Latino Americans Blog
A Straddler's Journey
September 10, 2013 2:58 PM by JoAnn Gerber
You could say that my journey as a Latina in America is from the perspective of a straddler. At least, that’s how I would have described myself at one time – as someone having one foot in the U. S. and one toe in Mexico. For years I was not quite convinced I belonged to either side.
It was my mother who provided the connection. She was born in a tent on September 16, 1929, the sixth child of my grandmother, a Mexican migrant farmworker, and the only one in her immediate family born north of the border. The birth took place somewhere near a California vineyard where the family had been hired to pick grapes.
It was Mexican Independence Day, and most family members had gone into town to celebrate. Somehow my grandmother managed to hide her pregnancy from them, so they were quite surprised when they returned to camp to find a crying baby. In the 5th grade Mom dropped out of school to help the family in the farm fields and at the age of fifteen she took a job as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant in Fresno. With her earnings she was able to help the family buy a small house on the outskirts of town so that her mother and sisters could leave the migrant life behind.
My father, the grandson of Norwegian immigrants, met my mother while dining at that Chinese restaurant. She was introduced to him as "Papsi", a nickname the owners had given her because of the way she pronounced Pepsi in her thick Mexican accent. Five years later they were married.
When my parents moved to a Los Angeles suburb far from my mother’s family, Mom became self-conscious of her accent and worked hard to lose it at the expense of passing down the Spanish language to me and my two sisters. Later, when she realized this, she tried to teach us at home, patiently repeating the soft, rolling sounds so that we wouldn't sound like gringas. Around this same time, she was writing a memoir about the migrant farmworking years and enrolled in adult education classes to earn her GED. Education, whether in the form of story-telling or formal schooling, was important to her and to my father.
For all practical purposes it turned out to be too late to impart the Spanish language to us, but not too late to instill in me a love and appreciation for the family, the hardships endured, and the sacrifices made so that life would be better for each succeeding generation. I, too had to drop out of school for financial reasons, yet so deeply engrained was the familial education I had received, that years later, shortly after my own daughter was married, I enrolled at Wellesley College to complete my degree. There I was able to reconnect with the Spanish language and culture and help my mother put the finishing touches on her memoir.
The Spanish immersion I experienced at Wellesley had a baptismal effect on me. It awakened dormant memories and evoked the euphoria of one who had once lost a precious possession but was on the verge of recovering it. Moments of revelation and connectivity often came in unexpected ways. For example, there was the time I was in Córdoba, Spain for my study-abroad semester. I went fully expecting to loosen my tongue and release the Spanish I knew was inside. What I didn’t expect was an encounter with my Mexican grandmother.
The bus carrying me and the younger college students to Córdoba from Madrid was filled with laughter and lively chatter, but as the bus entered the city limits around 8 o’clock that evening, and as we passed one darkened building after another the reverie turned to disappointment. Most of the shops were closed; the windows sealed shut by graffiti-covered aluminum doors. Where was the bustle and excitement of Madrid? As the bus slowed, we caught the first glimpse of the host families waiting for us, and suddenly there was silence.
I tried to sound cheery in order to console the others. “Don’t worry,” I said in one of my last opportunities to speak English, “they’re going to love you!” And I meant it, too, but I was just as nervous as they were. Maybe more. What would the Spaniards think of me, a woman of my age, traveling like a student? I took my time, slowly gathering my things together so that I could also gather my thoughts and postpone the inevitable first encounter just a little bit longer. I wanted to run home to my husband, but there was no turning back. As I wrapped the cords of my headphones and tucked the bundle into my carrying case I found myself thinking of my grandmother, who had moved to Texas from Mexico with five children in tow. She had undoubtedly been scared – and homesick, too. Before, when my mother would tell me the story of Grandma’s first few days on American soil, I could only imagine how she must have felt. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I knew. She couldn’t turn back either.
Eventually, my comfort level grew and the semester I spent in Spain turned out to be the highlight of my language studies. As I think back on that experience now, I realize that the term “straddler” no longer applies to me. I have found my footing.
Jo Ann Gerber was raised in the San Fernando Valley of California. She attended Los Angeles Valley College and U.C.L.A., but dropped out when the family fell on hard times. After taking time out for marriage and motherhood, Jo Ann enrolled at Wellesley College where she graduated with honors, earning a B.A. in Spanish. Her honors thesis was inspired by Migrant Memories, a memoir written by her mother, Lydia Vasquez Carlsen. For close to twenty years, Jo Ann has worked in the field of planned giving for both religious and educational institutions. When not working, she can be found reading in the garden, doting on her three grandchildren, or dancing in a flamenco class. She currently lives in Natick, Massachusetts with her husband, Russ