A little girl enjoying un helado in Chapultepec Park near the Paseo de la Reforma--D.F. in 1970s.
DOWN BUT NOT OUT IN PARADISE: SURVIVING ON STRAWBERY JAM AND RAW ONIONS IN MEXICO CITY
By Roberto A. deVillar
All photographs are by and under the copyright of the author.
I. Paradise Found
I loved Mexico City, el DF, as it was known in the mid-1960s. What was there not to love? Especially as I was a student at a private university on the outskirts of Las Lomas de Chapultepec, where I lived, and that had the unique cachet of being the residential zone to the wealthiest of the wealthiest in el DF.
Mario Moreno, better known as Cantinflas, lived behind imposing, yet decorative, walls in the style of most other residences in which ambassadors, bank presidents, entrepreneurs and other members of the stratospherically wealthy lived. Carlos Slim, the richest individual in Latin America and the eighth-richest in the world, lives there today.
Its main streets were tree-lined, with camellones—raised walkways that were cement-bordered islands in which plants, trees and flowers abounded and were religiously tended to, and where one might see the odd passer-by walking in the shade-laden paths—adding to their luxuriant serene beauty, sprinkled with glorietas, in whose mid-street roundabouts were planted combinations of stout palm trees, verdant plants and flowers.
The entrance to Las Lomas, at that time, served as a veritable causeway-cum-desembocadura—experiencing and benefitting from the cultural, economic, social and political vaivén-flow emanating directly from the Federal District’s center by way of the Avenida de la Reforma. La Reforma, earlier known as El Paseo de la Emperatriz during the historically important but temporal blip of the Maximilian period, a beautiful boulevard of literally monumental proportions, lined with elegant statues, iconic edifices designed for cultural and functional activities or historical significance, flowered camellones, fountained glorietas, the singularly magnificent golden Angel de la Independencia at its heart, followed by the sparkling fountain surrounding the exquisitely, sensually sculptured La Diana Cazadora, where both sides of the boulevard shared parallel, immensely wide, decorative sidewalks, seemingly limitless, in which islands of sunlit garden spaces in which children would frolic, nursemaids would stroll while leisurely pushing the prams in which their infant charges lay—and even where El Loco Valdez would lie on one of the many benches dotting the vast veredas, filming one of his many unpredictable, absurdly comic scenes.
Immediately at home along any part of La Reforma, as an undergraduate I would particularly delight in having lunch alone at a corner restaurant near La Diana Cazadora and the Cine Chapultepec, its covered patio entrance facing the boulevard, where, perhaps ironically, I would invariably order pollo a la cazadora, accompanied by bread and butter and a refreshment, and sit calmly eating, thinking, and watching la vida del DF go on about me—all for 12.50 pesos, or one US dollar.
Within a short walking distance from the Cine Chapultepec, there was the Cine Diana and, on the opposite side of the Reforma boulevard, the Cine Latino, where stylishly-dressed patrons, national and international, of all ages met and saw subtitled films mainly from Europe and the United States, all accessible at the same general admission price of 4 pesos, or 32 US cents.
As both pedestrian and automotive currents flowed steadily toward the last fountain, la Fuente de Petroleos, before entering Las Lomas, there stood solidly on the summit of a hill, the historically and culturally rich Castillo de Chapultepec—the same Castle within which the Emperor Maximilian and the Empress Carlota resided during their misguided, short-lived reign (1864-1867). The second emperor of Mexico, an aborted attempt at imperial pretentions that ended tragically due to Napoleon III’s empire-building arrogance and a duplicitous Mexican Conservative Party, who, Iago-like, whispered lies of popular adoration that initially rang true to the naïve ear of the young Maximilian.
A trio of young men at the park fountain
Maximilian, who at 34 years of age, would be abandoned by both France and the Conservative Party, and despite his actions, proposed and conducted, that adhered to the Liberals’ principles of the La Reforma, was summarily executed in 1867 by firing squad by order of Benito Juárez. Maximilian served as a warning to those countries with thoughts of invading its borders—there would be no mercy shown as Mexico, as a land and people, was an inviolate, proud, determined and glorious entity.
The Castillo, seated atop the Nahuatl-named Grasshopper Hill, was surrounded by the Bosque de Chapultepec, itself a favorite and exclusive area of repose and recreation for the pre-Conquest Aztec élite, with its more than 1600 acres. Since 1530—originally by decree of Carlos V, Holy Roman Emperor, who was also King of Spain—the area was open to the public, and continues to serve as the putative “lungs” and week-end recreational life of Mexico City denizens.
The Castillo, functioning as a military academy as of 1841, from whose walls the mythic six teen-aged Niños Héroes leapt to their deaths, one with the Mexican flag wrapped around his body, rather than retreat, be defeated and taken prisoner by General Winfield Scott, leader of the US troops that also had, albeit earlier, invaded Mexico City. On September 12 and 13, 1847, US Marines stormed the “Halls of Montezuma” to defeat Santa Anna’s troops who were led by General Nicolás Bravo—14 years before the French invasion under the orders of Napoleon III.
The Reform platform of the Republican Party with Juárez at its head as President did not have the chance to stabilize as Porfirio Díaz, the General who successfully fought alongside the republicans against the imposition of Maximilian, now separated from the Party on the platform of no re-election. By 1876, Díaz had succeeded in a coup and in 1877 became President of Mexico until 1911—with a four-year hiatus (1880-1884)—at which time the Mexican Revolution had begun (1910-1920). Juárez died prematurely in 1872, but had changed the name of El Paseo de la Emperatriz to El Paseo Degollado and allowed open traffic, rather than the restricted traffic under Maximilian, along it. The next President of Mexico, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, from 1872 to 1876, re-initiated the architecturally-, horticulturally- and culturally-spectacular development of the boulevard and had the name changed to its present form, Paseo de la Reforma. But la Reforma’s greatest development occurred in the regime of Porfirio Díaz, which included 77 statues of famous national figures—all male and, except for the figure of Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec Emperor (1520-1521), and one or two others, virtually no indigenous figures—along a 2.7 mile stretch of the nearly 9-mile boulevard.
Walking along the La Reforma was special to me in another, more personal way. During the30-year Díaz dictatorship known as the Porfiriato, Mexico City, as the Paseo de la Reforma itself, was fashioning itself along the lines of European arts and culture, fashion and modernity—even applying the term “París de América” as a promotional self-reference—as well as integrating US technology and opening itself to major investments from these same areas. It was during this heyday of the global and national élite, that my grandfather—a Basque who was a conductor of primarily classical music, composer of popular music, original arranger of Basque folk music, and pianist—arrived from Bilbao (Vizcaya, Spain) in 1905 to Mexico, where he would reside until September 24, 1914. He was accompanied by his spouse, my grandmother Basilisa, from Santander and two children, Julián and Guadalupe, born in Bilbao and Santander, respectively. Grandfather Julián made his way to Mexico City with a contract and faithful batuta in hand to direct the orchestra of the Teatro Principal in Mexico City, an iconic structure and entertainment venue since 1753.
By 1905, my grandfather, 34 years old at the time, had published 4 volumes of Basque folk music; numerous popular melodies with Spanish (e.g., A Orillas del Nervión; Lejos de Euskaria) and French (e.g., Rose d’Été; Quadrille Basque sur Motifs des Airs du Pays) titles; and a book on musical theory. He also had won competitive awards relating to original compositions of Basque music and founded his own musical academy, Santa Cecilia, in Bilbao. Importantly, he had traveled to the Holy Land, Egypt and the Vatican in 1902 from Bilbao with 228 other Basque pilgrims de ambos sexos to place the first Our Father prayer in the Basque language in the Convent of the Pater Noster at Mont Olive in the Holy Land.
