Soul of the Exile

Written by Richard Drebert

©Good Catch Publishing

“Don’t talk to anyone, hijo.”

“Si, Mama.”

My mother threw a burrito into a plastic lunch pail and kissed my head before I trotted down the road to the bus stop.

The bus was very full today. I paid the driver and scooted against a window, ignored by street vendors with crates of noisy chickens, an old man with a pig on his lap, fruit pickers and women wrestling hijos (children). After about 30 minutes, the bus downshifted to a stopnearthe Mexico border station, and a few of us spilled out. My eyes darted everywhere. Wary. Noticing everything.

The sun glared off lines of idling cars and semi-trucks as they waited to be inspected or waved through the border station into the Promised Land. I beat a path in the opposite direction, a route that I followed every day. Not even the richest nation on earth could plug every hole in its vast border — and I knew more than one tear in the border fence where a skinny 6 year old could shinny through.

Mama had assigned me an important daily task: to carry lunch to my stepdad, who worked over the border, inside the United States of America. After completing my mission, I would work for a while, carrying boards or pulling nails with my stepfather. Afterward, I would skitter across the fence, back to the bus stop and home where Mama waited on pins and needles for me. She would ask about Papa, and I would tell her all the details of my day while she cooked tortillas and beans.

My 3-year-old brother, Chico, toddled around the dirt floor, and Mama would wash him before the three of us crawled into our single bed in the corner of our small hut. I usually couldn’t sleep for a long time. In my mind, I lived every moment of the following day. My family depended on me.

But today after delivering his lunch, Papa let me go late.I worried about missing the bus that would carry me back home, but it did no good to argue, especially if my stepdad was drinking. Now, I raced along the desert landscape like a jackrabbit, while the blazing sun glowed against the mountain range. I loped along the American side of the border toward my favorite gap in the fence when I heard the dogs.

Every fruit picker or domestic who crosses the border illegally fears the short-haired black and tan demon dogs. No one can outrun them, and I felt a twinge of terror as I cast a glance over my shoulder.

They were coming. My fingers clawed into the chain-link fence. I had to cross now. I could never reach my tear in the border before they chased me down. Strands of barbed wire coiled at the top of the 10-foot fence, and I struggled to straddle it without ripping my clothes. I slipped, then fell onto the barbs, trying to stifle a scream. It came out, anyway.

A deep slice ran red at a rip in my pants, and I gritted my teeth, clambering down to safe Mexican dirt. The authorities didn’t care who lived or died on our Mexico side.

I ran a little way, listening to the dogs and their handlers from a safe distance, then sat teary-eyed beside a tall sage. I had to hurry. I tore a strip from my shirt and staunched the bleeding before limping my way south to the bus stop.

“Dios mio! Ramon! What happened to you?”

Mama cleaned out the deep cut in my flesh as I told my story, and she shuddered a little. I didn’t fulfill my duty the next day, but as soon as I healed up, I carried Papa’s pail again.

I crossed the fence illegally dozens of times until Papa set up my “free pass” to come and go through the border station. My stepdad had border agents as amigos. I learned to make friends with the intimidating men with guns and dark glasses, too.

I was about 7 when Mama decided it was time for all of us to live in the Promised Land. Papa was a U.S. citizen, and he didn’t want us to come, but Mama set her heart on us being together as a family. She began saving her money to pay a coyote (a people smuggler).

***

My mother was born in the heavily forested Southwestern part of Mexico. Her earliest childhood memories include having a bloated belly from severe malnutrition. Mama lived in a primitive culture where out-of-wedlock pregnancy dishonored her heritage. Seeing Mama’s swelled tummy under her blouse, my grandmother wrongly believed that she was carrying a child.

“B****! Whore! You shame your familia!”

The beatings at the hands of my grandmother changed Mama’s life forever. Paralyzed from the waist down, my mother lay in a room by herself for weeks, immobile, infected with sores and insect bites.

“Get up! You have a baby coming. Get ready to take care of it!”

Her mother screamed at her every day, but Mama couldn’t move.

In a society where newborn girls were scorned and boys treasured (for their ability to support the family), Mama lay moaning in the dark while scorpions crawled over her blankets.

It wasn’t until a passerby looked through the pane-less window one morning and saw Mama’s emaciated body that Grandma admitted her folly. Relatives loaded Mama into a cart and took her to a hospital in the city. It took a full year of healthy food and therapy before she healed enough to go home again.

