"We were very thankful": Finding Opportunities and Grief in California
The oldest of eight children, Irma Aida was born in the mid-1950s in Texas. Her mother Martha pushed her and her siblings to finish their high school education. Martha stopped attending school after ninth grade because she was a migrant worker and had to travel across the western states for work. Martha taught Irma how to read and write in Spanish. Spanish was their first language.
Back when I was growing up, my first language was Spanish. My mother taught me how to read and write in Spanish. Entering school, we had to learn how to speak English. Well, back then, if I spoke to neighbor in Spanish, we lived in Texas, in El Paso, we would get in trouble. The teacher would put a circle on the board, and then I would have to put my nose to the board because I was speaking Spanish.
My mother with my biological father, she was 15 when she had me. He was 22. Obviously, it was a shotgun wedding. Two months after I was born, he decided to leave. My mother was a migrant worker, and she came from a very extreme childhood, as well. A lot of abuse. She looked a lot like my grandfather—her father—so she was the black sheep of the family.
My mom wanted to get away from that situation with my grandmother, so what she ended up doing, she ended up getting pregnant. There was a marriage. This is the biological father (Ignacio) that I had and the family that I had recently found. He died at the age of 28. I was three years old. I never knew him.
In that interim, my mom ended up getting together with a man who was twenty years older than her, and she had additional children. He was extremely abusive to my mother, as well. Not only that, he was an alcoholic. And he used to smoke a lot of weed. We didn’t know that at the time, until you start getting a little bit older and then you start noticing different things.
There was a time in Texas that, if you beat your wife, the police turned the other way. They did not get involved because whatever happened in the house, that was your mate. The police did not get involved. There was no such thing as domestic violence. Nobody supported you. Not the administration, not the law. My mom didn’t have any recourse.
Now, I remember being very young and Alfredo coming home, and he used to hit my mother with a cast iron pan. You know I remember those moments vividly. My mom would end going to the hospital every time. We would have to walk her. My mom didn’t know how to drive. I was about seven years old, and I would walk her to the bus stop, have her get on the bus, and then leave to go to the hospital. The doctors would have seen that some point in time, if they didn’t intervene or do something, that my mother was going to get killed.
It was one Christmas, and my mother had five children by the time she was in her early twenties. The police came, and they hid in the closet. They told us to pretend that everything was okay. As soon as my step-father came in, he started pounding my mom, so the police came out of the closet, arrested him, and said they were taking him.
What my mom had already done is she had already made arrangements that the three girls were going to go to a convent as a stay momentarily because she was going to move to California and move us all to California.
We went to a convent, and she took the two youngest boys, my brothers, and she came to California. When we left, we left with nothing. We went to the convent and stayed there with the madrecitas and then a month later we came on El Correcaminos.
We are very thankful. Two things. One, my mother being a twenty-one-year old mom with five kids that she didn’t leave us there. The other is that nothing happened to us when we were on El Correcaminos because a lot of things could’ve happened, you know, three young girls coming to California. There were no resources back then.
TAKING ON THE ROLES OF MOTHER, WIFE, STUDENT: "YOU HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO LOSE WHO YOU ARE"
Jennifer graduated from high school in the late nineties. The twins graduated from high school in 2009. First of all, [their high school] didn’t offer AP courses, and I fought for AP classes.
When my kids were in school, they would tell the kids, “Don’t take those AP classes. You are going to fail. It’s going to hurt your self-esteem. Don’t do that. You’ll be disappointed. You’re going to drop out.” That has always angered me. It has always angered me because they don’t say that to all the population. They only say that depending on the color of your skin.
I was a very staunch advocate in school. Education is extremely important. And even now that I have grandchildren, it is very important.
I have one son in particular, who passed away twelve years ago this month, and when he was in high school, they were going on a field trip. He brings home a slip to go to a local detention center. I was livid. I called up the school and said, “Why are you not inviting him to go visit a college? Why is it that you are directing him or you guys are going on field trip to West Valley Detention Center?”
When my kids were in elementary, I handpicked the teachers. I was a room mom for all the kids. I was a roller hockey coach. I went in the office and volunteered. You have to get to know the teachers and gain their trust, and they’ll confide in you and say, “You know what? Your child is going into third grade, and this is the best teacher.”
Be an advocate for yourself as an adult, but also be an advocate for your children and your siblings, if you’re able to.
When I decided then that I could be a teacher, I decided to go back to school. I got my AA, and I was going to stop, but thank you to my daughter, she really pushed me: “Hey, mom, you got to go back to school.”
My husband would say, Who’s going to cook? Who’s going to clean? Who’s going to do the chores? Who is going to do this? Who is going to wash? I told Jennifer, and I won’t tell you the language she said, but she said you need to go back to school.
And I did. The whole time I was there, I made magna cum laude and was carrying 22 units.
I think when you become a wife or mother, you have the potential to lose your identity, or a husband, you have the potential to lose who you are. The one thing I want to encourage each of you is don’t lose that because when you lose that, you lose who you are. You lose your vision, you lose your goal, you lose ultimately where do you want to go with this. Don’t lose your self-identity.
FAMILIA GRIEF AND JOY: LOSING EMILIO AND FINDING IGNACIO'S FAMILIA
At the end of 2005, her middle child was killed in a car collision. Irma remembers that she and Emilio were supposed to graduate at the end of that academic year: he from high school and she from college.
We were competing for GPAs. And Emilio and I had made a bet. If his GPA was higher than 3.4, he was going to get a tattoo. And that’s why, after his death, I paid for all of [my kids] to get tattoos.
In 2016, Irma reunited with her biological father’s family. Her father, Ignacio Mendoza, died when she was just three years old.
Reuniting with my family was like giving birth. For someone who has not given birth, it’s something you’ve always wanted to have, but you finally find something or you hit a goal and it’s like you’ve like you crossed over that mountain. It was just exhilarating because I never thought that would happen…. It didn’t change me in the sense that I was already was who I was. It just gave me a connection to an individual who I did not know.