American population (I learned to love pupusas!), en fin, I loved the city. I taught continuing education classes at Georgetown, finding the self-motivated students hungry for Latina and Chicana literature.

The images flash in my mind’s eye full of color and music and laughter. Saturday mornings shopping at Filene’s Basement or at the discount store where there were no dressing rooms just a huge room where you took the clothes and disrobed and tried on clothes in the company of dozens of women who were doing the same. We bought groceries at BJ’s ate at the Chinese restaurant in Shirlington before going to see the latest artsy film.  My weekdays were spent at the office calling and filling out forms, evaluating the material and filling out paperwork; my consolation was the writing work I did at night. Canicula was revised and finished during that time; I wrote a review of one of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s novel, Carry me like Water for the Washington Post.

In the end, the work was rewarding, but I knew it was temporary. And important! I also fell in love, walked under the cherry blossoms in spring, took long walks in RockCreek, met up with Max Holland from Nebraska days, visited bookstores, ate lunch at outdoor cafes, and lived like any city office clerk, which I kept telling myself I was not.

I met artists, musicians, writers, and of course, young staffers and interns. It was the Clinton era and the young people flocked to DC to work as staffers or interns and work for free.

When it was time to leave and go back to Texas, my heart shrank at the thought of returning to my old life in Laredo. But it was worth it! I stopped working the festival when I left, think. And now. I am back,  back to eating lunch on a hot muggy summer day under a tent that is trying its best to protect us but like a new mother unsure of what to do remains minimally efficient. The red checkered tablecloths on the participant tent tables remind me of previous festivals. We will be talking about the tradition tomorrow and Sunday. My heart aches thinking of the past festivals peopled by good folks, some who are now gone! I shudder passing through the Marriott’s front door—there it is again, Déjà vu.

 

 

Washington, DC — Immersion Memoir 1

June 29

Déjà vu

Flying into National (okay now it is called Reagan) Airport, I looked out the window at the lights laid out as if it were a quilt of lights and I felt a strange déjà vu. It was all the same but not. After collecting our bags,  we met Rene who had been waiting for us. He drove us from the airport to the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, and once again I felt that strange recognition and at the same time a disconnect as things were changed. It was almost midnight, and although I couldn’t see much, I could see that the high rise buildings had proliferated.

The next few days in DC will be an opportunity to dwell in the past and be present in the now. I am here to work with the Smthsonian Folklife Festival as I did in 1987. Back then, I was working with a large group from Laredo that included the group of Matachines de la Santa Cruz otherwise known as de la Ladrillera, a female butcher, Cecilio, a wood carver along with Cipriano, a piñata maker who also constructed an outdoor oven to cook cabecita de cabrito, and Doña Maria the colcha/quilter from San Ygnacio.

This time I will be presenting the work of Veronica Castillo, arbol de la vida ceramic artist who received the National Heritage Fellow several years ago. We will certainly enjoy it.

The journey that brought me to DC in 1993 continues. Living in DC was transformative in many ways and I look forward to reflecting on my life in DC this week.

Kingsville, Texas An Immersion Memoir 5

June 23, 2017

Endings and Beginnings

It’s Friday! The week is over. My stay in Kingsville prompted many memories and allowed me to revisit the campus and the past. As I bid everyone good-bye, I felt strangely nostalgic and energized at the same time. In Kingsville this week the past became the present again—hence the “immersion” memoir—a narrative chronicling a visit to a place where we have been before.

As I leave Kingsville again, I go back to my leave-taking in 1975. I say my good byes to my professors, friends, and classmates. I work at Upward Bound for the second summer and have terrific students from the region: Alice, Robstown, Falfurrias, Bishop. The university has given notice to several of the assistant professors because of budget cuts and folks are scattering. One professor gives everyone A’s as a form of protest. Another, my favorite American Literature is moving to Maryland. One will join the Navy.  But we are all graduate students teaching at Upward Bound and the university’s doings don’t affect us directly so we remain oblivious.

Summer 1975.

Time to leave. My parents have come to take me home. The white Chevy station wagon full of my stuff drives up to the dorm and we stuff in Rosa’s suitcase and boxes because we are giving her a ride to Falfurrias although it is out of our way. Rosa. My friend from Upward Bound. I will never see her again although we promise we will write and keep in touch.

The students have gone and the faculty we are saying goodbye. Everyone is anxious. Mary Lou and her boyfriend will move to Austin; they’ll be married soon. Tony will continue with the program and keep it going. As the federal funding expands and shrinks—Trio programs, Gear Up—the students

We are all going our separate ways to become the people we are preparing to become. I’m off toLaredo to prepare to start doctoral studies in Nebraska. Why Nebraska? It’s a long story, and several people know it, but I will retell it because it illustrates the way my life has been one of serendipitous eventualities. Unsure of what I had gone on retreat to Sarita, Texas at the Sarita Kenedy East mansion to think about my future. I was intensely drawn to law school but I was equally bound to literature. At the end of the retreat I knew that it was to be literature. I sacrificed to make the $20 application fee and applied to Stanford. In the fall, I wrote to a number of schools and applied to those schools that answered that yes, they would waive my application fee—not the smartest way to choose but given my limited resources I resorted to what I thought would work. Spring 1975. Accepted to a number of graduate programs in English-mostly in the Midwest I need to make a decision.