While convalescing, Mama learned how to care for others, and her aptitude for learning a nurse’s skills drew attention from physicians. She was offered an opportunity to take up nursing as a vocation, but my grandfather whisked her back to their poverty-ridden life. He said that she needed to learn to keep a home for a husband someday.

Her paralysis never completely left her limbs, and over the years she has suffered periods of sudden immobility. Doctors said that her injuries would prevent her from having children, but she prayed, “God, give me 20! I promise to take care of every one!”

What she endured as a child at the hands of those she loved echoed over and over throughout her life. At 14, Mama did have a child, conceived in a violent rape that happened while she stayed with trusted relatives. After the baby was born, her family abandoned them. Her first son, my brother, became ill and died in her arms.

Mama ran away to the city, where she apprenticed to a man with an adobe oven, and she learned to bake breads. By trading bread for labor, Mama drafted village children to haul clay from a riverbank to build her own oven inside a hut where she lived alone. In time, she added chickens to her inventory and sold poultry and eggs to local customers.

When her mother saw how successful she had become, she dropped off my mother’s four brothers and sisters to be raised by her. At 15 years old, Mama’s drive to succeed cast a bright light on her future. And although she believed herself to be the “ugly girl with a limp,” a fisherman from the coast married her.

Mama had her second son, and named me Ramon, when she was just 16 years old. She continued to work, and my father spent weeks at sea, but he was home long enough to give me a baby brother, Chico. My family was upwardly mobile in our community, profiting from my mother’s entrepreneurship and my father’s paychecks from fishing. Out of jealousy, friends of my mother plotted to steal my father away by offering their daughters to the 45-year-old seafaring man. He gladly took them up on the offers.

Mama took him to task for unfaithfulness and growing neglect of Chico and me.

In a parting conversation with my mother, Papa said something like, “I was raised a loner. Let my sons be loners, too.”

My father was an infant when his whole family had been slaughtered in a Mexican blood feud. His mother had wrapped him in a blanket and run to the forest to save him from the butchery. With no family ties except his elderly mother, Papa had run away to the sea. Sadly, the winds of bitterness filled his soul, and no one could set him on a new tack. Packing up his duffel, he boarded a ship and sank into an ocean of selfishness. I never saw him again.

After my father abandoned us, my mother made the mistake of leaving Chico and me with Grandma for a few months to take a job in another town as a restaurant cook. It would be the last time she would ever allow Grandma to be part of our lives.

A messenger found Mama at work one day. “If you want to see your son Chico again, your mother says come quick.”

Mama traveled several hours by bus to Grandma’s house, kicking herself for being so desperate that she left Chico and me with the same woman who had abused her. But what choice did she have? A good job as a cook didn’t come around that often in Mexico. She had no one to take care of her boys while she worked, and her mother had offered. Mama’s survival instinct had trumped her good sense.

When she arrived at Grandma’s little shack, Mama gasped when she saw me. I stood in a girl’s dress, the prettiest nina anyone ever saw. She was speechless until she saw Chico inside the house. He lay in his own filth, covered in sores. Mama gathered us up and headed for the hospital, while Grandma screamed epithets after her.

Did her own mother hate her so much as to watch her grandson slowly die? And why would she dash me against a crisis of identity?

Chico recovered his physical strength over time, but the trauma set him back years in motor skills and ability to speak. I became his mentor, his defender. At our shack in the Mexican border town where my mother worked, he would sit in bed and rock for hours, and somehow I had the presence of mind to communicate with him. I knew what he needed and cherished him with a passionate, brotherly love. As I grew older, Mama relied upon me to help her care for Chico and later for my other siblings, too.

My stepdad, Fernando, entered our lives as a big happy fellow that my mother approved to help raise Chico and me. We moved into his little house together, and in about two years, Mama had two more sons: Manuel and Daniel.

He was from Texas, and this made him a celebrity in Mexican circles. He knew his way around the United States and took us across the border for visits to places like the beach and malls, just like an American family. What Mama didn’t know was that Fernando had a mistress named Tequila.

Liquor twisted his mind to think like a dark, hateful demonio. Two obsessions haunted his mind when he was drunk: my mother, whom he incessantly accused of sleeping with other men, and his knives. He loved to throw his knives at trees or targets — and his woman.

“Fernando is coming home. He’s got a bottle of Tequila, Ramon …”

I knew my job.

“Help me, Chico!” We grabbed up little Manuel and Daniel like flour sacks and stumbled out the door. We stayed as quiet as we could in a shed or in a field somewhere, listening for hours to Mama crying and pleading, until Fernando passed out.

