Dan Acosta

         I Remember Rusk School:  Memories of a Mexican Boy Growing up in El Paso


Dan Acosta is a second-generation Mexican American, whose grandparents emigrated from Mexico. He is a former professor, research scientist, and administrator, who has recently retired. He plans to write about his experiences as a Mexican boy trying to succeed in a white American society, especially the role that discrimination and racism still plays in the U.S. He will focus on personal vignettes about his education and career.

My mother softly whispered to me that it was time to wake up for my first day of school early that Monday morning in the fall of 1951.

I immediately got out of bed and put on my freshly ironed shirt and pants which were folded neatly on the wooden chair next to my bed.  I slept on a battered green couch in the enclosed porch of our rental house.  During the hot weather in El Paso, which is most of the year, I slept in the front room.  I moved to the family room for the winter months and early spring, where there was a large metal gas heater to keep the rest of the house warm.  Sometimes I placed my socks on the top of the heater to warm them up before I put on my shoes. 

The large family room served as the living room, dining area, and the bedroom for my mother and father.  Their bed was a blonde-colored mahogany monstrosity tucked tightly into the far corner of the living room, near the large window that looked out into the alley behind our house.  At night, the alley was always pitch black except for the light coming from windows of houses on the other side of the alley.  My two sisters slept in a small bedroom directly opposite my parents’ huge bed but had the privacy of a door.  Although I did not have a bedroom of my own, I felt lucky to have the large front room to myself without having to look out into the dark alley each night.

The house had a small kitchen with a few cabinets and drawers for plates, pots, and eating utensils and a tiny gas stove.  For years we had an ice box to keep our food cold; I remember my father placing a large block of ice at the bottom of the ice box a couple times a week.  Just before I started first grade, we got a refrigerator that ran on electricity and no longer needed the ice.  We had a bathroom just off the kitchen, which for years did not have a bathtub.  I remember going to Nana Cuca's home, two houses away from us, to take a bath.  My older sister would often go to our other grandmother's home, Nana Carolina, to take her bath.  My father was able to put in a large metal shower in the bathroom during my first year at school.  At first, I was frightened to use the shower with its black galvanized color, but with time I enjoyed the freedom of bathing at home without the neighborhood kids gawking at me trudge up to Nana Cuca's home with clothes in hand. 

To begin our first day of school, my neighborhood friend, Angie, and I were shown the way to Rusk Elementary School (about 1.5 miles from our homes) by our mothers so that we could learn the route and be able to walk ourselves to and from school after that first and only day of training.  As we walked to school, noting key landmarks, I thought to myself that I did not want to appear dumb in front of my new classmates and that I had to prove to everyone that I could learn to read.  I had memorized my ABCs but only knew a few words by sight.  When the bell rung to start the first day of school, I entered my first-grade classroom and saw all of those white kids.  I knew instinctively that it would be difficult for me to establish my identity among those well-scrubbed and smiling Anglo kids, who were talking excitedly with their friends and new classmates. 

A pleasant-looking woman, somewhat older than my mother, quickly took command of the classroom and asked softly for the class to be quiet.  Mrs. Gopidge, our first-grade teacher, said to the all-so attentive students that we need to start the first day of school.  I was too scared to smile, but instantly stood at attention.  She put all of us in a single line and called the first student to her desk and quietly asked each student some questions.  I distinctly remember telling her that I liked to look at the pictures in magazines that Nana Cuca gave to my mother.  She only smiled at me and did not say if that was good or not.  

After interviewing each student, she divided us into learning groups:  those students who were considered to be more proficient in reading were assigned to the Roses.  The rest of the students were placed in other groups based on her evaluations of their reading ability.  I was placed in the last group (at least I thought so)—the Bluebirds.  Of course, many of the students did not grasp the significance of the evaluations until later in the school year.  With names like Roses, Bluebirds, Robins, and Violets, which student had reason to believe that one group had more learning skills than another?  Somehow, I intuitively knew that I was behind the Roses, which consisted mostly of Anglo boys and girls.

Mrs. Gopidge saw that I was very eager to learn and read.  Each afternoon at nap time she and I went to the back of the dark classroom and read quietly under a small desk lamp while the other students slept peacefully.  In a few months, I was moved to the Roses.  Because many of my teachers wanted to help that “smart little Mexican boy”, I became one of their favorites at Rusk. This experience had a lasting effect on me; my primary focus was to succeed in the classroom and to receive the accolades of my teachers all the way through high school.  At a very young age I observed how Anglo and Mexican students were treated differently by some teachers.  I wanted to be praised and accepted by the “important” people in the school, who were mostly white.

