Category Archives: culture

Just when I thought . . .

As I get older my mind and my heart want to tell me that we have come a long way from the early 60’s when the world was a much meaner and heartless place. No, I did not go to Selma, nor was I involved in the farm workers strikes, which even as a young kid showed me how less than perfect the world could be. But I did not have to be there to see the cruelty in the minds and hearts of people.

My mom raised my little brother and I as a single mom for a large part of my life. That sweet woman, a Mexican immigrant, worked harder than anyone I have ever known to provide a life for me and my little brother. She did this while having to answer the questions of people who would see us together and ask – “Where is those boys’ mother? Do you have permission to be out with them? Shouldn’t you be back at their home taking care of them until their mother gets home?”

You see, my brother and I were much lighter than my mom. These clueless people thought that our dear mother was the maid that was taking care of us. It never occurred to them that we belonged to her.

I was exposed to that sort of crap early on. We would walk to the park a block from our house and the Border Patrol would follow us. My mom would try to find a place for us to live and had to subject herself to claims that the place was rented once they saw she was “not like them.”

I have a vivid memory of being in first grade and my mom looking for a cheaper apartment for us to live. As we walked around the Sunset Heights area in El Paso, we encountered a sign that is clearly imprinted on my mind. I learned to read pretty early, even before starting school, and the sign clearly said “apartment for rent. No dogs or Mexicans allowed.”

You know, it was not until that time that I realized that people looked at us differently. Even though they called me the little gringito or “el pocho” when I visited my grandparents in Juarez, it didn’t affect me because I spoke the language, played the games, and fit in regardless of how “guero” I was.

So I carried this in my heart for a long time. Being in El Paso, which is predominately Hispanic, and going to a high school that was overwhelmingly Hispanic, this feeling of discrimination slowly started to fade away. Then one day, a sportscaster on an El Paso television station (Chip Taberski) called a football game between our school (Riverside) and our big rival (Ysleta) the “battle of illegal aliens.” Boom! the feeling was back.

After getting married to my high school girlfriend, we moved to Austin where I was finishing law school. We went to eat at a fast food joint, and in conversation another patron asked us if it was difficult being in a mixed marriage. My wife, a Mexican-American, and me (the half Mexican kid) were apparently considered an oddity to these people. He was quite surprised when I questioned his lineage in Spanish as we left the place.

I finished law school, moved to Laredo where I worked in a city where everyone, regardless of racial or ethnic background, spoke Spanish. We all got along, there was little to complain about in terms of disparate treatment. Naive as I was, I thought the tide had turned.

After a couple of years, we moved to El Paso. We looked for an apartment, and found a great and affordable place in the newspaper. We called, made an appointment to see it and showed up at the landlords house, which was the other side of the duplex. When she answered the door, she took one look at my wife and told us that the apartment had been rented. We told her that we had just called, but she insisted it had just been rented. When we returned home, we called back, and this time I talked to her on the phone. She was friendly as heck and insisted that we come right over and look at the place. After mentioning to her that we had just been there and been told that the place was rented, she quickly hung up.

Shall I go on? I could name you several times when this type of stuff has occurred in my life. Previous posts to this blog talk about many other experiences.

So why do I call this post “just when I thought . . . ?”

Probably because I had lulled myself into self delusion and thought that this sort of crap doesn’t happen anymore.
I thought that little by little we were approaching a society where blatant racism like that had gone away. Don’t get me wrong. Recent events in this country show that it is not all gone, just the contrary. But I really thought that the old plantation mentality had at least mellowed somewhat.

Then this showed up on my Facebook page.

http://www.latina.com/lifestyle/our-issues/austin-landlords-demolish-pinata-store-jumpolin-sxsw-party

I cannot recall having felt this amount of unfettered rage when I read about this. Roaches? Really?
Drug Dealers? Is that the best you can come up with?

This has set me back quite a bit. Quite frankly, it just pisses me off. All those memories of the stuff my mom went through, of the unfair treatment we received growing up, and the kind of junk that people talked about Mexicans not knowing that I am Mexican despite my last name came flooding up.