The sad sight of un viejito making his way along a busy street
The 1902 Basque Pilgrimage included a trip to the Vatican to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of Pope Leo XIII, the “Workers Pope,” where my grandfather directed choral performances and orchestral versions of opera, as well as performed classical pieces on piano. His compositions and arrangements reached 100, and more continue to be discovered, including The Texans Are Ready, which he composed during the US entry into WWI. He was religious, well-traveled, and a consummate composer-pianist-conductor upon his arrival to Mexico City, and ready to undertake his duties as director of the Teatro Principal orchestra, located on Calle Bolívar 30, a few blocks from el Paseo de la Reforma.
In my grandfather’s other hand, he held a musical piece he had composed and published that same year, 1905, titled Progreso y Libertad, by the publishing house with which he was associated: Sociedad Anónima Casa Dotésio, whose offices were in Madrid, Bilbao, Santander, Barcelona, and Paris. Progreso y Libertad had the following dedication on its front cover: Homenage [sic] al Ilustre General D. PORFIRIO DIAZ.
The colors of the cover represented those of the Mexican flag, and proudly displayed a black and white etching of Don Porfirio Díaz himself, in profile, within a brown frame that had at its top the founding symbol of the Mexican nation, el águila y la serpiente—the conquering eagle with the subjugated serpent held prey in its beak—nested within a laurel branch, the symbol of victory. The score’s cover was a deliberate, unequivocal tribute to the figure and works of President Porfirio Díaz, awash in the vibrant colors of the nation’s flag and its iconic, unique cultural symbol. Moreover, the score cover, title, and the composition itself was an offering to General Díaz, by my grandfather, not in an official status of an immigrant, as he was on leave from a teaching position in Bilbao, but as a formally designated contributor—specifically, as director of the orchestra at the Teatro Principal and as a composer—to the externally-based cultural trajectory and artistic ambience that characterized Mexico City and its immediate surroundings (Puebla, for example).
Throughout the Revolution and well into the mid-1960s, the beauty and function of el Paseo de la Reforma prevailed, sustaining and even enhancing its role as the main artery of the vibrantly pulsating DF. La Reforma virtually connected the heart of Mexico City, specifically La Plaza de la Constitución, but popularly known and referred to as el Zócalo—and before that, Tenochtitlán—to Las Lomas, the nucleus of mainstream developers of the City’s and nation’s financial and political life’s blood resided, together with a sprinkling of wealthy and influential figures representing other career pursuits. And exiting Las Lomas, traveling toward Toluca, at the kilómetro 16 marker, was the entrance to la Universidad de las Américas, previously Mexico City College, which was a converted country club, with a huge terrace overlooking mountains and woods under virtually perennially sunny Mexico City skies, and single-story rows of classrooms dotting its gently rolling landscape, together with a functional, non-descript auditorium, serviceable cafeteria, well-hidden administration offices, and a one-room, bustling post office. [Yes, there was that pesky “rainy season” each July, during which, as fact-mixed-with-legend had it—and I was witness to it--capitalinos could synchronize their watches daily at 4:30pm, as the rain would begin precisely at that time. A small price to pay for paradise.] This near-straight line trajectory from heart to nucleus to, if not mind, then surely a dreamscape, that collectively offered my welcoming senses, my still-fresh, moldable being, a paradisiacal ambiance akin to that which Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883) described in Quatrain XI of his famous translation of the Rubâ’iyât of Omar Khayyâm (1859, and modified to varying degrees by FitzGerald in four subsequent editions):
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness-- Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
But Paradise, as we have read in the Bible and in Milton’s poetry, can well be lost. And such was soon my circumstance as the unforetold cold winds of change swept through my unsuspecting body as the swirling dust of silent despair darkened my ambience, making rubble of my dreamscape and my direction difficult to discern. I did hold, albeit subconsciously, one essential key, clenched tightly to my being, which provided me with a semblance of strength and clarity in this daunting ordeal: I had not reached this stage through falling into temptation. If I had had sufficient prescience, I would have known that whatever I had to go through as a result of my travails, I was not to be damned by exile—although a memorable stint in purgatory might well be in the offing.
II. Trouble in Paradise
In March of 1965, I had met and begun to exclusively date a young woman, four years my junior, born in Mexico City of French and Spanish heritage, who still retained both French and Mexican nationalities. Her family lived in the Colonia Anzures, which was then a small, charming residential neighborhood within a short walking distance both to La Reforma, to the south, and to Polanco, literally up the street a couple of blocks in a westerly direction. Polanco in those days when compared to the serene stillness of Anzures, was also charming, but leisurely bustling and much larger and diverse as there were movie theatres, clubs, stores and businesses, although these served only to enhance its overall privileged residential quality of life. I had been living happily in Las Lomas and in order to live in Anzures, I agreed to move with three classmates, whom I barely knew, to a rented furnished apartment in one of the more narrow blocks of streets having rows of low-rise apartment buildings for renters who could afford the rather high monthly rent being charged and security deposit.
My sharing the apartment—a beautifully furnished, modern, two-bedroom affair with large glass windows—didn’t turn out well, as I found myself with three classmates who quickly would misspend their monthly allowances from their respective parents on entertainment and literally not have sufficient funds to eat well, or sometimes at all. It was a literal case of the grasshopper and the ants, except that they were three grasshoppers and I, one ant. I was not a spendthrift and was accustomed to making ends meet with whatever modest amount I had in my pocket that month due to a check of a fixed amount from my parents. I would laugh to myself at my modest economic circumstance living in the hyper-wealthy context of el DF and later quip that while wealthy young Mexicans would wear their key chains dangling from a pant pocket to show the emblem of the car they drove, I would wear my key chain dangling from my pant pocket to avoid it going through the hole in it.
In my family, while never economically constrained, my parents did not believe in giving their children allowances or even in having them work at odd jobs for pay or experience. I did have and exercise my own initiative and would do things without asking—such as sell packets of flower and vegetable seeds door-to-door when I was around 9 years old before leaving for Spain; however, that particular experience didn’t end well even though I did get to select a “prize” for having sold all my seed packets, and I chose to have them send me my first fishing pole—but that’s another story.
Thus, we—three brothers, three years apart—had grown up without ever having an allowance or even pocket money, which made me wonder throughout my young years how so many of my peers, regardless of their respective economic circumstances, would have money for refreshments, entertainment activities, and even to gamble with at cards, or why they had to undertake certain chores or attain certain grades in exchange for money. While at university, my tuition and books were paid for, as was my room and board—but it was what my parents thought was sufficient for board, and that started out at 20 US dollars per month—and that was meant to cover everything from food, to having my clothes cleaned, to transportation, and even entertainment. I learned to be judicious and frugal when it came to the choice of taking a bus, pesero (collective cab), or walk; what films to watch and ticket prices associated with movie theatre schedules; the night I could take my girlfriend out and where to go; and, on a daily basis, what to buy and eat.
Making flowers by hand to earn a few pesos a day
I remember vividly the occasion that the dramatically distinct modus vivendi between my classmates and me culminated in the near-violent altercation that finally led me to estrange myself from my three apartment mates and find another place to live. On that particular day, there was literally nothing in the refrigerator but what I had purchased to cook and eat that evening, which happened to be a flank steak and peas, along with a tomato, seasoning, bread and butter, and refreshment. There was nothing particularly special about the steak, it was common enough and reasonably priced in Mexico City, simple and quick to cook, and tasty. As I proceeded to cook my meal, which was at that moment relatively elaborate and exclusive, particularly as no one else had anything to eat for dinner, there was a tense, thick stillness in the apartment air. I remember distinctly reflecting that it was not my fault or concern that they had knowingly and laughingly squandered their funds and were now deprived of food, at least until they could call their respective parents and finagle more funds from them. Mine was not a malicious or self-congratulatory reflection, but a matter-of-fact, objective reflection, very much in keeping with my character, which was then, as perhaps now, very hard for many, even friends and family, to understand.
