Both my parents were born and raised in Mexico. After they married, they moved to Oakland, California, where they raised five children, two girls and three boys. I was the youngest. We lived in Oakland. My father couldn’t speak English and had a hard time finding jobs. He took whatever job was available. We were poor but happy. I remember waking up in the morning and hearing my mother singing in the kitchen all the old Mexican songs like Cielito Lindo, La Cucaracha, and Rancho Grande while cooking breakfast; she loved to sing and had a very pleasant voice. To this day, when I hear these songs, I remember her singing in the kitchen.
Whenever we kids had an argument, my mother would settle it for us and make us hug each other, and all would be fine. My mother was a happy woman and she loved hugs.
One morning I woke up and everybody was in the bedroom and my mother was lying on the bed. The entire family was around her; my mother had passed. I’ll never forget that day. I was eight years old. From that day on, our whole life changed. My father lost his job and started drinking, but he always managed to find another job. He worked hard and was a good worker. When the girls got old enough to get jobs, they moved out. Then my father and we three brothers weren’t eating right. As soon as my older brother turned eighteen, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Two years later, my other brother turned eighteen and enlisted in the U.S. Marines. Now it was just my father and I. At night, my father would fall asleep on the couch with the radio turned up loud to a Spanish station. If I turned the radio down, he would wake up and get mad. Having nothing to do, I would go out and walk around the streets. I remember as I was walking down the sidewalk, I could see families in their houses all together and thinking how lucky some people are. Then I would return to my house, which would be dark. And I would feel lonely again.
I never excelled in school. I didn’t have to worry about my report card because my father never asked for it, so I would just sign it myself. As a result, I didn’t study at all and frequently played hookey (skipped school) with a friend. My grades were very poor.
My older sister found out about my living conditions and went through the court system to legally adopt me; she became my custodian. I went to live with her and her husband. While I lived with them, I learned a lot of important things, such as how to conduct myself in public, dress properly, use good manners, and speak properly. I learned that people judge you by the way you dress and your body language. I also learned that it is important to listen carefully to what people say.
I got along just fine with my brother-in-law. He had a tremendous personality and could talk to everyone as if he knew them for years. After watching and being with him, I picked up some of his style in meeting people. Living with them really changed my life.
When I turned nineteen, I enlisted in U.S. Army. I volunteered for jump school (paratrooper training). It was very difficult (approximately half the class dropped out) but I made it and got my Airborne wings. About a year later I was accepted for Ranger training. The training was rigorous; out of fifty candidates only nine of us graduated. I really felt good about myself; I was an Airborne Ranger!! What did I have to show for it? A feeling of pride and contentment for having done something that wasn’t easy.
After serving three good years in the service, I received my honorable discharge and returned to Oakland.
At my sister’s suggestion, I used the GI Bill to attend and graduate from Barber College. While I was going to Barber College I met Gina, a wonderful woman. It was love at first sight. And yes! We got married. My sister really liked Gina. She said Gina was good for me, and she had never seen me so happy before.
After I served a two-year apprenticeship, I passed a difficult state board exam and became a Master Barber. I then opened my own barber shop. Business thrived. I had to hire another barber. I really enjoyed barbering. I met a lot of interesting people with different trades.
Gina and I bought a home. And now we have three great daughters, (who got good report cards, signed by me!), three great sons-in-law, and three grand-children, twin boys and one granddaughter. When I see my family we always give each other big hugs. To this day, I still hug my three daughters and grandchildren as if they were five years old.
A few years ago, I enrolled in the Literacy Plus Program. I have really improved my skills in reading, writing and spelling, and have learned how to use the computer. I know I waited too long. I should have looked into it a long time ago. But it’s never too late, and I’m really happy I did it. It’s helped me so much. My advice to people is, don’t wait. Do it now!!
Currently, I’m enjoying a healthy and happy retirement. Life is good!
Ruben. "From Rags to Riches" Our Words, Our Voices. Vol. 3. Hayward: Literacy Plus Council, 2015. 19-22. Print.