Monthly Archives: August 2012

My life will never be the same

Anyone that has ever asked me about my fears in life know that I have two things that just scare me to death: 

1.  Snakes.  Hate em.  Despise them.  Unnaturally afraid of them.  Even the little cute garden snakes.

2.  Burning up in a fire.  Not sure where this came from, but it has always been hard for me to deal with this idea.   I once had to take a deposition from an elderly woman that had fallen back into a bucket of hot tar that a roofer was using at her home.   She was not where she was supposed to be and got seriously burned.   I represented the roofer in the lawsuit she filed for damages.  The details of burn therapy that I learned from her and her plastic surgeon that I also deposed were enough to  make my skin crawl.

So where am I going with this?  Last Friday I was asked to  help drive a van to Houston and Galveston for a group of our students.   It was a combined activity for the Legal Club and the Medical Club.   Our first stop was the Johnson Space Center.   Man, that was fun for a science/space geek like myself.    Saw Mission Control, a mock-up of the International Space Station, toured  Rocket Park.  Just plain neat.

The second part of the trip involved a short drive to Galveston and the Shriners’ Hospital for Children, specifically the burn unit.   You can already see what my concern might be – it is a burn unit.    What made it worse was that it was kids.   The day we were there a 17 month old baby was in ICU because of burns.   The others ranged from 2 years to 17 years old.

 I wasn’t sure what to expect when we drove up to the beautiful building.  As we arrived there was a van loading several patients, many of them still bandaged or wearing those compression garments.    And they were smiling.  Not a forced grin like we see sometimes when they are trying to be brave, but a heart warming , open-hearted smile that would brighten up any day.

That’s when I realized that this was not going to be the trip that I expected.  I expected to see a lot of miserable, suffering, unhappy kids – in pain and wondering what they had done to deserve their fate.  I am sure they all had their moments, but on this afternoon they were smiling. 

The medical staff at the hospital are amazing.  They answered all the questions our students had, talked about the whole healing process at the hospital and encouraged every one of them to study and maximize their potential.  It quickly became apparent that the positive attitude that the kids showed started with these wonderful staff members.  The one piece of advice they gave us was that when we went into the burn ward – “Look them in the eye and smile.”

So after the little introductory session, 36 students and faculty took a trip back to “safe room”, the area where no medical intervention was allowed (except for emergencies).  It was a place for them just to have fun watching movies, playing video games (they kicked my butt), shooting pool or doing arts and crafts.  The parents sat with them and enjoyed the activities as well.  Many of them learned to knit and crochet to pass the time.

That’s when the hard work began.  I met Gustavo*, a 3-year-old that was badly burned in a home fire and was wearing a compression mask on his face.  I looked at his eyes, stuck out my hand and smiled.  He took my hand, smiled, and crawled into my heart.    Angelita*, another 3-year-old, had been badly burned when she and her siblings were playing with matches in their home in Mexico.  The horrible scarring on her face and arms could not hide the beautiful eyes that looked back at me – while I smiled. 

A large majority of the patients were from Mexico, where treatment like they receive at Shriners is nothing more than a pipe dream.  They were much more comfortable when I spoke back to them in Spanish.    Gustavo told me when I spoke to him in Spanish “I thought you were a Gringo!”  We played games, shared gifts with them and they took pictures with us.  One of our students is Mrs. Central Texas and she dressed in her gown with her crown and they just loved it.  She signed autographs for them and took a lot of pictures as well. 

About 45 minutes into the gathering I felt a compelling urge to leave.  I flat-out was about to lose it.  One of the volunteers pulled me aside and assured me that it was ok.  It was not that I was too macho to cry, I cry all the time.  The thing was that I did not want to make them feel like my tears were because I felt sorry for them, because I didn’t. 

 Nonetheless I went to the downstairs lounge and let the tears flow.  I called my wife and told her my heart was breaking.    I am not sure why I told her that.  Maybe it was that I was so grateful that I could look in the mirror each morning without suffering that these kids must have gone through.  Maybe it was my relief that my children and grandchildren are safe and healthy.  Or maybe, just maybe, it was that I too often complain about things that are trivial when compared to what these kids and their parents had gone through. 

When I left I had resolved that I was not going to go back up, but I did, and I am ever so grateful that I did.  If I had not, I would have missed the hugs that they wanted to share with us.  I would have missed seeing the parents smile at the small gifts that we brought the children that made their eyes light up.  I would have missed seeing the little boy in the wheelchair smile the biggest smile when he got to take his picture with the beauty queen. 

The purpose of the trip was to get our students some exposure to the realities of their field of study, and to make them aware of someone other than themselves.  The trip accomplished that with no doubt.  What I did not expect was the impact it had on my life and my outlook.  I am ever so blessed to have the life that I have.  If I complain about my lot in life now, someone needs to kick me hard in the rear end.





You are not Mexican!!

