A Great American Dream
By Delfa Castillo, Special Projects, MOCHA — Museo de Culturas y Herencias Americanas (Museum of Cultures and Heritages of America)
As a child of a Mexican American family (several generations in Texas) working in Michigan as migrant farmworkers, I worked in the farm fields after school and during the summers, alongside other children and adults. The muck, and the poor living conditions, made it difficult to remain clean. We also had no money for toys and clothes were primarily bought second hand. The kids in our farmworkers’ compound would ride to school in a yellow bus that served our rural farming community. Gazing out the window at the well-dressed, freckle-faced, local kids along the route, standing in neat driveways awaiting the bus next to fragrant purple lilac bushes — I couldn’t help feeling different and invisible in so many ways.
My teachers, however, drew upon my strengths to build up my self-esteem and to help me feel accepted. When my first grade teacher assigned me to patrol the classroom aisles and assist classmates on classwork as she worked quietly nearby — my contributions made me feel valued. When my third grade teacher rewarded me for finishing classwork quickly by giving me generous extra reading time in our library corner filled with books about courageous American heroes – I was inspired. When my seventh grade teacher praised my artful geography maps and classmates looked to me for ideas on other projects, I began to feel that I fit in. And, when this teacher took me, and my two younger sisters, for eye exams and discreetly paid for our eyeglasses, I also learned an important lesson in kindness and generosity.
The silver lining in the fields, for me, was nature: I took in stride that the days in the fields would be hot and long, and I focused on the beauty — such as the occasional nest filled with small, blue speckled bird eggs lying among the fallen, braided onion stems. I ignored that the bathroom facility was sometimes the woods. I focused on the wild, yellow tiger lilies in the cool woods sprinkled with sunlight. I did my best to sidestep the leeches in the irrigation ditches in order to watch tadpoles swimming in the flowing trickle of water.
When the carrots matured, their weighty stems would loom over the path between rows, hiding it from view. I sometimes lay on the cool muck soil along the carrot rows, beneath the aromatic carrot tops, gazing up through the leaves at patches of blue sky. I imagined that the world of future possibilities was as vast as the wide sky.
Lying in the top bunk at night, in a crowded bedroom, I would read articles in the newspapers, that were now yellowed, but that we’d papered the walls with to make them look better — and I would dare to dream of accomplishing things too.
When we returned to Texas for good, just short of my fourteenth birthday, I worked in the office of a neighborhood community youth program that provided teens with opportunities to lead and to teach younger children. My experiences with that program is why I think that MOCHA’s internships, that will provide college and select high school students opportunities to role model and assist in its children and youth educational and cultural enrichment programs, will be so important.
Years later, after marrying, I completed three years of studies in Art Education (Texas A&I, Kingsville, TX); earned a B.A. in Early Childhood Education (Brooklyn College, NY); and earned an M.S. in Reading Specialization (Bank Street College of Education, NYC).
I also served for 1 year as Assistant Director and 8 years as Director of an Episcopalian neighborhood center’s nonprofit tutoring program (annually helping 200 low-income Latino and African American youngsters, grades 2-12, with reading and math in NYC (receiving a Volunteerism Award from then-Mayor Edward Koch).
I later earned a J.D. (Benjamin Cardozo Law School, NYC), in part with a Project Renew grant from the American Association of University Women, through which I later helped mentor teenage Latina and African American girls (Bronx).
I then served as Law Clerk for 2 ½ years at the United States Court of International Trade (NYC) for a Greek judge from an immigrant family — who could have hired a law clerk from among many prestigious law school applicants across the country but, instead, chose to help a former migrant farmworker. This paved the way for me to later work as a trial attorney (now retired) for the Department of Justice where I was responsible for, among other cases, a successfully defended banking case (litigated over many years) that saved our federal government hundreds of millions of dollars in potential monetary damages. (Recognized for my achievements at a special ceremony by then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.)
Although I became a single parent when my daughter was fourteen, she earned a B.A. in Anthropology the year after I graduated from law school and later completed almost all but her orals in a combined Masters/Ph.D. program. Today, she works in her field, is happily married to a Vietnam veteran, belongs to a woman’s bible study group at her church, and arranges her work schedule to be free to pick up her 15-year-old son after school and supervise homework. My grandson has been reading at college level since age 11 or 12, excels in school, is respected by his peers, and is keenly interested in science. As a family, they volunteer to help their local branch of Lions Club International that provides, among other things, eyeglasses for the disadvantaged.
In short, the attention three caring teachers gave that nurtured the self esteem of a poor Mexican American girl who aspired to the great American dream, had exponential benefits, including helping to shape other generations.
In addition to giving artists from diverse cultures more exhibit opportunities, the Museum of Cultures and Heritages of America plans to provide free, educational and cultural enrichment programs for the children and youth of the artists’ communities, as well as internships. These programs will provide the same kinds of encouragement and help that I received growing up. Please support our fundraising campaign to make these programs possible.