When Ralph Grajeda, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska contacted to invite me to apply, I was flattered and submitted my application. Only two weeks later, I received the letter from the Department Chair who informed me that I had been accepted and with a teaching assistantship. I had been receiving acceptance letters—Ohio State, Michigan, Kent State, Bowling Green, and some rejection letters as well—Wisconsin stands out in my mind because they had been so enthusiastic waiving my application fee and sending me materials even before I applied.

So, I accepted the offer from Nebraska to come and work on a doctoral degree with what seemed to me a generous offer of a teaching assistantship the first year and instructor status the next 4 years. I thought I was on my way. But, there was a glitch. The master’s thesis I had been working on with the linguist in the department was an issue. I had found out that the professor had used the research and published an article, albeit with a footnote acknowledging my research. Nevertheless, I was distraught because in some places the article had the very words I had written and turned in to him for my thesis. I went to the Department chair, Dr. Sawey who advised I not submit the thesis and instead just take classes to fulfill the requirements for graduation. Following his advice, I didn’t file a complaint. I was fine with it, as all I wanted was to be done and get out. However, now I was in a quandary; Nebraska had accepted me with the understanding that I would have the MA in hand. I had not time to finish the classes necessary to earn the MA in time. Early the next morning, before going to teach my class and with a voice that I am sure sounded apologetic and disappointed, I called the Chair in Lincoln and explained my dilemma. You can always complete the two classes here, John informed me. You can then have them transferred back to complete the MA. His words spoken in his clipped British English relieved my heart and I practically floated out of the Department office to teach my class. And so it was. In the end, it was all as it should be. Had I not needed to take the extra hours to complete the MA, I would not have met Max Holland in my political science class at UNL; I moved into his apartment when he left to work in Washington, DC where I met up with him years later when I worked at the National Endowment for the Arts.

While only two years, my MA studies in Kingsville set me on my academic path and proved to be a segue into the PhD in Lincoln. It seemed that the prediction by Mr. Uribe, the astrologer in Laredo, was proving true. My undergraduate years were fraught with obstacles, but graduate school was proving to be relatively smooth.

TAMUK and Kingsville

Since my departure in 1975, the university has undergone changes, too. After dissolving the University System of South Texas and subsequent to the MALDEF lawsuit in the mid 1980s, Texas A&I became Texas A&M-Kingsville. By then I was teaching in Laredo and saw Laredo State University’s growth as well as it became Texas A&M International University. I was dean when that occurred and I recall suggesting that we have “International” in our name—I didn’t want Texas A&M at Laredo (TAMAL) for obvious reasons.

This week in Kingsville, I have traveled back into a foreign country that is the past. I know that the university continues to serve South Texas and I trust it will continue its mission into the future. All those friends and professors have gone on along their own life paths. Raffy is my friend on FB. Many having finished with their mission here, have transitioned and gone on along their soul’s path– Dr. Sawey, Dr. Rovira, Dr. Gallaway. Dr. Hildegard Schmallenbeck assistance to students lives on in a scholarship in her honor. Dr. Hinojosa-Smith just retired from UT-Austin. Such fond memories! All had an impact on who I am and I am honored to continue mentoring my students, teaching literature and love of story, writing and reading and being an academic.

There’s no denial that the university has had an impact on the community. As an example, two of the major Chicana artists, Carmen Lomas Garza and Santa Barraza, studied here; Santa has returned to teach in the art department. It was a gift that she visited our seminar when we were discussing South Texas art and artist and the aesthetic grounded in the cultural, historical and geographical terrain of South Texas.

The King Ranch continues to define the region and to be a colonizing force both for the campus and for the community. The King Ranch Museum tells the story of the past but erases much of the Mexican history, there’s barely a mention of the many who came along with the first cattle from the small Mexican town lured by Captain King to relocate when their town was reeling from the effects of a devastating flood.

As I end this blog, I thank you who have followed and responded. I am on my way to DC for the American Folklife Festival. A place I have been before. I am considering an other Immersion Memoir based on DC for I lived there from 1993-1995 and that too shaped who I am and what I write. We’ll see.

