Yolanda O. Torres

As Interviewed by Elisabeth Torres-Schulte, March 26, 2014

Yolanda O. Torres: In Her Own Words

My father was born in Texas, but his parents were from Mexico. My mother is from Mexico, and, while we knew some English, Spanish was definitely my first language. I was born in Galveston, Texas, and in those days there wasnít a premium put on speaking another language. I didnít go to kindergarten. My parents have had limited education, formal education, so for them kindergarten was something that rich white kids did. It wasnít as universal as it is now.

When I went to first grade, I was put into a remedial class, because I couldnít speak English as well as some of the other kids. Spanish was not allowed to be spoken on the school ground; we were told that we would be punished, and in those days they spanked kids. There were some kids who got spanked because they spoke Spanish on the school ground. There was another class that had kids who had gone to kindergarten. Those kids looked down on us. They always told us that we were dumb and that we were poor, and in those situations poor and dumb meant the same thing.

I figured out that I needed just to memorize some things, then I was very successful. English was not an easy language to learn how to read, because itís not phonetic like Spanish is, so I just memorized things. Not a particularly good way of learning, but it got me through. After that I was put into a class that had more kids who had had better preparation. We were told to memorize things, and we did. Certainly it wasnít particularly creative, and kids didnít ask why. We were just told this is what you need to learn, and thatís what we learned. It wasnít a partnership. There was definitely a teacher that was in charge. They were a lot stricter in terms of discipline, and I donít think they expected very much from me. There really wasnít a lot of room to be different.

Nowadays, people are tested for learning disabilities, hopefully their culture is included. Your certainly not asked to deny what you are. Thereís English as a Second Language, which didnít exist in our school. I think itís better now -- I donít think itís perfect by any means, but itís better now. I really enjoyed going to sixth grade because I enjoyed having more than one teacher, first of all, and the teachers that I had in the sixth grade pushed me to do better. Where I came from mattered less. As far as the social aspect of it, there were more kids of course -- there were more elementary schools that fed into the junior high, but as an Hispanic I was still very much a minority. I didn't think it was particularly difficult, but it was good to get out of the elementary school environment just because it opened up new interests for me.

I didnít have anybody at home who could help me. My mom at most went to second grade in Mexico. My dad dropped out in ninth grade in the States because he had to go to work to support his family. There was no one who could read at the level that I was reading, or write at the level that I was writing, or help me with the math or the science. I was in honors classes, so they were a little more difficult than the regular classes. But even if I hadnít been in honors classes, they wouldnít be able to help me. Even with my Spanish class, Daddy didnít have the background in Spanish to help, and Mom didnít either. They never studied Spanish as a language.

I worked hard, but I spun my wheels a lot. I talked to the teachers when I could and I relied on just some of my own capabilities. I memorized a lot. I always kept up with the work, but I spent a long time doing assignments that would have taken less time had I had better skills. There wasnít anyone to teach me those skills. I was pretty lucky I understood most things. Thatís why it was so difficult to get through calculus -- it was the first time I really didnít understand something, and I did not know how to deal with that, and I didnít have anyone to teach me. My teacher was willing to help to a certain extent, but she knew I wasnít her best student. And while she never turned down a question, she didnít exactly make herself available.

I decided pretty early on that I wanted to go to college. I didnít know what ďcollegeĒ was, but I knew I wanted to go there. I thought, Wow, you can go off someplace and learn. Thatís your job, to learn. And I couldnít think of anything better than that. It wasnít a natural thing for my parents. My mother was not in favor of my leaving home. She came from a small village where you left your fatherís house to go to your husbandís house. My dad didnít want me to leave because he just would miss me. And he wasnít sure how we would pay for it. But he always said that if itís something I could get into, and if itís something, I wanted to do, then he would fight for me. And if it hadnít been for him, I probably wouldnít have been able to go off to school. It was a mixed reaction. Not that my mother wasnít proud of me for going, or when I graduated, but it was not something she...if it had been up to her I would not have gone.

Our counselors were not at the top of their game. We had a very big high school. There was only one public high school in Galveston, and at that point there were about 800 kids in our graduating class. We had two counselors for all those kids. They werenít very knowledgeable, I think, about the opportunities. I went to talk with them, and they tried to steer me to the local junior college because thatís where a lot of minorities went. I said ďNo, I want to go to a four-year college.Ē I had, actually, spectacular grades, and I had a lot of student involvement. I knew that I had a good resumť to present. They understood that I was one of the top students and that I was very involved in school, but they still said, ďYou know, the local junior college is a good place for you to go.Ē I do resent that a bit because it closed off opportunities. We didnít have the internet. I would go to the library and look up some things, but I didnít know how to apply to colleges. I didnít know about financial aid. I didnít know about certain scholarships that would be available. Everything I had to do by myself and for myself. I ended up applying to three different universities. I applied to Rice, Wellesley and UT -- and I got in all of them, but I ended up going to Texas, here in Austin.

I didnít want to be looked at the way [Iíve been looked at] all through my life. [As in,] ďDo you deserve to be in these honor classes?Ē Of course, nobody put me there because I was Hispanic, or because I was female, but there was the initial feeling that ďyou donít really deserve to be hereĒ. I had to prove myself in every class, initially. I was in the Plan II program. That was like a school within a school. I met some fabulous people who were incredibly smart and incredibly generous. It was one of the rare times when I was treated as an equal. Sometimes that meant that the professor thought we were ALL unworthy. Sometimes that meant the professor thought that we all had great potential. The last year I decided that I would apply to law school. I thought I might go into teaching, but I didnít want to be a teacher because that was, again, one of those fields that they funneled women into. I went to law school at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

[At Michigan,] many of [the students] had families who had law firms. Almost everybody had parents who had gone to college. Even within the minority groups, the people who were first-generation college-educated, it was split. You know, we certainly werenít the majority. I found it very off-putting. I didnít have a point of reference for most of the people. Then again, it was my first time living up north. I HAD been in Michigan before. When I was 5 and when I was 6, my parents were migrant workers in Michigan during the summer. Thereís that great irony that I go back to Michigan, but I go back to law school, to be in law school. I started to meet more people who were also having problems of insecurity or who were challenged in ways that they had never been challenged before -- who couldnít relate to some of the people that they knew -- who were also upset with the gunners. The gunners were the people who sit in the front row and try to answer all the questions and show you everything they know. Eventually, some of the best friends that I still have today came from my experiences there.

