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!


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1 Comment

  1. Raul Garcia, Jr. graduate of the nursing college in whose memory a beautiful tree was planted outside the building. He was a medic in a helicopter that crashed, losing his life near Matagorda bay in 2008. He was my sister’s and brother in law’s only son. Dr. Blandina Cardenas was working there when this happened. Very sad and great memories for me as I read your post. Gracias!


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