Those words still ring in my ears when I think of the incident. It was Fall of 1979, and I had volunteered to run the sound board for a lecture presentation sponsored by the Chicano Law Students Association. I was invited by a high school classmate that was also attending Law School at the University of Texas School of Law.

When introduced  to all the other law students at the meeting it was for the most part a rather pleasant experience. One of the students, however, was in a belligerent mood. He asked me if it was true that I had received the New Century Fund scholarship to attend school and I acknowledge that I had. “That is supposed to be for Mexican American students, isn’t it?” My answer was that it was.

Then it came. “You aren’t Mexican! The scholarship should go to a Mexican American student, and with a name like Bullis you obviously don’t qualify.” The words really stung because it had never occurred to me that I wasn’t. I countered with the fact that my mom was born in Mexico and that I was a first generation American on her side of the family. I asked him how long ago his parents had come to the US and he said that it didn’t matter. My last name was Bullis and there was no way I could be Mexican.

So I asked him. If my father had been the Rivera and my mother the Bullis then would you question my scholarship? He said “of course not.” At that point I realized I was in a battle of wits with an unarmed man. I wish I had responded with something other than “Eres pendejo”, which loosely translates to “you are an idiot.’

I have fought this battle for most of my life. To my father’s family, who I rarely ever saw and have never really met, I was the little Mexican kid. To a lot of my family in Juarez, I was the little gringo or “pocho.’ When registering for classes at UTEP I was called back by one of the registrars.   She told me I made a mistake on my classification because I had checked off that I was Hispanic (or Chicano or Mexican_American or whatever the term that was used back then.)    I  remember a line in the movie “Selena” where the Selena’s father, played by Edward James Olmos”, said something to the effect that as a Tejano he was not American enough for Americans and not Mexican enough for Mexicans. I totally relate.

So the question is – what am I?  My answer is I am what I feel that I am, and if I don’t meet the image or stereotype of my ethnicity  that you have in your mind, then too damn bad.

I was raised by a single Mexican immigrant mom whose husband abandoned her and her two kids when I was very young. Since I spend a huge amount of time in Juarez with my grandparents, my primary language was Spanish. My grandfather, Arturo Rivera was my father figure. My grandmother, Mauricia Carrasco was my caretaker, morals instructor, and the director of culinary arts in our household.  From the time that I was a little boy I was fascinated with Aztec history and I have continued that love to this day.

People stare at me at times because I use my tortilla as a fork to scoop up my food.  I still find myself switching from English to Spanish to English in the same sentence when I speak to my wife or my kids.   My mom treated me with the various Mexican medical remedies that I wrote about earlier.  So am I Mexican?    Maybe not by citizenship.   I am an American, and a darn proud one at that.  But my soul is as Mexican as it can be.

It has been a struggle at times.   When my mom married my dad my when I was 10 years old, we were not allowed to speak Spanish at home because my dad did not speak the language.    It got so bad that after a couple of years I had forgotten most of my Spanish and I could hardly carry on a conversation with my grandparents.  I would get angry at my friends when they spoke Spanish to me because I lacked confidence to speak what at one time had been my native tongue.  My girlfriend at the time encourage me to connect to my roots and embrace the culture.  By the time I got to college I not only had relearned the language, I was actually a proud member of Macuil Xotchil, the UTEP ballet folklorico.    I  no longer got embarrassed when my friends spoke Spanish to me.   I will always be grateful to that girlfriend, who later became my wife and mother of my children.  We always wanted to make sure where they came from.

I have bad memories of my mom and us being followed by Border Patrol as she walked us to the park in Sunset Heights in El Paso.    They just could not believe that those two little white kids belonged to her and that she was not just the maid.   They looked at us with surprise when we spoke to our mother in Spanish.

It makes me mad that people assume that because my name is obviously Anglo and I am light-skinned that I don’t speak Spanish.   Many a person regretted that mistake when they appeared before me when I was a Night Court Judge and proceeded to call me all sorts of names in Spanish assuming that I would not understand.  They were sure surprised when I read them their rights in Spanish.    More than one student has been quite shocked when I answered their disrespectful remark with a response in Spanish.   Don’t judge this book by its light-colored cover

My daughter Erica and her hubby Shaun just finished a one year trip through Mexico, Central America, and a large part of South America.   No one could have been prouder to see her also reach out and embrace the wonderful culture, traditions, and beauty of her ancestors.   It is important to me to make sure that my children understand an important part of what makes their father tick.

This is not a story about labels.  A label is nothing more than that.  Call me a Martian if you want, but it does not change who I am.  Did that jerk in law school have a right to question my ancestry?   Of course not.  Should the college clerk have questioned my answer on the form?  Not at all.    As long as I am comfortable with who I am, where I come from, and what made me who I am, then the label is not important.

But to answer the question that poor deluded law student asked –  damn right I’m Mexican.