We were an early 1940’s Tucson, Arizona, Mexican- American family, typical in its self-sufficiency, and three generations were under one roof: Nana, Tia, Mom, Dad, little sister Yanula, and me. Unaccented English was spoken, though Spanish, out of respect for Nana and Tia, was spoken most of the time.
When it was Sunday and time to go to mass at the Cathedral, shiny shoes and a starched white short-sleeved shirt tucked into ironed Levi’s helped govern behavior and focus purpose. The crisp, blindingly-white shirt was not merely ironed, it was crafted: it was first washed in a metal tub and, in another, whitened in bluing and water boiled over mesquite fires and coals, sun dried, then starched and loosely wadded. Once the moisture was evened out, it was pressed with a gas-flame-heated solid iron of four pounds and placed on a hanger. It was now a sweat-created work of love, not to be irresponsibly marred. The respect due its crafters was transmitted in every crinkle. To carelessly wrinkle or soil such a shirt, especially for an elementary school child, was an act of disrespect, a family taboo.
Independence of action fostered by a no-apron-strings upbringing experienced within cultural guardrails that nonetheless promoted adherence to familial rules and norms helped form a kid that was pre-stressed by these oppositions, half-wound up, ready. Even though a male child was given much liberty in developing his male self, Tia Concha’s starched white shirt was almost as good as a straight jacket.
September 1943… FDR and Pope Pius XII were infallible…. Pvt. Dad was at Ft Knox training Puerto Rican gunners on the 30 Cal Air Cooled Browning Machine Gun… the one that had a barrel that looked like a cholla cactus skeleton… our ’41 Chevy Coupe had a ration sticker on its windshield and the tires were rare in that they still had good tread.
Unbeknownst to me that September day, I was a passenger in a fresh white shirt on a one-way ride across town to my first day at SS Peter and Paul, a never-before-seen school. As we approached, I was instructed to, after school cross the street and catch a bus I had never ridden, headed south on Campbell, transfer at Sixth Street, head west, and then pull the stop cord one block before our street. I was given bus tokens and a bag lunch as I was gently prodded from the car in front of the school and told to go on and start second grade. I did.
I learned much later that this drastic move resulted from my having been selected to be held back in first grade at Miles Elementary School. The reasons, I learned later, were my frequent absences and lack of attention in class, especially reading class. “He is never on the same page in the book as the class!” I knew I was absent a lot, sometimes from frequent nosebleeds but most often from even more frequent boredom.
Our book? Dick and Jane, Puff and Spot, Dick and Jane, and Robins!! …and snow and earthworms…! Science fiction to a native and untraveled Tucson kid. I began to read the book and found it fascinating till its finish, when school ended that first day. After that I would dutifully place it on my desk and open it to the page assigned but was off and wondering within minutes about birds that could pull earth worms from caliche, and worms that could bore through caliche and colored leaves that fell in the fall. What was fall?
Short story shortened. My mother decided that her boy was bright and that another year of the same Miles School curriculum would stunt him and not contribute to ongoing development of his genetically endowed potential, not to speak of the gross embarrassment if her offspring had not been promoted.
I watched our Chevy pull away. I walked a few yards to the building, found a heavy double door, and entered the school that smelled of candle wax, whatever was used to clean and polish its hallways and restrooms, and most delightful and even indoors, pine trees. Then a comforting sight… my peers in line waiting to speak to two nuns. I saw it was one line, students alternating to speak to one nun or another. As a savvy six-year old I also got in line.
A male child encouraged to play outdoors, darkened skin was a consequence perhaps of both sunshine and my heritage. Perhaps that is why my color was an ambiguously ethnic shade that caused compulsive pigeon-holers cognitive dissonance (“stereotypers” were of the future) and then blinking when I spoke mainstream English.
My nun was a small, ancient, not-warm-at-all sister in an Elizabeth Seton habit that smelled faintly of clean. She smiled best she could and asked my name. I told her Fernando Zepeda. She flipped to the last page, pondered and then asked, “Roman or Orthodox?” I asked sister to please repeat, which she did, this time with a stronger interrogatory tone: “Roman or Orthodox?” I answered that I was Mexican. She flustered momentarily and then passed me on to a counter where I was given some paperwork.
When I got home that afternoon my mother asked me about the first day of school and mentioned that Sister Mary X had called. Mom told me we were Roman Catholics and then she also explained Caucasian. Before that day I had been a plain dark kid in dusty shoes, albeit in Tia Concha’s white shirt.