From August to December 2019 I worked as a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) at a small school district in Northern California. The location was in the Salinas Valley and the geography is agricultural. The primary language spoken in the community is Spanish. I arrived in August just after school had started. The best and most amazing memory is the welcoming I received from my colleague Luisa. She had been working in the district for 6 years. Upon meeting me for the first time she gave me the biggest hug and made me feel so welcome and appreciated with both her words and her presence. Another woman was also working with us and she welcomed me warmly as well. She would be assisting us in setting up schedules, calling parents and translating between the Spanish and English speakers at IEP meetings.
Prior to accepting this assignment, I had been very clear with the district that I was not a bilingual SLP and that my ability to understand and speak Spanish was very limited. Fortunately, Luisa was a bilingual SLP and we shared a room, therefore I was able to access her expertise when it came to me better understanding the best way to assess and understand the language development of the students for whom we provided services. She had learned English as a second language and had been studying the bilingual aspects of language development for at least the 6 years she was working in this school and as part of her graduate work. I was interested to learn about her story from the perspective of living and learning in the Hispanic culture of her family in Mexico and the United States, as well as how she learned language and the impact of literacy and language on her experiences.
We also had many discussions about the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Speech and Language Development as we were working in a school district with a high rate of poverty, which included adverse situations including nutritional challenges, adequate sleep challenges, violence, addiction to screens and violent video games as well as the additional challenge of learning English as a Second Language. The majority of students had their first introduction to English in Preschool or Kindergarten.
Luisa has her own unique story and it really influenced her work as a Speech Language Pathologist as well as her faith. She was not only present for me but is present each student who opens the door and steps into her room. She has two beautiful children and husband who she is present for as well. The power of presence was the motto in our room.
It is my intention to share Luisa’s story here so that you too can see how each individual comes to their work, with their own unique experiences, which influence their understanding and beliefs about the world and the role they play. In my work with Luisa we used a tool called Story Grammar Marker (MindWing Concepts, Inc), which I had been using in the schools where I had previously worked. Luisa’s story below is organized around responses to questions I posed regarding the Character – Luisa, where she lived or worked (the setting), and the significant events occurred at each stage of her development (Initiating events) and how she felt and responded to them as well as how they influenced her life in her relationships and in her work (her internal responses).
The following story was written by Luisa:
Her Earliest Years
Ages Birth -5: I was born in Veracruz, Mexico. I was named after my father and my name means warrior. My maternal grandmother would watch me sometimes. I loved my grandma—she seemed to be the only person to pay attention to me. I loved to play in her house’s “room of random things,” usually on my own or with a cousin. I liked looking at the comic books I would find, and I loved to make castles with the piles of sand in her front yard. My mother spent her time cooking and cleaning at home—I do not have any memories of either one of my parents engaging with me as a child. I have asked my mother what I was like as a child but she can’t tell me much other than I would pinch my little brother when he was born two years after me.
I remember my mother enrolling me in Kindergarten when the year had already started. I was 5 years old. She bought me a desk so I could do homework. It being February, all the other children seemed to know how to read and do math, and I felt out of the loop. My Kinder teacher wore straight knee-high skirts and long-sleeve button up shirts even with the oppressive tropical weather of the Gulf of Mexico. I remember the dreariness of the classroom and its cement-grey walls even as it sat alongside the sun-lit courtyard, in a hacienda-style building. I don’t remember anything about my teacher other than her telling us to do our reading and math work while everyone listened quietly. Once they had a piñata party, but I had to stay in the classroom alone because I didn’t know how to complete my homework. A kid brought me back a bag of candy. I can’t remember much about Kinder but between February and May, I had learned how to read fluently in Spanish.
My father (20 years older than my mother) was usually not home—he would travel often to tend to one of his businesses or another. My father “provided” and my mother was to clean, serve him his food, and take care of the children. And she did. Even when I would be sick in bed, she would bring me my food and leave the room—back to cleaning. All was well as long as we stayed home and stayed quiet. Once my mother took us to a neighborhood kids birthday party while my father was out of town. She always liked to take us places. When we got home, my dad had made a surprise return. He demanded to know where my mother had gone. She tried to explain we were just down the street at a birthday while he held her wrists against the metal kitchen door while my brother and I huddled and sobbed. My mother was able to free herself by defending herself with a fork.
