An Angel That Needed a Cig

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Cottonwood Tree at Cooley Elementary School

Ever experience the feelings of frustration and defeat when others cannot, and do not, understand what you are trying to convey? The inability to communicate clearly and be truly understood has been and continues to be Teresita’s paramount anxiety since crossing the border. You know.., learning to play that popular and amusing game of charades, NOT!

As much as Huck Finn continues to be misunderstood, Teresita battled linguistics and communication so much a nemesis to this eight-year-old immigrant that now is a passion for an adult professional, incessantly attempting to learn from the discipline.

The experience of this anxiety was, yet again, the need to go home. The hindrance of the English language and the mental refusal to learn it engendered Teresita’s anguish and rage. Her parents were still in the process of fully transitioning to the US. There were early morning and long treks every weekday to attend school. The car lines at El Puente Libre, the Bridge of the Americas, to cross from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso were permanently LONG. It gave Teresita’s older sister and her enough time to practice saying “Uh-meh-rih-kuhn” without a Spanish accent once at the Border Patrol booth. The return home, after school, was much simpler and happier…, no lines!

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El Puente Libre, US-México Border

Living in México and attending school in the US, Teresita’s mamá applied for the family’s US permanent residency. Papá had the task of school drop off and pick up. Teresita’s maternal abuelos already had their US documentation and had a small home just north of El Puente Libre, though, without a car. The school was just northeast of the bridge, not within walking distance of abuelita’s home. For most of the school year, the trek al Norte ran smoothly, as it does for many to this day. It made for long days, however, it worked.

Except, one day. Since Teresita was two grades behind her older sister, her school day was shorter, picked up first, and taken to abuelita’s house to wait for her sister. On this unforgettable day, papá was unusually late. Teresita waited at the agreed spot for what seemed like hours, under the shade of a small Río Grande Cottonwood tree, newly planted that year in the northwest corner of the school traffic intersection. Perhaps the perfect day to practice the art of people watching.

It wasn’t uncommon for papá to be late, there was one sure bet about crossing El Puente Libre, its unpredictability. It was a hot, arid desert afternoon, other than cars, tumbleweeds rolled across the road. Then, a white male in a massive 4-door ’70s sedan was exiting the school parking lot and noticed Teresita under the school tree, crisscross applesauce. It could have been a parent, a teacher, someone with business at the school, who knows? Anyway, he stopped, rolled down the window and asked her something. What? “Yo no sé.”

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Rolling Tumbleweeds in Traffic

A parent’s worst nightmare, Teresita gets into the car. She figured out, with her limited English comprehension, that this nice man was a principal or assistant principal, or some sort of school leader, going out to purchase a pack of cigarettes. He had asked her who she was waiting for, where she lived, and if she knew how to get to her house? All she knew was that this teacher-man had a nice car and was offering a ride home. And all she wanted was to get home. Did she know how to get to abuelita’s house, yeah, sure…, kinda. How hard could it be to give this teacher-man directions, even if you didn’t know English?

So, there they go, that way, pointing.

“East?” teacher-man asks.

Jehs, eest,” Teresita answers.

Now here’s where it got tricky. There are many bridges, overpasses, and flyovers in the bustling border town of Old El Paso, especially close to the major border bridge. So, when it came to a Y junction in the road, Teresita did not know how to tell the teacher-man to “stay in the left lane.” First, the difference between the prepositions “in” and “on” is just impossible to comprehend for a Spanish speaker. Second, the lesson on left versus right had yet to be covered. ¡Chin!

There they go to the right of the junction and Teresita started to sweat. Sitting in the front passenger seat, she tried to stretch her neck out as far as possible, looking left to see if she could see down the cross streets and figure out how to get to the road that they needed to be on to get to abuelita’s house. The teacher-man started to get suspicious that Teresita had no clue where she was or where she was leading them. ¡Doble chin!

He finally gave up, stopped at a gas station, purchased his cigs, and lighting one up began the return to the school campus. Frustrated and defeated, Teresita’s heart sank, sweaty and angry that she could not make this teacher-man understand her, that giving up was not an option, that she DID know how to get home, to drop her off now, she could walk the rest of the way. Cue the anxiety.

Upon returning to the school office, teacher-man found a flustered paternal abuela, nearly yelling at the receptionist to find her grandchild! ¡Chin! Teresita knew she was in real trouble now, if only she had a good hiding place, just like her friend, Tomás (Sawyer).

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©️ Teresa Carbajal Ravet

El Norte

Written by

Chief Culturist at Sententia Vera, LLC | Cultural Bilingual Communication | Mothering 5 Bicultural Souls

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