 

Kingsville, Texas An Immersion Memoir 4

June 23, 2017

Various and Sundry

Since I arrived on Sunday, I have noted that Kingsville has changed; it has grown and spread out. Yet it remains the same quiet town it was 40 years ago. The downtown is still the same couple of blocks with small shops and the imposing King Ranch Saddle store at the corner of 6th and Kleberg. The train depot is still there, but it is now a train museum with red, white, and blue banners blowing in the wind—most likely in honor of the upcoming fourth of July celebrations. The movie house where I saw Last Tango in Paris is gone. The Kroger’s is gone, but there’s an HEB and a Walmart. The hotels along SH 77, including the EconoLodge where I am staying seem unconnected to Kingsville; they are on the periphery. The business and franchise fast food establishments have moved in to 14th street and Gen. Cavazos Boulevard. But, there’s still family owned restaurants like the Mariachi House of Burgers on Corral where I had a couple of breakfast tacos –handmade flour tortillas! Young’s pizza is still there—at least I think it is the same pizza place that was there back in the day when it was a real treat to get in Tavo’s car and go get a pizza and a beer on a Friday night. There’s even an Indian restaurant, House of Spice! The place where the Mexican dances were held is gone—or at least I couldn’t find it on 14th.

Tavo’s car! It was a long blue sedan that sat in front of his part of the house like a guardian. Once we went to the beach and it started to rain. His wipers were shot and we couldn’t see a thing. I was fond of the car with its smell of cigarettes and wet upholstery.

I never visited the King Ranch when I lived in Kingsville. But a few years ago when I was in town for an event at the Conner Museum, I took the tour. I was curious to see the largest ranch in Texas especially because I have had students who were Kineños, descendents of the families brought from Mexico to live there by Captain King himself because of their ranching expertise. On the tour, I learned all about the Santa Gertrudis cattle and saw the display of branding irons. I wonder why Dr. Sawey didn’t take us on a field trip when I took his Literature of the Cattle Range Industry seminar. I would’ve appreciated Tom Lea and the other writers much more. I was in graduate school in Nebraska when I read Edna Ferber’s novel Giant that includes several scenes presumably based on the story of the King Ranch.

After the breakfast at Mariachi House of Burgers, I went to Alberto’s history class and spoke to his students. Such wonderful smiles, eager smiles, smiles that told me that they appreciated my stories and that there’s hope. Hope in the future of our country and of our people. It was a diverse group of students from all over Texas and even a couple from out of state—so there’s hope for Texas A&M Kingsville, too.

Then Alberto and I walked to the post office so I could mail the sympathy card. I walked in and saw the mailboxes and remembered that I had one once. I received letters from friends like Becky and from home. Although my parents would come visit often, Papi still wrote me letters in his elaborate sprawling cursive penmanship. The post office was closed so Albert offered to mail the card for me. Incoming students and their parents swarmed the Student Union; they are on campus for orientation. Suddenly, I remembered the summer program Upward Bound and how I worked so hard to get the students ready for college English classes.  We then walked over to Fore and I began to set up for the seminar.

Upward Bound

For two summers (1974 and 1975), I worked with Upward Bound, the bridge program that gathered high school students and prepared them for college. I am sure it was Dr. Schmalenbeck;s doing as I had never taken a class with Dr. E. Mucchetti who approached me one afternoon in April as I was about to go in to take a linguistics exam. She must’ve told him I was available for the summer job.

What are your plans for the summer? He asked me.

I don’t know, I answered. Take classes and teach, I suppose.

Well, here’s the thing, he said. You can teach for Upward Bound. They are looking for someone to work with the students on their writing skills.

I was hesitant at first. I’ll think about it, I told him and dashed off to take the exam.

I had not really thought about the summer. I assumed I would stay in my apartment and take classes—I didn’t realize it and no one had mentioned that the teaching assistantship was only for the academic year and did not include funding for the summer.

I had agreed to a translation job for a friend’s father who held self-improvement seminars called The Symposium, but that was in August and in New Mexico. It would certainly not pay for rent and food or tuition for the summer classes.

So, the proposition was a godsend. My experiences with Upward Bound students and my fellow faculty remains the source of many stories for it was a learning experience all around. I was expected to live in the dorm so I had to get my stuff out of the apartment; luckily the landlady liked me and didn’t rent it but kept it for me to rent again in the fall. The dorm room was so much better although I had a room mate, Maria de la Luz Martinez, I think that was her name. She was a communications or journalism major and so we hit it off beautifully. It was the first time to actually experience college dorm life as my undergraduate years were in Laredo and I lived at home, and I loved it! The director Tony something or other along with some others including Bill who also worked in the local radio station, and Villarreal who played the guitar. Rosa who was from Falfurrias and confided her big secret one night when we stayed late into the night talking; she was a lesbian. She played the guitar and had a beautiful voice. I didn’t quite know what to do with the information except reassure her that her secret was safe with me and that I wouldn’t tell the Director or the other men who held the common misogynist views of the times. Several times I had to call them on sexist comments and what I perceived were inappropriate conversations around the young high school girls.  They laughed and said it was all in good fun but they did stop the sexual innuendos and double entendres, at least while I was around.

