Mexicans Don’t Become Nurses

The day that my mother graduated with her master’s degree, I wasn’t impressed.  I was in my twenties and still had the arrogance of youth.  I inwardly scoffed at the school she graduated from, Cal State University at Los Angeles, because I had graduated from the ivy halls of UCLA.  I scoffed at her major, which was Home Economics, because I had graduated in English literature, reading opaque tomes like Sartor Resartis and Canterbury Tales.

But what youth doesn’t always understand is struggle.

In 1942, my mother wasn’t the best student at Garfield High School in East L.A., but she wasn’t the worst, either.  Maybe some of her academic difficulties had to do with the fact that her parents were so poor that she was often hungry.  Sometimes, when she and her brother were walking home from school past the Japanese graveyard, she would eat food that mourners had set out for the dead.

My mother (R) in 1942 with her brother and mother (center).

My mother (R) in 1942 with her brother and mother (center).

At an appointment with her guidance counselor, my mother was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I want to be a nurse,” she said.  “I want to help people.”

The laugh that followed immediately thereupon was that special kind reserved for those who foolishly want to rise above their station.

“Mexicans don’t become nurses,” she said derisively.

Sally (R) at school with another Mexican-American friend

It was 1942 and attitudes like that were standard issue.  I have a dream was still 20 years underwater.  It was still standard for home sellers to restrict contracts to whites only.

That night, my mother cried herself to sleep.  A week later, she dropped out of school.  Her mother didn’t care, because she had dropped out of school in the third grade to pick fruit in the fields and now worked at a job that her friends envied, of rolling sausages at Wilson, a meat-packing plant in Vernon.  She suggested her daughter get a similar job and join the real world sooner rather than later.

Paula Martin at the meat packing plant cropped smaller

Sally’s mother, second from right, with fellow workers at Wilson Meat Packing Plant in Vernon

The job she ended up at was at a Dixie Cup factory.  Paper cups came down the conveyer belt.  She would stack them twelve high and stuff them into a plastic bag.  Then she would stack another twelve and stuff them into another plastic bag.  She would do that all day for nine hours.  It was mind-numbing work and she hated it.  And while she worked, her arms exhausting, her feet swelling from standing so long, an anger rose within her towards that counselor who had so discouraged her from being a nurse.

At age 21, Mom met a returning GI with a nice body, and within three months, they were married.  As they began planning their future, the subject of college came up.

Donald Groves in 1950 in his Marine uniform

Donald Groves in 1950 in his Marine uniform

“What’s college?” my mother asked.

Nobody she knew had ever gone to college.  But soon, it became clear to her that education was the key to unlocking the world she wanted.  So she returned to night school to get her high school diploma.  And while she studied, every so often, the memory of that discouraging high school counselor came back to her, spurring her on.

“I’ll show her,” she would think, and that thought would help her to study harder.

Along the way, my mother got pregnant a couple times and had a couple children.  But she didn’t let her responsibilities entirely block her goals.  She wanted to accomplish things.  She now had dreams beyond what her mother had ever dreamed for herself.  And every so often, the memory of that discouraging high school counselor came back to her.

Her son David at age 3

Her son David at age 3

“I’ll show her.”

When my sister and I were adolescents, my mother finally earned her bachelor’s degree.  But she didn’t stop there.  She had even greater ambitions.  She entered a graduate program, studying nutrition, consumer education, and clothing design.  She struggled most mightily with Chemistry, even took it twice, but finally earned a passing grade.  And every so often, she would think about that high school counselor.

Sally Groves studying 1

My mother studying for her Master’s degree.

“I’ll show her.”

It was a bright, sunny day in June when my mother, now a 45-year-old woman, stood in cap and gown in the CSULA college stadium and received her diploma.  I have the picture somewhere.  I’ll try to find it and post it.  For now, I will describe it.  She was smiling widely and fighting back tears.  I was a bit clueless, because college had been so easy for me.  I didn’t have to take a job to pay tuition.  English literature came easily to me.  I earned mostly A’s.  In fact, I didn’t even attend my own college graduation.