At daylight Mama came looking for the four of us, and we went inside. Snores and man noises growled from the bedroom, and Mama ran water in the sink, dabbing a washrag on cuts or bruises, wherever my stepdad had concentrated his fists, slaps or knife blade.

Sometimes Mama called the police, who came and beat Fernando to a pulp, just to teach him not to cause a ruckus so they had to come. Mama had to nurse him then.

After a few years, Fernando eased out of our family for a short time, wandering to and from work on both sides of the border. Mama struggled, keeping food on the table by working in a restaurant, until a partial paralysis caught up with her. We moved into a plank shed with one bed, and Mama put in a little adobe oven to work baking bread.

“Do your best to get some money for each loaf. Okay?”

At first I came home dejected, breadless and almost centavo-less. Customers took advantage of a 6-year-old salesman.

“Don’t worry. You’ll get better. Try again tomorrow. Now let’s count centavos and pesos again … I give you two pesos for a loaf, and you give me how much back?”

In time, no one cheated me. I handled my bread sales like a Mexican cash register.

***

Our coyotes were here. They pulled into our designated parking lot, wearing identical sweat-ringed cowboy hats, coveralls and heavy black bigotes (mustaches). We hadn’t seen Fernando in months, but heard tidbits of his whereabouts through mutual friends. Our coyotes knew our stepdad, and for a price “the twins” offered to take us across the border and deposit us at a safe house somewhere near where Fernando worked.

In a big station wagon, my three brothers, Mama and I joined a dozen other sweating brown men, women and children — our legs and arms squeezed tightly against our bodies to give others a little more room. A big armed Mexican hombre, with arms the size of pork shanks, leaned on the window and seemed to know one of the twins who handed him papers.

We all stared straight ahead like lifeless figurines until we cleared the border station. On the States side, Mama started breathing again, and people carried on conversations. The twins dropped us and our scant luggage at a house where a family of white people invited us into a room with a single bed.

This was the first time I felt the sting of bigotry in our new country. The white children who owned the house seemed to think that they were better than poor Mexican kids. I didn’t care. I was in the United States! Mama and my brothers were with me, and we would see Fernando soon. Perhaps he wouldn’t be drinking. He had citizenship and knew everything about the country!

We were sorely disappointed by Fernando’s unenthusiastic welcome. We had invaded his country. The border had been a line that we never should have crossed. Mama got the message but said, “Just give him time. He needs to adjust to having his familia close, that’s all.”

In the meantime we got a ride to Fresno County, where my mother’s auntie gave us a temporary home. Mom’s legs had gained back their strength again, and she landed a job in the orchards picking oranges. We saw Fernando once in a while when he spent the night with Mama, but it was me who stepped into the role as Papa when Mama worked 12-hour days. I babysat my brothers and sisters, and soon Mama added one more to my brood. Pretty little Christa came into our lives. And then there were five

Olives, grapes, almonds, tomatoes, oranges. While Mama picked according to the seasons, we wore out our welcome at Auntie’s house — and I couldn’t wait to leave.

Auntie’s 15-year-old dysfunctional son liked to babysit us sometimes when everyone was gone — at least babysitting was what he called it. I was exactly half his age when he molested me. It happened more than once, and I buried my helpless anger deep, to keep from causing trouble with his family that was trying to help us. It would have crushed my mother to know she had once again, out of desperation, left her loved ones in the care of a deviant.

Looking back, I see clearly that an evil force targeted me to wreck and reroute my masculine identity. Auntie’s son dressed me up like a girl, just as my grandmother had.

***

Illegal.

“If I don’t come back, Ramon, you need to keep the family together. Don’t let anyone separate you!”

When Mama left for work each day, I fought back a growing terror that she would be deported back to Mexico, and we would never see her again. My stepdad had connections to get Mama legal, but he refused to help.

“And don’t open the door to anyone, understand?”

“Si, Mama.”

“If you can’t keep your little sister or brothers quiet, get everyone into the bathroom and stick towels against the bottom of the door. Then silencio!”

I held my 7-month-old sister, Christa, on my hip, and we waved to my mother as she left. She always left a stack of burritos in the refrigerator for us, but she never took a lunch herself. The fruit of the vine, tree or bush filled her belly. Whatever was in season, she consumed.

At home I discovered the same talent as she: creating something tasty out of whatever leftovers we had — whether in the kitchen or in life.

When the California Child Protective Services showed up at our door, Mama panicked. She enrolled us in school immediately; at the same time, we found out that her older sister needed a temporary home. Mama moved her into the apartment so that she could take care of Christa and the little ones.