What a disappointment. I just have to work harder in my own little world to try to make sure my grandkids don’t ever see this. Good luck with that. OK, now I have partially vented. Discuss.

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Don’t let the last name fool you.

I cannot tell you the number of times that people have tried to classify my ethnicity by my last name.   In fact, I have blogged about this in the past.   My father was from Michigan, the son of parents that were half Canadian.  But since he was not a part of my life after the age of one or two, my upbringing was certainly influenced by my mother Evangelina and her parents – my grandmother Mauricia and my grandfather Arturo.

Since I am a first generation American on my mother’s side, and my abuelos spoke no English, it should come as no surprise that I learned Spanish early.  In fact, it was my primary language.  My mother, who had learned to speak passable English from living in the Mormon colonies in Mexico with my aunts, emphasized the importance of speaking English well since we would be living in the U.S.  As a result, i was bilingual from the time that I can remember having any conversations with others.

I started first grade at Vilas Elementary in El Paso in 1962.  There were no kindergarten programs at the  time, so we all started in first grade.    There was a boy in my class (Jorge) that spoke very little English, and my teacher Miss Wilson spoke no Spanish.  That certainly presented a problem to both Jorge and Miss Wilson.

During recess Jorge and I struck up a conversation in Spanish and quickly became buddies.  Miss Wilson noticed that we were talking and was shocked at my ability to communicate with him.   She loudly asked something to the effect “Randy Bullis!  How on earth did you learn to speak Spanish?”  Apparently when my mom had brought me to school that day she assumed my mom was the maid.  (which is an entirely different topic that I will address some time.)  Because my last name was Bullis she assumed I could not possible know Spanish.

Jorge and I were assigned to sit with each other for the school year and we worked together with me translating as we went.  By the end of the fall, he spoke English much better.  (Isn’t it amazing how quick kids pick up language skills?)

I never thought much of my ability to speak both languages, it was just part of who I was.   I spoke English at school and with some of my friends, I spoke both languages at home, and I spoke Spanish with my family in Juarez.

It came in handy a lot of times, and I know it saved me from harm at least one time.  My brother and I and some friends were at the little park near our house when a group of thugs approached us at the park.  I listened to them as they planned, in Spanish, to take the baseball equipment from us.   As they approached i was able to warn my brother and friends to run before they got to us.   They seemed confused about how we knew what they had been talking about until my brother stopped, turned to them, and yelled some choice words in Spanish.  I don’t remember what he said, I just know that once i reached over and grabbed him to keep running that I couldn’t help but laugh.

Fast forward a few years.  My mom met my Dad (not my father) and they quickly married.  My dad spoke no Spanish except for the naughty words that he had picked up here and there.  Because of that, we quit speaking Spanish at home.  During the mid to late 60’s there was a large push in the schools to prohibit speaking Spanish, so we pretty much quit speaking it at school too.   In a short time my ability to speak Spanish was almost gone.  I struggled to speak it well enough to still speak to my loving grandparents.

In high school I dated a  young woman that insisted that I speak Spanish when I could, especially since she spoke Spanish with her parents.  There would be times when she would only speak to me in Spanish and forced me to respond in Spanish as well.    Thanks to her I gradually started to regain my ability to speak it, although with an accent.  During our marriage it was common for us to speak Spanish, and we tried to make sure our daughters learned it as well.  Although we are no longer married, I am thankful that she made me embrace my culture and language.

My first job out of law school was in Laredo, Texas.  I was quite surprised when I moved there in 1981 that the city was quite Spanish oriented.  Everyone spoke Spanish.  It did not matter if your last name was Sanchez or Bullis, people spoke to you in Spanish assuming you knew the language.   It was there that i regained my familiarity with the language, to the point that I did presentations for the DA’s office at schools, PTA meetings, etc. in both English and Spanish.

I have shared the story before about the poor shocked criminal defendants who appeared before me as a night court judge and cursed me repeatedly in Spanish, only to have me start reading them their rights in Spanish. The look on their face was priceless.

