Updated: Sep 11, 2020
Ruben was born in Texas to a Mexican family with ten children, an abusive and alcoholic father, and an inattentive and dysfunctional mother. When he was nine, his family moved from New Mexico to a migrant labor camp in Oregon, where he had to work from sunup to sundown picking produce.
As a young brown person, he felt great shame growing up in poverty. He dropped out of school at the age of 16. But he turned that shame into persistence, fathering four children and eventually earning a master’s degree. (Ruben is the second person I’ve interviewed who dropped out of high school and went on to earn a master’s degree; the first was Dennett Edwards.)
Ruben’s is a story of grit and resilience, personified. Because Ruben is a writer and podcaster, I thought I’d share some excerpts of his own writing to give you a glimpse of his story:
“The year was 1967. I was six years old...I woke up a few times a week in the middle of the night to the sounds of a screaming mother being thrown up against the wall by a drunk father...
Seconds later, my oldest brother would say ‘Hurry, get your shoes on so when Dad passes out we will just have a few seconds to run to the car before he wakes up.’ We parked in old, dirt driveways and waited out Dad’s drunken, violent episodes...
As a 9-year-old living in a migrant camp in North Plains, Oregon, I had to watch my back...I knew that the kids on the bus most likely were going to ask if we lived in the dirty, run-down camp next to the bus stop. ‘Lazy Mexicans that pick berries live at that camp,’ I heard one kid say as we boarded the bus. I turned around and yelled, ‘I work every day from six in the morning until five in the evening...You have no right to call us lazy.’
At school, the secretary said, ‘The deadline for signing up for free lunch is over so you will have to work the food line to get a free lunch.’ I was starting school late that year, in October, because I had to work until we finished picking the season’s berries. She told me, with the other kids listening, that I’d need to bring coffee containers for collecting leftover food from the school lunches. My heart pounded with shame. The word would soon get out.
All the kids I met in class that day saw me at lunch. My face was red, my palms sweaty, and my heart raced as they watched me put leftover food in coffee cans. They pointed and whispered. They laughed behind their books.
‘Look, he’s taking our leftovers home to feed his beaner siblings,’ one kid said.
As the school year progressed, I experienced name calling and bullying: ‘hey, wetback, b*****, n*****, go back to Mexico,’ kids told me. I began to realize that I had two strikes against me: one was being poor. The second was having brown skin.
One day a couple of pickups drove up to the camp. The trucks were full of white supremacists waving sticks and bats, along with sharp objects. Many of them had tattoos of swastikas on their arms and on their foreheads. I was young, so I stayed to the side, but my oldest brothers jumped into the fight. As the men got out of the trucks, I could hear weapons clinking on the pavement. They began hitting camp residents. I could hear fists hitting heads. I saw blood splattering as they threw blow after blow. I heard one man yell, ‘Long live white power, we will teach you not to live in our town!’ Men with sticks pounded some of my brothers’ heads. Blood streamed from the sides of some of the men’s ears. I heard a loud crack and looked down to see an attacker throw a brick at my older friend, Thomas. Thomas cried out, ‘I can’t feel the whole left side of my head, someone please help.’
When I was 16, my hope for a future was slowly fading. I realized school was not for me. I felt, alone, desperate, and misrepresented as a young Mexican teen with few options and no family or sibling support. I soon understood that between shame, white hatred, and being poor, I had nothing to win and everything to lose if I stayed in school...I decided to quit my cooking job, stop going to school, and move to Beaverton to change my life. I bought my first car for $500.”
One Saturday night I was driving around town with my two older brothers. We pulled into the gas station on the corner of Murray and Tualatin Valley Highway. I was taking the gas cap off when I heard a voice say, “You f*cking Mexican, you don’t deserve any gas.” A group of six young white men began yelling, “we’re going to kick your black ass and kill you if we have to.” They had pulled both my brothers out of the car and begun punching them in the face and shoved their faces down on the ground. They began hitting me and I fell to the ground, where boots smashed me in the head until I blacked out.
I vowed to forget that experience, put my feet on the ground and push forward.