“It’s just meaningless ritual,” I told my parents.

But looking back, I realize now that my mother’s education was a gut-wrenching process.  She fought for it.  She bled for it.

In the years that followed, my mother went back to her old neighborhood in East L.A. and took a job as a professor at East Los Angeles Community College.  When she was being interviewed for the job, someone on the committee asked her why she thought she was qualified to teach students at this college.

“If I’m not qualified, nobody is,” she said.  “I was a little Mexican girl on these streets.  I was just like one of these Mexican-American girls who walk around on this campus.  These are my people.”

My mother lectured in classrooms to young women who reminded her so very much of herself, even more of herself than her own son, in many ways.  Even though she didn’t become a nurse, my mother showed that high school counselor that she could accomplish something significant in her life, even though she was Mexican, and even bested that counselor at her own job.  And eventually, I realized what it meant for someone to earn something, really earn it.

To see a presentation of this story to a corporate audience, see this YouTube link:

Update: My mother read your lovely comments today and was deeply touched.

IMG_2663 smallerIMG_2665 smaller“Wow,” she kept saying.  “Wow.  Wow.  Wow.”

Thank you for making an 83-year-old woman happy.


89 thoughts on “Mexicans Don’t Become Nurses

  1. You brought tears to my eyes, rather your mother did. I have so much respect and admiration for her and can now put her in a file in my mind reserved for things that inspire me. Thank you.

  2. I agree with Christina, inspirational and a good reminder for myself to push on as I find myself in a similar situation to hers.

  3. Your Mother is an inspiration to all women who want to better themselves through education.
    She is a grand lady and Ty for sharing her story.

  4. Congratulations to your Mother on never giving up, and to you as well for coming to an understanding of what she must have gone through. Her story is inspiring, and you honor her by sharing who she is. Thank you.

  5. Such an inspiring story. I admire her for her determination and I pray she inspires more women and young people who encounter the same difficulties in life. God bless her. 🙂

  6. I just looked at who my new blog follower was and I just couldn’t stop reading this entry. Such an inspiring story. I hope your mother continues to inspire the young as well as the old who are going through or went through the same discrimination she did. God bless her with more strength so she can continue with her noble advocacy. 🙂

  7. My mother’s mother was a brilliant student, graduated high school a couple years early, if you can believe it, and had a full-ride scholarship to college… but her father rather firmly believed that education was wasted on women and so forbade her from going. She ultimately married my grandfather, home from World War 2, and they had three children and she found the strength to go against her father’s continuing discouragement to go back for that higher education which had been denied to her.

    With her husband’s full support, my grandmother studied languages and traveled and reached a level of professional respect that I can barely imagine. The strength of will that took… I admire her for it. I have to believe that my ongoing curiosity in playing with language comes as much from her as from the Appendices in Lord of the Rings. We lost her not that long ago… she will be sorely missed.

    Thank you for sharing your mother’s story.

  8. I found your mother’s story very touching, and, while not the focal point of your piece, I really appreciated your candid appraisal of how your understanding of her journey changed over time. I actually included a link to it on my blog. (Also, thanks for following me!)

  9. A beautiful post. I am of an age where a lot of my early life was a bit of a struggle and meant hard work and dedication. A lot of people today don’t have appreciation for what it takes to be truly successful, not just financially but emotionally and personally. You have summed it up so eloquently. Thank you.

  10. I am so Wowed by your Mom’s dedication to herself. She had nothing to prove to anyone, but she dug in and dug out. She had risen above the oppressors of society. Well done to you Ma’am!! Thank you for inspiring so many. I shared your brilliant story on Google +

  11. My father too, an Italian, in those days (at war with Japan, Italy, and Germany) always wanted to be a doctor. My uncle said that he ended up getting his education at Yale and Stanford through the Navy. They wouldn’t let him get his medical degree at Stanford so he went to a school of osteopathology in LA. Luckily, they were later deemed medical-doctor qualified. But, he died a few years after he finally graduated. The family, a big one, lost two children out of six, lived in a garage, but he was the one who eventually made it out and beyond. It’s so hard when people judge you based on what you look like on the outside. I am glad she finally made it. That meat packing job speaks of what so many people are forced to do.