Back in the days before databases and other software programs, the courts in El Paso used an old Rolodex to appoint attorneys to represent defendants.  If you were bilingual, you were in as a pink card.   If the defendant spoke no English they skipped to the next available pink card.  I was a pink card.  My ability to speak both languages helped me keep my law practice afloat.

I do not turn my back on my father’s heritage.  I embrace that part of my ancestry with no qualms.   But I was raised in a different culture and I love it.  It is who I am.

My stomach turns when people say that i should not identify myself as Hispanic, that I am an American first.  Really?  I can’t be both a proud American and embrace the culture that defines me?

in fact, I am quite surprised that in my adopted home town of San Antonio that more Hispanics don’t speak Spanish.   While they ostensibly accept the culture, they don’t speak the language.  I think that misses a huge part of what it’s all about.   So let me say this to the many persons who in the past were surprised by my ability to speak Spanish  – Don’t let the last name fool you.

Good, I got that off my chest.

 

 

 

 

Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them – a reflection on the death of a polarizing figure

I do not revel in the death of any human being.   I know that even those that we may “hate” or “dislike” have loved ones that would miss them if they were no longer around.  That having been said, I was reflecting today on the death of Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, known primarily for protesting at the funerals of our fallen soldiers.   At the risk of going against what I just said, I am glad that Mr. Phelps will no longer be around to be a major distraction with his homophobic, disrespectful, and outrageous comments and actions that he did “in the name of God.”

The damage this man has done is almost irreparable, not only because of the hurt he inflicted on so many people, but because of the stereotype that he perpetuates to others about the lives and beliefs of Christians.  There are way too many people who look at this man, who perverted the central message of Christianity for his own vain purposes, and assume that all Christians have the same tenets and beliefs.  He is no more a typical Christian than the sadistic terrorists of 9/11 are typical Muslims.

It pains me to see people paint with broad strokes based on what they may see one or two people doing.  Some people that know that I am heavily involved in the Boy Scouting program automatically assume that I am homophobic, when nothing can be farther from the truth.  People see my lovely daughter Erica and my son in law Shaun and assume that because they have tattoos and piercings that they certainly must be drug users.

I would be lying if I said that I have never jumped to these types of conclusions.  I may never had said this out loud, but the first time I saw Shaun with his Mohawk, and found out he played in a metal band, I instinctively said to myself – “Not with my daughter, you don’t.”    But I allowed myself the chance to know him, and he has been an absolute gem of a husband to my daughter.  I would not trade him for anyone else in the world.  I love that kid.

People who make snap judgments based on limited data don’t understand.  This is not what it is all about.  We all have different beliefs, values and tenets that guide our actions on a day to day basis.  You can disagree with my beliefs, but don’t categorize me as a hater because we don’t feel the same about politics, religion, music, sports, etc.   I value you for who you are, not for what you believe.   Admittedly sometimes as Christians we get a bit judgmental.    By the same token those who are not believers are just as guilty of being judgmental of those who profess a religious belief, thinking we are all looking down our noses at them.

So the death of this man takes away one target.  Unfortunately, many other are in line to take his place.  And this happens on both sides of the political and religious spectrum as well.  Some conservatives would freak out to know that I don’t believe that all liberals are like Bill Maher.  (by the way, I think he is the flip side of the coin to Phelps).   If he were to lose his audience, someone else would jump in his place and start making snap judgments and overly broad characterizations.

So what’s my point?  I was reading something important in Matthew in the New Testament the other day.  Whether or not you accept it as scripture, the lessons in Chapter 7 bear repeating.

. 1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.     (pretty straight forward, isn’t it?)

 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (some people call this karma)

. . . .

12 Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.  (We know it as the Golden Rule)

. . . .

and finally, when you get right down to it, this is what my point is:

 20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.  (Actions speak louder than words)

If we are going to talk the talk, then we need to walk the walk.  I hope that I can live my life by that adage.  In the end, I want to be known not for my worldly accomplishments, but as a good son, a caring brother, a faithful and loyal husband, a loyal friend, and a loving father and grandfather.     Can’t we all try to do this?

It should have never worked – a reflection on two very important lives.

It should have never worked.   She was a naturalized American citizen born in Campo Madera #2, Chihuahua, Mexico, with two little boys.  He was a former moonshiner from Cedartown, Georgia.

