From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Papa’s Best Lesson

It was my grandfather who first taught me to be proud of being Latina. My grandfather told his children and all his grandchildren many wonderful stories about our history and our heritage. He told us that we were the descendants of one of the greatest, oldest and most beautiful cultures in the world. He said honoring our heritage meant that we had to educate ourselves, do the best we could whether it was in school or at work, and that we had to not only respect and care for our families, but also respect and care for ourselves. . . . I will always be grateful to my family for those lessons on how to be a proud and strong Latina.

Linda Chávez-Thompson

From kindergarten through high-school graduation, I went to a Catholic convent school, Ursuline Academy, in the old border town known as Laredo, Texas. My parents were not wealthy, but they sacrificed many things to keep me in a parochial school.

Many of my friends were Anglos, but the majority of them were Latinas like myself. We played, sang and studied together, had slumber parties, picnics and sock hops in those carefree days of the fifties. We grew up eating tacos, enchiladas and tamales, but we couldn’t resist burgers, Cokes and apple pie either.

We were raised in a city where the great Rio Grande divides Mexico and the United States, but we loved to cross the bridge that gave us the flavor of both. Sometimes I felt torn between the two, tangled together like badly cast fishing lines. For example, my parents spoke Spanish to me at home, reminding me often: “Never forget where you came from, your roots, your culture, your language and Mexico, the land where your grandparents were born.” But at school we were fined a quarter if we were caught speaking Spanish! That confused and upset me. I surrendered many quarters to the nuns because I was always speaking what came naturally. But eventually, after being punished so many times for speaking Spanish, I began to see our native language as something to be ashamed of.

I have fair skin and honey-colored eyes. My grandfather used to call me Blanca Nieves (Snow White)! Once, the pep squad went to an out-of-town football game, and afterwards we stopped at a burger place for a bite to eat. It took forever for someone to wait on us, and when someone finally came, it was the manager telling us to leave the restaurant because they did not serve Mexicans there. Talk about discrimination! Then he had the nerve to look at me, the Mexican Snow White, and say, “Oh, but you can stay.”

We stormed out, but not before I confronted him and asked, “What makes you think you’re superior to us?”

He just pointed at his sign that said they had a right to refuse service to anyone.

The next day, with tears running down my face, I told my father how I felt about our experience at the restaurant. His emerald green eyes betrayed his anger, and tears welled up in them like hot lava. He asked me, “Are you ashamed of your race?” I replied that people were beginning to make me feel like we were of a lower class because of the color of our skin, because we spoke Spanish or because of our accented English. I told him that I liked being called Snow White, and that I was beginning to resent being labeled Chicana, Mexican or Latina. I had come to believe that it was better to be Anglo than Latina, since Anglos aren’t fined for speaking their language, and all the heroes and heroines that I saw in the movies or read about in the history books were definitely Anglos with blonde hair and blue or green eyes.

That night my father made a promise that changed my life. He promised to take us to Mexico City on a vacation where we could learn more about the beauty, history, art, culture and people of our ancestral country.

What a delightful time we spent—visiting our relatives, going to museums and palaces, learning the names of mountains. At the museums, my father made me read each historical caption and all the facts about the great heroes of Mexican history, the generals, soldiers and troops from the revolution. The evenings were filled with fiestas in Garibaldi Plaza with mariachis dressed in their beautiful charro costumes. We saw the gorgeous folklórico dancers and singers at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and we climbed the famous pyramids at Teotihuacán. I was intrigued and inspired by the majestic architecture of the buildings of Mexico City, especially the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

But most of all, I was impressed by the kindness and charm of the people we met and the way they welcomed us back to our ancestral land.

Since that memorable journey, I have been so proud to tell people who ask me that I am a Latina,Chicana or Mexican-American, whichever name they decide to use. I am no longer insulted. I speak up for both of my countries, and I speak the two languages every day.

I will always be grateful to my papá for the wonderful lesson he taught me during those visits to Mexico, where I was enlightened to see beyond color or accents, labels or stereotypes.

Today, I don’t mind being called Blanca Nieves, but I am 100 percent proud to be Latina.

Olga Valle-Herr

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