Tuesday, May 18, 2010
She is the 3rd youngest of a family of 12 who grew up just south of the US/Mexico border in San Luis, Sonora. I figured hers was a typical Mexican immigrant story since I knew her siblings were also on this side of the border following the crop harvesting seasons up and down California and into Washington. I knew a little about that having heard stories from my own mom who picked cotton in Manteca, CA—a town named after lard which I always found funny.
The dorms we lived in were suites in a seven-story building called Fluor Tower which is shaped like the letter H. She was on one foot of the H and I on the other. I’d often go visit her suite to chat with the other girls my age. The older girls there and guys across the hall would hang out together and treat us younger ones like the bratty little siblings they tolerated. Alma was older but always mingled with everyone. She’s the kind of person that will ask you very personal questions upon meeting and make you willingly answer them in full detail. Some of the younger, more reserved girls were intimidated by her because she would sing at top of her lungs the most ranchera songs you can think of and would walk around in her underwear as if she were fully clothed--- probably because privacy was a luxury in a large family such as hers. I found her gutsy. I, too, was reserved and self-conscious but I longed to be out-going and fearless like Alma. I could be more myself among all these new people in my world. We became fast friends especially because she was one of the few who owned a car that she let me borrow, a burgundy Beretta. Fascinated by that, I asked her how she came to own a car (granted I was an underprivileged 18 year old). The story, if I recall correctly, was that someone in a store parking lot in San Luis wanted her previous car (a much sought-after Buick Regal with sunroof) so she sold it to the guy on the spot and called a taxi to take her home, then bought the Beretta. It blew my mind that she actually owned a car previously and would do something so bold as to negotiate a sale price on the spot to some random stranger, a man, and then call a taxi to take her home. That is just not done by a young lady I thought. I would have told the guy to talk to my dad and buzz off. But still, Alma was my new idol.
We didn’t live together again until my junior year at ‘SC. She was a senior. We lived in a mouse- and ant- infested adorable three bedroom quadra-plex with hardwood floors just off-campus. My bedroom was in the back next to the restroom. Every time she showered, I’d get her best rendition of Libro Abrieto a boca-abierta, at the top of her lungs. The song goes like this:
Dicen de mi
que yo he sido un libro abierto
Donde mucha gente ha escrito
no hagas caso, nada es cierto.
En blanco esta
nadie supo escribir nada
no dejaron ni una huella
nadie le importaba nada.
Me importas tu
tu si escribes muy bonito
para ti soy libro abierto
escribe en mi, te necesito.
Los Cadetes de Linares, Libro Abierto
“People say that I am an open book where many have written. Don’t listen to them. It’s not true. The pages are blank. No one wrote a thing nor left a mark. No one cared at all. You are important to me. For you, I am an open book. Write in me. I need you.”
And in fact, Alma is an open book. She will tell you everything about her life and bring you into it. She should write a book. Her life has had many twists and turns that I will try my best to convey and fail miserably to describe them in this story. Being a girl and one of the youngest in her family, she wasn’t expected or even allowed to get an education. A little bit of high school was acceptable but after that, it was off to the baby factory. Alma had other plans. Defying her father’s orders, she ran away and crossed the border into Yuma, Arizona. There she found a tiny trailer to live in and enrolled in the local community college’s English-as-a-second-language program. After six months, she was able to speak the language and enrolled in more courses. Meanwhile, the rest of her family moved up and down the states following the crops. Some settled in Central California in small towns like Tulare and others stayed closer to home on both sides of the border. She remembers riding in a truck on their way up north passing through downtown Los Angeles and admiring the monstrous buildings. Looking up, she’d stare at the Arco building and would say to herself, “One day, I will work there.” Reaching out to her youngest sister, Ruth, Alma was determined to make a better life for her too. Ruth moved in with Alma and was sent to finish high school. Less than 2 years after running away, Alma was accepted into the business school at USC. She was well on her way to a high-rise office in downtown LA.