She came to the United States at an early age to work as a maid, married a soldier who left her alone while the boys were young, and worked a lot of hours at a hospital in El Paso to support her sons.

He ended up in El Paso after working several different jobs and a couple of marriages that had gone bad.

They met when he came over to her house to share Thanksgiving dinner with the family.  Apparently they had a mutual friend that got the two of them together.  Talk about a blind date.  Since she did not have a phone, he just showed up for dinner that night.    What could have been a rather awkward meal actually turned out rather well.   He came over the next night to take her out for dinner and made big brownie points with her sons when he brought over two model car kits for them to work on.  When they complained they did not know much about cars, he offered to take them to car dealerships on Saturday so they could see what the cars looked like.   That’s right; he dated her sons as well.   Took them to see cars and bought them cheeseburgers. Still, it came as a big surprise when they got married 3 ½ weeks after they met.

The marriage lasted 36 years, ending only when she passed away from a long struggle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  In those 36 years there were a lot of ups and downs.  They started off poor, as many young couples do, but worked their way up slowly to a rather comfortable position in life.  He retired from the railroad, she retired as a respiratory therapist.  They raised her kids together, and never once did he call them his stepsons.  They were always “his” boys.    To them he was always their dad, and they called him dad from the day they got married.

It wasn’t easy.  There was a rather wide difference in culture, upbringing, and religious backgrounds.  He was raised in a very dysfunctional family and trust was an issue for him.   That caused a lot of strife in the relationship, but they worked through it. Together they achieved a lot of their personal goals.   But then she got sick.

After several years of struggling with her disease, she passed away 12 years ago  on January 28th.  He clearly missed her after her passing.  His four years as a widower found him sad and confused.   He moved 700 miles from one side of Texas to the other side of the state to avoid seeing daily the things that reminded him of their life together.    Unfortunately it also left him far away from his sons.

He died alone on the back porch of his house; he was found 24 hours after he passed. I still remember the call that I got telling me that they had found my dad.  That happened eight years ago and I still miss him to this day.    My dad made a big impact on my life, and I miss sharing the details of my life with him.  He taught me a lot – mechanics and home repair, being a hard worker, and how to love your kids.   We did not always agree.  In fact, we argued a lot.   But we both knew we loved each other, and I am glad that the last words I said to him were “I love you Dad.”   Those words apparently came the night before he passed.

My mom was a huge influence in my life.  She taught me about love, about sacrifice, about love of country, and the need to get an education.   There is so much that I would love to share with her – my highs and my lows, my problems and my blessings.   I wish she were here to share the experiences in her life that always made a difference in how I looked at things.

It’s funny, most people thought that the relationship would never last.  They seemed such an odd couple.  But they had love for each other and shared that love with their boys. My brother and I will always be grateful.  I miss them both dearly.

He Chose to Love Us

He came to meet my mom on Thanksgiving Day.  He joined us for dinner, and afterwards he took my mom out on their first date. He came back on Friday and gave my brother and I both a model car kit for us to put together.   When we told him we did not  know much about cars (we were 10 and 8 at the time) he took us out on Saturday to have cheeseburgers and to go look at cars.

Less than a month after this set of events, he and my mom got married.  To this point we had been raised solely by my mom, with occasional help from my grandmother and grandfather.   My grandfather, who we called Papi, was the only male influence in our lives.

We asked him what he wanted us to call him, since he and my mom were married now.  He said we could call him Don.  We asked if it was OK if we called him Dad, and for the next 35 years he was our “Dad.”

People were often confused about our relationship.  We never called him our stepfather – he was our Dad.    He never talked about his stepkids, we were his “boys.”  So when they called him “Mr. Bullis”  or they thought we were the “Simpson” boys, we just shook it off and kept on going.

Life was not always easy with this new relationship.  At times we were quite downright ornery with him, and I regret that to this day.   While our friends played on Saturdays, we were fixing up used cars to resell or collecting scrap metal for extra money for the family.  We had chores to do everyday before my mom and dad got home.  We were not allowed to have the TV on during the day and had to keep ourselves busy. We had an old swimming pool in the backyard that needed to be torn down and filled in.  Guess who did it?  Yep, my brother and I.