As I sat, under the faint amber light of the kitchen, from the corner of my eye I sensed a threatening shadow lunge quickly toward me, and the immediate, petrifying thought struck me that I was in danger and had no defense. Yet, as surprising and rapid as those two instances were, before a next breath could be taken, another figure leapt into the shadowed scene, who, having somehow grabbed a tool or heavy kitchen utensil with a thick wooden handle, simultaneously pushed the attacker roughly against the tiled kitchen wall to my left, his one arm extended ramrod straight, gripping him, vise-like, his hand’s fanned-out fingers firmly locked on the offender’s chest, and his other arm lifted above his shoulder, pulled back, ready to strike.
The world seemed to stop at that moment, yet there was a palpable trembling winding its way throughout the scene, holding us tautly together, in place, straining to snap, to explode. At that instant, my defender’s deep, hollow, staccato voice shattered the petrifying silence warning his pinned, startled prey that any next move on his part would be his last. And, as quickly as the threatening scene had arisen, it dissipated, with my attacking roommate’s body folding inward, deflated and spent, and the arms of my defender relaxing, dropping, and remaining awkwardly limp at his sides, the once-menacing handle precariously dangling from his loosened grip. The kitchen emptied, of roommates, of danger, and I stayed to consume my supper in silence, somehow sensing it would be my last.
As I calmly chewed my bistec, placed peas on my fork, buttered my bolillo, and sipped my refreshing drink, perhaps a soda, I resolved firmly to find a welcoming residence where I could study and eat in peace, and remain in the charmed context of Colonia Anzures. I was too young, too sheltered, too naïve, and certainly too in love with life and love itself, to have thought of the protective, cautionary adage: “Be careful what you wish for.”
III. Paradise Lost: If not a Loaf of Bread, Then be Satisfied Enowwith a Bolillo
The Descent to Purgatory: From Herodoto to Herschel to Hunger
The apartment in which I lived, and now felt the need to leave, was on Calle Herodoto (Herodotus), perhaps six short blocks from the residence of my girlfriend’s house at Lafayette 84. Her street was special in that it was part of a circle composed of six curved streets all named Lafayette, each curve separated by three respective straight streets—Gutenberg, Shakespeare, and Thiers that led to the roundabout at whose center was a fountain; thus, calle Lafayette and the fountained roundabout formed two concentric circles. Even in the vastness of Mexico City, the street’s design was sufficiently remarkable--odd may be a better word—to be well-known.
In pursuit of finding a new room to live, I browsed through the classified ads in newspapers and one day saw that a room with private bathroom and telephone—both unheard of in boarding houses, regardless of location—was available without contract. Even more enticing was the fact that it was located on Calle Herschel, a quiet residential street that was closer still to Lafayette 84. The houses in this neighborhood area were typically Spanish Colonial, white in color, two-story in structure, graced with decorative windows, even stained glass, red tiled roof, and, in between the structure and its protective iron front gate and fence, a very small yard and, commonly, lush bougainvillea crawling and flowing along its façade or fence.
Street corner on Calle Degollado on the Paseo de la Reforma
The houses were stunningly charming, serene and inviting. Adding to this overall charm was the fact that Mexico City neighborhoods such as these—Las Lomas, Polanco, Anzures—were unencumbered by dense traffic, be it foot or vehicle, or by noise. Of course, there were the ambulatory sellers who pushed carts or rode modified bicycles whose unique, strident sounds from their own throats or wooden flutes pierced the quiet air signaling that straw brooms and brushes were available for purchase, or that dull knives or other utensils could be sharpened.
I was, of course, immediately seduced with the captivating prospect of residing in a beautiful house and neighborhood setting that would allow me to have my own room—complete with a small desk—and private bath and telephone, and be even closer to my novia’s house. The downside was an economic one: the monthly rent was more—by $8 US—than what I would pay for a month’s room and board and washing and ironing of my clothes! Simply put, I could not afford it.
Somehow, in my dream-saturated state, I convinced myself that I could manage my finances in such a way that I could live frugally there a month, ride a second-class bus to attend my university classes, find a place to have my clothes washed, see my girlfriend whenever possible, and even eat regularly. I paid the month’s rent in advance, left my old apartment behind, and settled in my room, with the sunny confidence that as soon as a check arrived from my parents, all would go as planned.
In the meantime, I had to change my eating habits and I walked to the nearby tienda de ultramarinos where, with my planned budget in mind and the modest selection of dry goods available, I settled on a very large jar of strawberry jam to tide me over until my check arrived. My plan was simple enough: buy a couple of fresh bolillos at various times during the day and spread strawberry jam on them. I also had sufficient funds to buy a daily canned nectar juice, my favorite choices being durazno (peach) and pera (pear).
Before I could begin taking the bus to my university, the son of the widowed owner of the residence, introduced himself and, knowing that I was at the university and without a car, offered to take me early each morning as he passed by it on the way to his work location. I have to admit that I sensed something unsavory about him—the word slick came to my mind then and now—but I accepted his invitation, especially as it would save me time and money, although I would have to leave a couple of hours earlier than usual.
The next day, I was surprised as he didn’t take a direct route to the university, opting for a slower, circuitous path as he had neglected to inform me that he used his car to transport workers to the factory where he—a “suit”—and they—“obreros”—were employed. They paid for that service and he packed them tightly in the front and back of his sizeable American sedan. After two days, he spoke to me sharply, stating in an accusatory tone that I had been taking advantage of his politeness and it was now time for me to pay my share of the gas as it was not fair to the others.
As I said, slick. I knew that it was he who had set me up, but I did not want to argue with him, so I agreed to a week’s worth of transport, after which time I would find another way to reach my university. Thus, I actually depleted my limited budget rather than enjoy any savings. And in riding that one-way each day with the workers, the stark distinction between our respective upbringing, life-styles, and futures was obvious, even palpable as we sat crammed together, close enough to sense each other’s body aromas. I couldn’t help but feel that they, too, were in on the joke that the owner’s son had played on me, the young, well-dressed and groomed private university student, hapless foreign sucker—and that somehow their glances let me know that I deserved it.
Time passed, and the expected check did not arrive. I wrote my parents why I had moved and the expense associated with it, and they thought that I was actually living too well, spending lavishly, and essentially lying to them about not having received the check. I couldn’t believe that they would think that, but they did have one good reason for having done so: they had received notice from the bank that the check they had sent had been cashed at a bank and endorsed with my signature. I had to admit, that was a convincing case for not believing the contents of my letter. I of course responded immediately that I had not received or endorsed or cashed a check and that there had to be a mistake.
A week or so later, I received their reply, which included the cancelled check with some scribbled, illegible scrawl that was supposed to represent my signature. In other words, someone had received my letter, opened it, taken the check, endorsed it, and cashed it—and my parents thought that someone was me. Naturally, no replacement funds were in the foreseeable future.
I continued to whittle down the contents of the oversized jar of strawberry jam, buying my two bolillos at odd times of the day, and drinking my nectar. But as my funds depleted even further, I had to forsake the nectar juice. My weight began to decrease noticeably and, although I did accept my girlfriend’s invitation to dine at her house on two occasions, I neither shared with her my economically strained circumstance or the fact that I did not have anything but jam and bread to eat.