At school, I was ahead of my class in math; in English, I was far behind — and so it went almost all the way through high school.

Mama had a first-grade education, but she had taught us to read English and Spanish before we ever attended our first class.

And while we were in school, Mama used every resource she could find to get ahead, for as long as she might remain in this remarkable land of opportunity. She taught us never to dwell on the possibility of deportation. She just worked and thought about today.

***

In the ghetto, a shy little Mexican boy was ripe fruit to stomp on. I had been having problems with bullies in the neighborhood when I walked to school, and Mama absolutely forbid me to fight. My brothers and sisters had no room to play at our apartment complex, and Mama was growing more and more fearful for our safety.

One day, Fernando showed up, and Mama agreed to move to a migrant camp as a family. My stepdad refused to work in the orchards, but he had other opportunities, he said. We settled into a cottage, and us kids went wild with a huge yard to play in. One central restroom with showers and washroom sat in the middle of the shabby complex, to service workers and their families.

But it was a big mistake moving to the migrant camp with Fernando. He enjoyed snorting a new poison with his Tequila, cocaine, and it turned him into a monster.

Mama worked in the fields or orchards, and after hours she networked to start a new business venture. She met a dairyman and bought his milk to make cheese. She sold the cheese to the migrant workers in the camp, while my stepdad collected discarded electronics and wiring to strip out copper, aluminum and other metals. He sold the metals to salvage yards. I got my old babysitting job back instead of going to school.

When Fernando grabbed Mama and threw her on the cottage floor, Mama’s eyes met mine, and she mouthed the words, “Get them out …”

I gathered up my brothers and sisters, and Chico helped me herd them toward the bathrooms, watching over my shoulder as my stepdad flung Mama outside. Fernando’s great open hands whapped Mama’s face and head mercilessly until she lay still in the dirt, stunned. Fernando stopped to rest a moment, and a woman opened a door to the washroom, beckoning us children inside.

The last thing I saw before we shut the door was Mama lying like a dead woman. Soon her weeping filled the camp again, and the door to our cottage slammed shut. She was inside with Fernando. Cocaine kept the demons awake in my stepdad all night, and he kept beating Mama until daylight.

I recall someone shoving Doritos and hot sauce through the door in the morning, and no one wanted to confront the damage done inside our cottage. A woman who bought cheese from Mama fed us during the next day as we hid. The door to our cottage never opened, and the silence was worse to me than Mama’s cries of pain.

The next day, the cottage door burst open, and Fernando’s fingers tangled in Mama’s dark hair as he drug her into the yard again. Police arrived before he killed her, and they cuffed Fernando, who was nearly incoherent.

“It’s okay! The police are here, children,” a woman said, and we ran to Mama who lay slumped on the steps of our cottage. She could barely speak to the policemen, and Fernando stared malevolently at Mama as the cops drove him away. A demonic obsession clawed at Fernando’s mind: He thought that another man fathered the child she carried. Mama was six months pregnant with my beautiful sister, Dora. Once again, my mother suffered horrible abuse because of a lie someone believed about her.

Mama would take weeks to recover. Her face swelled in misshapen lumps. Both eyes were shut in their bloody hollows, and her body was so bruised that she lay in one place for days. But we had to move. The head of the migrant camp was kind but firm. Mama wouldn’t be working for a long while.

When Mama could sit up and speak, some of the ladies got together and told her about a house in Tulare. It was located on a ranch where she might work in the fields when she was well enough.

The five of us and Mama moved to the ranch and into a shed that had once housed chickens. It had a little kerosene stove, and at night I stared at stars through cracks in the tin roof, remembering Mexico. We had run full circle and met the same humiliation again. We were as poor as when we lived in the little shack in Mexico, when I trespassed the border with lunch for Fernando. In fact, we were poorer.

As soon as Mama was able, she took a job with the owner of the ranch doing domestic work. I worked picking oranges and babysat my four siblings — and then came Dora.

***

When I was 10 years old, I realized that a person who moves to America must know the workings of two currencies or live a handicapped life. One is the dollar. I learned the denominations by heart. The other medium of exchange is the English language; I applied myself to learn it in elementary school. And I worked hard to teach English to my brothers and sisters, too, so that they could survive on their own. Requiring an interpreter is like hobbling on a crutch.

