California State University, Fresno
First Generation Stories

 

 

With Education, the Doors Will Open

José A. Díaz
Associate Dean, College of Arts and Humanities

In the 1940’s and 50’s, it was common for girls raised in the farming communities of the deep south to attend school only until they were old enough to work on the family farm.  That’s why my mother Peggy’s education ended at the eighth grade. After that, she worked on the farm. Then at age 16 she followed her older sister to Chicago where they shared a room at a boarding house. 

During these family times, mom and dad impressed on us the importance of doing well and staying in school. My dad didn’t want us to suffer through life as a hard laborer the way he did.

My father, “Russo,” as they nicknamed him because of his penetrating blue eyes, slender figure, kinky hair, and hot temper, lived with his older brother in the room next to my mom and aunt. In his youth, he was a hotheaded rebel who frequently sneaked out of the bathroom windows to skip school. My grandfather, a butcher at the local Mercado in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, was so upset with him that he pulled him out of school and made him work alongside him in the family business. Dad never even completed the first grade. 

It was at the Chicago boarding house that my parents met. Dad didn’t speak any English and mom didn’t speak any Spanish. But dad persisted and mom finally went on a date with him to Riverview (an amusement park that no longer exists). Soon after, they were married and a year later, I was born. By the time I was eleven years old, I had three younger brothers and two younger sisters. Mom used to tell me that for the first couple years of their marriage, all they ate was hamburgers because every time she asked dad what he wanted to eat, the only food he could say in English was “hamburgers.”  Eventually dad learned to speak English and mom learned to speak Spanish—well, TexMex. 

My brothers and sisters and I looked forward to Sundays. After morning Mass, mom and dad would take us on the “el” (short for elevated) train to various locations in Chicago. Every Sunday afternoon we went to either the Field Museum, the Chicago Aquarium, Brookfield Zoo, the Chicago Art Museum, the Chicago Library, or just rode the train to the end of the track. We’d end the day with a family picnic, usually in Grant Park, until the sun went down and we could watch the colorful light show at Buckingham Fountain. 

During these family times, mom and dad impressed on us the importance of doing well and staying in school. My dad didn’t want us to suffer through life as a hard laborer the way he did. He made financial sacrifices, such as going without a new pair of work boots, to give us money to buy school supplies or go on a field trip. In the 1960’s, you could buy encyclopedias at the grocery store. Each week, he picked up the newest volume for us. “With an education, all the doors that were shut for me will open for you,” he told me and my brothers.

Achievement at school came easily for me, but not for my younger brother Billy. When I was in second grade and Billy was in first grade, Dad insisted that I help him with his reading, vocabulary, and spelling every night. That’s when I discovered I might enjoy teaching someday.

Billy and I were growing up in the streets of the west side of Chicago, not too bad of a neighborhood back then but declining. After a few fights with boys from other neighborhoods, and because there wasn’t any chance for dad to improve his earnings in the steel factory where he worked, he bought a used ’57 Chevy, loaded mom and all of us kids into it and left Chicago for Laredo, Texas. 

I hated Texas!  It was hot. We lived in a small one bedroom house on an unpaved road, and there were no museums or lakefront to feed my inquisitive mind. I was 12 years old and I thought I was going to die. When I began junior high school in Laredo, I decided to join the band. I had attended the Chicago Symphony’s children’s concert and fell in love with the sound of the oboe. So when I joined the band, I wanted to play that instrument.  The band director wouldn’t let me start on the oboe, but within a couple of years I proved to him that I was musically talented enough and he gave me an instrument that I practiced on and drove my family crazy. We couldn’t afford private lessons. My dad had trouble finding work and we were surviving on government aid. But I got pretty good on my own. Throughout junior high and high school, mom and dad continued encouraging us kids to get our high school diplomas and make better lives for ourselves. They never even thought about college.

But my teachers did. They encouraged me and my brothers and sisters to think seriously about the next stage of education. I was determined to make a career out of playing the oboe, so I applied to several colleges and was accepted by all based not only on my musical talent, but also on my high GPA. I was even voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in my senior year in high school. I’ll never forget graduation day when it was announced in front of all my family and friends that I had won a sizeable scholarship to attend the University of Texas at Austin. I think that was the proudest day of my father’s life. My mom told me later that tears swelled up in his eyes when my award was announced.  They didn’t care what I studied; they just wanted me to live a happy and fulfilling life. 

All through college mom and dad supported me with everything they could. It wasn’t money—they didn’t have any. But they listened to my frustrations and always found a way to help me realize that my dreams in life could be accomplished if I hung in there. I wouldn’t be where I am today had it not been for them. My brothers and sisters all completed high school, and two brothers are still working on their Bachelors’ degrees. I was the first on both sides of the family to not only graduate from college but to go on to earn a doctorate.

After a long, difficult struggle with cancer, mom passed away in 2003. But you know what? At 71 years of age, dad is taking English classes at Laredo Junior College. He wants to learn to read and write English.

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