You mentioned that your parents worked two summers in Michigan as migrant workers. What do you remember from that?

I was young so I didnít really help pick in the fields. My dad tried to shield me from that as much as he could. I remember living, at least one year, in a house that was very old, and my two half-brothers were there, and my mom, my dad, and a couple of other people who had come up from our area. We didnít have running water. The bathroom was not inside the house. It was just kind of scary being out there. My dad didnít like it. We went because my mother encouraged him. They would go up there because they thought they could make good money for a summer. Both of those years I got back late for school. When I was five, it didnít really matter so much because I didnít go to kindergarten. The season of migrant workers ends after school begins in the fall. Kids many times will miss several weeks, or a month or two, to come back to school.

Youíve mentioned previously that you worked with migrant workers when you were going to law school. Do you think that your parents having been migrant workers encouraged you to do that?

Yes. The summer after my first year of law school, I had an internship with Colorado Legal Services working with migrant workers north of Denver, in a city called Greeley. One of the reasons I applied for that internship was because of my continued interest with how migrant workers were treated. When I worked as an intern, one of the reasons I got the position was because I could speak Spanish. Weíd go out to the fields; we talked to the farmers. There was a lot of animosity between the farmers and the workers. I think the farmers felt that they were being taken advantage of, and I know the workers felt they were being taken advantage of, and usually the truth is somewhere in the middle. We had to document everything and try to negotiate payment when we could. We had to insure that whatever laws were in place were being followed. There wasnít a lot to protect them. Thereís still, I think, so many problems, with farm workers being exposed to pesticides, pay, and so forth. Things have changed, but not all that much. But, yeah, that was one of the reasons I wanted to do that job is because I remembered what it was like for people to feel completely vulnerable and helpless.

I think [the workers] saw me as being more powerful than I was because they figured I was working with the legal system. It was frustrating to not have more authority to get things changed. The only way we could really get something for them was either to find that one of the ranchers or farmers was breaking a law or to negotiate. So it really increased my desire to better my negotiation skills. I donít know how effective we were. We managed to close cases, and we got people paid. We didnít get them paid what they were promised. That wasnít always a problem because sometimes they didnít do all the work that they had said that they were going to do. It was also difficult to relate, because I knew that this was not something that I was ever going to do, hopefully. And they also looked at me in a different way because I was a woman. It was okay that I was Hispanic, but as a woman, and a younger woman, it was difficult. Itís very hard for someone whoís a male, whoís head of the family, to tell what was then a 23-year old: ďI need help with this. What can you do for me?Ē It doesnít produce a lot of self-respect to have to rely on someone who is not really an authority to get you what you have worked for.

I did not want to practice law after I left law school. My second summer I got an internship with a corporate law firm in New Mexico, and it was a good experience, but it was also something that I felt I didnít want to work that hard doing that particular kind of work. For me, being a good lawyer meant full commitment. Teaching held that for me. Even though I had tried to avoid it because I thought it was kind of a stereotype for me, I went back to it. Since then Iíve learned that Iíve misjudged my abilities to become a good lawyer. But Iím glad I taught. It was probably one of the best experiences I had in my life, starting out with teaching. I could touch kids.

If you could describe briefly what your ideal classroom situation would be, how your ideal education system would work, what would it look like?

I think I would like to have more of a sense of responsibility that we help students acquire. When I was young, I was told, ďDonít get in trouble at school because youíre going to be in far worse trouble at home.Ē With my parents, especially because they did not have a lot of formal education, they were very respectful of it. They conceded to it. So if the teacher said something, well they thought the teacherís always right. And I donít think the teacherís always right. But the teacher isnít always wrong, either. I would like to see a greater sense of responsibility accepted by all parties. A student is going to come in and respect the integrity of the classroom and try hard, and know that his/her job is to learn. And the teacher is going to come in and respect the students and know that his/her job is to help someone learn and to challenge them.

What changes have you seen in the way Latino Americans have been treated and what do you think are the biggest things we need to work on as a society to make their treatment even better?

First of all, we would never have called ourselves Latino Americans. And most of us would still call ourselves Hispanic -- at least my generation. But we were Mexicans. We were Mexican-Americans. And during our political times, we were Chicanos. Just from the terminology alone, itís different. Kids in your generation, I think, accept more. There are still too many who see someone with brown skin and have an immediate opinion of what that means -- not because of anything that person has said or done, but just because they have brown skin. I think, in Texas, thereís much more of an awareness of the contributions of the Hispanic community. Weíre becoming more and more of a force, politically. Weíre an economic force. You still donít see too many people who are in positions of power. You see a lot of folks who work in service industry. You see a lot of folks who are buying things in stores, but you donít see a lot of folks who are Hispanic who are heads of businesses or who are heads of universities or in the more powerful positions. In that sense, it hasnít changed as much as I would have liked. I think the changes that will come in the future -- in the next 20 years -- will happen very quickly, mainly because of the generations that come, where you see less differences.