The textbook Stop, Look, Listen, proved to be an excellent tool, albeit there was little culturally relevant material. So I improvised and we looked at song lyrics in Spanish and English, and I found African American literature for them to read. I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom to design my own curriculum and classes, to test out pedagogy that would not do in the very structured composition classes I was teaching as part of my teaching assistantship. I had my students writing poetry and essays and we published their creations. I led them on trust walks (where one person is blindfolded and trusts the other to lead them and then they switch roles). Little by little their writing skills improved. The good writers became excellent writers and the poor ones got better. I felt accomplished!

The program emphasized more than academics and we worked to build community and group identiy. So, sports were part of the program. All the faculty members had to also teach a sport; I had no desire or ability to do teach anything. Mortified I went to Tony’s office — I thought for sure he would fire me when he learned of my limited physical education preparation. I didn’t know the rules of basketball or badminton. I just can’t do any of the sports, I confessed. But he didn’t fire me; he just smiled and said don’t worry. He advised that I teach swimming, or work with the track team. It’ll be easy he said. I chose swimming, but I didn’t dare share with him that I didn’t know how to swim!

So, just like that, I became the swimming instructor. I like to think that it was my superb skills at instructing the swim team that earned us the championship. Our team was number one at the regional competition! More than likely it was that the students were terrific swimmers already and all I did was give them confidence and instill in them a winning attitude. At the gathering held in Corpus Christi, we competed against the other Upward Bound programs in various disciplines, mathematics, writing, and in sports like basketball and baseball. I was elated when my students won in the writing competitions but even more so when they won the swim meet.

A highlight of the summer was our Sunday trip to the beach in Corpus after the competition and the formal banquet on Saturday night. I was just as excited as the students because like them, I had little exposure to pools or to swimming altogether. My parents made sure we went to the beach once a year on vacation—we would drive from Laredo to Corpus, stay at a friend’s house and go to the beach. Sometimes, though, we couldn’t stay anywhere, so we returned the same day—sunburnt and tired. I never learned to swim and so I remain terrified of the water a fact I attribute to an incident in the Sabinas river in Mexico when I was about 6 or 7. My father had taught me how to float, and I was just dreamily floating on my back when I felt a sudden pull and I panicked. I was thrashing and crying and just knew that I was going to drown. Tío Güero noticed, and jumped in; he saved my life by grabbing my hair and pulling me out of the current. The swift river was literally taking me downstream and I had no way of resisting. I had to be cured de susto (fright) when we got back to Laredo.

Almost at the end

Our seminar is over tomorrow and I am feeling sad about leaving Kingsville, about leaving my memories behind once more. Funny how the memories that have been kept at bay or have been buried suddenly spring forth and catapult me to the past in an intricate dance of present-past-present-past as I reminisce and sometimes shed a tear for what was, nostalgic for who I was. The tall thin graduate student loving her students and her life of books and intense conversations about Marxism, about modern art, about philosophy and the value of vegetarianism. That skinny young woman who toyed with Buddhism and yet kept her Catholic practice alive and well was shaping her heart, her soul, her face. I know. I learned about paradigm shifts reading Kuhn in one of my political science classes and wept reading Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” in an English class. I was learning Latin on my own and meditating—meeting my spiritual guide, who was Chinese and spoke French! I missed my family so much I wept walking home after my collect calls from the pay phone at the gas station that was next to the laundromat. Yes, I was becoming me, on a path that led me to today, to this time and space that keeps overlapping with the past.  I will post one more entry tomorrow. Maybe I will be able to take photos, although my efforts have been thwarted so far. But Elvia and Elsa will come tomorrow and maybe one of them will let me use her phone.

[Dear Readers:  I was not able to post this last night as I had no access to  WiFi at the EconoLodge–we are now in Port Aransas, and I am exhausted! I will write and submit the last entry for this blog tomorrow. Then I can begin to think of ways to keep the blog open and moving–perhaps posting travel blogs or keep it for the summer — not as an immersion memoir but as a way to reflect on all my travel and writing excursions.]

Kingsville, Texas An Immersion Memoir 3

June 21, 2017

Of Spirits and Buildings

As I always do wherever I go, I thank the spirits of this place. The guardians of this community, Kingsville, Texas, and especially Texas A&M Kingsville (formerly Texas A&I University); they have been welcoming me and making me feel at home as they did so many years ago. Today’s campus experiences took me back to some special recuerdos, recuerdos that tug at my heart.

This morning, I visited a literature class that had read Canícula; I presented a short talk, read from my work, fielded questions from wonderful brilliant students and signed their copies of my book. I saw myself in them: in Kelby, a first year student; Ramon, who is a history major; Tristan, who writes fiction about religion; Caitlin, who shyly hands me her book so I can sign it;  Elena, who tells me she is from a family of 16—all adopted by two school teachers—she is the middle child. Stephanie, who is a graduate student working on an MA in English and Education; and Cory, who wears seriously stressed jeans and sits wide-eyed when I speak of physical punishment for speaking Spanish.  They sit in the very classroom where I took classes—the very classroom where I took my MA written exam. They are so young! Did I look as young as they do to my professors back then? The memory pops up like a submerged treasure: I passed my MA exam with honors because I recognized the Donne poem from the Holy Sonnets, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” Serendipitously, I had attended a review session for the exam and had focused on that particular poem.

