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An Immigrant Family Story

Hugh Stringer

In 1975, my wife Marta and I, our two children, Clara and Susana, were living in Cuernavaca just a block from where Marta and our children were born. If I were to go to leave for the U.S. and if she and our children were to accompany me, we would be leaving our families, culture, and in the case of Marta, her career. In addition to having to adjust to life in the U.S., Marta would be taking our children to live in a culture she had only known from Hollywood movies. She would have to trust that in the U.S. she’d find work, good schools, a welcoming community, a job comparable to the one she had before we married, and she would have to trust that I’d be faithful to her in what was to her an alien culture.

Clara and Susana would have to adjust to the disruption caused by moving away from their many aunts, uncles, and cousins—Marta had ten brothers and sisters—to a country where my relatives were few and far between. I was also apprehensive as to what kind of reception my daughters would have.

I was born, grew up, and had a master’s degree from a college in New York. I thought I would feel at home anywhere in the U.S. But I too had much to learn. The country I would return to was in the throes of a recession and political turmoil due to Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in August 1974. Jobs were hard to come by. I knew that if I emigrated from Mexico, I would be leaving the apartment/school we’d furnished and the friends I’d made and in-laws I felt close to. I would be leaving a job of my own creation, a school that in 1970, my wife and I had started. From 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., we taught students pursuing bilingual secretarial careers. Our classes were small, no more than five or six students. The work was satisfying; however, our income was anything but satisfying. We barely made the rent and lived in the school.

I decided we could not continue living like that and wanted to check out the job market in the U.S. I went to New York thinking that if I found a good job, I’d call and ask Marta to follow. So, at the beginning of July 1975, I went to New York to stay with mom and dad. As I had worked in a bank before going to Mexico, I went to a job placement agency in Lower Manhattan. They said that due to the recession, there were no jobs comparable to the one I’d had seven years before. They suggested that since I spoke Spanish and had worked as a middle-school teacher, I should look for work in bilingual education. I sent out a hundred resumes, and got one job offer from a parochial school in Paducah, Kentucky. I went for the interview, and accepted their offer, $10,000 a year for teaching calculus to high school seniors and coaching the boys’ basketball team.

The day after getting the job, I called Marta and told her we’d be living in Kentucky and that she should pack her bags and book a flight to Paducah as soon as she could sell our school and furniture. If she had any doubts as to my sanity, she didn’t let on. Rather, she acted as if I knew what I was doing. She said she’d take care of everything and wished me well, “Nos vemos en Paducah.”

The decision to go from Mexico to Paducah began with the oil-induced recession of 1973. It caused a drop in tourism in Mexico and since many of our students depended on income from tourism, some students dropped out. We were left with barely enough income to get by, much less send our children to preschool. If I wanted to leave Mexico, the move to Paducah felt like my only option. But I backed away from it. I attribute my cold feet to Marta’s rock-solid trust. Her confidence that I knew what I was doing led me to think I did not know what I was doing. I called and told her to fly into New York’s JFK airport. She said, “Sí, nos vemos en Nueva York.”

Marta took Clara and Susana to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. There she was issued a green card and was assured that our daughters’ Certificates of Birth Abroad would get them into the U.S.

A local storage company in my hometown of Northport, New York, happened to be selling abandoned furniture. With the money I had, I bought the furnishing for a home, but had nowhere to put them. Mom called a neighbor whose home was up for sale. The neighbor agreed to let us keep the furniture in the home while we got our own place. Well, there was no place, no job and no place. I didn’t know if we’d be settling on Long Island near mom and dad, but the neighbor’s home seemed like an ideal location, a sandy beachfront home on the Long Island Sound. We moved in. Marta’s brother accompanied her and our children, so we were able to establish a home where we spoke Spanish.

I went to the unemployment office. They sent me to the Welfare office. After a day or two, I was awarded the equivalent of a Section 8 housing voucher, food stamps, and money for clothing. We packed our bags and moved to a home not so near the water, but still near enough to family that we could celebrate the holidays with them. I got a job through the Welfare office under the CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration) program.

Each of these welfare programs was bipartisan. The Food Stamps were first begun by JFK as a pilot program and became nation-wide in 1974 with bipartisan support, signed by President Ford. The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act was sponsored by Republicans and Democrats and became law under Richard Nixon in 1973. In 1974, Section 8 was added to the Housing Act that dated back to the Great Depression era and part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It began in 1937. The Section 8 amendment was supported by both political parties and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1974.

