Sunday, February 8, 2009

College Is Not For Mexicans

The first time I actually held my mother's hand was at a hospital bed where she lay dying of cancer at age 85. Why we never held hands before, I really don't know except that she was a typical Mexican mother of her time, strict, hardworking, and relatively non affectionate, no kissy-kissy, huggy-huggy stuff between her and her siblings. Yet, we knew she loved us, she didn't have to say it.
She always demanded that we be honest, forthright sons but she never particularly encouraged education. To her, "educacion" meant you respected your elders, sat up straight in a chair, had good manners, especially at the table, and "success" was to not wind up in jail or as an alchoholic, get a job, get married, buy a house and have kids. Despite all this I loved school, and I loved books. She never read bedtime stories to me or any of that stuff, but she did tell me stories of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the saints, and of La Llorona (see entry "Faith of A Mother" in my Blog for more on this), and other Mexican folk tales.
Under her bed, she kept a cardboard box full of books which my oldest brother, John, had found at the city dump, and among them were a couple of my favorites, a dictionary and an encylopedia filled with color plates of insects, plants, flowers, animals and birds which I loved sketching and drawing from. I was a top student in my classes and loved to read. Thus, much of my time was spent at the McHenry Library downtown, reading and checking out books.
I particulary like pirate stories and early American classics on the Old West, like Davy Crockett. I didn't find out until later that he really didn't like Mexicans! Imagine that. Later, In high school, I would discover books on artists like Ben Shahn, David Stone Martin and my greatest find, books on Mexian Art and the murals of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. I even wrote my first term paper on these Mexican Muralists, got an "A" on it (to my absolute amazement), and me English teacher read it in front of class: "Class, now this is an example of what a term paper should be." I turned bright red in the back row. Until, this I didn't know I could write.
However, I soon began to slide downhill in Junior High, and especially during the first couple of years of High School, running around with fools and acting like them. At the lowest point of this downward spiral, some of my buddies and I were caught ditching school and shoplifting some stuff from a pawnshop in downtown Modesto. A patrol car actually escorted us back to school with the officer warning: "You guys are lucky I don't haul your asses to jail." My mom would have been devastated.

After a proper scolding from the Dean, I began to settle down, but certainly there was no thought or suggestion from any counselor that I should go to college. In those days, Chicanos were herded into sports and/or the auto body shops and Chicanas (girls) into Home Economics. You can imagine the shock I felt when my Art teachers began to encourage me to consider going to art school after high school. They would help me secure scholarhips, contacts, a place to live and someone to help find me a job. Me? College? It had never even entered my mind!
When I hurried home to tell my mother she was stern and hardly enthusiastic: "How are you going to pay for college? How will you pay rent? Who will wash your "calsones" (underwear) and cook for you? Don't believe what those teachers are telling you. It's all just a big lie. College is not for Mexicans. The Americanos run this country and Mexicans are always at the bottom. Take it from me, I know." That pretty much ended the conversation but thank God I never listened to her, and hard-headed as I was, I became determined to prove her wrong, and I went off to college against her wishes. Perhaps some of this had to do with the fact that I was her "baby", the last of her brood, and she just wanted to shield me from disappointment and failure. And I was the last to leave home. She would be alone now.
As I loaded the final stuff in my '48 Plymouth, we avoided each others eyes and the awkward silence was broken by her words: "Never forget you are a Mexican." It was 1957. When I graduated from college with my Bachelor's Degree in Fine Art, I had been Student Body President that year, and was chosen to give the student address during the ceremony. My mom came with one of my brothers (she had never attended a single school function that I recall), and I knew she was proud of her Prodigal Son that day. Maybe college was for Mexicans after all? Two Master's Degrees later I would certainly prove her wrong.


Delin said...

This is a beautiful and heart rending piece. I think you could do very well writing a book about the Chicano experience. I really felt that you gave me an inside look at growing up Chicano.
Thank you.

Disquieting Muse said...

Professor Rivers,

Please forgive my late reply. I had not noticed you had left a comment on my blog until today while I was adding some new photos. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I am happy to let you know I am taking another trip to Mexico City in March and plan on taking many more pictures. So check my blog then for more pictures of Mexico.

Yes, I do write poetry and have a poetry and prose blog as well.

I read this last post of yours, "College is not for Mexicans" and I wish I had been more resolute in my decision to study Art in college. My parents persuaded me not to afraid that I would die of hunger as an Art major. I was lost for a very long time trying to figure out what direction to take in life.

Rick Rivers said...

Ingrid: My mother warned me that artists will only get famous after their dead. I did once fantacize about selling my work for thousands, even millions but that faded fast. Sometimes I worked for a six-pack and came out ahead! But I will never regret having made art a part of my life; it had made my life richer and more fulfilling. Money has nothing to
do with art. Looking forward to your photos from Mexico.