Early Academic Years:
Ages 5-9: One day, my father said, “Get in the car” and my family and I went on a long drive. When I woke up, we were in Guadalajara, Jalisco—one of the largest cities in Mexico and our new home. I started private school at 5 years old in 1st grade and completed 4th grade there. It was a school that offered English classes in the afternoon. This was the first time I had books to read. I would read the stories in my book for the year and finish it in a day or two. I wished I could read more stories. At recess, I had no friends but did have occasional playmates. I would improve my grades as a personal goal for my teachers offered no praise or incentive. I would not know that teachers praise students for doing well until I moved to the U.S. I would show my mother the illustrated stories I made. She would tell me that I was intelligent—that I would be a doctor. I took it as a statement of fact. When she would say that to others, they would reply, “She’s smart like her dad.” It made me feel like I would have serious plans ahead of me.
I remember always playing unsupervised, alone or with my brother, somewhere in that 7-bedroom home—digging holes in the backyard... attempting to play pool in the billiard room... sliding down the staircase railing... running around the flat roof of the house.
Once my parents decided to go shopping without us. They locked the gate and said they’d be back. My 5-year old brother did not like that. He did not want to be alone and wanted to go over to see his friend next door. So, he started pulling and yanking on an extension ladder we had in the parking area while yelling and crying. My 7-year old self didn’t know what to do, so I thought it best to help him so he would stop crying. We propped up the ladder so it would reach the top of the two-story marble-covered wall that separated us from our neighbors. My brother climbed. Once at the top, he yelled, “David! David!” But the ladder started to slip. It leaned and tilted until it came crashing down, leaving my brother barely hanging from his 5-year old hands. “Hold on!” I yelled. I ran into the house and gathered all the cushions I could find and placed them under my brother. When his hands couldn’t hold on any longer, he started to slip down the wall. I could hear his sweaty palms squeak as he slowly slid straight down. Half -way, I saw his body pull back and leap onto the pile of cushions I had scavenged, seemingly intact. He got up and fell asleep on the couch. When my parents got home, they heard the staccato sighs and gasps of my brother’s sleep—the tell-tell sign of someone who had been sobbing. Guilt-ridden, I recounted our adventure. “You shouldn’t have done that,” they told me.
Grammar School – Middle School
10-16: One day, my father said, “We’re going to the airport,” and we flew to southern California. This would be our new home. My father spent a bit more time with us in this house. He would tell us a few of his stories growing up. Like growing up the youngest of 13 children and getting kicked out of his house when he was 5 along with all of his siblings when his father got remarried after his mother passed away. And the beatings. With cable wire gathered into a switch. By his older brothers. I never saw my father drink, smoke, or engage in any similar behavior. He insisted that we never drink or smoke because people who did are stupid. That stuck with me. I wondered if his siblings’ beating stories and drinking warnings were related. Besides warning me against vices, he showed me how to wind up a hose around my forearm to put it away. Those are the two things my father taught me how to do.
I started 5th grade. I understood nothing any of my white classmates or teacher said in my new school in California. My teacher gave me the Spanish version of the class textbooks. I, along with two other students, was assigned to work with a Spanish-speaking aide during the reading block. I was surprised to hear praise from my teacher for doing what I thought was the lowest of bars of student expectations: doing my work, studying, and not be disruptive. By December, I was at the 6th-grade reading level in English and was transferred into the advanced reading group. Also, (at my insistence and against my teacher’s strong advice) I had traded out my textbooks for the English ones. By the end of my first year in California I had straight As.
My brother and I got yelled at a lot whether something was our fault or not. If I had an emotional response, I would be ordered to stop crying. In public, my father would say in his broken English, “My daughter is the best student in her class.” At home, I was often called dumb, ugly, and fat.
I continued to focus on school—it was easy. It made me feel good to have adults say positive things about me. I would participate in every academic event and competition possible—from the science fair to competitive speaking. I usually did not win, but I loved the thrill of trying. At home, upon seeing my reports cards with As and A+s, my father would just say, “What is the use? You’re just going to end up getting married and taking care of children.” I began to hate having been born “just a girl” and everything that came with it, like being told to do the dishes because I was a girl and it was my job. School was the only place where I felt good about myself. At 16, my father announced that he was tired of his business in the U.S. and wanted to go back to live in Mexico. I asked if I could stay with my half-brother and his family so that I could finish my studies. I met him for the first time in 6th grade. I remember opening the door to him and seeing my father’s younger spitting image in a naval officer uniform. By the time I was 16, my half-brother (two years younger than my mother) was a chaplain at a naval air force base in southern California and had children my age. They had just come back from living in Guam and would be around for a while. My family agreed.
