A gift for my father
Also, a personal essay on my history of mental illness, illness, low self esteem and how I want to do something meaningful
Being born and raised in rural west Texas as a second-generation Mexican American, I always knew I was different from people who looked similarly or were not similar to me. Even though I grew up with those same traditional values, I still felt different. My father grew up as an ESL student in the predominantly Tejano towns of Robstown and Corpus Christi in South Texas; he often recalled how hard it was to learn English and how he felt embarrassed by not being able to master English early on in his life. My ancestors only spoke Spanish in their households. He told me that because of that, with his own immediate family, we only grew up speaking English. What differentiated me from the other people in my hometown and the state? This might be best represented in the movie “Selena” about Selena Quintanilla. In it, Abraham, played by Edward James Olmos, talks about how Tejanos cannot catch a break with either Texans or Mexicans. To Caucasian Texans, we are often not seen as “Real Texans,” whereas, with Mexicans, we are not seen as “Real Mexicans” because we can’t fluently speak Spanish. It put me and others like me between a rock and a hard place.
Even through that, I could still succeed in high school and gained admission into an excellent liberal arts school in San Antonio, Texas. Finally, I told myself I could be around people who looked like me, and for the first time, I was right. This may be hard to believe, but there aren’t many people of Jewish, Middle Eastern, or Indian descent in west Texas. There certainly wasn’t any in my graduating class of 10, as I was the only person of Hispanic descent. Even though I moved three hours down the road, it was a culture shock. I simultaneously loved learning every second of it but also felt insecure about my own identity. Since I did not know Spanish growing up, I wanted to make it a priority in college, so I minored in it. Even though I tried my best, I felt embarrassed that the “gringos” in some of these classes spoke fluent Spanish while I didn’t. There were many nights when I would ask my dad for some help in conjugation and formal writing. There were even some embarrassing moments as my conservative dad was helping me try to get through movies like “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” Even though I understand Spanish, I still need to think it through. I remember when I was younger, talking with my “Güita” (my Grandmother or Abuelita), understanding what she was saying but not being able to use it. That insecurity grew much more significant in college. Even though I made straight A’s in my major, I felt not good enough because I struggled in other areas. For example, when I would take the ACT, I would get anywhere from 32-34 on the writing and reading comprehension parts but not as well on math and sciences. Even though I wanted to go to law schools like Yale or Harvard and love to listen to oral arguments and confirmation hearings, I did not feel like that was an attainable objective. Even though I was a volunteer undergraduate intern for a local federal district judge, I still did not feel competent enough. I am embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t study for my first LSAT in 2016 because I couldn’t afford preparation materials and was too afraid/or didn’t know I could even ask for assistance. Somehow, despite that, I got a fantastic score.
However, that insecurity manifested in other, more tangible ways. Remember how I told you that I still felt different growing up? Well, part of that insecurity, I have later learned, was that I struggle with mental illness due to feeling different. My parents thought it was weird that I would spend hours alone in my room but later learned that I was depressed and anxious. When I first visited a counselor at Trinity when I lost some friendships after the first semester, he was the first to ask if maybe I had depression or anxiety. While I fought that diagnosis, it was clear through events and actions that I did. I would see professionals off and on but lied to myself for a long time that I was hurting. That insecurity also manifested itself in the culture in which I grew up. My family is trying to assimilate into American culture. Yet, there is this pride or machismo in my Hispanic culture to not admit to not being okay. I realized that part of the Hispanic culture influenced my decisions regarding my mental health. Little did I know when I broke down and admitted how I felt to my parents that there was a family history of mental illness.
Right before graduation, my dad sat with a close family friend we call Uncle Noe, for Uncle Noe was even more of a hero to me. He grew up poorer than my dad did on a migrant farm in California and made his way to Harvard Law. Growing up, he would always take us to Spurs or Texas Longhorns games. He was the one affluent person I knew that looked like me and, by society’s standards, was a success. My dad, by contrast, is a minister and, before that, was bi-vocational as an educator. We were lower middle class, and I often felt resentment toward my dad that he wasn’t more ambitious and wondered why he taught at a low-income school. However, that day in a motel room in San Antonio, my Uncle Noe told my dad that he wished he could have made a difference like my dad.
My uncle had seen how former students would come up to my dad and tell him how much he made a difference in their lives. It was a little conversation between the two of them, but it was life-changing to me. I decided that I wanted to be in public service advocating for people that look like me. Along the way, that insecurity/mental illness reared its ugly head. I was more worried about student loans than trying to make a difference. I wanted to make the most money in the biggest city. I was often embarrassed about not being more involved in my college alumni program or with some professors/advisers who have made a positive impact on my life because, for me, I wasn’t as successful as some of my other peers. My Uncle Noe passed away in his sleep in 2019 in Corpus Christi. He was single and worked 70-hour weeks, and didn’t have an immediate family of his own in the state. When recently talking with me, my dad, knowing I wanted to try to go to law school, asked me to be aware of that fact in choosing what type of law I wanted to pursue. I haven’t told him this yet, but I will someday. My dad is my hero. And there is so much regret for not feeling like that earlier in my life.
As I am sitting here in west Texas, it is July 3, 2022. There has been a school shooting just mere hours away from my hometown. The Supreme Court just overturned Roe V. Wade, and it seems like insurrections are fomenting every day from all sides. That is why I decided I needed to get off the sidelines. And give back to my community, my state, and my country. To serve those who look like me and especially those who don’t look like me. I loved my Uncle Noe. I miss him daily. He was and will always be a role model for me. He showed me that people that have my background could succeed. It’s given me the courage to pursue something like law school. Even with all of that, my real hero and the best person I know is my Dad, and it is about time I honor him by serving the underserved.
Thank you for sharing your heart and struggles. I’m looking forward to hearing about your future. I’ll be praying for you.
This is beautifully written as I would expect from the brilliant and kind person you are and have always been. I’m so sorry for your struggles and proud of the new sense of purpose you have. God bless you Ryan and I wish you success in your mission. I know you can touch lives in the way your parents always has and in the way your Uncle did without even realizing that he was.