Throughout these experiences I developed anxiety. I felt shame. I lost time that I could have had truly experiencing and loving life and others around me.
I worked as a cook, ran a fast food restaurant, was an Outdoor School counselor, and owned a lunch truck, a café, two coffee stands, and a catering business. I also finished furniture. I was in a constant reinvention mode, always wanting more but lacking the confidence, experience, or know how.
I was spinning my wheels and wasn’t truly grounded. But I knew there was more to life than just working to survive.
As I rounded my ‘30s, the old messages from my younger years kept playing back in my mind, ‘You're not good enough, your ethnic background makes you inferior, your past defines you.’ But my thirst for knowledge kept nagging at my heart. I kept hearing my school counselor say, ‘You should become a machinist like your father.’ It was time to make a change.
I enrolled in a community college to finish my diploma. The ghost of my past kept talking to me in my sleep and stirring my soul to do more. Over the next five years, I finished college, earning a bachelor's degree in social science. I was the only member of my family to earn a college degree. At graduation, when I walked up to receive my diploma, I felt like I finally was worth something of value. I was proud; my life was starting anew.
As I grew older, I realized that I could help others through my line of work. I was a Latino advocate and a grief counselor, working with communities of color and advocating for kids who grew up like me. My heart has always been my leader. By writing, I have been able to share my experiences and also help guide my kids and friends along the way. I have learned that through writing, support, and love I can find ways to reach others and keep myself on solid ground.
I worked for Multnomah County as a Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) school site manager, an after-school program for at-risk kids. We were faced with a failing school, with the majority of kids Latino and African American. That year, I began bringing in partners to help provide after-school life enhancement classes. I built partnerships with about 30 non-profit organizations to help provide support and enhancement for children who were at risk of failing or dropping out. The original state score was a D. In two years’ time we were able to help kids in SUN schools succeed in math, reading, English, and spelling.
During this period, many parents asked me to advocate for their children. ‘They don’t have a chance and they need a voice and support from the county to succeed in life,’ they told me. Having experienced similar issues as a child, it was easy to understand their concerns. Stanford University took notice of our program’s success and invited us to present to seniors and school administrators. They eventually used our model in many of their Northern California after-school programs.
I asked myself, ‘How could I have made a difference in all this?’ I felt like there had to be a mistake; how did this come to fruition and was it really my doing?
Suddenly I was making a difference for kids growing up with similar challenges I had faced as a child. Suddenly there were scholars from a top university asking me for advice about how to set the wheels in motion for their schools.
Today I’m 58 years old, with a Bachelor's in Social Science and a Master’s in Education. I have spoken about the SUN program at Stanford University and have spoken at national grief symposiums. I have worked as a grief counselor for the Dougy Center and as a recruiter, earning a decent living.
I have managed to eliminate the first strike against me--growing up poor. But the second strike against me I deal with every day.
In spite of my education and accomplishments, people still judge me by my skin color. People still ask me to pump their gas while I’m at a gas station. They ask me for chips and salsa when I’m out to dinner and making my way to the bathroom. And just a few months ago, a woman asked me to fix the pins stuck in the bowling lane when I was out bowling with friends. The second strike against me remains. I’m still trying to figure out ways to overcome it--for me and other people of color.”
Quite a resilience story, isn’t it? Not only did Ruben have a violent, alcoholic father, but his mother went on to marry another abusive man, Ruben’s stepfather. Ruben became a father at a young age, and without any positive role models for parenting, he became the father he never had. He also served as a mentor and role model for a young man named Jorge, who went on to take over the SUN program and become successful in his own right.
On the next “Three Men of Color, Redefining Fatherhood” episode I interview Charles Jackson II, a Black man who grew up in Florida. He had a conflicted relationship with his father, choosing not to carry on his father’s name when he had his first son...although he reconciled with his father before he died. Charles served in the U.S. Marine Corps, works as a field security officer for Jacobs Engineering, and has two side gigs: as founder of Charles Jackson Relational Leadership and as cofounder of You Before Me, a marriage coaching business. We talk about racism and #BlackLivesMatter, his career, marriage, and fathering two young Black sons.