I vividly recall my stomach roaring, not growling, while I was chatting with her outside her house and her politely insisting, in visible yet mild desperation, that I dine at home with her—but my pride would not let me, so I made an excuse and left. There was a mirror hanging on a wall in my room, and I happened to see my reflection in it one day and was shocked that my facial shape looked like a skull. I was continually hungry, not eating properly, and I was reduced economically to eating jam and bread and drinking water, and no prospects for funds until the beginning of the next month. I remember that in this state I rushed to the corner grocery, which along with dry goods also sold vegetables, to see what I could buy with the small change I had. It is hard to believe, but the only item I could afford that would somehow help fill my empty stomach was a large, white onion—which I had hated since being a child. As a pre-verbal child, I had eaten a very spicy item that led me to not eat anything spicy—including ground black pepper, mustard, or onions—for decades. I remember feeling proud of myself when, at twelve years old, I found I could eat a radish without rejecting it.
Later, I also accepted the flavor of black pepper on food. And standing there in the corner grocery store, with only a few centavos, my hunger got the better of me and I decided to buy the large, white onion, which I took to my room, freed it from its paper wrapping, and, probably without washing it, took it in my hands and bit into it. The onion was juicy and fresh and I relished the new taste that was able to satisfy my hunger at that moment. Raw onions and strawberry jam on a bolillo were not as disparate a combination as one might think.
A horseman at right teaching two youths the art of horseback riding
IV. Paradise Redux Fortunes change from one moment to the next when one is young and time is quite a different dimension, appearing to last forever at one point, or to be over too soon at another. My fortune changed when I received an unexpected letter from my parents in which there was a check for $20, 250 pesos in those days. I sped, wings on my feet, to the bank that was a short walk from the house and cashed it then and there. Backtracking along the same major street, Gutenberg, a couple of blocks from Lafayette 84 and only a couple of more blocks from where I was still living, was a Vaca Negra eatery—a “hot dog and fries, student-friendly” outdoor establishment with a roof but no walls, and a huge circular sign atop the roof on which there was a smiling black cow that moved up and down. There, one could order any type of fountain drink, from Coke to milkshake, or select a sandwich, hot dog, hamburger, or just sit and drink a hot tea of manzanilla or café con leche while chatting comfortably with a friend.
The menu at the Vaca Negra included other plates as well and as I sat there by myself, after looking through its contents, I decided to order huevos revueltos con jamón, which also included diced tomatoes, onions (!), and green peppers—and, of course, a side of corn tortillas. I sat there, immobile and silent, waiting anxiously for my food to be served. And when it came, and as I looked down at my plate of scrambled eggs with ham, diced tomatoes, onion and green peppers, inhaling their combined aromatic essence, I was so grateful, so relieved, that, unexpectedly, and without reservation or sense of embarrassment, I broke down and cried. I literally chewed my food while tears flowed down my face and my eyes shone with near-mystical delight. Scrambled eggs never tasted so good.
It had been a brutally trying month and I had gotten through it, my pride and resolve shaken, but intact. I left the house where I had rented a room, understanding that it was targeting international business and professional clientele on short term assignment in Mexico City, not university students. I found another house in which to rent a room in keeping with my budget, which included breakfast, within a quiet family setting where one member was a working accountant and the young son was a medical student, and where I was the sole renter.
As chance or fate would have it, the house was on calle Bradley, literally around the block from Lafayette 84. And as difficult as it might be to believe, my bedroom window, at the back of the house, overlooking an empty lot that had yet to be built on, faced the front of my girlfriend’s house, and, to make my reality even more magical, her bedroom window.
My month in purgatory, my trial by fire, was over. I was once more renewed, my life in economic and social order, my sights again firmly set on study and walking to my favorite venues along my cherished Paseo de la Reforma. Beyond renewed, my life was actually enhanced as all that I had had before my strawberry jam and raw onion experience was made even more fantastical and delightful by my new residential setting, my room with its view. Yes, I now eschewed strawberry jam as much as I had for decades anything spicy and my parents still felt I had cashed the purloined check despite my protestations to the contrary. Yet, my everyday life as a university student, living en la Colonia Anzures, having resumed my spritely walks, always awe-inspiring, always instructional, por el Paseo de la Reforma, felt charmed, as el DF was once again sans doute paradise enow.
Roberto A. DeVillar, a native of San Antonio, Texas, has written and published academically for decades, but only recently began writing memoirs, from his life age 10 to 18 years in Seville, Spain, to this memoir of his days in Mexico City in the 1970s.
A Winding Road to the Doorstep of Dr. Ernesto Galarza, and to Joining the Fight for Social Justice
It was a sun-drenched, refreshingly crisp late summer-early fall morning in 1972 that I drove my powder blue VW, with its manual-rotation sunroof and semi-automatic transmission, searching for 1031 Franquette Avenue in the Willow Glen neighborhood section of San José, California, the residence of Dr. Ernesto Galarza—whom I had never met and only spoken to briefly one time by phone. I felt both composed and uncertain as to where I was going and for what purpose.
This emotional mixture was my characteristic approach to interacting with new surroundings, situations, or people. However, since earning my BA in August 1966 from la Universidad de las Américas in Mexico City, with an interdisciplinary major in Latin American Studies and Social Sciences, my life had been increasingly unpredictable in terms of repeated changes in geography and role.
Rather than the fairly predictable smooth and straight path I had lived as a university student in the highly cosmopolitan context that was Mexico City, my path now resembled that of a pinball. I felt myself being propelled at different speeds, spinning, ricocheting continually against different and similar positions on a seemingly inclined surface, moving in indeterminate directions toward uncertain destinations. Controlling the speed, force, direction and goal of the pinball that was now my life did not seem to be a viable option.
I had moved to thirteen locations within Mexico, the United States, and Germany from the time I graduated from la universidad to this particular morning, a span of 6 years. Concomitantly, I had changed learning−or earning−roles 9 times, as well—and was being interviewed for my 10th change. In Mexico, I had gone from graduate student, private school teacher at various schools and a private language institute, to positions of regional manager and, later, director of sales and promotions within the private sector. In the US, as a draftee, soldado raso, beginning in May 1969, I was trained or stationed in three US Army locations and at European Headquarters, Office of the Engineer, in Heidelberg, Germany.
Back in the USA, in early 1972, I was briefly employed as a personnel specialist at San José City Hall and, in a somewhat longer capacity as a relocation specialist at the San José Redevelopment Agency. Two extended trips to Los Gatos, California, and Fairbanks, Alaska, were sandwiched in between Mexico and the US Army, and a part-time job happily selling clothes in the Men’s Department at Macy’s before landing full-time jobs in San José, was also part of the role-shifting scenario.
In a nutshell, the geographical and role switches were deep, numerous, and unpredictable. As is probably self-evident, travel was not conducted for the pleasure of visiting a locale, as in each case there were economic or military-related motives, including being discharged a few months early from the US Army to return to Mexico City as a graduate student.
How had I even arrived to this Willow Glen address, to speak with a person whom I had yet to meet in person and had only briefly chatted with from a pay phone about a nebulous undertaking related to an educational project not yet on the books? My physical return to the States is easy enough to understand. I had left Mexico City, reluctantly and embarrassingly in debt to my alma mater and to my parents due to a very simple but devastatingly damaging occurrence within the Admissions Office at the University’s branch site of its MBA program. To take advantage of the GI Bill benefits related to tuition coverage and living stipend, I had dutifully completed my part of the US Veterans Administration forms and submitted them to the Admissions office so the forms could be further completed, and then signed, sealed and delivered by mail to the VA.
I kept waiting for my checks to arrive and for my tuition to be paid, but instead, I began to receive notices from the university that my account was past due and emotionally-charged, escalating inquiries from my parents as to what I was actually doing in Mexico City with the funds they had sent me and that I had promised to repay. This economically disconcerting circumstance went on for two academic quarters. I finally reached the point where my faith suffered a total lapse that the checks would be in the mail, and in an effort to track the postal trail of the documents, I decided to ask the staff at the Admissions Office when they had actually mailed the documents.
