While the U.S. celebrates Mother’s day on the second Sunday of May, Mexico always honors mothers on May 10th. For people living on the U.S. – Mexico border, getting it right can be tricky. I know – I was born on the border.
Norma Cantu describes the border as “a wound that’s forever healing.” For me, the border is my true home.
I grew up in Nogales Sonora, right across from Nogales Arizona. The working class neighborhood of Colonia Ingenieros was nothing more than a narrow dirt street between two hills with dozens of homes perched on either side.
Our small three-room house had a tiny garden where my grandmother grew medicinal herbs that she dried, stored and sold in Coca Cola bottles. Up to five people could fit if we slept diagonally on the only bed we had. A 20 foot wire allowed us to “borrow” electricity from the nearest lamp post. When the government finally cut us off, huge bonfires would bloom at night in the middle of the street, which in turn brought out the barrio historians. Their stories had a special place in Nogales Folklore.
My favorite was the story of “El Buya,” the neighborhood’s ancient, amiable bake who sprinkled his best bread with the finely crushed bones of disobedient children.
While I loved Colonia Ingenieros, my mother, Blanca Luz, felt differently. All she saw was people imprisoned by their fatalism. My mother’s name means “White Light” – her optimism and confidence could light up a room.
Not long after my parents separated, my mother grew tired of Nogales. She hated walking through the gauntlet of women peering from behind their long dark shawls. They were always murmuring, “Y que de los pobres niños, sin padre.” – poor kids, with no father.
My mother was a voracious reader with two years of college thanks to the philanthropy of an old priest. But in Mexico, her education did not guarantee a job that could sustain our family, let alone pay for good schools.
She was convinced that as a single parent, life would be better in the United States. It felt like we were poorer in this country than we were in Mexico My mother could not buy us lots of things but she surrounded us with lots of books.
Every night she would read mystery novels or Grimm’s fairy tales. Once a week, if I was good, she would bring me a pile of used comic books in both English and Spanish. I loved all the Marvel superheroes, The Lone Ranger and Pequeña Lulu, a precocious mischievous little girl not unlike Lucy, Charlie Brown’s nemesis.
My mom, Blanca Luz, made sure poverty did not trump education. She told us that if we were going to make something of ourselves, we had to hang on to our dignity as if our life depended on it. Our appearance, the way we carried ourselves, the precision of our speech, she emphasized that being poor is no excuse for failure.
It was a lesson that I began to understand and appreciate as a teen, when I started high school in this country.
Nogales High was 90 percent Mexican American, but speaking English with an accent was a curse. Losing your accent meant that you were ready to move up among the kids who wore their assimilation proudly. Only then could you dare mingle with the few “rich kids” who ran the school in the same way their parents ran the city’s economy and politics.
In high school I realized that the process of assimilation brings all immigrants to a crossroads, an identity crisis of sorts. I remember wanting desperately to shed my “alienhood” but realizing I would forever be labeled: Resident Alien, Mexican-American, Chicano, Pocho, Latino, “Hispanic, Her Panic, Your Panic, Our Panic” as my mother would often say. I can still hear her laugh.
It’s an idea that permeates my reporting about struggling families, kids and schools, because there but for the grace of God go I. Happy Mother’s Day, Blanca Luz. Gracias. Thanks for showing me how to survive and thrive on both sides of the border.
Former elementary and middle school teacher Claudio Sanchez is an Education Correspondent for NPR. He focuses on the “three p’s” of education reform: politics, policy and pedagogy. Sanchez’s reports air regularly on NPR’s award-winning newsmagazinesMorning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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