Getting off Welfare

A teacher’s aide gave me a note saying I should go to the office. When I got there the secretary led me in to see Dr. Thomas, the superintendent at the school I was teaching at. I knew this was not going to turn out so well as the secretary took a seat too. Then, Dr. Thomas asked me, “Did you say, ‘God damn it, Pitman, sit down!’?”

At death it’s said one’s life history flashes by. Well, my career flashed by. Reduced to a single interaction with a student. As if I didn’t understand, Dr. Thomas, without pausing, added, “Given your experience in the Brothers, … .” With deft and thoughtless words, he would put the lie to my history. Whatever he said after a pause, didn’t matter. He wanted me to give myself a hundred whacks. Guilty as charged.

The secretary, I thought, shouldn’t have to listen to this. She shifted in her seat and Dr. Thomas doubled down, “Did you grab Pitman by the shoulder and push him into his seat?”

I wanted to plead the Fifth. Sensing my reluctance to answer, he showed how low he would go to clear his conscience, “If need be, we can ask the boys to come to the office …”

There was no friendly face I could take comfort in. The secretary wouldn’t make eye contact. As much to her as to him, I said, “Certainly. Don’t do that.”

There has never been a weightier word than that “certainly.” It carried anger and fear, doubt and regret, truth and consequences.

To his credit, Dr. Thomas didn’t ask that I spell out my “certainly.” The secretary breathed a sigh of relief. He said, “We’ll continue your salary until the end of August.”

On leaving the office, I went to the teachers’ room to pick up my stuff. The union president was there. She said she’d heard I was laid off, “Since you’ve only been working month, we won’t be able to take on your case. But you were teaching science and don’t have a science teacher certification. You could appeal.”

When I said I didn’t want to, she replied, “Pitman’s mother is the chair of Hightstown’s Board of Education. She must have called the superintendent.”

I had told Marta I was the fourth teacher Dr. Thomas had hired for the position. She knew the school had open classes in one room as big as a gymnasium and that the students in one class were easily distracted by students and teachers in the three other classes.

For the job, we’d moved to Hightstown from New York into a first-floor apartment on the first of April. I paid April’s rent, $250, from money I’d made working for a CETA program on Long Island and used the Section 8 security deposit to pay the security for the new apartment. The apartment was in one building of four apartment buildings arranged in a quadrangle.

I was happy that my daughters didn’t make a fuss when I got home early. Some of the children in our apartment complex would go crazy every evening greeting their fathers when they’d come home. I wanted my children to take for granted that I’d always be there and that it was no reason for a celebration.

Life with our Hightstown neighbors was more like living in a community than the Brothers had been. What we had in common was that most of us had two preschool or early grade-school children. We all talked of buying an “unattached” home. Saving for and buying a stand-alone home was the default topic of conversation. That was what I heard at the pool. Marta heard stories of men having affairs. The community pool was every family’s babysitter and gossip center.

A couple days after I was fired, I got a letter from the school superintendent. It was something to focus on. I called his office and got an appointment to see him. When the secretary accompanied me into his office, I knew she too was being used as a witness and wondered if secretaries were taught how to witness firings in secretarial school. Dr. Thomas was already there.

I planned to make happy talk and then get down to the point of my visit. So, I said thanks for continuing my salary and benefits through the end of August. Then facing the superintendent said, “I’m here so you will at least have seen me.” Giving him his letter, I said, “You can save your editorial comments for yourself.” An awkward moment followed. I got up and walked toward the door, refusing to shake his outstretched hand.

A Home of our Own

There wasn’t time for self-pity, but I was tempted. Except for the CETA job, after searching for work for months, the Hightstown school was my first paying job, and getting to Hightstown was our third move. When I was fired from the Hightstown job, I had a three-month paid vacation during which I could look for a job and maybe have to prepare for another move. I was determined to not let circumstances spoil the summer. We took day trips to the Atlantic Ocean and had the neighborhood pool. One of Hightstown’s branch libraries was within walking distance of our apartment. We went there often.

I wanted to take advantage of the time with family by seeing that Clara and Susana practiced speaking Spanish and that Marta practiced speaking English. That was a source of tension. Ever the teacher, I wanted them to speak “proper” English and bristled when they did not use correct grammar. I even bristled when Marta said I was objecting to her accent. “Accent isn’t grammar,” I’d repeat, seemingly every hour. I inherited an obsession with grammar from my mother. She told us of her grandmother’s experience learning English in Ireland. She said, “They used the brown soap method. If you misspoke, grandmother would wash your mouth out with brown soap.”