16-21: I began my junior year at a high school in the California desert. Living with my half-brother’s family was quite different than living with my own. I had to share a room. I had to do chores. Everyone was busy: my brother—a full-time chaplain, his El Salvadorian wife—a full-time nursing student, and their three children in high school. Instead of being chauffeured by my mother to my extracurricular activities, I now had to find my own ride. My choir experience at my previous high school came in handy as I also had to help lead song service for church and for the base chapel service—this was my first experience in church. At the time, it was another opportunity to get pats on the back. I do not remember any of the messages, but I know I did not know what the Gospel of Jesus Christ was, just that the “right” behavior was attending church.
I graduated valedictorian and enrolled at a private Christian university in southern California when I was 17. My father had paid for all of my half-sibling’s university tuitions. I think I have 7 or 8 much older half- brothers and sisters from my father’s previous marriages, most in Mexico. Not that anyone offered, but it was important for me to pay for things for myself and had up to 7 part-time jobs at once to cover expenses beyond my scholarships and loans.
I gave up on my desire to become a dentist (I had long moved on from thinking I wanted to be a doctor) after taking chemistry and receiving my first “C.” Perhaps it was not a good idea to take this 8am class after finishing the graveyard shift as a campus security dispatcher. I wasn’t used to failing and anything short of an “A” was a failure to me. During the summer, I would visit my family in Mexico. My father suffered a significant stroke and his business ventures began to collapse, except for a corner drugstore that my mother ran. I continued my studies rather aimlessly, taking French and advanced Spanish for fun. My French-language lab instructor encouraged me to study abroad. I had a tendency to pursue things that came easily to me, so I thought, “Why not?” I remember calling my mother when I was 18 to share my plans to study in France. “No, you can’t go. It’s too far away,” she told me from Mexico. “Mom,” I said, “I was calling to inform you, not ask for your permission.” “Oh, okay,” she replied. I wondered as to why she thought she would have a say, feeling like she had been rather uninvolved in my life and upbringing.
I spent a year studying abroad in France, close to Geneva. I found advanced grammar exciting. I would create my own phonetic exercises and practice pronunciation with Céline Dion’s music or with my good friend—a seminary student from the French Antilles. My professors would say, “If I closed my eyes, I would think you were French when you speak.” During the Christmas break of my junior year back in California, my mother let me know that my father had died a couple months before. She said she did not let me know when it happened because she did not want to disrupt my studies. It seemed odd to me to not have been made aware—it made me feel even more “separate” from this family I had been given, but I moved on.
I ended up majoring in French and minoring in Spanish. Although the plaque from my department declared I was the “Most Outstanding Student,” I had no plans for the future. As graduation approached, I was offered a position teaching Spanish at my university as well as a job teaching French at a local school. At the time, I thought it best to return to France as an English-Language Assistant at a high school in an Arabic ghetto.
As a Young Adult
22-31: At 22, I returned to California as did my mother and brother. Without work prospects, I took a job temping at a large machinery company in San Diego while once again living with my half-brother and his family who had just returned from a long stay in Puerto Rico. At work, I was told that “everything I touched turned into gold” and was offered a position in the sales team. I turned it down to attend a pricey international grad school in the central coast of California, again funded by loans. I would meet the future father of my children in French Club. He was yoga-loving slightly younger man from Iowa who had grown up with an alcoholic father (now in recovery) and a bipolar and estranged mother. I completed the program in 2 years, and I was now 25. Dissatisfied with the job prospects of a Master’s in International Policy (i.e. unpaid internships, needing to travel to major cities or abroad in order to secure work, etc.), I looked elsewhere. I was tired of all things “international.” By now I had stopped going to church and was completely uninterested.
One of my younger relatives in med school told me about speech and language pathology. He had completed his undergraduate degree in that area. He thought it might be a good fit for me since I liked languages. Not knowing anything about it, I called up the closest university program that offered it in northern California. There was only one question on the other side of the phone: Do you speak Spanish? I was offered a full grant for 3.5 years on the spot. I was slightly offended at the idea that someone would offer me an advantage for something that took no effort or merit, but I was also intrigued and did not want additional student debt. I got married and completed the program, not without frequent encouragement from my mentor professor. I often wanted to quit and do something else. The only areas that interested me in speech pathology were bilingual assessment, phonetics, and audiology. Everything else was not so much my taste or interest—particularly, working with children. I could never do that, I thought. In my family, teaching was considered a low profession and I knew that speech pathologists in the schools were often referred to as “speech teachers.” I continued and took the first Clinical Fellowship Opportunity that came my way with a small contracting company that sent me to various settings working with adults: hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, clinics, and home health. Every week, my schedule would be unpredictably different — assembled by the owner’s daughter. The knots in my stomach at the prospect of not knowing what to expect kept me from sleeping well every Sunday. The only highlight to my time in that work setting was providing services to an 80-year old lady from the Azores. I did the best I could to quickly learn some basic Portuguese and we had a good time in therapy. Aside from that, I was thrilled to get pregnant so that I could leave this anxiety-producing job without having to provide an excuse.
