-From the Desk of Cheryl Howard-
This is an interview I conducted via the internet with a former student, Veronica Ramos, who now lives in France. It is meant to accompany the two interviews I did earlier with students from other countries who came to El Paso as students and stayed, at least for the time being. The people she mentions in the interview are all residing here. Irma Cardenas (neé Carrillo) was Veronica’s roommate. Zulma Mendez, a friend and classmate is currently a UTEP Professor, and Kathy Staudt was one of her professors, as was I. Anne Holder was her high school counselor.
Tell us a bit about your undergraduate years at UTEP.
I have always loved school; it was my solace when the world around was so chaotic. I lived in my books and I excelled at school. Unsurprisingly, my whole family expected me to go to some Ivy League college and become a lawyer or some other professional. They were shocked however when they realized I had not applied to any university during my senior year in high school. Thankfully my mentor and wonderful friend, Anne Holder, not only got me into UTEP but she was able to secure a scholarship for me, without which it would have been difficult to attend.
As I look back now, I know that those four years at UTEP were fortuitous. I believe I needed them to forge a stronger self image. I remember the summer after my freshman year and the conversations I had with all my friends coming home from Notre Dame, Princeton, and Oberlin. I had envied them. What adventures they would have had in wonderful faraway places that I had been too scared to venture to. But my envy soon faded as I heard story after story of how hard it was to be a Mexican surrounded by non-Mexicans. Oh, they were having adventures, but the cost to their self-esteem and their academic self confidence seemed a mighty high price to pay. UTEP may not have been the academic powerhouse of those schools, but it was providing me with a good education and more importantly self confidence. I was encouraged, I was pushed to excel and more importantly I was not exposed to the constant onslaught of feelings of inadequacy. At UTEP people simply expected me to succeed and so I believed it too.
UTEP not only provided me with confidence but also with an abiding belief that academics and social action had to go hand and hand. Perhaps it was because I was involved early on with the Study Center at UTEP or that I was involved in your “Risk Taking Behavior” study or perhaps it was simply that most of the professors I met at UTEP were activists. Whatever the reason, my four years at UTEP were important in that regard. I didn’t realize it until much later that this very key belief in the interdependence of theory and social action was not necessarily common in all academic circles.
I remember my first taste of other academic circles was when you pushed me and Zulma Mendez to go Austin. It was great to see other venues of learning. The most life-changing was of course my summer at Berkeley. Not only did I get to see the possibilities to learn, I also met Vincent there. Berkeley was such a growth experience. It was the first time I had lived away from home; it was the first time I could dedicate myself to only books; it was also the first time I worked independently on a project of my choosing. It was intoxicating! What was great as well was the international flavor of the experience. I remember listening to the French students at the I-House, singing the Marseilles on July 14 and realizing for the first time what it felt like not to understand what people are saying.
Growing up bilingual I had always understood what people said around me, but that day, I understood nothing; it was scary but wonderful. Who would have thought that years later, I’d be listening to that same song in a village in the south of France.
Berkeley was where I met Vincent, and though he knew he wanted to marry me, I was still unsure. As you know we wrote to each other and saw each other at every school holiday for 2 years and finally married right before I left for graduate school. You’d think that getting married would have been harder than going to grad school but even getting there was not as easy.
I remember how hard that last year was. Doing my senior thesis and planning a wedding while working at two jobs and my confidence wearing thin, as you and Kathy Staudt pushed me to do a proper senior thesis. I remember the late nights writing those admission letters that were a bit too self-aggrandizing for me. Who was this Veronica who could do such great stuff? I even remember deciding to only apply for Master’s programs, still not sure if I was PhD material. How did I survive that year?
I survived and someone at the University of Michigan decided I was Ph.D. material after all. Following a long phone conversation with the Graduate director, I was convinced and was admitted to the Ph.D. program in Sociology at the University of Michigan. Being married was hard, first year grad seminars were hard, but what was hardest was adjusting to Michigan itself. I have a vivid memory of walking into a local 7-11 type store and heading to the back to get tortillas for dinner. I looked but couldn’t find the tortillas. Perhaps they’ve got them somewhere else I thought, so I went to the register and asked the cashier where the tortillas were? I’ll never forget the look on his face and his answer: “What are tortillas?” Culture shock 101 was the hardest. No tortillas, no Spanish language radio, no telenovelas, basically no home!
