Part I: From Laredo Texas to San Diego
By Maria E. Garcia
Rosalia describes herself as lucky. She grew up in Laredo, Texas, the daughter of hardworking parents. She says her father Octavio was the hardest working man she has ever met. Her mother Alicia, who loved music and sincerely enjoyed meeting people, had an “anything is possible” attitude. Ocatvio was born in Mexico and Alicia was born in Michigan to a mother who had also been born in the United States.
Rosalia’s mother faced tremendous economic challenges. Her maternal grandfather Celestino left Texas before 1920 and moved to Detroit Michigan in search of a better livelihood. Celestino was born in Saltillo, and while living in Texas, worked as a shoe repair man. When the word spread all over the country that the Ford Motor company was hiring, Celestino, like many other Mexicanos, moved north in search of a better life. At work, Celestino seldom spoke English out of fear that they would soon discover how little English he really did speak. Alicia dropped out of school to work and help support her family.
Rosalia’s parents moved to Laredo, Texas. Her father Octavio, like many other Laredoans, had roots in Candela, Mexico. At the age of fourteen he was in Laredo where he bought his first goat and then turned around and sold it. This would eventually become a large enterprise, but in the early years it was the livelihood for a young boy.
Laredo during the 1940s was a small town and around ninety percent of the population was Mexican. Some of the families could trace their history for two hundred years. Rosalia remembers that everyone spoke Spanish, even the Anglos. The drive-in theater had two movie screens, one for the English movies and the other for the Spanish movies. This was the Laredo Rosalia would grow up in, a place where speaking Spanish was the norm not the exception.
At that time in Texas there was no kindergarten class so her parents decided to send her to a maestra down the street to learn to read in Spanish. These were not official schools, but they provided their little students the opportunity to learn to read. She cannot remember books in Spanish and says that overall, there was not a lot of reading material in her home. Even at that young age Rosalia does remember reading letters in Spanish that came from relatives in Mexico.
Rosalia entered first grade as a non-English speaker. Rosalia will tell you that the crucial intervention of learning to read in in her first language gave her a head start when it came to tackling English reading. She will proudly tell you that this experience opened up a whole new world for her.
As a young girl she did visit an aunt in Candela, Mexico. She remembers that she went by train and then transferred to a wagon. In the early 1950s, Candela was a typical dusty little Mexican town with outside plumbing and bathing in the seca in the back of the house. Candela seemed like a distant world, but in reality it was only a few hours away.
From third through twelfth grade, Rosalia attended an all-girls Catholic School. She describes it as having both advantages and disadvantages. Ursuline Academy provided the girls with excellent leadership skills; however, it did not provide full access to a full curriculum or offer career counseling. She describes some of the philosophy as Catholic-oriented which reinforced that way of life.
In Texas, Latinos used to identify themselves as Latin American or as Spanish. Rosalia went home and asked her father if they were Spanish. Her father said that those that had come from Spain were Spanish, but that most of those people had been running from something and that she was better off being a Mexican.
She also remembered her grandmother Porferia saying that there was more than one side to history and that THEY don’t tell you everything. Rosalia was in 6th grade and they were studying the Alamo. Grandma pointed out that Santa Ana only had a few men and they would change their clothes to give the impression that there were more men then there actually were.
Rosalia attended the University of Texas (UT) at Austin and says she could feel the racism there. In Laredo, you knew everyone in town regardless of their economic status. Austin was a much bigger environment. At UT, she joined the Laredo Club, a social entity, which helped her with the transition from a small town to a college campus. She says the club taught her how to survive.
The racism in Austin and at UT was very evident. She remembers a woman who ran the rooming house reviewing a letter trying to evaluate if the letter had been written by a Black or White person. She said something to Rosalia, asking her if she could tell the race of the woman. Rosalia’s reaction was to tell her there was no way she could know. Rosalia says she had a knot in her stomach listening to the comments made by the women. She also says that at that point she had not yet found her voice.
It was at UT that she first heard Stokely Carmichael who would influence her thinking and begin her transformation to an activist and ultimately a Chicana. She recalls a group of young men circling the building where Stokely was speaking. They were honking their horns in an attempt to disrupt his speech. Rosalia understood that there was a need for change.