31-36: My son was born. I was 31. I was glad it was a boy. Quickly, I began to get depressed. I was now “just” a mom staying home and taking care of children just as my father had prophesied. I took to watching health videos on YouTube. I watched videos on various self-didactical topics and enjoyed learning new things. I wondered what I would teach my child about God. I had no answers for him. I tried to sit and read the Bible, but it didn’t make sense to me. I decided I would try to “not believe in God” like most of my sophisticated acquaintances, but as I looked around nature and the perfect design of fruits and foods and animals and the universe, that seemed impossible and nonsensical. Still, religion seemed shallow. One day, I glanced on the side of my video feed and saw a video still of an old bearded man in the woods with a caption about God. I thought I would get a good laugh from his ratings, so I clicked on it. It was a short video and what the old man talked about was simple. He said that God is Holy. Holy. I had never thought about that word, Holy. The man said that, because of sin (our natural tendency to think we are our own boss), we are separated from God, our Father. Sin and holiness cannot coexist. God certainly doesn’t need us. But because God is, not only Holy, but also a loving Father, He made a way to be with us--the sacrifice of Jesus. He didn’t need to do it but He did. That was all. End of video. I had never heard this. I had attended church for over 5 years, and I had never heard this. There is no natural explanation but, when I heard this, something happened. I felt a pain in my heart in a way that one grieves when one is deeply sorrowful over having done something wrong—yet no one was accusing me. Christians call it “repentance.” I prayed the first real prayer I had ever prayed, and I asked Jesus Christ to be my Lord. My way of thinking started to change. I learned to enjoy my little boy and to be happy being a mom. I felt Jesus showed me I had to heal from bitterness and feeling less than—and that I could trust the work He had already done for me (on the cross) so that I could receive the healing of my soul as He led me to think and process and let go. I no longer sought- after pats on the back to feel that I had value. My husband did not share my new views on God.
A couple years later, my daughter was born. All three of us had wonderful times living in a cottage close to the central California beach. My husband and I had become just co-parents in the same house but I was okay with that. We divorced when my daughter was 3 and my son was 5. My children and I were very sad. One night, as I cried and prayed about the future I thought I would have (i.e. a mom and dad family, homeschooling my children), I opened my Bible randomly and right in front of me, I read these words: “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your Maker is your husband— the Lord Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. Though the mountains be shaken, and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you. All your children will be taught by the Lord, and great will be their peace.” I knew all would be okay.
The Next Phase of Adulthood
36-42: I once saw a cartoon where someone was on a job interview. The interviewer asked, “Why do you want this job?” “I’ve always been passionate about not starving to death,” came the response. That’s how I felt for a long time about my job. Especially after the financial decision of sending my children to private school since I wouldn’t be able to home school. After five years of happily staying home, I had to go back to work and schools were now an attractive work environment to maximize time with my children. I had to stay in the same county in California as my ex-husband, per the divorce/custody agreement. I began working in a school district. I got married, again, 2 years after the divorce. I have come to appreciate working in the school systems. I enjoy problem-solving and facilitating conversations that bring people together to create solutions. In this time, I have also lost two babies in the ER. Also, because of unexpected personal family circumstances, I have come to learn more than I ever wanted about the effects of severe childhood trauma. I’ve also become the caretaker for my husband who is currently disabled. Someday we’ll be able to buy another house to replace the one I had to sell to help pay for medical expenses. My children are my passion and I am committed to teaching and guiding them to be merciful, feel valued, be facilitators of genuine communication, and to walk with Jesus—the one and only hope we have for true healing.
I am so grateful for Luisa for having the courage and willingness to share her story. I hope those who read it will learn and gain perspective about the power of our individual experiences. For being curious and gaining increased understanding of the journey we are all on. On the power of presence. And how when we take time to reflect on our experiences, we become more self-aware and grow and learn more about ourselves.
I welcome your responses and questions as you learn more about Luisa.