You remember me, I wasn’t the Chicano activist yearning for Aztlan. I hardly listened to Spanish radio, I only watched telenovelas sporadically and aside from quesadillas, ramen noodles were Irma Carrillo’s and my staple food. But these things were part of me. Spanish was my background noise, Mexican food was my comfort food, and both of these were missing. I was lost!
As all lost creatures, I went looking for home, or at least anything that looked remotely like home. I looked for a church, I looked for people who spoke Spanish, I attended concerts, saw Spanish movies, anything that could help me feel like home. Unfortunately, home is not that easily reconstructed.
At the time, I was only one of three women of color admitted to the program and only one of nine “minorities.” We joined up with other women in previous cohorts and vented about our experiences. Being on fellowship had its advantages , but more often than not it had its disadvantages. As “minorities” we were stigmatized right off since we “got in through the back door” and, more importantly, we were denied access to working as assistants to professors since such positions were used to balance the cost for “paying” students. This left us with very little mentoring or research opportunities. So an advocacy group was born. I loved this stuff! We built it from the bottom up, to identify problems, seek solutions, and encourage solidarity among the different cultural groups to advocate for change. Ah, now that felt like home!
But, it very quickly changed for me, and for reasons that even to this day are hard to understand. All of this activism was going on in study groups, evening cocktail nights after class, and quick coffee breaks in the morning until decisions were made that we needed a more institutional structure to actually affect change. In a heated meeting regarding our organization and priorities, I was in essence told that I was too “white” to be of any good. I had a white husband, my knowledge of contemporary “Chicano” struggles was not up to par, and one of my good friends was a white girl from Long Island. I had never felt so betrayed. And by people I had hoped would be my family. Needless to say I never joined the formal organizational group although I did maintain contact and even advocated with this group, I was never really a part of it. Home could not be found there.
It could not be found in the mainstream student groups either. Their struggles seemed foreign to me and their ease in these academic circles made me feel even more alienated. My identity was being tested and my self confidence was being shaken. It wasn’t just socially, but also academically, my beliefs, my core beliefs were being challenged. In a very real way, what I had learned– academic theory + social needs= social actions/social change–was being tested. University of Michigan became the social experiment.
Those were hard years. I struggled to maintain my self-confidence and looked for ways to strengthen my self-image. I remember applying for a research grant on a topic I was only minimally interested in simply because it required a three-week stay in Albuquerque. It was a great experience, but what I had desperately needed was a rejuvenation—a drinking in of the worlds that had created me. I believe it was during this stay that the idea to leave academics took root. I felt a growing desire to impact the world around me. Unfortunately, I had a hard time finding a mentor to help me make this happen.
I often felt pressured to “make it” in the academic world, to be an example of the success of affirmative action programs. A noble goal indeed, but it completely disregarded my own plans as an academic—my own desires to change the face of academics itself. In the end, I left academia. It started slowly, volunteering at the local literacy center that did outreach to migrant workers in Michigan. After that, I started teaching ESL. I finally left graduate school when the opportunity to work for an advocacy group for Spanish speaking women came up. It was doing this that finally gave me the self-confidence I needed to decide to leave academics behind and focus on working towards changing my world.
It was during this time and my subsequent work as a community organizer and diversity trainer that I found my calling. My years in grad school really challenged my idea that being bi-cultural was an advantage. I didn’t fit anywhere, yet I could ‘make it’ in most places. I believed deep down that being a product of “the borderlands” (as I often called it) gave me a unique perspective to the myriad of issues I encountered. This became evident when I became a culture and diversity trainer with Institute for Human Services in Columbus, Ohio. I saw in very real ways how my experience trying to understand different cultural expectations gave me a different approach to understanding and explaining other cultures. As a trainer, I could bring together theory and practice—my life experience combined with my theoretical training. I loved my job. But fate stepped in and decided that I needed some more life experience.