So was he a tyrant?  As kids we thought so.  But when we change out a clutch in a car, rebuild our brakes, or do major repairs around the house now, we have him to thank for our acquired skills.  When I find myself working my rear end off on a project, I know I got my work ethic from him.

After my dad passed a way a few years ago my brother made an amazing statement.  I don’t remember the context, but he said that the most important thing that he learned from my dad was how to love.  What an awesome legacy.   And my brother was absolutely right.

You see, he did not have to love us.  He loved my mom, and we came with the package.  Too many step-parents don’t realize that much of what they see in their new spouse is the love that they have for their children.  My dad chose to love us.  He chose to call us his boys.  He chose be our dad.    And that is what he will always be to me.  My dad.  I had a biological father that I don’t really remember all that well since he left when I was less than two years old.  But my dad was there as I grew up, got married, and had a family of my own.

Today my dad would have been 80 years old.  I wish he was still around to see what my life has become.   I wish I could share with him the joy of being a grandpa.  I want to show him how I built my raised garden beds from the lumber of the deck that I tore down.  He probably would have shown me how to do it better, but I would have loved the feedback.

Three days from now will be Fathers Day.  I don’t need a special day to remember him.  He remains in my heart every day.    I miss you Dad.

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A life that made a difference

mom, art and meShe crossed the border from Juarez, Mexico to El Paso, Texas in a car with several friends. In the English she had learned while staying with her Aunts’ family in the Mormon Colonies in Mexico she declared “American Citizen” and she entered the country to begin a new adventure and a life that would touch many people down the line.

At that time, in the early 50’s her only real chance of finding work was as a babysitter/maid, which she found with Ms. Myers, a kind gentle lady that had a few kids. She washed, did some cooking, and cared for the kids while Ms. Myers worked and took care of other matters. Sometime down the line, she helped Ms. Myers put together a small party for some friends, and that is when he walked into her life. He was a young man from Michigan, stationed at Ft. Bliss for training, and the two of them generated some sort of spark. Before too long they went to Las Cruces, New Mexico and got married.

But life was not going to be the “Leave it to Beaver” fairy tale that you saw on TV. Shortly after giving birth to her son, he decided to leave her and go back to his first wife. He returned on occasion to see his son, and eventually, a second son was on his way. She never saw much of him after that. He returned to Michigan to his family and left her behind to raised two young boys on her own.

She worked hard, harder than anyone should have to work to feed their kids. Her mother and father helped as they could with a little bit of support and a lot of babysitting. The boys spent a lot of time in Juarez at their grandmother and grandfathers house while she worked. A friend of hers got her a job at Providence Memorial Hospital as a nurses aide. She had to convince a jeweler in downtown El Paso to let her may for a watch with a second hand by making payments. She needed that watch to be able to take pulses at work.

The boys grew and watched their mom come home tired, eat a small meal, and turn right back around to go back to work at the hospital for a second shift – a shift where she worked in maintenance mopping floors and cleaning up so that she could make a few extra bucks to take care of her kids. She never had much in those days, choosing to give most of what she had to her kids. On the rare occasion, she would take the boys to the Plaza Theatre downtown to watch a movie. Many times she would have to carry her boys from the bus stop back to their little apartment because they had fallen asleep on the bus on the way home.

There were a lot of obstacles at times. Even after gaining her citizenship, she was often stopped by Border Patrol and asked where she was going with those two little white boys. They did not believe that they were hers. Many men offered to “help” her with her situation, but always with strings attached that she could not, and would not accept.
Through it all she never complained, at least not to her boys. The husband that had left her alone never provided anything in terms of support, either financial or otherwise. The father figure in their lives was their grandfather, a man that was at the same time a strict disciplinarian but also a gentle soul. That husband would pass away in 1965 and the hopes of ever getting that assistance that she needed died right along with him.

She married again the following year, and her new husband treated her boys as his own. He moved them out of that little apartment into a house on the other side of the city, and he taught them the value of hard work and responsibility. Times were better, but raising two hungry growing boys required both of them to work, and often required side jobs on the weekend to provide a better life.

