I’ve always rooted for the underdog. My Catholic parents raised me to practice compassion toward those in need. This was the 1960s and the birth of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and our nation rose up to the challenge.
I was an 18-year-old eager to lend a hand and was thrilled to be accepted as a VISTA volunteer, working in western Nebraska with the disadvantaged. It was a turning point in my life in ways great and small.
I tutored Mexican American men in English classes and befriended a man named “Shorty” Martinez. Shorty was a migrant worker, harvesting vegetables and fruits and toiling in canning plants throughout the Midwest and Far West.
Yet he was a stranger in his own country because he lacked the communication skills he needed to get ahead.
After classes, I trekked to Shorty’s little apartment where I gave him some extra tutoring. He offered me a cup of coffee and soup heated over an electric burner and a warm smile of gratitude. Shorty was quite the cordial host. I thanked him for keeping my college Spanish from becoming rusty.
I also helped to chaperone a weekly basketball night at the local National Guard Armory, where my friend and neighbor Ralph Garcia played his heart out. He took me home to visit his parents and siblings, where we ate tacos and tamales and watched silly sitcoms on TV. I came to love the Garcia’s, who adopted me as one of their own.
I attended Mass at the local Catholic church, where Father Valdez took a liking to me and my roommate, Robert de Lara. Robert and I read biblical passages. Many of the families that Robert and I assisted attended church there, so we strengthened bonds with these humble, poor people.
Robert and I lived across the railroad tracks in the predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood where poverty flourished. We lived in a two-room abode with no running water, our electricity supplied by a power line which ran from our landlord’s house nearby. We took our showers at the local community center that sponsored us in the VISTA program. We were not as deprived as the people we served and lined up a plane ticket home after our one-year commitment expired.
These were formative times for me and I learned that humility and service are good qualities to possess.
And I also learned that you could work hard and still be poor and needy. My VISTA motto was “Helping those who help themselves.” People like my friend Shorty Martinez.
Vaya con dios, mi amigo!