Yes. I wish I could say coming to France was a well thought-out decision made with much forethought and planning, but that would be untrue. Our decision to come to France was more visceral than that. The practical story is that Vincent lost his job twice in six months, and while on a planned vacation to France he interviewed with a company that offered him a job upon our return. But in the end, we just felt it was meant to be, that we were meant to see what life in France would be like, and for me in particular, what being a ‘real’ foreigner would be like. Needless to say that the adjustment was hard, considering that I became pregnant only 6 months after coming to France.
Ironically, I finally knew how it felt to be pregnant in a country not my own and speaking the language so poorly—a situation in which many of the women I advocated for in Ohio found themselves. What a learning experience! Learning a new language and culture has made me appreciate even more my own bicultural background. I had skills that helped me navigate new information and processes. I already had experience trying to reconcile two cultures; adding one more was hard, but not impossible. In the end, I believe it is because I already was bicultural that I was able to adjust, to come to terms with the differences in culture and to reconstruct an identity that is pluralistic.
I say this with such ease, but I don’t think it is easy. Most people aren’t comfortable with pluralistic identities. They prefer to be able to place you in a box. I must admit I take pleasure in the confusion I cause people sometimes. I speak French with a Mexican accent, my features are often confused with those of Middle Eastern descent, and of course, I have an American passport and teach English. What am I? I used to have a t-shirt that said Global citizen. Although I do have issues with this simplistic idea of citizenship, it does point to something important. What defines us? Who are we? I often get asked where I’m from. I answer “the border”—ironically I also live on a border—between France and Belgium.
I realize that my own social experiment is with my children. Megan and Drina already are growing up with a lifestyle that only 30% of the population of France has, a fully bilingual home. Surprisingly, it hasn’t been the great thing I expected it to be. Although English is held in much higher regard than Spanish was in El Paso, there are some definite stigmas to not speaking French in public places. I would be rich right now if I had a dime for every time someone looked at us funny or asked us what we were speaking or flat out told us to speak French in public. I am waiting for the day when Megan will not want to speak to me in English. A number of my friends’ children ask their parents to only speak French to them in front of their friends—some even ask them not to speak at all! But Vincent and I have insisted on this issue and, for the moment, we are an English household.
It’s funny how important an indicator for culture language has become. Megan’s Americanness for me is wrapped up in her ability to speak English and write it as well… whereas her Mexicanness comes out in more “well-rounded” cultural indicators—art, cooking, songs, festivals and holidays—even though I have chosen not to teach her Spanish yet. We celebrate the American holidays, but with a Mexican touch—for Christmas my girls love atole (go figure, I hated it as a kid) and tamales (yup, I made them from scratch for the first time here in France); for Easter, it’s the hollow eggs with confetti and capirotada. We also celebrate Cinco de Mayo, as its Drina’s birthday, with a Mexican style buffet, complete with home-made tortillas, lengua, carne verde con papas, etc.
All this combines with their French culture. They are French, going to a Belgian school with a Mexican American mother. And it comes out in our ways of being… I often get told, I’m not the typical American by French families, but then again, the Latinos here find me very American, as in not European. I have found that for Megan at least this has translated into a bit of isolation—she is by nature pretty reserved—and she seems to gravitate to those who are different in her class—linguistically (Dutch speaking) or culturally (Laotian) or sometimes physically (darker skinned children). I don’t think it’s conscious, but I find it interesting that those she chooses to socialize with tend not to be Franco French children. This can lead to her feeling isolated because she sometimes doesn’t know the common French shows or funny one-liners in French from (American) movies or songs kids sing or games kids play at recess. I think I am helping her navigate through, but I must admit as a mom, it’s hard not to simply want to make things “easy” for your child. It is hard also for me to insist she watch all Anglophone shows in English, or that she know English language children’s authors, or even force the issue of writing English.
Drina is another story; she is naturally much more outgoing, plus she has a sister to teach her those things I couldn’t teach Megan, so she may be less isolated. It might turn out too that Drina might be more “proud” of her difference. She loves at the moment mentioning to me that her friend Coline can’t speak English and that her classmate Kevin doesn’t know that Dora speaks Spanish—“how weird, huh, mama?”