I will never forget how they looked at each other and then at my bemused visage as if I were daft. They told me, with a hint of amusement-cum-disdain in their voices and facial expressions, that they hadn’t had the slightest idea as to what the documents were for and had thrown them directly in the trash! Thus, simply stated, I was pushed out of “el DF”—as everyone there referred to it in Spanish at that time.
But what set of factors pulled me to this part of California, in late 1971, as opposed to a closer and more familiar geographical context, such as Texas? In a word: family. I selected Los Gatos, less than an hour south of San Francisco, because I had a passing familiarity with it. During part of the Summer of Love, in 1967, I had stayed with my older brother Arthur and his family.
Although the nostalgic tug of my summer 1967 experiences was present, perhaps more important was the fact that in late 1971 Arthur—known in our immediate and extended family as Fonsin—was still working at IBM in San José, California, and my younger brother George was completing the last year of his undergraduate degree at the University of Santa Clara, from where Arthur had earned his undergraduate and two graduate degrees, as well as a “lifetime” teaching credential that remained and remains unused to this day. Arthur was not in love with the thought of teaching after his student-teaching experience, but the certificate hangs on his wall, hiding a nasty stain that’s lying there, à la 10cc.
I arrived at the San Francisco International Airport in the same way I had left Mexico City—penniless and jobless, and, having relinquished my university studies, I now could not claim the empathetic social designation of “student” that would at least give pause to others before passing judgment on my ruinous circumstance. I was not a poster child for promoting the benefits that would accrue to one by having earned an undergraduate degree or for giving witness to having received well-earned educational benefits for having served one’s country and getting a leg up on one’s future.
I did have my pride and my vision, as well as six MBA courses successfully completed under my belt, but as we all know, none of that puts food on the table or money in the bank. Following my brother Art’s advice, I sought the assistance of a private employment service, where the agent modified my actual résumé into a fantastical smorgasbord of talents and achievements that produced yet another disdainful scoff by the sole interviewer when I pointed out the inaccuracies of the exaggerated claims.
Still, it was a company that sold some sort of technical equipment—let’s say, copiers—and they scheduled me for a second interview. I thought about it and on the day I was to be interviewed, I called them and told them I was not interested in further pursuing the job opportunity. I reminded myself: “I did not come to the United States to sell copiers.”
My professional reasons—the socio-economic pull factors—for returning to the United States were more complex and deep—somewhat akin to Bonfil Batalla’s México Profundo, my reasons were profoundly, culturally existential and persistent, my own Tejas Profundo. I had always been naturally oriented toward “fighting the good fight.” Having been born in Texas, as I was, with a Spanish last name and demonstrating competency in both English and Spanish made one instantly foreign, and open to ridicule and verbal and physical abuse.
Even before I was in kindergarten, I saw older kids gang up on my brother, who was nearly 3 years older than I; and by the time I was in early elementary school, I experienced the sting of being called ethnic slurs. We were a cultured, upwardly-mobile, economically well-off family, but my father—who probably had had similar experiences growing up and who had been a high school athlete and Marine during WWII—told me to defend myself against these types of people and injustices. So, I learned to fight and would physically confront those who would insult or otherwise taunt me—and there were numerous of these physical altercations before leaving Texas for Spain.
Even so, I had lived virtually half my life outside the United States, and even more importantly, the formative years of late childhood through early adulthood. Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was a vast disconnect in my intellect, attitudes and perceptions, formed as they were outside the US, and the major social justice/civil rights movements occurring in the United States that I fervently desired to understand and engage in.
On the one hand, in el DF, I could read and strongly empathize with the works, say, of James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time) and Elridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice); the inspiring genius and transformational oratorical and activist power of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the singular, strong, unique voice and actions of Malcolm X; and the majesty and momentousness of Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ Black Power salute (as it was seen to be then) as both medalists stood on the Olympic podium during the Star-Spangled Banner on October 16, 1968, in Mexico City—to the point of wishing to be an active part of the movement in the US, as I felt like an insider.
Also, I had an outsider’s empathy and understanding of the driving forces and values associated with the student and earlier unionists’ protests in Mexico City for democratic action and fairness in labor wages, benefits and conditions—but at the same time, would never dare to become an activist there as there was no doubt that life was cheap, and danger—certain death— was imminent. This certainty was evident to me years before the massacre of Tlaltelolco and was not only “floating” in the air of el DF, but palpable, as well.
The sad irony for me and for my peers was that the pachuco, the pocho, and the chicano were collapsed into the same negative stereotype based on the status quo frameworks and perceptions created, published and disseminated by popular, even acclaimed, cultural spokespersons and widely accepted by the educated and professional class. Thus, in direct contradistinction to my empathy and desire to be an active part of the black civil rights movement, I arrived to the Bay Area having a misguided disdain for the group identified as Chicano that I had read about in the Mexico City newspapers and that had been presented as trouble-makers, who were somehow less than Mexican in language, dress and behavior, and whose showy, tasteless actions were an affront and embarrassment to Mexico.
Nevertheless I knew that my professional aim was in the realm of social change and not sales, and thus I began in late 1971 to seek employment in that arena and found myself interviewing for jobs where my bilingualism was an advantage. I remember vividly, and will forever, upon my arrival in late 1971, purchasing and reading a number of edited paperback volumes in the social sciences whose chapters were authored in the main, but not solely, by black or latino authors, in order to achieve a better grasp of the social context within which I wished to work. I still thought that I was merely refining my existing knowledge base and perspectives, and that my attitudes were in no need of refinement; what I was really doing, however, was preparing myself unwittingly to experience a transformation on all three counts.
At the end of one particular chapter on Mexican Americans/Chicanos, there was a survey that one could take and, through adding up the points achieved associated with each item, derive a total score, which could then be related to a range of categories, where the last category, signifying that the test-taker had no knowledge whatsoever about the context or people within it, was Pendejo. (Note: The term pendejo has many meanings throughout Latin America, mostly pejorative regardless of it having a standard, non-vulgar meaning relating to pubic hair. But in Mexico, its meaning is extremely pejorative, insulting and to be used with caution—although its use is ubiquitous. That’s a socio-cultural contradiction one must deal with.)
I assiduously completed the survey, patiently tallied up my points, and calmly searched for the appropriate category, only to be shocked and genuinely befuddled that my score had placed me in the Pendejo category. It was a moment of epiphany. I respected the survey design sufficiently to at that very moment question the value of my self-assessment of my knowledge base, perceptions and attitudes as they applied to the Mexican American/Chicano context and the issues the community was confronting, and, especially, what I thought I knew of its members and the diverse manifestations of their cultural expression.
Privately, I assumed the questionable sobriquet of pendejo as I realized that it served as the base line from which I could only go up in my development at all levels. From that point on, my readings were not filtered through my preconceived notions, attitudes or interpretations, which enabled me to absorb facts, information, frameworks, analyses and interpretations upon which I could reflect and begin to re-build a new framework that would serve me operationally within the context in which I wished to work, and that would refine my development as a human being.
And that was my state of being as I approached the front door of Dr. Galarza’s modest house in San José, California, perhaps not dressed to kill, but certainly to fight.