While at USC, Alma and I were active in student organizations planning events, taking on leadership positions, and leading active student lives. We took a memorable Christmas vacation to Mexico City and Morelia, Mexico on a cultural exchange program. She’d take me along to visit her family in Arizona and Tulare or south to San Diego where Ruth was then enrolled at UCSD. Aside from an active student life, Alma was an over-achiever winning every single scholarship she ever applied to. She was selected to be part of President Steven Sample’s leadership seminar which was by invitation only. I remember her telling me about how he took 15-minute power naps during the day and how carrying the perfect sophisticated pen to job interviews would land you the job. She studied endless hours and entered the School of Accounting, one of the hardest degrees to pursue at USC. Leave it to Alma to choose the most-challenging track. Why . . . because she was determined to prove herself to everyone. Prove that she could be more than a farm worker or baby factory. Prove that she could learn English and get accepted to USC and graduate at the top of her class. It wasn’t easy but she did it. At career day, Alma marched strait to the Arco booth on campus and signed up. To no one’s surprise, she got the job working in a high rise building in downtown LA.
Soon after, Alma was pregnant. It was a special time in her life. She had come a long way from San Luis, Sonora, had the career she dreamed about, and was in a relationship with a man who was equally as inspiring. Ramiro was a dentist. He was several years her senior but just as much of a go-getter as Alma. Together they helped his practice thrive and led the Latin American Dental Association for several years. Ramsey was born and all was well in the world. Alma and Ramiro wanted the best for their newborn and bought every single educational apparatus, CD, book, DVD, flash cards, you name it for the boy. At just a few months, he was responding and enjoying all the education mom and dad provided until one day, when Alma noticed her baby boy stopped responding to the stimulating exercises he was so good at. Not missing a beat, she rushed him to the doctor and the diagnosis came down: Autism. Alma and Ramiro were devastated. How could this happen? Was it a result of all those years surrounded by harmful chemicals in the fields? Was it because of Ramiro’s advanced age? Vaccines? Sadly, the cause was not and is still not known. The fact remained that Ramsey was going to be developmentally challenged. Therapy and doctor visits consumed the couple from then on out. There was so much to do that Alma gave up her dream job and stayed home to take care of Ramsey.
Life resumed a rhythm for Alma shuttling Ramsey around and helping Ramiro with his business and advocacy to allow foreign-trained dentists to practice in the US. Mixers, fundraisers, and hobnobbing with politicians kept the couple active. Perhaps giving up accounting wasn’t so bad. The perks of a corporate job were great but family and activism were pretty fulfilling as well. Nothing could stop them until one day, Ramiro could not get out of bed. My then fiancé, called me at work saying Ramiro called in sick that day. His appointment was earlier that morning. Concerned I called Alma and didn’t hear back. Several weeks passed by until I got the call. Cancer. Ramiro was diagnosed with stomach cancer and had 11 months to live. They had been in and out of the hospital, seeing doctor after doctor, preparing his final will and testament, making sure Alma and Ramsey would be ok after he was gone, and finally, got married in a small ceremony. Ramiro passed a week or so after the atrocities of September 11, 2001. Ramsey was 3 years old. Alma and the nation were in mourning and I was getting married. On my wedding day, that following February, my dear friend Alma made an appearance. She was full of smiles and good cheer for me but I could tell in the gleam of her eyes that she was devastated. Nevertheless, she was there for me.
Today, Ramsey is 12 years old and thriving. She has dedicated this chapter in her life to him. She has yet to remarry or date for that matter. She lives up in the hills of Monterey Park, CA shuttling Ramsey to and from school, therapy, and counseling sessions. She runs an apartment complex left to her by Ramiro where you may find her rolling a splash of paint across the walls (because it’s cheaper to do it herself) or ordering new stoves for units. During the holidays, she jumps in her fire-engine red truck and jets off to San Luis with Ramsey to visit her ailing mother. Her father passed away a few years ago. They had made their peace before then and I’m certain that he along with the rest of her family, and everyone else that has come into contact with Alma, are very proud of her achievements. But it is not in the achievements she has attained that inspire me, it’s her resilience against the knocks and punches life has dealt her along the way. She keeps getting back up and fighting back. Her favorite quote in college was “el que persevera, alcanza” or “he who perseveres, achieves”. It’s a motto she has passed along to me, her sisters, and her nieces who are now attending prestigious universities. You may not be able to spot Alma in a crowd or at the grocery store and perhaps the same is true for any woman you may encounter in public. She may be your neighbor or you very own mother or even your college roommate who bears a story so inspirational that you decide to write about it and tell the world how amazing she is.