I had about 30 minutes before the seminar, so after class, I walked to the student center for a bite to eat—I am usually ravenous after doing a reading. The landscape has certainly changed for the better, with mesquite trees, prickly pear cactus, esperanzas, and many other desert plants and trees. I knew the Student Center had changed, too, but it still shocked me to see Starbucks, Chick-Fil-A, and Pizza Hut where  the cafeteria and a lunchroom used to be. I went by the very spot where I remember talking to Victor Nelson who was on campus scouting for graduate students to go to Stanford. That must’ve been spring 1974 because I was by then considering going for the doctorate.

The Seth Book

After a very quick lunch, I walked into the bookstore; my body reacted! I felt goose bumps and a sense of déjà-vu. The bookstore still occupies the same space in the student center although the layout has changed and the products are vastly different from what they were 40+ years ago—What I remember is that it was full of books: text books, popular trade books, magazines, and a few academic related items.  I don’t remember any t-shirts being sold; now, the clothing takes up most of the space. I can assert definitively that about half the products didn’t exist 40 years ago: there were no pin drives or Papyrus greeting cards; I walked in looking for a sympathy card for a friend whose mother passed this week and I was pleasantly surprised to find the greeting cards.

The reason I had a physical reaction is that it was in that bookstore where I experienced what could be classified as a defining moment. My friend Becky who was in Denver studying for her MA in social work had written to tell me about a book she had just read, Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts. I was intrigued but didn’t even imagine that the book would be available in our bookstore. Shortly after receiving the letter—of course, this was before e-mail and cell phones–I was perusing bookshelves at the bookstore, as was my wont, when a book literally fell off the shelf and hit me on the head. It was Seth Speaks!

I didn’t have the funds to buy the book, so I put it back on the shelf after reading the first few pages. The purple paperback with a photo of Jane on the cover made an impression, and I resolved to buy it with my next paycheck. That weekend I got a ride home to Laredo with Ana Laura whose cousin, my good friend Ana Maria, was staying with my neighbor, Tavo, that summer. When we got home as she helped me retrieve my stuff from her car’s trunk, Ana Laura handed me the Seth book.

No, that’s not mine. I said,

Sure it is, she answered. Who else’s?

I couldn’t explain how the book ended up in her car’s trunk and took it telling Ana Laura that I was certain it was not mine, but I would keep it until someone would claim it. I still have the book!

It was a defining moment because it led me to explore the topic of spirit guides along with exploring other spiritual practices, like Buddhism and meditation. In Laredo I had led SEARCH retreats and I had begun to do the same for the Catholic Student Center, the Newman Center. I met wonderful people and felt moved spiritually to conduct the retreats. Father Tom, a tall redhead, an Irishman, indulged my proposal and we held two very successful retreats.

New Buildings / Old Memories

After the seminar today, I drove around campus and admired the new buildings, especially the Rangel Pharmacy building. I figured out that the new Recreation Center is on the ground of what were open fields back then. I remember my friend Carolyn with whom I led SEARCH retreats in Laredo visited me once and we walked out to the field and just laid down and looked up at the clouds floating by. It was something I had never done. The day was cool and the clouds seemed magical. We could hear the baseball (or was it the Javelina football team?) practicing in the nearby stadium.

I then drove to the other end of campus looking for the Newman Center. The building that housed the Newman Center is still there on the southwest corner of campus but it now houses The Student Engagement Center. I remembered the many times I attended mass during the week and of course on Sundays. Father Tom and Sister Marie Stillman became close friends. She was the one who told me about the retreat center in Sarita, Texas. She was from the region—from Concepcion—and we hit it off beautifully. It was in Sarita at the old Kenedy East home where I made my final decision about graduate school. I went on retreat as I was torn: I wanted to continue reading and thinking about literature but I was also drawn to Political Science, my minor area of study. One of my Poli Sci professors gifted me John Smith’s The Book of Mormon. I knew it was wrong for him to proselytize in that way, but I said nothing.  He wanted me to go on to a PhD in Political Science or to apply to law school. Going to Sarita was the best thing that could’ve happened. I meditated, took long walks on the ground, attended mass in the chapel and as I stayed in the old mansion, I delighted in the marvelous library.

Father Tom didn’t speak Spanish so he asked me to translate for him when he said mass at the senior citizen home. Saturday afternoons I would come to the Center and he drove us to the home. I found it absolutely awful that the home was right smack across from the cemetery! Of the many elderly who resided there, Señora Betancourt stayed in my heart. She had a son who lived in San Antonio and rarely visited. She would hold on to my hand and tell me wonderful stories of her life in Kingsville. How her father had lost the ranch to the “Americanos” and how she and her siblings had been left alone when her mother died. Una huerfana, she said. An orphan. While Father Tom heard confessions—I didn’t translate those for him!—I chit chatted with the residents, who mostly just wanted to gossip or asked me to bring them forbidden foods.