She taught her boys a lot of important principles – patriotism, honesty, faith, hard work, and a love of the culture from which she came. She raised them, with the help of her new husband, and sent them off into the world to live their lives as adults. It would be nice to think that she lived happily ever after, but that was not the case. Although she enjoyed a much more comfortable life and the joy of having grandkids, her health began to fail her. Two times she was diagnosed with cancer, and two times she fought back and beat it. When it came back for a third try she was just too tired and exhausted to fight it anymore. She told her loving husband and sons that she did not want to go through all the chemo and radiation again. She was at peace with her life and felt it was time to go. Eleven years ago, on January 28,, 2002 she finally gave up her battle and entered into an eternal peace.
She was a wonderful woman. She changed a lot of lives. She was a friend, a daughter, a wife, a grandmother, and my mom. I miss her terribly, even after these many years. I love you Mom.

What if you threw a funeral and nobody came?

December and January for some reason have become months of funerals and anniversaries of deaths of friends and family members. My dad passed away several years ago in December, my brother-in-law just passed this month, and at the end of the month my mom will have been gone for over a decade.

Funerals are a strange phenomena sometimes. You find family members getting together and repeating the same words they spoke at the last funeral – “We need to keep in touch!”, “Why do we wait so long to get together?” and “Why does it always take a funeral to bring us closer?” After the services, when the crying is done, the hugs are given and the reception food eaten, we go back to the same old routine and just ignore our family and friends. I am not being critical, I am just making an observation of things as I have seen them over the last few years.

A lot of time is spent at funerals talking about what a good person the deceased was in their life, and the difference that they made in people’s lives. Some people call it a person’s legacy. At a few of the funerals I helped put together video tributes to the loved one that helps bring back some great memories. It got me to thinking, what is my legacy going to be? What difference have I made in people’s lives? If they held my funeral would they need a larger facility or could they hold it in a closet sized room?

I kid with my wife and kids that I already have the songs I want played at my memorial. My choices? “Happy Cause I’m Going Home” by Chicago, and Israel Kamakiwiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow”. I know that this my be a bit cliché, but it’s what I want and expresses what my thoughts. My son Sam, who is only 21 has already told us he wants “American Pie” played at his funeral. Don’t know why, but that is what he chose and I respect that.

I have had the opportunity to teach over the last 10 years, and several of my students keep in contact with me to let me know what is going on in their lives. I hope that somehow I left a footprint in their lives somewhere. My very first Eagle Scout as a Scoutmaster surprised me a few years ago when he caught me at DFW Airport and yelled out my name. He gave me a belated thanks for helping him through his Eagle project and application. He said it helped him get his current job as an engineer. Since that time 30+ years ago I have helped several others out as well.

A lot of people, especially Molly, my wife, tell me that I have a hard time saying no. Volunteering to do things just seems to be a part of what I do and who I am. My former boss, who was the mayor of Laredo, Texas when I was an assistant City Attorney there, once told me that I should be glad that I was not a woman. When I asked him why, he said that if I was a woman I would always be pregnant because I did not know how to say “no.” A bit crude, I know, but he was trying to make a point. When my daughters were in Choir I couldn’t just be a part of the booster club, I had to volunteer to be president. I couldn’t just go to the Homeowners Association meetings, I had to run to be on the board.

This is not a “hey look at how great I am” type of story. The thought of who would take time to remember me isn’t a huge part of my thoughts on a daily basis, but you can’t help but wonder–how will people remember me? During a professional development meeting one day we were asked to state what it was that we would like to see on our tombstone. Being the smart aleck that I tend to be, my immediate response was “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.” It got a few laughs, but I was floored by the thoughtful response of one of my colleagues. He said he wanted it to say, “he was a good husband and father”.

Wow. That summed it all up in just a few words. That is what I want my legacy to be – a good husband and father (and by extension grandfather as well). I need to spend the rest of my life living up to that legacy. If no one but my family came to my funeral, I would be ok with it. Family should be the emphasis and focus in my life. Time to make it happen.