I just received a very disturbing phone call. Well, maybe not all that disturbing, but it made me think. A Mexican female–I could tell by her accent when she spoke Spanish–called and asked for Señor Rodríguez? Señor David Rodríguez? At first, I thought it was one of the Spanish TAs asking about a solution to a problem while teaching at UIC. But I didn’t know this woman at all. Our entire conversation was in Spanish. The more I spoke as I answered her questions in Spanish, the more engaged she became in our conversation. Then, she asked me if I spoke English. If I was bilingual. I answered yes and yes. In fact, I told her, I was very fluent in English. She sounded very disappointed. I guess I spoke Spanish well enough for her to think that I didn’t speak English. Apparently she was trying to gather students for an ESL class. I think I hurt her feelings because I spoke English–but not to her. This comes as quite a surprise to me because for my entire life almost everyone I ever met insisted that I speak English. And today I finally met someone who was disappointed that I already spoke English.

Are you discriminating against me because I speak English?


I'm visiting! I plan on going back to Mexico!

I have met a lot of Mexicans in Chicago who talk about going back to live in Mexico someday. My mother always said she was moving back to Mexico, but never did. Because of their close proximity to the U.S., many Mexicans, even those living in Mexico, feel it’s important to learn English and know a little about their northern neighbors. How many Americans have such an attitude about Mexico and Mexicans? When I was in Mexico, a lot of people knew several phrases in English. Many Mexicans had studied English in school at some point in their lives. Several of my relatives were fluent in English and they spoke English quite well. I was actually very surprised by this. And it’s not like they’re ever planning on moving to the U.S. Actually, they’re quite happy in Mexico. In fact, I met several Mexicans who had moved to the U.S. and didn’t like living here. So they moved back because they missed their family and Mexico. Most Mexicans want to live in Mexico.

Speak English! You're talking to an American!


I scared a lot of people when I looked like this! And I loved it!!

Canas in Spanish means gray hair. My gray hair started appearing in my early thirties. In some of pictures, my hair doesn’t even look gray. Sometimes it looks dark brown or black. Most of the time it looks like I have salt and pepper hair. In some pictures my hair looks completely gray. I’ve never worried much about my appearance. What you see is what you get! No hair dyes or plastic surgery for me. Despite the gray hair, I feel more energetic now than when I was younger. There’s a saying in Spanish: Con las canas vienen las ganas. This saying is difficult to translate, but it could be interpreted as, “With (gray hair) age comes desire/energy.” Okay, I did my best, but it loses something in the translation. I feel that I have more energy than my much younger colleagues, who seem to tire much sooner than me. Well, I just accept life as it comes. Life is a boxing match, so I’ve learned to roll with the punches. When I was younger, I thought that the best defense was blocking punches and punching back. However, no matter how good a pugilist you are, you will get punched. And quite often, too. So, I learned to roll with the punches.

Anyway, gray hair runs in our family. Or, so I thought. All of my uncles in Chicago had salt and pepper hair since their early thirties, and I followed the family genetic suit. But when I went to Mexico, I noticed that my male relatives in their thirties, forties, and even fifties didn’t have gray hair. And they didn’t dye their hair, either. So why do we Rodríguezes have more gray hair in America than in Mexico. Well, I’ll be honest with you, Gentle Reader. I don’t know! And it doesn’t bother me either. Except when I’m in Mexico and they ask me my age. I know that they’re trying to place me in chronological order among relatives, I being the long lost relative who finally returned to the mother country. I think it is only in these moments that I become self-conscious about my gray hair.

But I am thankful to have lived longer than I had ever expected I would as a boy. I remember watching all those old kung fu movies and fantasizing about becoming like the old kung fu master that is baddest warrior of all. You know the guy. The protagonist fights and defeats one combatant after another until at the end of the movie he confronts the deadliest warrior alive, who usually turns out to be a seemingly frail old man with long white hair and a long white beard. This was usually the best fight scene of the movie! Until the protagonist finally defeats him after a long and exciting battle. So this is how I thought I would become in my old age. Other than gradually getting older and older, I really don’t have much in common with the old kung fu master. Okay, I tried growing my hair and beard long, but no one really felt comfortable around me. So, I’m back to my short gray hair happy that, Con las canas vienen las ganas.

Con las canas vienen las ganas.

Pobre pero honrado

That’s the thing about Mexicans. They have a different standard for measuring success. For as long as I can remember, Mexicans take great pride in being hard workers. Nothing else matters to them. And that’s why they’re destined to remain in the ranks of the middle class. Pobre, pero honrado means poor but honorable. So as long as a Mexican works hard, he or she is respected and nothing else matters. Through hard work, a Mexican will never starve to death. He or she may never get ahead in life, but at least these Mexicans are honorable. If they have two or three jobs just to feed and house la familia, so much the better. Whenever I met a Mexican girlfriend’s parents, they would be impressed by the fact that I had a good-paying factory job. They liked the fact that I was hard worker. However, I learned early in life that if my girlfriend’s parents liked me, that was the kiss of death for our relationship.

The greatest compliment you could pay to my father was: You’re such a great worker! Every time someone told him that at work, he would be sure to tell us as soon as he got home. My mother was also proud to be called a hard worker. In fact, she never rested. She worked a full-time job in a factory and then she would come home and work around the house. When my father came home, he would rest because he already did his work for the day. My mother would then call my father lazy and he would feel insulted. Saturday mornings, no one slept in. My mother believed that Saturday mornings were meant for everyone to sleep in until seven in the morning and then wake up to work around the house. Something always needed cleaning or fixing around the house. We couldn’t see our friends until every last chore my mother assigned us was done. She didn’t want anyone talking about how she had raised lazy children.

Growing up, I loved to read. I could read for hours everyday. This really bothered my mother because I would just be lying around the house doing nothing. What would her friends say if they came over now and saw me doing nothing? She was so embarrassed to have such a lazy son! All through high school, she insisted that I find a job after school. But no one would hire me because I looked like I was about twelve years old. My mother wanted to take me to different stores to find me a job. I told her that no one would hire me if I applied for a job with my mother. So she left me alone for a while.

When I was seventeen she found me a job in a peanut butter factory. You had to be eighteen to work in a factory according to federal labor laws, but the company made an exception for me. You should have seen my mother’s face glow whenever she told someone that I had a full-time factory job. She was so proud of me! Especially, since I earned more money than her. Unfortunately, I was still a junior in high school at the time and I had to work the midnight shift. I’d come home from work and immediately change clothes so I could go to school. I often fell asleep in my classes.

Finally, I told my mother that I couldn’t do both–work full time and go to school full time. She was so disappointed in me! I told her I wanted to quit my job so I could graduate from high school. She told me that if I quit my job, I couldn’t live with her anymore. I tried to do both for as long as I could, but I eventually dropped out of school. My mother was happy that I decided to keep my job. I would be pobre, pero honrado the rest of my life and that suited her just fine. She couldn’t understand why I would want to go to school. If I graduated high school, I would probably want to go to college. I couldn’t understand my mother’s point of view: Why pay to go to college when the factory will pay me to work for them? It was as simple as that, but I just didn’t get it back then. I still don’t.

Looking back on all this after so many years, I’m actually not at all bitter about having to work in the factory for twelve years and not going to college until much later in life. When I compare myself to some of my friends, I find that we’re all in about the same place in life. I now fully understand the value of working hard and being pobre, pero honrado. Actually, I’m quite happy with my life now. 🙂

I couldn't be president. I already have three jobs!