My father had lived knowing you could never be caught after dark on the other side of the tracks if you were Mexican.
WHEN I WAS VERY YOUNG, up until I was seven or eight years old, my parents were migrant workers. We lived in San Antonio, but we traveled all over, following the crops. My dad built a trailer that we would attach to the back of the car, and all of our property would go in there. There were so many of us—I had five older brothers—that the car had no room for any stuff. I was small enough that my parents would put me up behind the seats on the back dash, and that’s where I would sleep. The whole family would sleep in the car.
When we finally got to wherever we would be working, there was usually some kind of small house, just one or two small rooms for all of us. The first thing my mother would do when we got there, even if it was the middle of the night, was line us up in a row at the back of the little place, and we would get towels or rags and open all the windows and doors. Then we would go from one side to the other shooing out all the flies and bees and bugs. Then Mom would take buckets and spray water everywhere to clean the place out. There was no running water, but my dad would make an agreement with whoever he was working for that we would at least have a potbelly stove. Whoever slept closest to it would have to get up the earliest and start the fire so we could cook breakfast.
When I was about seven, my mother decided she’d had enough. My brother Ramiro and I were much younger than all of our other brothers, and they hadn’t been able to go to school. My mother wanted to make sure her last two children got educated. So before one of my father’s trips, she just said, “I’m not going.” Dad was angry. He said, “If you’re not going, I’m going without you.” So he left.
That was how my dad found out how hard my mom worked. When she would go with him, she would work in the field all day and then come home and cook. And then clean the house. And then in the morning, she’d cook and send everyone out with a good breakfast and lunch. When my dad tried to do some of this without her, it just didn’t work. So he came back. He got teased about that a lot by our family and at parties with friends.
Around our neighborhood in San Antonio, which could be sort of dangerous, my mom was very picky about who we socialized with. There were a couple families that had just two or three kids, but the majority had from five to fifteen, and there were always kids everywhere running around and playing. I remember getting upset and saying, “Mom, why can’t I play with so and so?”
“You can,” she’d say. “Over here in the daylight.” She’d say, “Dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres,” which means “Tell me who you hang around with, and I’ll tell you who you are.” I think that had a strong influence on keeping us from—there by the grace of God go I—ending up like a lot of people in the neighborhood. There were certain houses that we just did not go to. If the kids wanted to play, they had to come to our house, where my mother could keep an eye on everyone.
Ramiro and I both graduated from high school in San Antonio, and we both went to college and then graduate school. Afterward, when I got into law enforcement, my father was extremely disappointed. This was still a time in South Texas when people who spoke Spanish were considered second-class citizens. My father had lived knowing you could never be caught after dark on the other side of the tracks if you were Mexican. If law enforcement caught you, they wouldn’t arrest you or charge you—they’d beat the daylights out of you. This kind of stuff happened to my dad and my uncle and my brothers. When I was a child, anytime an officer in uniform came up to my father, my dad would literally start shaking. And a couple of times when they asked for his identification, even though he had his driver’s license and he was a U.S. citizen, he was shaking so much that he would drop everything. I was mad at him for being so scared, but he would never tell me why. Never. I didn’t really hear about things that had happened to him until my father’s funeral, when people finally told me stories.
So when my dad found out that I was going into law enforcement, he said, “You’re turning your back on your people.” He knew friends from the neighborhood who had gone into law enforcement and changed. “You’re gonna be just like all the rest of them,” he said. But I refused to become that way. Early in my career, I refused to be part of the secretive, behind-the-scenes thing. Thank God that people like me got into law enforcement, because a lot has changed for the better. We’re here to do a job and not to abuse people. To some people’s credit, there were a lot of people who didn’t have my background or go through what we did growing up and who still wanted to change things. But early on, I never wanted to be in law enforcement in San Antonio, because as a young child, I saw the way we were treated, and I didn’t want to deal with the reaction of my relatives.
As a federal agent, on a couple cases I did have to work in San Antonio. I would go home to visit and spend some time with my family on the weekends, and eventually my father saw how I treated people. I think he realized that being in law enforcement hadn’t changed me. On one of these visits, he asked me to come to his senior citizens group for lunch. I’ll never forget, as soon as I walked in, he grabbed me. “Do you have your badge?” he asked. And I said, “Yes, it’s in my pocket.” And so he took me over to somebody, and he reached into my pocket. He said, “Look, this is my daughter,” and he pulled out the badge. I knew at that moment that that was a crossroads for both of us. He did it three or four more times. I don’t let anyone reach into my pocket, but I let him do it again and again. It was both for him and for me.