Driving me back to my apartment, I pondered where I would be when I was old and alone. Did I want to have children who would care for me? Obviously, that was no guarantee. It’s been over 40 years and I am now the age some of the residents were back then. I am grateful and feel blessed to be in good health and mobile.

Kingsville, Texas. Under the shadow of the King family. The King Ranch. Even as it was a beacon of hope for so many of us who went there for degrees—much more accessible than UT-Austin or the University of Houston. Those from the Chicano movement established Jacinto Trevino and although I knew about it I remained isolated from the people involved in it. I have vague memories of the racism in the community back then in the 70s. People spoke of school walkouts and of protests. I do remember marching for the ERA once, invited by Dr. Schmallenbeck. But the Chicano activism was already a part of the past. There was another professor who was in the periphery at the time, Dr. Rolando Hinojosa Smith who went on to become one of the leading writers from South Texas. Dr. Julia Smith (no relation to Rolando) had moved to Kingsville from Laredo Community College and stayed until her retirement. Rolando became a friend and he moved on to Minnesota and eventually returned to an endowed chair position in the English Department at UT-Austin until his retirement last year. Laredoan Amado Peña was here teaching art and producing his political work, teaching other Chicana and Chicano students before he too moved away.

As I conclude today’s entry, I ponder the erasure of the people who have passed through this institution. Save for a plaque in the English meeting room that lists Julia Smith as a member of the Faculty Senate, I find no trace of their work here. They are like the clouds that move across the skies and end up evaporating or becoming rain, ephemeral in their being. Yet, the alumns who have read the blogs the past two days remember them! They live on in their students’ memories. In mine. I honor them and remain ever grateful for their work and their passion. I also thank the spirit guardians of the land. ¡Gracias!

 

Kingsville, Texas An Immersion Memoir-2

June 20, 2017

House/Home

This morning, I met a former student who is now an Associate Professor of English at TAMU-K for breakfast of tacos (mariachis in Laredo) at Los Cabos Mexican Restaurant on King Street. With a heart full of joy at seeing her doing so well, I drove off on my way to campus. Driving on Santa Gertrudis – more about the street names later—as if drawn by a magnet, I turn on Second Street, now called Martin Luther King, Jr. Street, to find the place where the house where I lived from the fall 1973 to the spring of 1975 used to be. I couldn’t believe it. A few years ago, when I was in Kingsville to do a talk at the museum, I had driven by the house and it was still there. But now? No house. I recognize the alley and the house at the corner so I knew it was the correct address. Yet, all that is there is an empty lot enclosed by a wooden fence. That is all that remains—and my memories of that space where I first felt grown up and independent. The space where in some sense I came of age as a scholar, as a woman.

The House on 2nd Street

It was surreal–I stepped out of the car and was transported back to 1974. In my mind’s eye I am standing in front of the big rambling house with faded pink siding with doors that often don’t shut quite right. The owner, an Anglo woman who wore wigs, heavy eye make-up, red lipstick, and chain smoked, lived in half of the house; she divided the other half into two living spaces she rented to students. Gustavo, a friend from Laredo, who had been a classmate at Laredo State University, lived in the apartment in front, and I in the back. Mine was a one-room apartment—with a tiny bathroom at one end.  Standing in the hot morning sun, I could hear the music coming from Tavo’s apartment. On his door a ZZTop sticker placed there by an earlier tenant, no doubt another student. Tavo was a Vietnam veteran and on an R&R trip to Japan had picked up a fancy reel to reel stereo system; the stereo, turn table and the two huge speakers, occupied a prominent spot in his apartment next to a large cabinet television set where we watched Star Trek. He smoked and drank gallons of black coffee. Often, we worked late into the night to finish assignments: seminar papers, book reviews, and annotated bibliographies. We didn’t procrastinate, we just worked hard, all the time. One particular night we didn’t sleep at all as we wrote our papers for Dr. Galloway’s seminar on 18th century literature. We would write and read each other’s work. All night back and forth. That period is my least favorite and I was worried that my paper on Eustace Budgell and The Spectator was not good enough, but we both earned A’s.

The memories flood and tears come remembering the neighbor’s huge St. Bernard, a dog that visited me often, whining at my door so I would come out and pet him. One particular night, it was raining and the dog wouldn’t stay out, but came right into my apartment when I opened the door; he wet everything as he shook himself dry. Tavo heard the commotion as I was shouting at the dog to leave and came over and helped me get him out. We had a good laugh because the dog was heavier than I and there was no way I could push him out. I was quite skinny—emaciated, really–weighing under 100 pounds.