  12. Very inspiring! You are an excellent writer, sir. You put me in mind of my own mother, daughter of immigrants, who never gave up and earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate. She also made inroads in a highly male-dominated profession. We have so much to learn from our parents.

  13. Ah, youth . . . proud of an English Literature degree.

    Tell your mom “congratulations”. It’s worth so much more when one achieves a goal they set out to do, as opposed to “goes through the motions” because it’s what you do after high school.

    And yes, it’s much easier when you are fresh out of high school, and still in the “going-to-school” mode. Not sure I’d have what it takes to take a structured program. I’ve grown accustomed to go out and learn stuff when I need it. Thoughts of classes, homework, and tests are not appealing in the least.

  14. What a fantastic story.!! Thanks for posting. I too am a daughter of immigrants and most of the times I did not understand my parents’ struggles. That is until I finally went to Croatia and saw the humble beginnings they had come from and then it all made sense. Also thank you very much for the follow 🙂

  15. I’m a kat and I don’t go to college, but the human is so touched by your mother’s story- and by your love fur her and your (obvious) pride in her accomplishments. She did an amazing thing and my human is proud of her. The human also fought against discouragement and physical pain and adversity to go to college and graduated as well. It was not an easy thing to do…especially since she didn’t have me around at the time to give her love and keep her going.

    Paws up to you and your Mom!


  16. Times then were harder for some than others. I had a hard time myself with schooling when I was getting through elementary school. my health problems I had of 7 in total were a memory problem, poor circulation, being pigeon-toed, constant allergies & took Benadryl & still do, an introvert, moving all the time from place to place because my dad found places he thought were good which made my life harder when we moved, low blood sugar & pressure, which at 5 years of age I went to see my personal family doctor & fell off the seat I was sitting on along with falling in my food because I was exhausted after playing all day & blood sugar & pressure would drop so after going to hospital & staying overnight for them to give me enough sugar water along with orange juice, I was good for the rest of my time with them. Sorry my sentence there was so long. I had such a time after they died, so I had to look in the library when I was homeless & got my cousin to help me to get a few things to be able to feel better at being open to people. If you read more, you will find out about my childhood some more. Thanks for following my blog & checking it out.

  17. Absolutely love this. As a young person myself, I can see how my own attitude toward education & life in General can be seen as cavalier by the good folks who’ve had to work so much harder than I ever did for things I just take advantage of. I didn’t attend my own graduation either — seemed a little pointless to me (plus, I knew no one would be there.) so glad you shared!

  18. What a blessing to read of your mom’s triumph.
    Perhaps my donkey poem lassoed you in and now I’ve met another marvelous writer.
    I’m 73 years old and taught art for 33 years in the NYC High Schools. Chose the job because all cultures and sexes were paid equally.
    Looking forward to your insights and sharing.
    Jeanne Poland

  19. Loved this, because it was raw and honest, because it was uplifting and elegant and because it was empowering and human. I related, even though my mother did not go to college – she was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known – and I too scoffed, because education came easily for me as well. But now that she’s gone, not a day goes by that I wish I had her guidance and love. Appreciate your mom (and your dad) big time!

  20. Your mother is an inspiration. I’m a white male, 51 years old, and I was spoiled as an adolescent and never finished college. Now, I have put two sons through universities and my wife is graduating with her nursing degree this May at 47. I will graduate with my BA in Organizational Leadership in 2015. I am working hard to do this and even though I was almost 40 before I started thinking about my degree I am glad I am almost done. It will be one of my proudest moments to walk in my cap and gown at 53.

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