This I Believe……..
It was noon on July 4, 1951, on the international bridge, my first of thousands of visits to Laredo, Texas. Twelve hours before I had been on my knees with my mother, brother, and two sisters receiving my grandmother Antonia’s blessing in her house in Saltillo, Coahuila. We had been living there for several years, where I martyred my aunts Lupe and Hermila, while my father got re-established in Buffalo, New York.
Months of airmails and record searches, certificate of this and that, established our right to qualify for one of the quota of immigration permits into the United States. The severe looking immigration official began to grill my father but when he responded in perfect English and produced a complete set of sealed documents, things became routine. Over there for your vaccinations, over here for your fingerprint verification, empty out the shiny new 1951 Nash Rambler station wagon in general and each piece of luggage in particular. We had to submit samples of the peach and quince preserves my aunt Lupe made for us, the Department of Agriculture people sampled more than their share to be sure they were properly prepared. Several hours later we were on our way north toward Buffalo. It took three days of hard driving but on Sunday the 8th I woke up in my bed, in our apartment on Grant Avenue in South Buffalo and began my life as an American youth in the third grade.
An intensive street school course in English during the rest of July and August got me ready to attend Mrs. Sullivan’s third grade class at Assumption Catholic Grammar School. I chafed under my mother’s reliance on me as the oldest. I got to know the A&P and Loblaw’s stores like the back of my hand. I paid the bills at the AM&A and Statler’s Department stores. I went to the other side of town, to pick up the Government surplus cheese and butter, and bring them back on the bus, where I heard a joke I’ve been telling for 60 years1. My mother had grown up under the widow Antonia’s stern beliefs about education. When my wealthy maternal grandfather died and my aunts came together to pitch in and help with the house, she would have nothing of it. She and the oldest Aunt Carmen, sacrificed to send them all to the Athenaeum and then on to Secretarial school or in the case of my mother to beautician school. They were to work in offices, as seamstresses. or beauticians but not in the house as maids. She hired girls whose “place” in life was to work in the house, and paid them from my aunts’ salaries, her daughters’ place was different. My aunts did not have it easy, life was communal on Juarez Oriente street in Saltillo. As the leading beautician in Saltillo my mother worked 50 to 60 hours a week, or more, but she earned more than most men, 6 to 700 pesos per month in the 1930’s and turned it all over to Antonia. The attitude toward education and self improvement permeated the entire family. We grew to be about 25 first cousins and nearly all of us went on to college.
Things went well in Buffalo until my father, refusing to take his blood pressure medicine, died of kidney disease in 1960. I was sixteen and a bright future lay with the partnership my mother was offered as a seamstress in Buffalo, but it was to be family first, and my mother looked to San Antonio, Texas to be near the family in Mexico. The Immigration & Naturalization officials, who my father befriended by providing interpreting and translation services over the years, paid us back in Spades. The whole family was in the process of becoming U.S. Citizens and the officials decided to waive all of the waiting periods. Their rationale was “We better take care of your paperwork here in New York, because if you try to finish it in Texas, you will never become citizens.” I didn’t know what they meant then, but I know now! We had grown up in the melting pot that was, and is, Western New York. I had one more year in High School, plenty of time to learn my place.
My first day in school, at the bus stop, I offered a smoke to a fellow traveler. He took it, but after reading on it that it came from Mexico, he crushed it and threw it away. We never exchanged another word in school. In New York, I had the highest score on the statewide math Regent’s exam, in Texas my brain changed from grey to brown. I saw Mrs. Arstein abuse my fellow students in Spanish class for not speaking well, the Spanish they had been punished for speaking in grammar school. When, in the same class, I confided to Steve Beauchamp that I thought Ann Harding was cute, he laughed so hard, I didn’t think he would ever stop! When I pointed out to Mr. Chambers, the Asst. Pricipal, that the Health class he had assigned me would not allow me to graduate for lack of a Science sequence, he said come back in the Summer with the rest of your people. I never did. There was one saving grace, Julia Oliphant, in Government and Economics. I never got “the look” from her. She just taught and I just learned, and I had the pleasure to busting the curve which sent several of the jocks down a grade level and one to summer school. It was the only A that I got. The rest were F’s and D’s except for Spanish. At the end of the summer of 62 I made my escape into the U.S. Army and while I was gone the various Civil Rights laws were passed and Texas lay down with whimper.
When I returned, Antonia’s legacy pointed me straight to college where people would wonder how I had made it. I would smile and say, everyone in my family goes to college, how about yours! There is a saying that you can’t keep a good man down, it isn’t true. You cannot keep a GREAT man or woman down, but a good one isn’t all that hard to hold back. I saw plenty of good people at Jefferson High School, they never had a chance. So what was the difference between them and me? Antonia and New York, that’s what. As a student of the Social Sciences, I have studied the integration of cultures very closely. Whether it was the Jews into Egypt, the Moors into Spain, the Irish into America, they all had their troubles.
New York taught me how to get along in a melting pot, Antonia taught me to rise above my circumstances. The bottom line is that there are few examples in humanity’s history outside of these United States where integration has, with a few notable exceptions, been so well managed. Here, I beg the pardon of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and other hyphenated Americans when I say that this is a great country, and even as I write these words, things are getting better for them and me. Whether it is because of a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters, the grace of god, or just the natural order of things, THIS IS A GREAT COUNTRY, THIS I BELIEVE.
1 A nurse is giving the sun, out front, to a couple of mental patients on two strapped together wheel chairs. All of a sudden a bird flies over and drops “one” on one of their heads. The nurse panics and runs back to the asylum saying “I’ll be right back with some toilet paper.” One of the patients leans over to the other and says, “They call US crazy. by the time she gets back with the toilet paper, that bird will be a mile away!”
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