When classes ended for the day and Angie and I had to find our way back home based on the instructions of our mothers, we promptly took the wrong way home and got lost.   We had entered school in the morning through the side door of the building, but we exited the building with the rest of the kids through the front door and lost our bearings on which way to take back home.  An hour later, our mothers found us wandering around the streets near the school.

There was always the tension of my not speaking Spanish well, and I tried to hide that inadequacy from my teachers and classmates.  My parents did not force me to speak Spanish, but Nana Cuca never learned to speak English and she would mock me constantly in Spanish.  So, I understood Spanish much better than I could speak the language.  My mother required her children to attend catechism classes at a neighborhood church; the classes were taught in Spanish by the nuns.  I was able to fake my way through the classes by reciting by memory all of the prayers in Spanish and was considered by the sisters to be a good Mexican boy.  They told my mother that I was one of the more polite and well-behaved students in the class.  I kept quiet because I knew my Spanish was bad and that my friends would laugh at me.  I begged my mother to let me go to the church near Rusk so I could be taught by the sisters in English, instead of having to go to Our Lady of Guadalupe near our house.  Eventually I wore her down with my pleas and she allowed me to attend catechism classes in English at the other church, The Lady of Our Assumption, but I had to take a 40-minute bus ride, accompanied by my little sister.

As I continued to excel academically in my elementary school years, I became very aware of my family’s financial situation through my observations on how well dressed the Anglo kids were, and how after school many of them were picked up by their mothers in shiny new cars.  I distinctly remembered one day an Anglo mother picking up her daughter after school and repeating this phrase over and over:

Rodgers—Dodgers; Rodgers—Dodgers; Rodgers---Dodgers”, beaming a broad smile to       her daughter as she got into a big, dark-blue Olds.

I was a big fan of the New York Yankees because my cousin Louie had introduced me to Mickey Mantle when he broke into the major leagues in 1952-53, and I knew that the Brooklyn Dodgers were hated rivals of the Yankees.  But what did the Dodgers have to do with Rodgers?  When I questioned my parents about Rodgers, they responded that he was running for Mayor of El Paso, and they were going to vote for the Democratic candidate.  So, here was an adult Anglo mother mixing politics and sports with her view of the world.  Of course, in the 21st century, politics and sports continue to be intertwined, such that even Trump wanted the endorsement of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.  Even as a child, I thought to myself:  Republicans and the Dodgers are favored by the rich and my family is on the side of the poor and the Yankees!  Ironically, in today's world it would be just the opposite.

Throughout my elementary school years, I dwelled on my family's lack of money.  To me, the most obvious example of wealth was the acquisition of a new car.  I became intrigued with recognizing car brands, and I was able to identify most cars all the way through college.  By the time I was ten-years old I was able to converse with my fifth- grade teacher, Mrs. Madison, on her purchase of a new Henry J, which Kaiser made during the years 1950-1954.  My first car was a 1967 Mustang which I bought partially with scholarship money in my senior year of college. However, that is another story to tell later. 

By the sixth grade I was considered one of the top two students in the school; the other student was an all-American Anglo boy, Bobby.  Our sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Sanders, honored student accomplishments and academic achievements by posting gold stars after the names of the students on a large poster board in the classroom.  Bobby and I had the most gold stars in the class.  One day in the fall she asked us to meet her after school and smiled to let us know that it was important.

At the end of the school day, we met with her and she told us to ask our mothers if they would be homeroom mothers for the school year.  My mother said that she would do so and would call Bobby’s mother on how to handle their new tasks for the class.   My mother would often come to the classroom during the school year with treats for the class.  It was later that I realized what a sacrifice she had made to come to school during the day.  She had to take a taxi because we did not have a second vehicle and even if we had had a car she did not know how to drive.  I was beginning to realize that my status as one of the top students in my classes had effects on the rest of the family, especially for my mother.  My older sister, Tina, who was six years older than me, had told me that mother had not interacted much with her teachers and her school activities and that she was surprised that mother had become more involved at school with me and my younger sister, Celia.  I later learned that mother was twenty-years old when she married and just twenty-one when Tina was born.  This explains a lot about how my mother changed over the next 12 years when I started school.








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