A gripping account of survival, prejudice, heartbreak and love

When I was in high school, many years ago, my mom used to tell me that I should appreciate going to school, that I would go nowhere in life without an education. At the time, I thought she was just being a mom, telling me these things so I’d apply myself to my studies and get good grades.

I never realized back then that my mother was pushing me to appreciate my high school years because she had almost missed out on hers. It wasn’t until I started writing my book, CARMEN, that I heard the story of how my mother was almost denied her high school education. You see, my mother was the oldest of ten children in a poor Hispanic migrant farm worker family. Her cruel stepfather forbade her to go to high school, saying that she needed to work in the fields to help support the family. But, Mom would not let him stop her.

She secretly mailed a short handwritten note addressed only to “School Superintendent” along with the name of the town and state. She briefly explained her circumstances, giving her stepfather’s name, and begging someone to help her. Then she waited, not knowing if anyone would respond.

A few weeks later, after school had already begun, the Superintendent of Schools came to her house. Her desperate little note had obviously been compelling enough to inspire him to take care of it himself. He pulled up in front of their rundown shack in his shiny black automobile. The Superintendent was a large white man in a navy blue suit, which drew the attention of the children playing and the farm workers standing around chatting after a long day’s work. The Superintendent asked the little kids if they knew where Pablo Gutierrez was, and they pointed up the driveway at him. Pablo heard his name and nervously walked over to the man in the suit, afraid he was from Social Services, thinking maybe someone had turned him in for abusing his family.

“Mr. Gutierrez,” the big man said sternly, “I have been notified that your daughter, Elena, did not start high school last week. You, Mr. Gutierrez,” pointing a large, fat finger at Pablo, “could get in a lot of trouble if she doesn’t get herself to school on Monday morning. Comprende? Do you understand?”

“Sí, but I didn’t know,” Pablo feigned, shrugging his shoulders, acting innocent. “I make sure she is there.” He was glad that was all this important-looking man wanted. My mother had watched this scene unfold from behind a curtained window. She knew her future had changed. She had won permission to go to high school.

Once my mother relayed that story to me, I understood why she pushed me to get a good education. In turn, I have pushed my daughter and she is now a special education teacher, working primarily with under-privileged children. If you would like to read the entire story, it is in my book CARMEN. It is a gripping account of the life stories of my grandmother and my mother through their incredible ups and downs, and how, with courage and inner strength, they overcame great obstacles to triumph over their adversities.

One of CARMEN’s reviewers suggested you “have a box of Kleenex nearby.”