Marta and I spoke Spanish at home and Clara and Susana understood us. But understanding is not speaking. To speak a language, as Mexicans say, you must “masticar” it (or chew it), jaw it with friends, but none of our many neighbors in Hightstown spoke Spanish. I would make a point of speaking Spanish when in public because I wanted Clara and Susana to not be ashamed of their first language. But speaking Spanish in public when no one else did made them feel all the more embarrassed.

It may be sexist to say women are the heart that keeps the family together. But from the day Marta and I met, she has kept us together by not being a stickler for grammar. If you got your point across, she didn’t care about grammar. With our children and grandchildren, she has kept to her winning ways. Today, we all speak Spanish and English, albeit some better than others.

In my search for a job, I drove as far west as Youngstown, Ohio. I remember an interview in Chelsea, Massachusetts where I met with the high school principal and school superintendent. The superintendent said, “It’s good you included Hightstown in your resume, ‘the truth will out.’ May I offer a little advice? Don’t put your career at risk for a student. It’s not worth it.”

I got an offer to teach math in the Pyne Point Middle School in Camden, New Jersey, an hour south of Hightstown, accepted it and went to teacher orientation. The principal said we were dealing with children who only respect a firm hand. The day after Labor Day, two weeks after my first class of eighth grade students, in the evening, I got a phone call from Sean O’Sullivan. He identified himself as Dean of Faculty at Roxbury Community College and was looking for a bilingual business teacher. The school superintendent in Chelsea had sent him a copy of my resume. He said he was impressed that I’d worked as a credit analyst for a commercial bank on Wall Street and said the fall semester had already begun but I could go to Boston for a job interview.

The next day, I drove six hours north to the college. I met with the Dean and several members of the business department and accepted their offer of a full-time job. When I asked about finding a home in Boston and said I was worried about busing, they said the best place would be Jamaica Plain. I knew nothing about Jamaica Plain but thought if we lived anywhere in Boston, our children might be bused to schools where they would not feel welcome. The next morning, I drove out of Boston, from the college, south on Blue Hill Avenue, until a block from the Boston line, fifteen minutes from the college, I came upon the Kidder Branch library in Milton.

Near a library seemed a good place to raise a family, so I stopped and asked a guy raking leaves if he knew of a two-family home for sale. He said there was one a couple doors down. After seeing the house from the street, I walked to a pay phone in Mattapan and called Marta and the real estate agent. The realtor showed me the house and I left a check for a $200 deposit.

There are a few times in life where one decision determines both past and future. Buying one’s first home is such a decision. In this one transaction, I reinterpreted my past: ownership gave me an understanding of my experience teaching in Hightstown and a new appreciation for how important it is for the poor to receive a helping hand. Now that we had a home of our own, I could stand tall.

I also saw how buying a first home determined the future. It sealed our fate. It put us at the mercy of a community. For all I knew, Milton might not provide a welcoming ambience. The schools may have had open classes. We may have ended up with neighbors or tenants who partied every night into the wee hours. When I filled out the purchase/sale agreement, I put down “Roxburry” Community College as my employer. The realtor said, “Roxbury has only one r.”

During the drive back to Hightstown, I thought about our futures. Marta had a degree in chemistry from the University of Morelos, Mexico. She had worked as a quality control chemist in Mexico City for a year at Carnot Laboratories and for five years at Lever Brothers. If she wanted to pursue her career in the Boston area, she could commute to the labs in Cambridge via the Red Line. But if she wanted to network with friends and neighbors who spoke Spanish, based on what my future colleagues said, I thought Jamaica Plain would have been better.

Marta got a job at Howard Hughes Institute as a lab technician. Our children graduated Milton High and went to UMass Amherst. Clara began a career in health care at McClean Hospital, took refresher science classes at UMass Boston and then went to medical school. Susana worked at Rogerson House in Jamaica Plain. After graduating college, she began her career teaching high school students in Boston public schools and earned a graduate degree at UMass Boston. I worked for 27 years at Roxbury Community College. I consider our stories the same as those of so many other families who at one time or another depend on Welfare. The public assistance we receive is paid back many times over in the taxes we pay and services we render.

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