In elementary school I was surprised to learn that many children in our city were worse off than me. It wasn’t that they were poorer, but something had weakened them until they had no desire to compete. My family kept moving forward in the face of disaster. In our lives every spiteful word, every horrendous event strengthened our resolve to adjust, survive, learn, then excel when opportunity presented itself.

When Mama made Pedro our father, we moved to a house in the Central Valley, and I started to attend a school in an area that most people would call a ghetto. Pedro was a man that Mama respected, and he worked hard. They teamed up to move up the American ladder of success.

But in our low-rent neighborhood, stronger street kids forced me to grovel on the playground or parking lot.

“On your knees! Now pray to me, filthy Mexican!”

They invented perverse ways to instill fear in younger children and taught us a vile hierarchy of race. Mexicans who barely spoke English were slaves — unless they joined a gang. Gang life salvaged self-respect and gave a boy or girl an identity that the ghetto stripped away.

But Mama said no.

“Gangs will destroy you in the end, Ramon. We fight a different way!”

“But I’m not weak like they think I am,” I told her.

Mama looked hard into my serious brown eyes. “This will pass, Ramon. Endure, mi hijo. Endure.”

It wasn’t enough for me to “endure.”

In elementary school, and later in middle school, I had to fight — in my own way. I respected my mother’s wishes and never joined a gang because my brothers and sisters would have followed my example. Instead, I placed myself between those who were too weak to fight and the street bullies who hunted them. I invited street kids to vent their hatred on me in place of diminutive, pleading Thai, Black, Chicano and mixed race children. I had seen my mother endure, but in taking the pain for others, I prevailed.

Before I entered school in the upscale part of town, I recognized a growing intellectual power driving me to achieve. Grasping math equations and scientific theory was like baking bread. I simply followed the directions given me by my instructors.

I accompanied dozens of other underprivileged children who were bused to the school, part of a federally mandated minority quota system. The teachers and the pupils there didn’t know what to make of us ghetto kids at first — and I was a real challenge. My English was terrible, but I excelled in math. Science, too, made sense to me. At first in my classes, my teachers thought I might need remedial help because of my homemade clothing and quiet, wary demeanor. But as time passed, instructors recognized my potential and placed me in advanced classes.

The reality of Disneyland, Nintendo and swimming pools shocked my poverty-inclined brain. I made friends with middle-class children, and my bus trundled through neighborhoods where every boy had his own BMX, or mountain bike. I saw no reason that I shouldn’t achieve success and that my family shouldn’t enjoy the riches of America, just like my new friends.

Yet, one great barrier remained that argued against my future achievements: I was a wetback. In the back of my mind, I prepared for a bus ride back to Mexico with other illegals.

By the time I was in high school, Mama had two more children, bringing my sibling count to seven, plus myself. She was often ill and looked to me to fill the role as caregiver when Pedro couldn’t cope with diapers and dinners. Door-to-door religion invaded our neighborhood on a regular basis, and I brought home an enlightened worldview straight from secular textbooks. I challenged Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses with my new doctrine of evolution. Mama didn’t care who we studied religion with, as long as they taught that God “requires children to obey parents!”

A nice lady took us to a Pentecostal church down the street sometimes, and Mama stayed home with Pedro — he didn’t want anything to do with any God at all. I had no understanding of who Jesus was, and I put religion on a shelf. I opened my heart to science, philosophy and mathematics.

My biggest problem during my high school years was avoiding gangs who tried to recruit me. All my friends, whom I knew in middle school and junior high, wore their gang colors proudly. On the streets, on the way home from school, I dodged their advances — I was the geeky loner, nonviolent and bookish.

But in the classroom, I was the predator. Among students, I could be intellectually intimidating. I spoke fluent calculus, physics, English and Spanish. Often, my teachers put me in charge of a class when they stepped out, because I was capable and conscientious.

My instructors pressed me to go to college, but my mother and stepdad needed me. I graduated from high school when I was 19 and settled into work in a migrant camp, helping Pedro, who suffered heart problems. I attended a junior college where placement counselors suggested that I pursue a short career like mechanics or landscaping — I think I fit their stereotype of a poor Mexican field hand. Chico, on the other hand, traveled the path of academics and landed a full-time teaching position by the time he was 22!

I took classes at the local college while I worked at the orchards with my stepdad. My instructor called me into his office after several months. “Ramon, have you ever considered going to the state university? You grasp the theory of mechanics, and your aptitude for math is extraordinary.”

I was surprised by his assessment. I was the clumsiest mechanic in the class. Wrenches never seemed to fit my hands right.

“I’ll help you any way I can to get into Fresno,” he said.

