Before I was done with the first five pages of this memoir I knew that I wanted to blog about it. Usually when a book I’m reading gets me right in the feels I close it and place it over my chest. I take deep breaths and imagine myself in the author’s/character’s shoes. I’ve done this with some fiction novels, but usually its with memoirs- because the stories are first accounts and, to me, are deeper than deep. With Villasenor’s I cried. I also laughed, I got angry, I wanted to scream. As I finished the last page and read the last sentence I was happy. Happy that he found his peace, his place. I laid there with the book over my chest, eyes closed, and breathing at a steady deep pace to possibly feel his peace travel into me.
Villasenor suffered at the hands of his teachers and in particular with his English teachers. I know in my heart that I would never have treated any child the way he was treated. I was ashamed of the profession that I chose to pursue. His accounts of abuse pained me. For every thought he had of blowing up those teachers and other students or going over to personally shoot them face-to-face I thought about all the kids that are bullied day in and day out. The way he recalls being called stupid, slow, a liar, a thief, a chile belly, and a resident of pozole town made me sad and angry. It’s not hard to see why so many young students want to quit school, want to leave their culture, heritage, ancestry in the past when they are boxed into the narrative of the greater culture. The desire to not want to live because he’s Mexican is the saddest thing I’ve ever read.
Anyone who dismisses the troubled kid, the kid who “just doesn’t want to learn”, or even the silent kid needs to read this book. He grew up during the “English ONLY” era, the era where saying he was a Mexicano was cause enough for a beating. I have never been ashamed of my culture or for being a darker shade of brown. But Villasenor did. At a young age he recognized why the lighter skinned Mexican kids wanted to identify with their more Spanish roots, even French ones (true of not) and that’s also indicative of those kids knowing that being a Mexican was not a good thing during those time (and possibly still today).
Despite his experiences with those ignorant, supremacist white teachers, he encountered hope. Hope came in the name of Mr. Smith who opened the flood gates of how great writing can be. I’m so happy that this happened to him- otherwise I don’t know what would have happened to Villasenor filled with those vengeful thoughts of blowing up the teacher who called out sick those few days and had Mr. Smith as a substitute.
The horrid stories of his school career were the anger inducing parts of this book, but the most noteworthy and the greatest lessons he got were from his father, brother, mother, and his culture in general. I wouldn’t call him a very religious person, but I would say that he’s very spiritual. He got his Catholicism from his mother and indigenous spirituality from his father and grandmother. It was this intersectionality that has made Villasenor the person he is today. His father and grandmother lived through the Revolution and migrated to Texas and eventually settled in Southern California. Here they made a life for themselves and instilled the greatest values of life on their children. People of the land. People of the animal. People of the stars.
I’m writing here but there is just so much more to this person. I know I can’t do it justice. Just the way he was brought up, the belief he had that blood knows blood and that he is part of his grandmother-mamagrande, how his brother Joseph was there with him during his toughest times, how he connected with the animals. His upbringing taught him so much- the ranch life was such an impact in his way of thinking, his outlook on life. It all made sense to me and it has broadened my view on the universe and I’m happy that he was not a complacent individual because if he were his knowledge, his words, wouldn’t have entered me. He talks about raising boys like a woman for the first seven years of their life so that they learn patience, love, compassion… He compares the Mexican vaquero to the cowboy- that it’s better to amanzar a horse rather than to “brake” him- and then relates that to the way young boys are brought up in the different cultures. He speaks on stars being our ultimate guide to another world. How there were two bibles, two languages (one for man and for woman), that the garden of Eden was not a place but is a place and that we must continue to plant in it.
I’m not a religious person myself, but his conviction on the belief is impactful. His beliefs intersect between Catholicism and indigenous gods, so I know nothing is 100% true, but reading his story I’m swaying into the belief that there might be something greater out there which reminds me of a conversation I had not so long ago on this particular subject matter and how I just didn’t want to concede to such a possibility.
I wish more children were like him- questioning. And I wish less adults felt threatened by those questions. I’ve read that children are more in-tune with a spiritual world because they’re closer to the beginning of life or to death- depending how you look at it. I say death because maybe blood does know blood and we’re part of our deceased family members and thus their death is closer our birth. I’m happy that Villasenor never lost that connection despite the trials he faced as a Mexican child; when one is most vulnerable to the prejudices of evil.