Funny aside, my girls speak English with a British accent sometimes. It makes me cringe, but it is one thing I can’t control. The vast majority of English speaking adults she deals with are Brits. We go to an Anglican church—despite it being way too traditional for us—which means she uses British expressions—going to the loo instead of the restroom, for example.
I guess I thought a lot about people who left as adventurous, brave, and well much more sophisticated than me. I have friends who have gone back and love their lives. I must say that I really believe that distance does make the heart grow fonder. My very good friend Marie Elena, who also met her husband at Berkley and ended up at University of Michigan graduate school too, went back home. She doesn’t live in El Paso proper but in Las Cruces. The hardest thing for me was to watch her go home but also realize what that meant. Her husband is a great scholar and she would have been a great public health planner. They were the power couple I thought, but then they decided family life–and I don’t just mean their families but the idea of family life–dominated their decision making and in the end places like Ann Arbor or other academic circles they were looking into did not fit with what they wanted for their children. I can’t say I was “happy” for them then, but now, seeing their lives, seeing Marie’s contentment her ease with her life makes me think she made a great decision. I often wonder if I could do the same. My own family history is much more complicated than Marie’s, but regardless, I’m not sure how I would do back home. I really love the feeling I get when I am there: that ease of being, that feeling that I look like other people that we share an experience, the backdrop of the border. But perhaps it is that sameness that might eventually get to me. Despite how tough it sometimes is to be “different”, I feel in my element. I “feel God’s pleasure” when I act as a bridge of understanding. I like explaining to people what it means to have more than one identity, helping them see that they too have multiple identities. I enjoy “confusing” people with odd answers to their common questions getting people to question their assumptions. And quiet honestly, I feel God has led me to places where I am constantly questioning my assumptions. I’m not sure I would have done this had I not left El Paso. What has propelled me to grow has been the disjuncture between my ideas and my reality. France has been the best lesson thus far.
Well, I think the worst is really in relation to me. In its own way, El Paso is very homogenous. At least when I was there, the only “culture diversity” I felt was between those high school girls who lived in Juarez and those of us who didn’t. Of course, up near Ft. Bliss, there was more diversity but I lived in the Valley so even “gringos” were in short supply. Yet, that also was what I think made me feel confident. Unlike my daughters, I often saw people like me in all segments of society–working class like me or in position of authority like my principle, the police officer, or the alderman/woman. Megan and Drina don’t see this. Here in France, the first “person of color” news anchor has been on the air less than a decade!
The best…. well that has got to be the sense of rootedness that people who live in El Paso have. Oh, my friends and family might complain about El Paso and even joke with me about how envious they are that I have escaped, but in the end, they speak about their home town with pride. It is more than pride even, they speak about it with a kind of love. Yes, they are frustrated with the lack of change, but are committed to change anyway. Their hope for El Paso doesn’t seem to run dry. They love the desert around them, they love Mexico across the river–though lately that’s changed–they love the history of the place. I love it when my dad drives by Bowie High and talks about where such and such a store used to be, how things used to look. Or my grandma who remembers the tortilleria she went to as a young mother; she remembers the smells. Me, I don’t have this. I have lived away from El Paso as long as I lived there… I am connected, but not necessarily rooted. Although this might be more about me than El Paso I don’t think so. Recently at a book club another American woman who was stationed at Fort Bliss made a very similar remark. She loved her time in El Paso, but what she missed most, was how much people in El Paso really loved showing El Paso off. She said she has fond memories of people who wanted to share their lives with her, and she doesn’t remember being welcomed the same way in other places. I couldn’t agree more.
Thank you so much, Veronica, for your very thoughtful responses. It is clear that you may be in France now, but you are also one of us. Bean Juice Dispatch readers will love what you have to say. We hope to see you and your family at Christmastime. Readers, be sure to compare Veronica’s thought to those of Anne Laure and Julia, the two interviewees in “Choosing El Chuco,” who came from other countries to live here on the border.
Special to the Bean Juice Dispatches (and for you!),
From the desk of Dr. Cheryl Howard
a.k.a. La Chief