I had several good friends from Laredo who were undergraduates staying in the dorms—Lynch Hall,  Lewis Hall–so my tiny apartment became a haven for them. On weekends, Saturday evenings, or Sundays after mass, they would come over and I would feed them baloney sandwiches and Kool Aid, and once in a while I would make flour tortillas and cook up a pot of beans—comfort food! My friends: Jerry, Tere, and others including a few male friends who some times wanted to be more than friends—Tan, a Peruvian graduate engineering student; Hassan, an Iranian business student, and Bill a blue-eyed blond sociology student who drove a red mustang and was always talking about the great sex he and his Mexican girlfriend enjoyed. When I met her at the Newman Center, I kept thinking of Bill’s stories. I debated whether to tell her that he was talking about her like that. I chose not to and instead confronted/chastised him and ended our friendship. I enjoyed my conversations with Rosa Bosquez, from Robstown, also an English graduate student who was writing science fiction stories. She had a halo of black curls, small laughing eyes, and built fornida; she was always concerned about gaining weight. Then there was Ute, a German woman married to a GI who lived in Corpus and had two children—we became inseparable when we were moved to the Physics building where we as TAs shared office space. Our earlier office space was above the gym and it was a great improvement to move into a normal office space. Another classmate, an anglo woman (was her name Ann? Or Sarah?) and I spent hours discussing our readings, our lives, and our futures. She gave me an old TV when she and her husband bought a new set. I rarely turned it on, though. I was meditating for hours and with the teaching and studenting I had little time for entertainment–except for the Star Trek episodes but it was more fun to watch them with Tavo. All these friends spent many hours in my cozy apartment sitting on the floor or on the twin bed covered with the Indian, cotton, purple, paisley print bedspread. I kept it until I moved to Lincoln for the PhD and my mom’s sister, Tia Licha made me a beautiful blue and beige bedspread that I loved because it reminded me of the bridesmaid’s dresses we sisters wore for Mari’s wedding. In fact, my aunt and my mother sewed the dresses into bed pillows for each of us. But by then I was in Lincoln and had a proper apartment—but only after having lived in the Godinez’s basement for the fall semester and in Elaine Jahner’s basement for the spring.

The landlady, Tavo and I were not the only inhabitants of the old house; we had roaches the size of large monarch butterflies sharing our space. And when I turned off the lights, they flew. My efforts at keeping everything clean and using bug spray worked for the most part, but they were never fully gone. I was also on the lookout for scorpions or other bugs. I missed having pets because at home, we always had dogs and cats and when my grandmother was alive we also had birds in beautiful cages. But in Kingsville, I was a student and could not have pets; the tall Alamo tree in the yard was home to a number of birds, and I loved waking up to their song. In the night, the train whistle would sound the long, plaintive wail that reminded me of the train whistle back home in Laredo. To this day, the sound of trains elicits a nostalgia and a yearning for that which will always remain home.

With a sense of sadness, I got in the car and drove on to campus to prepare for the seminar.

Summer Abode

After the seminar this evening, I drove down 6th Street and turned on Henrietta Street to go by the last place that housed me in Kingsville. To my delight, the house is still there. That summer of 1975, before I left to Lincoln, Nebraska, I rented a room from Mrs. Sandoval. Tavo had already gone back to Laredo; my lease had been up, and I couldn’t sign another for I was only in town through the summer. So, I jumped at the chance to move into the house on Henrietta. Rafaela, a classmate in my American Women Writers class had told me about the room that Mrs. Sandoval had available for rent. I took it and became roommates with Raffy. I loved living there although I had to teach at 7:30 a.m. and being a night owl, it was difficult to get up and be “on” that early. Mrs. Sandoval worked and she wore a name tag with her last name in bold black letters—probably why I remember her last name but not her first—on her white uniform. I can’t remember if she was a nurse or a cook in a kitchen. I wrote a poem about that house and about Mrs. Sandoval. I should look it up.

That summer, the figs ripened on the tree in Mrs. Sandoval’s yard and I was in heaven. I would pluck a juicy fig and bite into it — the childhood memories would come. So many fruits from my childhood remain my favorites: pomegranates, figs, watermelon, mangos. The house was quiet and the room was perfect. I had already moved my bookshelves—just boards on large bricks, really– to Laredo to my parent’s living room; I was practically living out of a suitcase. But the house on Henrietta Street felt like home. One evening, walking home from the university I was imagining a future house where I would have a library to house my books and a study where I could write; I often had the same thoughts walking to the apartment on 2nd street, but tonight, it was different. I could see it in my mind’s eye—a large room, walls lined with book shelves, my books all around me. I felt joy.

[I CAN’T UPLOAD PHOTOS AS MY PHONE IS FULL AND WON’T LET ME TAKE ANY!]