The central feature of Dr. Galarza were his eyes. Their dark, brilliantly lit orbs shone as if permanently illuminated by a fire within him. As I stood there, the light they produced was a welcoming one that drew me comfortably into his sphere. At 67 years old, his hair was thick, a bit unwieldy on top—a natural mechón—and totally white; his skin tone, su piel, brought to mind Manuel Machado’s poetic words in Adelfos, “vieja amiga del sol.” His smile was genuine, easy, and open, complementing with its sparkle, the light that beamed from his eyes. His voice, mellow, rich and deliberate in tone and cadence, with each syllable clearly and smoothly articulated, projected sincerity and honesty toward his interlocutor.
He spoke of a project that involved collecting artifacts that would need a curator to catalogue them for use in developing educational materials for teachers and students in Spanish. I heard the word “curator” and imagined at that moment being in a section of a library where the light coming in through the windows highlighted the dust particles floating in the air and falling on scores of card catalogue cabinets, and I could see someone, perhaps myself, in a dark, rumpled suit, wearing frameless glasses, and even having dandruff on the shoulders of the suitcoat.
The word “curator” for some reason conjured up that mental image and had stopped me in my tracks such that I lost for a moment the thread of our conversation. I honestly couldn’t see myself in such a routine, clerk-type role and thought it too boring for the dynamic professional expectations I had envisioned. I subtly pulled myself together, refocused my eyes on his, and began to listen attentively again.
But I felt that the interview was coming to its natural end, and suddenly Dr. Galarza asked me what was to be the final question: “Roberto, do you like to fight?” Without hesitation, and with a clear, confident, even-toned voice, I replied in all honesty: “It’s what I do best.” He threw back his head and let out a roaring laugh.
I did not know it at the time, but I had landed the position as Coordinator of the Bilingual-Bicultural Studio/Laboratory. I was to be part of Dr. Galarza’s team of consultants working within the San Jose Unified School District, and my role as Coordinator would be far from that of the curator I had imagined. Specifically, the team would develop and provide (a) learning materials and activities in Spanish for Spanish-dominant children in grades K through 3, reflecting the children’s real-life contexts, and their cultural and historical contexts, and (b) long-term, professional development for their teachers and teaching assistants.
I experienced yet another epiphany upon joining the team: the realization that from this point on, I would be fighting the good fight daily together with Dr. Galarza−my mentor, my coach, my teacher−in the service of social justice. I felt humbled. I felt rewarded. I felt I arrived home.
Later, of course, in working with Dr. Galarza on a daily basis, I learned more about him—his birth in 1905 in Nayarit, Mexico and immigration to the US with his mother and relatives when he was around 6 years old; his early experience as a farm laborer; his sterling undergraduate academic achievement that earned him membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Honors organization, and later graduate degrees at Stanford and Columbia; his long, relentless and substantive careers in the Pan American Union and as a labor organizer and leader in the National Farm Labor Union and secretary of the National Agricultural Workers Union; his life-long dedication to social change and justice as an activist-scholar, whose commitment to and application of rigorous social science research methods led to publications that were respected and relevant; his extraordinary command of and verbal and written eloquence in English and Spanish; his untiring strength, vision and ability to follow through on projects to help communities and groups at the mercy of government agencies or private enterprises, organize, gain power and visibility, and fight for their rights; his never-ending passion for education as a context and experience for students to learn through meaningful curricula and activities that reflect their immediate social and environmental surroundings and cultural heritage.
Dr. Galarza well understood that the role of language was paramount in meaningful communicative interaction with students. I remember with delight the night a group of us from the Bilingual-Bicultural Studio/Laboratory team had been invited to his house on Franquette Avenue to see and listen to a taped broadcast of an interview with him on bilingual education. Dr. Galarza’s clarion call for quality education is forever etched in my mind, heart and soul: “Bilingual Education cannot be boring the students to death in two languages!”
Dr. Galarza was embraced by many groups—even by those who tried to guide and control his endeavors within the Studio Laboratory—but I never heard him attach a label to his identity. He was an individual with a social conscious, and a life-long belief in the principles of social justice and universal human rights, in my estimation, who had no love for working within or being associated with postsecondary academic institutions. In one of his published essays, I recall reading that after a short while teaching in any university setting, he felt as if he were among ghosts in its hallways. I drove him once to a venue in San José where he was to address an audience of Chicano or Mexican American academics, and before I dropped him off he said “But they will be surprised because I am not going to tell them what they expect to hear.”
Dr. Galarza was a polymath of grand, integrative proportions: a thinker, visionary, activist, scholar, poet, researcher, and gardener—and those are only the roles with which I had first-hand knowledge. He was profound, original and essentially unknowable, for he purposely did not leave a self-recorded trail other than Barrio Boy.*
Dr. Galarza found memories to be unreliable accounts of the past, even or especially one’s own. He chose instead to settle firmly within the context of rigorous scholarship to document, analyze, interpret and publish research that related to the greater issues outside the self that plagued communities and groups, and to work on a small, even personal, scale to address the issues indefatigably and with full knowledge of the challenge before him. Dr. Galarza operated, in my mind, as a chess grandmaster, seeing the field and its players before him, and understanding from a challenger’s first move how the rest of the game will be played out, including all its alternative moves and countermoves.
I sensed this in 1974, when it became evident to me that the Studio Laboratory would not gain the ongoing support of the San Jose Unified School District and instead support a district-friendly bilingual education version headed by willing players with Spanish surnames. I also recognized that Dr. Galarza saw this inevitable ending and would see it through to the end, which meant the demise of the Studio Laboratory.
I felt I was a pawn in this particular game and that my actions, and those of my colleagues, would not lead to further development—it appeared to be a planned fade-out and extinguishing to serve the purpose of moving to the next stage in Dr. Galarza’s continuing fight for relevant social change in the context of education for Spanish-dominant pre-school and early elementary students. I drove over to his house, sat in an overstuffed chair and shared my thoughts, after which he asked me what I planned to do with my newfound analysis. I responded that I felt that I would have to leave my position as coordinator if that were indeed the scenario being followed.
Dr. Galarza, without hesitation, looked directly at me from his standing position and merely said: “We all have to do what we feel is right.” I left the Studio Laboratory in October 1974 to work as supervisor of the grant development unit at Economic and Social Opportunities, a community action agency of Santa Clara County, and nine months later had completed my master’s in Mexican American Graduate Studies, and settled in at Stanford to pursue my PhD in Curriculum and Teacher Education, with a concentration in Bilingual (Bidialectal)/Bicultural Education.
Dr. Galarza submitted a letter of recommendation advocating for my acceptance into the university and also accepted my invitation later to speak in the School of Education to students and faculty regarding the by-then-defunct Studio Laboratory, at which point he stated to the audience that “Roberto and I were colleagues there.” It made me feel humble and proud, and I am forever grateful to have met, worked with, learned from, and fought the good fight alongside el doctor Galarza.
Roberto A. DeVillar, a native of San Antonio, Texas, has written and published academically for decades, but only recently began writing memoirs about his life from 10 to 18 in Seville, Spain. Upon returning to the US, he left for Mexico City, where he earned his BA in Latin American Studies (Social Sciences) at the Universidad de las Américas. While seeking a degree in Mexican American Graduate Studies at San Jose State University (1973-75), he worked with Dr. Ernesto Galarza as coordinator of the Bilingual-Bicultural Studio/Laboratory (1972-74) and Economic and Social Opportunities, Inc. (1974-75). Though widely traveled and experienced in private sector corporate affairs, he returned to complete a master's and doctorate at Stanford University, graduating in 1987. Until 2017, he taught and conducted research in various university systems in the U.S. and abroad.
*Barrio Boy The Story Of A Boy's Acculturation, byGalarza, Ernesto, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN and London, 1971.
