In 1961 as an 11 years-old kid, my family moved from Princeton NJ to Bunker Hill Village in Houston, Texas. It's wasn't a village, but one of a group of probably red-lined communities that was known as the villages.
Coming from a New Jersey elementary school with religious and racial diversity, I was plunked into the all-white Spring Branch Junior High School. I might as well have landed in Mao's 1960s China, for I was truly a stranger in a very strange land without winter. And without Jewish, Roman Catholic and black kids.
In my new 7th grade class, nubile girls wore garter belts and stockings to school; had professionally coiffured, helmet-head hair that couldn't move or melt in the eternal humidity of Houston and parents who smoked and drank while hosting "petting parties" for their preternatural teens.
It was way out of my tree climbing league.
With my lazy eye, uncouth hair, crooked teeth and Peter Pan-collared hand-me-down, little girl dresses, my swinging was on a swing set trying to reach for the skies with my feet. As for petting parties, it sounded like something I'd do with my dog as we sat outside.
Then LIFE magazine shined a spotlight took on my middle school in its August 10, 1962 issue with a cover story entitled, "Boys & girls too old too soon. America's subteens rush toward trouble."
My middle school was more sexy Lolita than the purity of The Patty Duke Show. The LIFE article not only challenged my naiveté, for what was a petting party? It also caused me to begin to realize that I'd never be Patty Duke popular with a boyfriend.
Maybe it was Texas, where things like mold and cockroaches and scorpions grew up too fast in a climate that always seemed too damn hot--even before Global Climate Change. I loved my wool skirts, but couldn't wear them to school without sweating--a deadly act in a pre-adolescent, insecure girl.
Then there were scholastic challenges. In the move from one school system to another, I had missed a year of grammar, but had to waste time for an entire year studying Texas history. In New Jersey, where historic sites were within spitting distance, it had only taken one season to do the Revolutionary War. Texas was definitely different. It had more snakes.
So we spent a year studying the history of Texas. We drew colored maps of the myriad Spanish missions, learned about the war that had saved Texas from the Mexican intruders to the south and cheered as we were taught that the reason the Mexicans were beaten at San Jacinto was because they'd taken a siesta, lazy dogs. We were taught the John Wayne version of The Alamo, lots of macho anti-Mexican talk was involved, words like greaser, spic and wet back.
Well who wouldn't get a wet back crossing a river to go to north?
From 1995 to 2001 while living in Mexico City, I'd run into all sorts of questions about why we lived in Mexico. I still do.
Some would ask, not so jokingly, "Are you being punished?"
Others confusedly would ask, "How far was it from Albuquerque?"
But the saddest question demonstrated the lowering of American education standards. "What do they speak? Mexican?"
Nevertheless, I loved Mexico City. The history was deeper than my small exposure to Mexico in Texas had taught me. I learned that Mexican history reached back thousands of years with cultures way more developed than the hovels of Europe during the same time period. There's a lot more to Mexican history than just heart-stopping Aztecs.
So I signed up for an English-language History of Mexico Class at the prestigious Ibero-American University, a 12 minute drive from my home. The class would include homework, papers and exams in English, and the opportunity to delve into Mexican History from the other side of the border. Everything I'd ever learned in my homeland's version of our two countries relationship, was more nuanced in class and readings. It was eye-opening and gave context for a popular Mexican phrase attributed to Porfirio Díaz.
Poor Mexico. So far from God, so close to the United States.
Moving on throughout my life, I landed in the early 2000s for ten years at The Art Institute of Chicago as a volunteer at public information stations. The day I was asked by a rather perturbed visitor, why works by Mexican artists like Diego Rivera and Tamayo were hanging in the American wing, I responded without losing a beat. I explained to her that American is not a term only for the USA, but actually covers all of the Americas as in North America, Central America and South America.
"We're all Americans!" I burbled.
Her eyes glared at me unhappily, showing that she did not buy that nonsense. To her the USA was the one and only America. I held my ground, smilingly. If only she had my experience.