Passing along mother’s message about learning
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Juan Rivera Meraza came to the United States on a work visa to teach school. He taught fifth grade and kindergarten for three years in Arizona before moving to Parachute to teach Spanish at Grand Valley High School.
Rivera: I first came to the United States as part of a student exchange program after I graduated from college. I came to New Orleans for a year and it was a great, great experience for me because I really wanted to learn some English.
I took a lot of English classes in college and thought I spoke pretty good English. But when I came here I realized that I didn’t speak real-world English. Schoolteachers are very patient and they try to understand what you are saying. But it is completely different trying to speak English on the streets or in the stores. That is the real world.
Gallacher: Do you remember a particular experience that you had in New Orleans?
Rivera: Yes, I went into Kentucky Fried Chicken one time and ordered five pieces, but they brought me two big boxes with enough chicken to feed a big family. I explained to the clerk that I only wanted five pieces and she seemed to understand. But she came back with one big box. I paid for it and left with a lot of chicken. That’s when I realized I didn’t really speak English.
Gallacher: I’ve had similar experiences trying to speak Spanish. What was it that interested you about the United States as a young man?
Rivera: Actually I have been interested in this country since I was in middle school. One of my favorites classes was English. I only wish I had started in elementary school. It’s so much easier to learn a foreign language when you are very young.
As a little kid, I watched a lot of U.S. television shows and movies. I watched “Dallas,” “Bonanza,” and Lee Majors in “The Six Million Dollar Man.” I remember thinking, “Wow, I would like to visit those places and meet those people.”
I was interested in the history of the United States. I asked myself, “How did this country become the richest country in the world?” I wanted to learn the culture, the history and the system that created the United States.
Mexico is a country with a very rich culture but there is so much poverty. Economic conditions have been bad for 30 years, and year after year it has gotten worse. The United States economy is struggling right now, but it has only been for the last two years.
I don’t understand why the richest man in the world is from Mexico while there are 60 million Mexicans living in very poor conditions. I think people in Mexico lose hope that the Mexican economy will ever improve. It’s hard to be hopeful when it’s been bad for so long.
I can remember watching things start to decline when I was a student in college. I want to learn as much as I can about the United States so I can go back and help my country.
Gallacher: Tell me about growing up in Mexico.
Rivera: I was born in San Jeronimo, a small town on the coast about 45 miles from Acapulco. My parents were farmers who raised coconuts and palms, and my father ran a small store that they owned. But, unfortunately, my father passed away when I was 5 years old. So my mom was left to take care of the family. I was the youngest of nine children, so it was pretty hard for her.
When my father was alive we were doing better than a lot of families, but when he passed away everything changed. We had to split the whole family because my mom had to work the field and take care of the store. I had to go live with my grandmother.
Gallacher: How did they split up the family?
Rivera: My five older brothers were old enough to work and take care of themselves, but the four youngest had to be split up and live with family members.
Gallacher: Your mom worked the field and ran the store?
Rivera: Yes, but she lost the store because my dad was in and out of the hospital for the last three years of his life. So by the time he died, they had spent all of their money and it wasn’t long before we lost the store.
My mom was severely depressed for several months but she finally realized that she had to do something. I learned a lot from watching her. She was a very strong person and a real influence on my character.
Gallacher: Who else influenced you?
Rivera: Actually my oldest brother. When my dad realized he was dying, he started working with my oldest brother to take his place. He encouraged my brother and me to spend more time together. He told me that he didn’t want me growing up without a father. He said, “Your brother is going to be like a father to you.”
I remember listening to my dad talk to my brother. When my brother would come home he would encourage him spend time with me. He would say, “Go say hi, pick him up, give him a kiss.” Now when I call my brother back in Mexico, I remind him of that time and thank him for being such a strong influence in my life.
He was 18 years old when he went to work to help my mom and the family. He drove a big truck long distance from our town to Mexico City. It was a big responsibility. All of my older brothers had to do the same thing. They had no choice. They all had to quit school and go to work to help my mom and us younger kids.
We younger kids had to clean the house and help mom in the field. We were also responsible for washing our own clothes, by hand. We lived on rice, beans and corn tortillas.
It was because of my brothers and my mom that we younger kids had an opportunity to go to college. All four of us are schoolteachers. My two sisters are kindergarten teachers and my brother is a schoolteacher and principal of a middle school in Mexico.
My mom always said, “The best thing you can do in your life is learn.” And that is what I try to pass on to my students. I tell them they have two responsibilities, be happy and learn. I tell them everyday, “You have to learn. That is your work.”
I learned a lot of things from that situation. I had to learn what life would be without your father. I have been working since I was a kid.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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