Painting representing St. Augustine, author of Confessions
Actor Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov in 1935 film based on Crime and Punishment
We hope to learn more of Roberto deVillar's worlds in future columns. --The Editor
Welcome to my worlds
By Roberto deVillar
First of all, let me introduce myself. By birth, I am a sinner, as are all Catholics, and a perennial outsider from the moment I burst forth from the internally secure universe of my mother’s womb. Transgressions and marginality; redemption and wholeness; wanting and sharing; hiding and seeking; standing firm and finding. These and other key elements constantly are in simultaneous play with one another throughout one’s life. And as we try constantly to wrestle with the elements to find ourselves, define ourselves, make sense of ourselves, justify ourselves, forgive ourselves, love ourselves, and the like, there are many times that we find ourselves pinned down by the elements. I want to share aspects of my meandering journey toward working in the fields of social justice, and include the rocks and potholes that caused me to stumble, and the forks in the road that led to unexpected detours or dead-ends. At the same time, obstacles in my path never caused me to stop wandering in the direction that I thought was a forward one, fueled by the light of my passions, guided by the whispers, howling, and silences of my mind-soul’s inner voice. So I begin, claiming my birthright, to write as an outsider and confess.
I have always found my baptismal certificate from the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, interesting. Along its left side, all the language is English. And all the names and even the month in which I was born are inserted to the right, handwritten in Spanish. My name is listed as Roberto Alejandro DeVillar, which is the same name as on my original birth certificate; then Alfonso Arturo (my father), Cecilia (my mother—known as Nina), José Alejandro (my mother’s brother and my godparent, known as Nine), Guadalupe (my father’s sister and my godparent, known as Lupe), Rev. J. Frias (officiating priest), and my birth month is written as Junio. This integral blend of language and culture, literally from day one, was a birthmark, stamped on my soul, my character, my very being, and not only accompanied me to every geographical location, every cultural setting, and every social context in which I set foot, but influenced me, as well. In my earliest days, although my parents and their siblings were what would be termed fully bilingual in Spanish and English, it was Spanish that was always spoken in the presence of my two remaining grandparents, who were Papá Bocho (Ambrosio Samudio Rodríguez), my grandfather on my mother’s side, who died when I was 7 years old; and, Mamá (Basilisa Riva Pellón), my grandmother on my father’s side, who lived for many years, passing away in 1976, at 94 years old.
The author at 1 year, nine months in San Antonio, Texas
I never got to interact with my grandfather on my father’s side, Julián M. de Villar, as he died in January, five months before I was born, or my grandmother on my mother’s side, Mamá Celia (Celia Valdez Arizpe), who died when I was a little more than a year old. Nevertheless, their names floated in the family air we breathed daily, and, in the case of my paternal grandfather, influenced my character development and sense of culture and accomplishment throughout my life. From a strict chronological perspective, I, and my brothers, associated having grandparents with the sole experience of interacting with my father’s mother, our grandmother Basilisa, our Mamá.
My Upbringing in Diverse Socialization and Cultural Contexts
The formal socialization contexts in San Antonio that I entered outside the home from pre-school to 3rd grade were Catholic. Here, nuns ruled with rulers in hand and—although this will be almost impossible to believe--strait-jackets, which both my older brother and I, on different occasions, were strapped into. I can still remember, not even being old enough to attend first grade yet, sitting down, crossed-legged, silent, as the strange, rough, canvas-like material was wrapped around my torso, locking me in by straps looped through shiny metal rings. I have neverforgotten that image or experience. It was far worse than when I was made to kneel to have my mouth washed out with soap by a nun for having uttered, I imagine, a swear word. Then there was the snarling, wild-eyed anger projecting from my brother’s face as he sat, body pulsating, imprisoned in the strait-jacket, somehow still emoting strength and pride, even in that shocking, depressing condition. I was perhaps 4 years old, but that tortuous image of seeing my brother in the strait-jacket lives still within my memory and continues to haunt me. And later, at Saint Ann’s, I vividly remember wearing with pride my khaki uniform with patches, tie and brass-buckled belt, raising my hand and waiting, without being acknowledged by the nun, until I finally summed up the courage to go up to her and asked her permission to go the bathroom. She responded: “No, it’s almost time for the bell.” I returned to my desk, and despite all the attempts a child does to stop his bladder from emptying, while sitting at my desk, I uncontrollably urinated, staining the front of my khaki pants down to the knee. I waited for everyone to leave when the bell rang, but a girl stayed behind to wait for me, and I finally got up, saying in an utterly unconvincing tone that was supposed to be lightheartedly amusing: “Oh, Paul and I were playing at recess and he threw water on me!” She didn’t say anything, her look said it all. I went outside to one of the side doors leading to the steps where the playground began, and wedged myself in a space between one of the recessed door frames and a low wall to become invisible. I then opened my tin lunchbox in such a way that its top extended across my waist, so that in case someone did see me, they could not see my urine-stained khaki pants. A nun came by, saw me, and asked why I was there, eating alone instead of being with the others on the playground. That was all it took for me to begin to wail and angrily tell her what happened. Rather than comfort me, the nun began to defend the offending nun, and I, even at 6 or 7 years old, knew that was unjust. So, I hollered, still shedding tears of anger, that the offending nun was a Jackass! And, each time the nun would open her mouth to say something, I would repeat, again and again, “No, she is a jackass!” Until the nun finally realized that I was in a fit of rage, came to me, put her arm around me and guided me up the stairs. The next thing I remember is that my mother was driving me home, saying that I would not have to return to school that day. And it was her calm, gentle, loving presence, even while driving, that enveloped me and made me feel warm and safe. That same summer, I asked my parents if I could change schools, and, even though my older brother stayed at St. Ann’s, I enrolled at St. Mary Magdalen’s.
Aside from being strapped in strait-jackets, having my mouth washed out with soap, and suffering the consequences of restricted bathroom use, it was also quickly transmitted within these various Catholic settings that we are all sinners and need to repent. Thus, Catholic school is also where I learned to confess.
The Why of Confession: Many Paths, One Goal
Confessions are, of course, two-sided. On the one hand, the confessor wishes to relieve the self of the weighty burden of guilt, of pain, of suffering, of mental torment, and so on, brought on by the internally conscious judgement that one’s action or actions have violated egregiously the moral rules, guidelines or expectations of a community in which membership is claimed. On the other hand, the confessor takes this humiliating step, in which at least one other person is present, for the explicit sake of redemption, of being forgiven for one’s transgressions, however severe, and being reborn, so to speak, to go out and sin no more—which, as we all know, is an impossibility and the paradoxical bane of Catholics and other Christians. As sinners, we all inhabit two spaces simultaneously; that of the sinner—either actual or inevitably prospective—and the searcher who seeks forgiveness through confession for the sins committed and confession’s product, redemption. It is the same if one reads the eponymously titled autobiography, The Confessions of St. Augustine (circa 400 AD), or the tortured, tormented fictional tale of the murderous Raskolnikov, the young, feverish killer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866; spellings include Dostoyevsky/Dostoevsky). The opportunity for redemption can be personally experienced (St. Augustine) or societally imposed, as in the case of Raskolnikov, whose mental anguish ultimately leads to his confession and redemption, albeit in the literal purgatory of Siberia. Thus, the path leading to redemption is rarely smooth and may not even be successful, as in the case of Eugène Marais, the Afrikaner polymath who, alone in his hovel, observed, documented and wrote about apes for three years in their native context—resulting in his The Soul of the Ape (1969, English edition, but actually written in the 1920s)—while musing about his ingestion of morphine to which he was addicted and led him to clearly understand that ever-greater amounts of morphine were required to achieve the same level of momentary mental elation. I read Soul of the Ape in Heidelberg, Germany, as a soldier in the US Army, at some point during the time I was stationed there (1970-1971). Marais clearly understood that there would come a time when the amount of morphine required would surpass the body’s ability to withstand it, but he did not live to witness and attest to that principle. At 65, he took a shotgun and shot himself first in the chest and then the head. Marais’ anguish and insights did not lead to confession and, therefore, there was no redemption, only despair and the emptiness of a tragic death. Drug addiction, nevertheless, is not an insurmountable barrier to the quest and realization of redemption. Thomas De Quincy’s autobiographical account, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), was immensely popular with the public for decades in England and abroad, describing as it did the vast pleasures and marginal pains of addiction. The necessity of redemption was presented as an almost reluctant conclusion by the author-eater. De Quincy considered redemption justified for the sake of, if nothing else, being able to continue to meet one’s professional responsibility and the demands of productivity. He also found it essential to remain in an appropriate physical and mental condition sufficient to appear coherent to others and to engage in sustained social interactions. In a manner that gives the impression of deception or hypocrisy, or both, De Quincy used confession, forgiveness and redemption as a means to continue to ingest opium as a controlled substance, while eloquently claiming or charmingly suggesting that his use was in the past. His was a cycle of perpetual sinning and seeking forgiveness and redemption in order to sin once more, allowing him literary success, moderated opium use, and selective redemption. When I first read Carlos Castaneda’s (I am spelling his last name without the tilde-ñ, as that convention has been used in his books; others may prefer to spell it Castañeda) The Teachings of Don Juan, I completely missed the point of its subject matter. Yes, I know that there was a subtitle, but I overlooked it because I was in the library at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, after Basic Training at Ft. Bliss, Texas, and now involved in learning Morse code. Since May 1969, I had been experiencing life in the Army as a draftee during the heavily contentious Vietnam War.
