Chapter 3: Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Chapter 3: Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

We drove from California to my grandparents’ house, which was located in Port Isabel, a small community on the mainland across from South Padre Island, a popular vacation destination in Texas. The water is blue, the sand is white, and there are lots of resorts and tourist activities there. But this was not where we would stay. Within a few weeks my dad had found a trailer in Port Lavaca, a few hundred miles north on the coast, which was to be a stopping point until we found a permanent community. We went to the Kingdom Hall there for a while, met some people who seemed nice, but soon Dad announced that we would be moving to an even smaller town 30 miles away. There they had a tiny congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and there the ‘need was great.’

We arrived in Palacios, Texas (population 6,000 and some change) a few weeks before I started the third grade. We initially stayed in a house owned by a member of the congregation, but then moved to a trailer someone had given us, located on the outskirts of town. It was a one-bedroom trailer in disrepair. There was a large hole under the carpet in the living room—about 2 feet in diameter—where we had to avoid stepping so that we wouldn’t fall through.

Both my parents took whatever work they could find: substitute teaching, janitorial work, and for a while my dad even worked as a garbage man. Secular work for the Witnesses was simply a way to sustain our ministry. My parents threw themselves into preaching full time. According to our doctrine, The End would not come until the Good News had been preached in all the earth, and we had found a spot on the planet where we could reach new ears with The Truth.

How can I express the level of culture shock I experienced here? This was not the same Gulf Coast as the place we started from at my grandparents’ house – the water here was brown, and the beaches made from sharp oyster shells. It was stiflingly hot and humid during the summers. Stray dogs roamed the streets, and mosquitos covered my bare legs as we went door-to-door. I remember becoming fixated on the lack of sidewalks in the town. Palacios had few of them. In fact, there were a couple areas in the town where there were some proper sidewalks and I would go there and walk on them and imagine I was back home in California.

The Kingdom Hall in Palacios had less than 30 regular members, and the only other child was much younger than my brother and me. We weren’t allowed to have ‘worldly’ friends from school, so I was socially isolated. I found out exactly what it was like to be the object of irrational hatred. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in the Trinity, the Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics and Methodists did not consider us real Christians in our town. Add to that my own natural eccentricities, and our family’s extreme, self-imposed poverty and you had a recipe for an elementary school outcast. Not participating in holidays and birthdays, and not saluting the flag only alienated me further.

My social inadequacies suddenly became glaringly obvious in this new environment. In fact, they became a disability. I remember being sad and angry most of the time at school during those years. My 4th grade teacher Mrs. Hester saw me falling apart, unable to concentrate or cope in her classroom and acted. She rearranged a bookshelf in her classroom so that I could sit behind it, shielded from the other kids. I could see her at the front of the room, and view the blackboard, but I could see no one else and they couldn’t see me while I worked quietly at my desk. I’m eternally grateful for public educators like Mrs. Hester, who figured out a way to make it possible for me to learn through my emotional and psychological struggles.

Moving to Palacios was the first time I’d ever seen blatant racism and it shocked me. I remember my mom taking me to visit an elderly house-bound woman from our congregation who casually dropped the ‘N-word’ in conversation. My mom kept her composure and pointedly informed that it was, in fact, 1983 and ‘we don’t use that word’. In the car on the way home, she ranted and raved at the top of her lungs about it, though.

In school, things were highly stratified. The white kids — most of whom had parents that held the few professional jobs in town like doctors or lawyers – or were the kids of farmers were at the top of the pyramid. They loathed me, and I loathed them. I was made fun of and ignored in turn. Whispered about, laughed at and had my poverty pointed out regularly. I would fantasize about being a prison warden and having them all locked up at my mercy. Up to this point in my life, I’d never known this kind of deep, unrelenting anger.

I did have two things going for me: I was smart, and I was white. That meant that my teachers and other authority figures felt compelled to listen to me. The Mexican immigrant and Vietnamese refugee kids were treated worse than I was, and teachers rarely felt the need to do anything about it. Black kids were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy.

My naiveté quickly evaporated. I was angry, lonely, and homesick.

Downtown Palacios. I’d walk here from home just to walk on the sidewalks.

2 Replies to “Chapter 3: Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose”

  1. I follow you on twitter because we have the same view on Trump. I saw this photo and knew that this was downtown Palacios. I went to high school there my sophomore year only, the same year you moved there it turns out. I played sports so I was somewhat accepted by highly stratified is correct with the Vietnamese getting the worst of it as I remember.

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