Like most small-town kids, I was excited about going off to college at the age of 17. I had picked Baylor University in the “big city” of Waco, Texas, even though a private school was somewhat out of my reach financially, having been raised by a schoolteacher single mother. I liked the campus and the idea of smaller classes, and I especially liked that it was far enough away from home to give me my first taste of freedom and independence. How could I have known that on my very first day of college, I would already have my first test and learn a lesson that would stay with me for the rest of my life?
Her name was Marie. I met her in the dorm hallway as I rambled through with all my suitcases and armfuls of creature comforts from home. She was a tall, confident girl with a bright smile, and it seemed she would be my next-door neighbor in the dorm. Move-in day was chaotic, with girls and their families hauling stuff back-and-forth, excited introductions happening in hallways and parking lots, a sense of adventure and anxiety permeating the air. As I unpacked and started settling into my assigned room, I heard a commotion next door. My mom and I went into the hallway to see what was going on, and we found Marie in tears, while another girl (presumably her would-be roommate) explained to me that her dad wouldn’t let her room with a black girl.
Before I go further, I have to go way back, to my childhood in far south Texas in the “colonia” of Mission, Texas. We (my mother, sister, brother and I) moved there when I was 7—after my parents’ divorce, my mother wanted to live closer to her Mexican American family. She had grown up in that area on the border with Mexico, in what was then a dusty, one-tumbleweed town called Roma. (She likes to say, “Soy del rancho”, which loosely translated means “I’m from the back woods.” Humble. Hardscrabble. A true Tejana.) It was hard for me to adjust at first. I felt like the outsider as one of the only “white” kids at school. My fair skin betrays no hint of my half-Mexican heritage, and I was teased and even bullied a little throughout my younger years. But I came to appreciate my home—citrus orchards, low-lying brushlands, Mesquite trees and Palm trees and taquerias and ranches. I made friends and started developing the unique accent of the Rio Grande Valley, a kind of singsong-y mix of Spanish/English/Texan. I was nurtured by my warm and generous extended family—my grandfather, Javier, a shopkeeper in Roma who never hesitated to give away a much-needed item like pants or a shirt to one of the poor families who visited his general store. My abuelita, Evita, always ready to greet us with her delicious homemade tortillas and an easy laugh. My aunts, Cecilia, Judy, and Leticia, who gossiped with my mom over coffee and empanadas and made sure she always had what she needed to raise us three kids.
My family owns some land right along the Rio Grande river in Roma, and we would sometimes celebrate Easter there with a barbeque, complete with all the cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. I would look out over the river to the Mexico side and sometimes see Mexican families doing the same thing we were. Celebrating the hope of the holiday with their families, maybe hoping for a better life for their kids and grandkids. While I still felt like an outsider at school sometimes, living in a border town where cultures naturally mingled together helped me understand that I was part of this wonderful human tapestry, woven with threads of kindness, compassion, openness and generosity.
So when I found myself at Baylor, staring down for the first time the ugliness of racism, it stopped me in my tracks. I realized I hadn’t even really noticed the color of Marie’s skin. I had seen her warm smile, her humor, her friendliness—just her. And without hesitation, I offered to trade rooms and be Marie’s roommate. I’m so glad I did. She was still upset about her experience those first few days, and I didn’t know anyone, so we sort of helped each other get through the tremulous beginning of our college careers. Unfortunately for me, Marie transferred to another university after that first year, and we lost touch in the bustle of young college life.
I still think of Marie from time to time—how she made me laugh with her quirky humor, how she taught me to be a better student, her generosity and tenacity. I wonder where her life has taken her—if she has children of her own, where she lives, how she spends her days. And I travel back to South Texas every year with my two young sons, so they too can be shaped by the human landscape of my childhood, peopled with different cultures that speak the same language: Love.
Flower Mound, TX