I told him I appreciated his kindness, but that I couldn’t see any way I could keep up my farm work and my difficult studies at Fresno State.

***

I shook my head when I opened my lunch pail. Two full roasted chickens crowded 10 burritos inside. I sat in a little white van that my mother had purchased for me, eating and hoping that no one parked in front of me. I had a mortal fear of backing up; I could never seem to synchronize the clutch pedal with the van’s three-speed column shift lever. On the freeway, I often lurched into the median, desperately trying to locate the next higher gear, while impatient, honking commuters swerved out of my way.

And I was training to be a mechanic.

I finished up the last burrito and waddled off to class. Mama was still fully invested in my life — and she was worried.

“Ramon, you are 21 years old. You’re gay! You never go out with girls. You must be. Are you gay, mi hijo? Tell me …”

Over and over she tried to set me up with young women she knew, but my life was as crammed as my lunch box! I worked every day in the orchards or fields, helped with my brothers and sisters and then took general education classes at the local college. Couldn’t Mama see that I had no room for a woman in my life?

And then there was my dream: A little boy ran into my arms, brown-skinned, with raven-black hair and laughing eyes. A voice said to me, “Ramon, this is your son.”

“Mama, this dream tells me I’m not gay!”

“A dream! That’s ridiculous. You can’t have a son until you have a wife! Don’t you know the way it works?”

“I know, I know. Don’t worry about me.” The dream reinforced what I knew about myself. I wasn’t gay, no matter who thought so.

Mama saved enough money to put a down payment on a small plot of ground and an old farmhouse — the very first home she ever owned. We all moved in, and soon my brothers and sisters populated makeshift pens with a menagerie of animals. Just down the hill, within view of Mama’s new home, sat the little tin-roof chicken coop we had lived in years before. It stood as a monument to our toil and tears.

The farmhouse needed repairs, and I gathered tools to replace the porch and cabinets. Neighbors and friends inspected my work, and soon I had paying projects around Tulare stacking up. Whenever I worked in the neighborhood, a little boy named Tomas pedaled up to help me, and I saw myself in his determined eyes. I welcomed his company and taught him how to handle woodworking tools. He worked long hours with me, and soon he was as indispensable as my power saw.

I also saw kindness in Tomas. He and another boy used to work for a woman with diabetes who lived on our street. They used to massage her legs and feet when they fell asleep. Kindness was a quality that I saw in my mother, too, as far back as our days in the Mexican border town. She had handed out morsels of food to the hobos who lived near the railroad tracks, though we were nearly as destitute as they.

Where did kindness come from? Or love? Were they simply neurological impulses gathered in the brain and randomly acted upon?

I had dismissed God as a crutch needed by elderly women and fearful ninos. My mind was filled with images of goo turning to invertebrates; from invertebrates to vertebrates; from vertebrates to primates; and from primates to humanity with complex emotions.

I was no longer an ignorant Mexican immigrant. At 19, I had become a citizen of the United States, thoroughly indoctrinated in secular thought taught by professors.

One day as Tomas and I nailed trim to a doorway, my little sister skipped into the house. “Ramon! I’ve found your wife! I found your wife, Ramon!”

“I never lost her, sis,” I told her, but I was curious.

Later, as I ate lunch at Tomas’ house with his family, I met the potential woman of my (mother’s) dreams. She was Tomas’ skinny, shy sister, Carmen. With her fluffy black hair, she was not what my mind envisioned for a wife.

Oh, what a difference one year can make.

Carmen came home from visiting relatives, and she had grown. I was too busy to pay much more attention than staring whenever she came to see Tomas, but one day my protégé helped break the ice for me to officially court Carmen.

Tomas and I had been digging a septic tank hole, and my wiry helper accidently slammed the edge of a shovel into my head. I was out cold for a few seconds before I climbed out of the hole and stood, like a part-butchered hog, dazed and bleeding. In an emergency room at the hospital, I fell asleep because of the pain, and when I roused awake, someone held my hand. It was Carmen. She had sneaked to town to be with me, against the wishes of her strict father.

Carmen was 19 and I was 23 when we were married by her priest at their church. I bowed my head, but only out of respect for tradition. A Creator did not exist for me. And in the first year of our marriage, I would have called it mala suerte (bad luck) when a Holstein cow changed the direction of our lives.

I had been running heavy equipment at a dairy, and along the highway on a foggy night, I slammed into a dairy cow that stopped my pickup like a brick wall. My foot and shoulder sustained broken bones, and a section of my vertebrae was crushed. I lost my job, and with my wife and baby son (brown-skinned with laughing eyes), we scavenged for cardboard around town to sell to a salvage yard.

