Learning a second language is such a valuable skill y el español is a beautiful language. When I was a young mom, I knew I had to teach my children Spanish, it was important to me. But it was hard, because I think in English and I didn’t get much opportunity for daily Spanglish with my English speaking husband. By the time my first born was school age I had decided that the only way to teach him Spanish was to immerse him in the language, So I sent him to a Spanish immersion public school. By the end of his kinder year he was understanding Spanish and speaking it, although not fluently. I remember going to visit my apa and my little guerito was understanding his tata, I loved it! Mission accomplished…sort of, I mean he can go into Mexico and get by. Pues, language immersion was quite a different and difficult experience for my oldest brother Angel.
Our apa took an opportunity given to him to immigrate his family and the Zepedas were immersed into the land of opportunity, los Estados Unidos. Coming from the border city of Mexicali, the language was familiar but now they would have to learn it. The culture in California was a mixture of “American” ways, the great American melting pot, un poquito de todo. The people, white, black and of various shades of brown weren’t always very accepting. Ya te imaginas, they were difficult transitions indeed!
My ama faced her culture shocks alone while the kids were at school all day, themselves facing their education in an unknown language, pero, it was what had to be done. Angel was thirteen, and that alone could be explosive. Picture those middle school challenges of your day but add a language barrier and culture shock. He faced them as well as a 13 year old could. He had always “handled his affairs” and helped Ama as much as possible, he didn’t want to burden our parents with his troubles. He faced and managed his new “language and cultural” immersion at school with hard work and pride.
Angel was resourceful and pulled from the wealth of knowledge learned at home, at his previous school and in the streets of his colonia in Mexicali.
His classroom beginnings were rough. Despite his age, he was placed in the younger kids classroom, chiquillos! When he was sharing this story I could hear the mortification in his tone as he said, “They put me in the younger class just because I didn’t know english yet.” He hadn’t been assessed, it had been the quick solution to new arrival immigrant kids from across the border. During math class one day, a very simple math test demonstrated his acquired knowledge but instead of using this to place Angel in a more appropriate classroom, the teacher assumed he had cheated. He separated him from the other students and made him retest. Angel, in his colorful descriptive language said, “It was a blankity blank, easy 6th grade test!” What the teacher considered hard math didn’t phase Angel as long as they weren’t word problems, those he couldn’t read yet. Angel dealt with this hurdle and proved himself beyond proficient in his math skills, but the bigger hurdle was the teacher’s mindsets. Angel’s perseverance didn’t put him in good graces with the teacher. By the ripe old age of 13, he had seen and experienced that sometimes teachers fall prey to favoritism which can skew a person’s vision.
Outside of the classroom the bullies came after him, the new kid. Thankfully, facing the ‘gangas’ in the streets had toughened his hide and prepared him for the new school. On the school bus he had to stand his ground, he didn’t understand the possible insults hurled at him, but he definitely understood the aggressive attempts to intimidate him and he wasn’t going to allow it. One day, just as he got off the bus, he was confronted simply because he wasn’t giving up his seat. It had come time to fight. He defended himself against the boys that came after him to the point that he cut one of them and drew blood. It was a fight for survival and Angel had prevailed only to face the principal who immediately assumed that he was the instigator. I wonder if he knew that it was a few boys against one? In those days, “corporate punishment” was allowed and the principal was ready to administer it, but Angel wasn’t going to allow this unfair treatment. My apa was summoned. He was called out from work, something he couldn’t afford, pero, his son was more important. He made it very clear to the principal that if corporal punishment was needed, he would take care of it. Our father believed that there are times when correction is needed as children are being trained up, but he also felt a need to advocate for his son and protect him.
Eventually he did learn the language. He loved reading comic strips. In Mexicali he had sold the popular Mexican magazines and here in America he discovered Archie and the gang. All their school age dramas proved educational for him. He turned the pages, at first just enjoying the images, then with time he was reading the story line.
Along his “school days” journey he had picked up some things that he tucked into a pocket of his heart:
He knew he could count on our Apa for provision and protection y su amor.
He also reinforced his conviction that bullies must be dealt with, not avoided.
Finally, he discovered that in life you will meet all kinds of people, in all shades and sizes. Some good and some bad. There will be those that are foolishly fearful and ignorant, unwilling to recognize the potential of different people. He would not be one of those people. As an adult his truck driving experiences gave him an appreciation for diversity of people and cultures.
Ya se que, these kinds of stories aren’t new, in Southern California, they’re even common experiences. Listening to my brother’s stories made me proud of him and la familia Zepeda. Hijole! I want more and more of our history in coming to America, and more of our stories of our contribution in civil rights. Living our part of the American dream has come with some cost. I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from my big brother Angel and that he paved the way for our siblings and for me.