Amo Mexico

It never changes, even after 8 years of retirement. I still dream about teaching, about being hired at a new school, about planning classes, collecting materials, going to meetings. Some of my earliest community college classes were in the town of San Ysidro which is on the border of Mexico. It’s hard to tell if it’s a suburb of Tijuana or San Diego. Late in the 19th century several immigrants from Switzerland settled there and built dairies, so who knows. Maybe it’s just a suburb of the world. San Ysidro back in the 90s was essentially a single street with minor streets leading off it.

Though over time I stopped teaching English as a Second Language, my first classes as a legit college teacher (as opposed to instructor at an international school) were ESL. My first class was an early evening class in San Ysidro, a 40 mile drive RT from my house and a little farther from San Diego State where I was still teaching at the language school.

I loved it. A room full of Mexican adults who want to learn English is about as good as it gets. I never let on that I could speak any Spanish, but they figured it out. They were enthusiastic to practice, and they would try anything, even my method of getting my students to write a poem. We met for 3 hours twice a week, and while that gave me an exhausting schedule, it also gave me money and a good time.

The school was a satellite of Southwestern College — one of the first community colleges in America. In those days (mid nineties) the school was a couple of double-wides but over time they built fancy buildings. Kind of a loss in a way, a loss in atmosphere and lightness. A couple of blocks from the school was a tamale restaurant. THAT was, well, incredible. More kinds of tamales than I knew existed, and they were all delicious. Next door to the school was Yum-Yum (Jum-Jum) Donuts where the students would usually take their break.

At times the border checkpoint would be backed up, and students couldn’t make it to class. No one had cell phones so the secretary would call the border patrol to find out what was going on. No one was ever penalized for missing class.

The last day of that first class one of my students gave me a present — an 8 foot lemon tree in a pot. He was a gardener and that’s what he had.

I was teaching in San Ysidro at the end of my mom’s life. I missed class for a week or so to go to Montana to take care of her post-hospital living arrangements — a nightmare, really one of the nightmares of my life. When I returned to class everyone came up to me with hugs and kind words all of which I sorely needed.

My first teaching experiences were as a volunteer at a literacy program in Denver. My first student was a Hispanic man who wanted to learn to read so he could read bed time stories to his daughters. Within a year I’d moved from tutoring single students to classes. My first classes were made up of people from Mexico one way or another — a couple of women were born in California, but had not learned English. An old vaquero with an amazing sense of humor was deported twice while he was in an 8 week class — he always made it back. Somehow it was a joke. These classes were absolute beginners in English, and from them I learned that learning a new language can be scary. People are truly frightened of making mistakes and looking stupid.

Once my mother — in one of her moods — was giving me a rundown of my many faults. One of them was that I don’t have the cowboy personality. You have to remember, Montana, etc. I know what that is supposed to be and I DO have it to some extent. Essentially it’s rigidly stoical, looks reality square in the eye, and doesn’t show emotion. She said, “You’re no cowboy. You’re more like a Mexican.” My mom didn’t have an especially bad attitude toward Mexicans; she was afraid of emotion.

Pero, para mí, las palabras de mi madre fueron un cumplido.

18 thoughts on “Amo Mexico

  1. it sounds like it would be a better balance to not be so much like a cowboy, and so it was a compliment of sorts from your mom

  2. Some of the compliments I’ve most enjoyed were meant as put-downs of a sort. Lots of folks just don’t get that you might not see being like them to be your ideal.

    • So true. 🙂 When she said that to me I just thought, “Well, mom, one of your two best friends is a Mexican woman,” but I just let it go.

  3. On reflection, your mother’s description of what was cowboy sounds like what my first father-in-law told me was Yankee (specifically coastal Yankee).

    • I get it. My mom grew up in a big family, a very poor family, on the high plains of Montana in the 30s. It was harsh and they had to “put a good face on it.” But she was also a very strange person. The whole family was uncomfortable around overt demonstrations of emotion. Some of them lived long enough to see the problems with that. My mom was a problem for me and her sisters, but overall, I’m very grateful to have belonged to them. My aunts in particular. When the feelings came out, it would be in the most beautiful ways. I think it was a strategy for dealing with a really harsh life — probably on the east coast, too. ❤️

  4. Living conditions in coastal Maine were also very poor in the early 2oth, and there was a strong tradition of self-reliance and independence. Coming from New York, and a Latin family, the stoic take on life was pretty alien.

    • I understand totally. My mom sent me to sit in the hearse when I cried at my dad’s funeral because I was embarrassing her. My Swedish grandma went with me. I was 20. I don’t know how I ended up this way, but I did.

  5. For all my years working with parents, I have always said I would rather work with the ones from Mexico than any of the ones born in the States. So desiring to learn, so gracious, so appreciative. Your mother definitely paid you a compliment.

    • Yes! The only friends I left behind in California when I left after 38 years were from Mexico. We still correspond and care very much what happens to each other even after 8 years. It’s been weird living here because the Hispanic and Anglo populations don’t mix. It’s as if we are living in parallel realities. I did not expect that.

  6. I love when you reminisce. I would love to have a class like that – instead I taught poor little rich kids. Many of them had never had to struggle to learn. When I had to call them in for remediation because they failed to grasp a concept it was as if the world was ending… What happened to the lemon tree??

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