Carmen felt like we were scraping the bottom of the barrel in our first trial together, but my troubles seemed insignificant as I reflected on my past. I could do anything! I was a self-made hombre. I had no need for any higher power to help me prevail. In fact, every beating that life gave me simply made me stronger.

My brother Daniel worked at a local restaurant and let me in the back door to train me in kitchen work. It took a few days for the manager to notice me.

“Who in the h*** are you?” he asked, and Daniel said that I was his brother.

He looked over my work for a little while, then asked, “He getting paid, Daniel?”

“No, sir.”

The manager smiled a little in my direction. “You’re hired. Come to my office and get the paperwork.”

In less than a year, I was managing a department of the kitchen staff. But I diligently avoided my counselor at the local college who encouraged me to apply to the state university and pursue a degree. I had a family to support, and I focused on the job at hand, to make it a success.

One day the counselor called me. “I’ve made an appointment for you to interview for enrollment. Remember the entrance exam you took months ago? You scored very highly! Ramon, you need to go. I’ll even pay for diapers and a rental car for your transportation. Just commit to go!”

At my interview at the university, the counselor told me, “Ramon, you’re going to be a teacher. And this is how you will do it …”

***

How did I get here?   

I had to ask myself this question sometimes as I collaborated with principals to evaluate the afterschool program for the school district. In two years, I had been promoted from inexperienced substitute teacher for special ed children to Director of the After School Program. Many of my 150 students were immigrant children, and my staff included untrained educators growing into full-fledged teachers.

No one wanted to take on the troubled, grant-starved program, so I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and made decisions guiding the whole system. It became my launching pad to a teaching career.

At every school I taught in, I found favor with principals and teachers. They studied my methods of gaining trust from my students to instruct them. Yet during my three intense years trying to achieve tenure as a schoolteacher, my home life was falling to pieces. My academic world replaced my wife and children, and Carmen slipped into a deep depression.

“I’ve lost you, Ramon. You’ve left me behind.”

“Don’t be crazy, Carmen. I’m working hard for all of us!” But I knew she was right. I spent less and less time with my family, and I was seduced by lofty objectives presented in academia.

“We need to go to church, Ramon. As a family. Can we?”

Carmen wasn’t the only one who had been asking me to find peace in religion. My brother Chico had made a forceful decision to follow Jesus the rest of his life. I had ridiculed him over joining a club for illiterates and zealots. Then my mother made a commitment to this Jesus whom I had never respected because he let himself be killed. How could he be the God of the universe, like the Bible said?

I distanced myself more and more from my family, until Carmen decided to move away to her parents’ home, taking my two precious children with her.

Only her family’s deep Catholic beliefs about the unpardonable sin of divorce prevented Carmen from filing papers. After weeks of sinking into a crater of depression, Carmen called me. “Please, Ramon. Come and get us.”

Before I made a decision, I visited Mama to seek her moral support.

“Ramon,” she said, “go fight for your family.”

On the table beside her lay an open Bible. For months she had been going to a church where Chico preached. I couldn’t fathom what had come over her! My powerful mentor had thrown away her self-reliance and humbled herself before Jesus.

“Mama, she’s six hours away. And I’ve been up for almost 24, working on school papers.”

“You go, Ramon. I’ll pray for you.”

I never shirked my responsibilities, and I wasn’t about to let Carmen ruin my record. I drove to her parents’ home, arriving with a cracked windshield and brush imbedded in my bumper. Somewhere I had wandered off the road and didn’t remember where. I crashed on a bed with my two children when I got there.

It had been a hellish few weeks for my son, Carlos, my daughter, Lori, and Carmen. They had witnessed an assault by a knife-wielding cousin. My daughter had recoiled into a shy place, completely changed from her normal buoyant self. Carmen was a worse mess than when she left, and I despised her.

I warned her not to leave, and she rejected me! Now I have to pick up the pieces — and work long hours at school, too!

Someone spoke to me: “You can rid yourself of this burden for good, if Carmen goes crazy.” In a flash I pictured life without Carmen.

Then a voice said, “Bury her! You can destroy her. She hurt you. Look what she did to your children! It’s your turn now. She must pay for the disgrace she has brought to your family!

My grandmother had listened to this same voice when she beat her daughter senseless; it was the same “spirit” my stepfather, Fernando, heeded when he cut Mama with a knife …

“NO! I’ve always stood up for my family. I cannot bury her!”