At this point in her life Rosalia is becoming more aware of discrimination and some of the obstacles her father had to face. Rosalia says her father always spoke Spanish at home. One day Mr. Salinas was on the phone speaking in English with a businessman about a piece of land he wanted to purchase. Mr. Salinas not only had a Spanish accent when speaking English, but also had a Texas drawl. The man on the phone refused to sell the land to Mr. Salinas. When he got off the phone Rosalia made the comment to her dad that the refusal to sell the land was because they are racist. Her father responded with. “Yes, they are.” As a rule, Mr. Salinas never spoke of any discrimination he faced in the community.
After her graduation from the University of Texas she was hired to teach in New York. Rosalias’ move to New York was an adventure for her but very difficult for her parents. Although Rosalia was the daughter of a businessman, she had not been encouraged to consider business as a career. Her three brothers had all gone into business with her father. When she announced she was planning to move to New York, her father, in an effort to keep her in Laredo, told her she could go into the family business, but her choice had been made.
Rosalia’s teaching assignment was on Long Island at a lower middle class white school. There were two populations, working class Italians and middle class Anglos and Jews. The Italian students were pushed to non-academic classes and the Anglo and Jewish students were pushed to academic classes. The non-academic students would not receive a regent’s diploma. Rosalia appealed to the administration to permit non-academic students to participate in the language class. Her comment was that language learning should not be limited to only one group.
While in New York, Rosalia started hearing about the Chicano movement in California. She found herself wanting to work with kids that had her same background. She also had two bouts with pneumonia and was advised by her doctor to move to some place like Arizona. She returned to Laredo for a year. In Laredo, she became very aware of the depth of poverty that existed there and that she wanted to learn more about Chicanismo.
Rosalia also started looking for schools that had Chicano Studies. Her search turned up San Diego State which had a Chicano studies program. Her next stop would be San Diego. She was interested in enrolling in the Master’s program and with the help of faculty member Gus Segade, she was able to enroll. Gus had to call Sacramento to make sure she would be allowed to enroll since it was already late registration. To this day, she says if it was not for Gus’s efforts, she would not have been allowed to enter the master’s program.
Rosalia did not have a California teaching credential but needed to find employment to support herself. Her first stop was Chula Vista. At the counter in the Human Resources office she was told they had nothing. She had hoped to find a job as an instructional aide. In retrospect, it is very clear to Rosalia that Chula Vista did not want to hire this young Chicana from Texas. She found a job as an instructional aide at Gompers Middle School. Her primary duties were to assist with testing.
Rosalia attended an Association of Mexican American Educators (AMAE) party at Petra Glenn’s house. There were students at the party from San Diego State and Morse High School. This interaction resulted in Rosalia teaching one period of Chicano Studies at Morse. The students met on Saturday and wrote what they wanted in a Chicano Studies teacher. This party not only introduced her to the educational community, but enabled her to become involved with the students. Rosalia remembers a Samoan minister that was very unhappy with her because she was encouraging the girls to further their education. There was soon a full time Chicano Studies teacher at Morse and Rosalia moved to Lincoln.
In 1972, Rosalia is teaching Chicano Studies and U.S. History at Lincoln. Chicano Studies was a rather new subject and there was some flexibility in the materials that were used to teach the class. One of her choices for a textbook was “Occupied America” by Rudy Acuña, as well as some of the writing of Ernesto Galarza. Both authors are highly respected in the Latino community and opened new avenues for the students. Rosalia remembers two visitors that came to her class to see what she was teaching. One was the poet/activist Alurista and the other was MEChA student and Chicana Sonia Lopez. In part, her goal was to teach that The Movement was important and so was getting an education.
While teaching these classes she also taught teatro and baile folklorico. She is quick to say that the students were the real teachers and she was merely a supervisor. As she puts it, the students were the ones with the talent. That year the students were able to put a big program together to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
Next week’s Part II of Rosalia Salinas’ story examines the way that bi-lingual education became the focus of Rosalia’s efforts as an educator and shaped the evolution of the Chicano movement.