The author with his mother and older brother, Art, in San Antonio, while his father was serving in WWII
Why did I miss the point of the title? Well, stay with me now, having spent my late elementary through high school years in Seville, Spain, and five years in Mexico, City, earning my B.A. and working, I naively thought that I was checking out a book on the character Don Juan Tenorio! You know, Zorilla’s (1844) work, or that of Tirso de Molina (1630), or perhaps George Gordon Lord Byron’s (1819-1824) “Don Juan” poem–pronounced for purposes of rhyme, “Don Joo-un.” All of them were essentially, to greater or lesser degrees, about the perennial triad of sin, forgiveness and redemption, and in Seville, no less! I share all the above thoughts that came to my mind to say that I was desperate for a Spanish-related cultural injection—a cultural fix—so I confess my error and beg forgiveness. Nevertheless, as we are prone to sense or know, coincidences are merely unforeseen experiences that were meant to take place. Thus, not at all coincidentally, reading The Teachings of Don Juan was a major cultural fix for me, for it altered my mind in ways I had not experienced previously. Moreover, it was a transformative experience for me, for I internalized immediately two life-long lessons:
First, to respect and honor as a legitimate cultural value and behavior the ingestion of mind-altering natural elements by groups, within their native context, for purposes integral to the group’s codified well-being; and,
Second, to avoid ingesting those types of drugs outside a legitimate cultural context and without a competent guide a la Don Juan.
I didn’t see the United States—the dominant cultural model or any of its less-dominant groups—as having a legitimate cultural context or knowledge-base for drug ingestion and never felt the need for drug use for recreational or “psychology-of-insight” purposes. I had made a marked distinction between cultural values and behaviors associated with the belief system of a group, as opposed to individuals who belonged to a group culture but whose practices did not emanate from or reflect the core values of that culture. This is, of course, the time for full disclosure: I do drink red wine moderately, beer occasionally, tequila reposado—or at times, añejo/añejado—if either is in front of me, and, albeit rarely, I enjoy a straight—no ice, no water—bourbon/whiskey, never the Jim Beam taste, if the occasion arises, which it very rarely does. As this statement regarding alcohol consumption is not a confession, I do not seek or care about redemption or forgiveness, or consider my way of being, in this case, a sin. My sin, as will become clear, was one of massive professional blindness and ignorance toward the very group that I had returned to the United States to work for and with, in pursuit of a deeply-rooted and life-long sense of social justice. I had a modicum of, but not directly relevant, academic preparation in the study and intellectual pursuit social justice, having graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies, Social Sciences, from the Universidad de las Américas. My cultural context, both in Seville, Spain, and Mexico City, Mexico, was far from the context in which I desired to participate in and contribute to. I just didn’t realize it at the time—that is, all my life up to then. In the 1960s, the university was located a short distance from the exit of Las Lomas de Chapultepec, the massive, mega-élite, mansion-dense neighborhood—specifically at kilómetro 16 de la Carretera México-Toluca. Ambassadors, Cantiflas, politicians, bankers, and others considered the crème-de-la-crème resided in this élite colonia, and so did I, but as a student, in a beautiful residence where they took in student and professional boarders. At that time, mid-1960s, our university campus was, as I remember, characterized mainly by deep ravines and panoramic views of tree-dense, rolling hills—especially visible from the massive terrace of our small campus, itself, a converted country club. Its student body was a mixture of high-wealth, native-born students, in the main from Mexico City, with groups of foreign students, from the United States, Canada and Europe. The campus was, in part, an extension of the relaxed life-style of the rich and famous, where high-end cars were visible, driven by students in tailor-made suits or casually fashioned outfits. At the same time, there were the American students who would come for their “quarter abroad” programs, wearing chinos, sockless loafers and madras shirts—who never really fitted in and whose presence appeared more decorative than substantive. They were like silent, colorful, moving units amidst a socio-cultural context that at times saw them but did not engage with them. There were more serious foreign students, who either could not or preferred not to adapt to the Mexico City culture and left soon after arriving; or native students, who decided to transfer to the internationally prestigious Colegio de México, a highly regarded research university that specialized in the social sciences. There were also those who came looking like the perfectly groomed upper-middle class students they were back home and soon after experimenting with easily accessible pharmaceutical and other mind-altering substances, abandoned their grooming, previous dress codes, and normative behavioral façades, preferring to, as Timothy Leary so famously declared: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” It shocked me, literally, to have embraced friends, socialized and laughed with them, only to see them fade into themselves and ultimately disappear from campus. I knew it was due to their drug use, but I did not probe deeper than that and it did not touch me or my particular group of friends—at least not during the time we were completing our undergraduate degrees. This early, indirect experience with the effects of drugs on a few of my friends and other students visible to me led me away from any intellectual arguments in their favor and, as I mentioned above, after reading The Teachings ofDon Juan, I confess that my personal attitude toward recreational use of mind-altering drugs or their use outside of an authentic context native to the culture solidified even more. Ultimately, regardless of where I had lived; what I had experienced; what I had read for pleasure or studied formally; the Spanish I had been exposed to from birth and developed in Spain and Mexico; the values, principles, thoughts, desires and dreams I had of working within the arena of class struggle, of social justice, and of societal change were not sufficient in preparing me for the setting in which I would soon enter: the Chicano context of San José, California.
Roberto A. DeVillar, a native of San Antonio, Texas, haswritten and published academically for decades, but only recently began writing memoirs, and so far almost exclusively about his life age 10 to 18 years in Seville, Spain. Upon returning to the U.S. from Spain, he earned a B.A. degree in Latin American Studies (Social Sciences) at the Universidad de las Américas in Mexico City. While seeking a degree in Mexican American Graduate Studies at San José State University (1973-75), he worked with Dr. Ernesto Galarza as coordinator of the Bilingual-Bicultural Studio/Laboratory (1972-1974) and Economic & Social Opportunities, Inc. He has traveled widely, engaged in international corporate affairs, but returned to complete a doctorate at Stanford University (1987). From 1987 to 2017, he taught and conducted research in various university systems in the U.S. and abroad.