And in the end, it was Carmen who helped me cross the border to freedom and enlightenment that saved my self-righteous soul.

***

Maybe Carmen can sing or something. Church will be good for Carlos and Lori, too.

Some people drank to deaden the pain of life. Others took drugs. I saturated myself with my teaching career to block out any angst. I was glad that Carmen had discovered a crutch to help her regain her psychological balance.

I didn’t mind going to the little Pentecostal church pastored by Ricardo, my brother Chico’s mentor and friend. I enjoyed wrestling with the intellectual challenges that “God’s word” delivered through Ricardo and Chico’s preaching. At times, a peculiar light touched my presuppositions. Jesus was a historical figure, still dead to me, but I could see that his religion was helping people.

Drug addicts were testifying to losing their addictions when they gave up their lives to Jesus. Drunks walked straight and true after surrendering themselves to God. As for Carmen, she was a new creation that I could quantify, classify and analyze empirically every day. The change in her was uncanny.

If there was a God, these misfits really needed him. Some were real crybabies, who prayed for minor problems in their lives. God probably appreciated that a strong person like myself associated with them.

For my family’s sake, I attended services, painted walls or repaired the church van. I was making Mama proud. I was as good a Christian as any of them, and I had never even spoken to their Jesus.

Carmen had taken employment at a restaurant, and one Sunday after church she was scheduled to work an afternoon shift. When she left, Carlos and Lori read books in the living room while I headed for the kitchen to make lunch.

Before I reached the refrigerator, I slammed into a cerebral fence that stopped me cold.

An acute sense that my soul was separating from my physical body overwhelmed me. A thought reverberated in my head: Ramon, this is your future. Your body is going to decompose. Where will your soul end up?

Whoa. I need to know the answer to this question.

I had never opened a Bible to actually read it before, but I owned one. It lay in the trunk of my Taurus, dilapidated and worn from years of neglect. Chico had given it to me when I first started taking the family to church, three years before.

I smuggled the Bible past the kids and sat down at the kitchen table.

The first verse I read was: “If any man be in Christ he is a new creation …” and I knew that this was talking about my soul.

In my years of academic study, I had never seriously considered that my soul might live on after I died. My professors believed that God only existed in a person’s mind, and at death something turned out the lights.

Suddenly I pondered over evidence that I had ignored. I developed a new thesis at the kitchen table, as I read the Bible.

At the instant I was conceived (when the male sperm met the female ovum), I had no idea my life began. I had no knowledge that my father existed. Nine months later, I was born, and my father abandoned me before I even knew him.

I grew up without a single photograph or old movie to prove my father was real — but to deny that he existed was irrational. I could not analyze it scientifically, but my father’s activity (me) proved his existence.

Carmen authenticated God’s influence in my family — she was fully restored from a mental collapse. People at Chico’s little church had been healed from addictions, and they credited Jesus for their recovery, too.

And, unlike my absent father, God had given me a very detailed picture of himself — a historical, supernatural album lay before me on the kitchen table. The Bible’s description of my soul resonated with my thesis, and I paused for a few seconds. The same voice that set me to thinking about my destiny spoke again.

I am looking for a family that will follow me.

Jesus had willingly died to pay for my past indifference and selfishness. All I had to do was follow his plan for my life. Not only was God real, but I could feel his son, Jesus, inside me!

I immediately knew that I had to teach these life-changing truths to my children. I took my old yellow Bible into the living room and opened up a discussion with my beloved class of two.

The next few days were peculiar in that I hid my new commitment to God from my wife. I didn’t want her to see me teaching Carlos and Lori, because I felt humbled. After all our arguments about attending church and about Jesus, she had been right all along.

In the following weeks, after a thorough family discussion, we chose a church where we all could grow spiritually.

***

I speak two languages (other than Spanish and English) to communicate the love of Jesus: I interpret Poverty so that people can understand those who live in ghettos; I translate Academia so that people can empathize with those who mistakenly believe that education is the way of discovering purpose.

Only Jesus can truly enrich the mind. Only Jesus can save the eternal soul.

For a Mexican child who crosses the border illegally, a knock on the door at home is terrifying. Every day at school might be his last activity in the Promised Land, if he is discovered.

For 13 uneasy years, I stressed over my deportation while I pursued my vision of the American dream. Now the experience energizes me to use every moment wisely as I follow Jesus Christ. I am detached from this world as only a former illegal immigrant comprehends —

my citizenship is in heaven!

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