 

Kingsville, Texas — An Immersion Memoir

June 19, 2017

Coming Home

I arrived yesterday, checked in to the EconoLodge and hid in my room preparing for today’s workshop. I am in Kingsville, Texas, working with the English Department at Texas A&M University-Kingsville on an NEH sponsored workshop– “The Aesthetics of South Texas Artists and Writers.” This morning, I felt a rush as I walked on campus, past the old gym where I shared an office with other teaching assistants. I entered Fore Hall where the English Department offices and classes are still housed. My entire being reacted. I got goose bumps; I smelled the cigar smoke that one of the professors used to smoke. I could almost see the young inexperienced, scared, young woman I was walking the halls in her blue jeans and colorful cotton blouse, her future in her hands. Today I wore black, for it is only 5 months since my mother’s passing from this earth and I am observant of a dying tradition, el luto. I wear my nostalgia and my melancholy with pride. No regrets. No. But plenty of tears and sighs as I recall that summer so many years ago. I reach back into my past and reassure that skinny naïve youngster with a smile and a wink.

 

The summer of 1973, I moved to Kingsville to pursue a Master’s degree in English at what was then Texas A&I University. I was 26 and it was the very first time that I would live away from my family, away from the house that had been home for over 20 years at 104 E. San Carlos in Laredo, Texas. Away from friends and neighbors. Away from the border. I was terrified. My family too was scared for me. Feared that I was growing away from them. That I would never come back. And in a way, my father’s fears were prophetic as the person that returned to Laredo in 1980 was certainly not the one that left in 1973. Yes. My father feared for me, but his fears were allayed because I was not alone; two other students, Rosie and Lina, also from Laredo, joined me. They were working on their MAs in education, and they would return to their teaching positions in Laredo after the summer. We rented a small casita near campus. Every weekend, they returned to Laredo while I stayed alone in that small house that reminded me of a mountain cabin as it was made of wood: wooden floors, wood-paneled walls, even the ceiling—all made of the same warm, rich, honey-colored wood. I loved it! The wood must’ve been good insulation for although we had no air conditioning, I don’t remember it being particularly hot. Perhaps it was because I was gone for the hottest part of the day and spent hours at the library. I cooked my meals in an old gas stove, and in the early morning or late afternoon when the scorching heat was bearable, I read under an old mesquite tree in the yard we shared with 3 or 4 other similar casitas. I was in heaven!

How I got to Kingsville…

The previous spring, Dr. Orlan Sawey, the chair of the English Department at Texas A&I, was visiting Laredo and my mentor, Dr. Allen Briggs, scheduled a meeting so I could meet with him. Allen knew I had finished my student teaching, and I was ready to apply for certification by the state of Texas to become a high school English teacher. He also knew that the student teaching experience had not gone well as I became disillusioned and frustrated. I had shared with another English professor, Dr. Martha Thomas, that although I had wanted to be a teacher since I was in junior high school, I found myself in a quandary as I just knew that I didn’t want to be trapped in the high school classroom unable to teach what I wanted and unable to help my students. Unbeknownst to me, the chat with Dr. Sawey was an interview, and as we said good-bye, he offered me a teaching assistantship and accepted me into the MA program. I still had to apply and go through the process, but I was in! I was stunned. Of course, I jumped at the chance and became a teaching assistant teaching two sections of English Composition each semester for the next two years.  The assistantship paid my tuition for 9 credit hours each semester and offered enough of a stipend to rent a room in the back of a decrepit old house near campus and still manage to send some money home.

That summer, I enrolled in two graduate English classes: a British Literature class and another class I can’t recall.  I remember the Tennyson / Browning seminar because the professor, Dr. Hildegarde Schmallenbeck, would become my mentor, my champion as I faced the politics and culture of graduate school.

Today, as we introduced ourselves at the workshop, one of my former doctoral students who is now tenured Associate Professor here told the story of how were it not for me she would not be here. How one day when she was working at FedEx in Laredo, I walked in to mail a package and told her she should go on and get an MA degree. How later, when I was the advisor for the PhD in English at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I found her finishing her MA in Corpus Christi, and insisted that she go on for the PhD.

When I arrived at the EconoLodge hotel last night, the young woman who checked me in told me she is from San Antonio and she is here studying for her MA in Counseling Psychology. Why don’t you go on for the PhD? I asked.

She explained that she didn’t have the funds.

Go for it, I said. If you get into a program, they will provide funding. Just apply!

Really? She asked incredulous.

Yes. I replied. That’s how I did it. Of course, it will be hard. But you can do it if you really want it.

She smiled and said thank you. Her eyes shone with possibility.

 

[TOMORROW I WILL TAKE PICTURES AND POST THEM]

About

About.

Hola, Bienvenidxs!

I have several blogs here. The Elcaminoayearlater documents my trek on the Camino de Santiago written a year AFTER I walked the 800 kms/500miles  of the Camino. I hope you enjoy it!

The other under normacantu includes entries on various topics. The current project is a Visit to Kingsville Texas in June 2017.

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