It took some time to earn an M.A. in English. Forty-five years, maybe – if you’ll accept that my education started as a dream, of my dad, well before I was born.
In my wallet I carry a black and white photograph of us. The snapshot, taken after a rain, captures a dreary day in Castanos, Coahuila, Mejico, 1952. As I stand on a table of rough wood, wearing a baggy diaper, our white adobe home behind us, the picture speaks to me of his vision.
In 1945, encouraged by the Mexico-U.S. Bracero Program, dad left home to change our lives. It would not be easy. Trials awaited him. In his first test, needing a Mexican labor contractor to hire him, my dad failed. The enganchador judged his hands too soft for the needs of American farmers.
This did not deter him. Despite the dangers, without knowing English, he pursued his vision anyway. Sixteen years later, on a snowy February 22, 1960, in a letter signed by former U.S. Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen, America officially greeted Ireneo Gomez Saldana.
In our photo, as he stands behind me, his right hand cupping my waist, I see my dad in the maturity of his manhood. He is lean. He is strong. In his wry, diminutive smile I see the joy he would’ve expressed had he lived to know I graduated.
He valued education.
He built our lives on it.
I recall one wintry night, in Chicago, how my mother nervously thread about him. Occasionally she wrung her hands. My three sisters, older and smarter than me, remained in their room – as my dad, quietly weeping at our dining room table, tried to still his fears.
Propped on elbows, his head held in his hands, my dad stared at a book lying open before him. It was a trade manual. The first of many that he would need to study, the book was part of a correspondence course on radio and television repair. Injured, having lost his job as a punch press operator with the Burton-Dixie Corporation, my dad sought a new job.
I asked my mother why he cried.
She said he couldn’t read English.
It’s the only time I ever saw him weep.
On December 11, 1990, while sitting on the steps of Flowers Hall at Texas State University, on a rosy winter day I celebrated my graduation with him.
I looked at our photo.
In the way that he holds me – facing out, as if presenting me to the future – I couldn’t help wonder if he wasn’t showing me to myself, suspecting, perhaps, that I’d see this moment one day, and I would recognize just how much he had laid out for me.
As I gazed across the campus, knowing that I’d benefited from his dream, the university’s tower clock happened to toll. It was three. And it was special. In the bells’ resonance – traveling across space and time, I imagined – I believed that he heard the same victorious chime. And it felt good. I understood what he’d given me. I’d inherited an American story.