Living with 2 cultures

By Doug Snover

Cinco de Mayo. For some it’s a celebration of Mexico’s victory in 1862 over the French at Puebla. For others less historically inclined, May 5 is a day to celebrate all things Mexican.

For Kyrene Corridor resident Irene Trujillo, Cinco de Mayo is a day to reflect on her own heritage and remember with a smile her own victory of independence from a strict Mexican father in the changing world of Tempe in the 1950s and ’60s.

“To me, it’s more of a reminder of our heritage, of our culture,” she said. “When you were born here and raised here all of your life, you’re American first but you are reminded of your heritage and culture.”

Recently, Trujillo took some time from her job as a legal assistant to Tempe attorney John Burger to talk about her life as a first-generation Mexican-American and how her hometown has changed over the years.

Trujillo was born in Tempe in 1944, the last of six children of Rafael and Teresa Duarte.

“I was the only child in my family that was born in the hospital. All of my brothers and sisters were born at home,” Trujillo she said. “What is now Tempe St. Luke’s used to be the Tempe Clinic Hospital.”

“Needless to say, I’ve been around for 60-plus years. I’ve never lived outside of Tempe.”

Each of her parents had come to Tempe from Mexico as children with their families. Trujillo said her maternal grandmother lived in a rented house at what is now the Monti’s La Casa Vieja restaurant.

“They met each other at a pastime in Guadalupe. They used to have get-togethers -- fiestas -- in Guadalupe many years ago. People used to go there to listen to the music and dance.”

“You have to remember that in those days, all the women were chaperoned. Definitely the Mexican culture. That’s very much a Mexican thing. That’s the way it was in many households. My mother, of course, was always chaperoned.”

“Needless to say, my dad had eyes for my mother and that’s how they met. My mother was 18 when she married my father.”

Rafael Duarte bought some land on Rural Road between Terrace and Lemon Street, and that’s where he built a house for his wife. The house was expanded as the family grew.

“I remember living there and we didn’t even have inside plumbing,” Trujillo said. “We didn’t have television. There was ditch in front of our house for a canal. Rural Road was nothing but a dirt road.”

“I remember taking baths in these little tin tubs. I remember the outhouses.”

Today, there is a college bookstore on the land. But Trujillo is proud that her father, a man with no formal education at all, was wise enough and stubborn enough not to sell his home until former Tempe Mayor Elmer Bradley, a homebuilder of local fame, made him an offer good enough to allow Duarte to buy another home and put some money in the bank.

“He refused to sell it to ASU simply because they were not offering people enough money to relocate. Even though my father was never educated – he never saw the inside of a school – he was one of the most intelligent persons I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Trujillo said.

“My father said, no, I will not sell. I built this home and raised my family here. I do not have payments. If I’m going to relocate, it’s going to be where I can put my wife and my family in a new home and not worry about paying.”

“I think life made him intelligent. Here was a man that at 10 years old was working out in the fields. He was a man that demanded respect. Got respect. He enjoyed life. He was glad to wake up every day. He liked to celebrate. He enjoyed dancing. He enjoyed visiting. He enjoyed people. He was a great leader. He was a great provider.”

“Very strict. Very, very strict. You don’t understand that so much when you are growing up because you believe he is being mean. He taught us to respect people. He taught us to have values.”

Rafael Duarte passed away in 1983. His wife, Teresa, died in 1989 at the age of 83.

As Cinco de Mayo nears, Irene Trujillo, now over 60 years old herself, remembers her father’s strict Mexican ways and the difficulties of growing up in two cultures – the traditional Mexican culture that demanded young women have chaperones at social events and an American culture that in grade school prohibited her from speaking Spanish and made her wish that her mother would make peanut butter sandwiches for school lunches instead of traditional Mexican burritos.

“I’ll tell you, I don’t remember us ever really celebrating Cinco de Mayo as much as it is celebrated today. But we were always reminded of our heritage.”

“In my home, my mom and my dad spoke nothing but Spanish. My sisters had already started school . . . My dad told my sisters you will be going to school and you’re going to have to learn English to survive. So I guess I just picked it up through my siblings. My parents did learn English, but it was broken. They knew enough English to get by.”

“I guess I’ve always felt that I was living in both cultures,” Trujillo said. “At home there was, of course, always the Mexican culture. I was always reminded of our heritage.”

“Tempe was segregated then. When I grew up, we lived in barrios. I remember across the street from where I lived there was a big fence. Across the street from my house. And on the other side the Anglos lived. The back of their homes would be on Rural Road.”

“We weren’t allowed to talk in Spanish in school. It was just a no-no. You just could not speak any Spanish.”

“Now they teach Spanish!”

“I remember growing up with a lot of hang-ups, to be honest with you,” Trujillo said. “As proud as you are of your heritage, it was a little bit difficult. I remember that to me, a ‘lunch’ was a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and my mom would always pack burritos. We didn’t even have bread in our house. Mom used to make tortillas every day.”

“So I felt different. There definitely were hang-ups growing up.”

“I always wanted to be more active in school but, there again, dad felt like you need to be home after school. I always felt like I wanted to do more. I felt I was held back in perhaps thinking for myself and being part of the group.”

“I couldn’t make a decision. The heritage is so strong.”

Her older sisters followed a more traditional, conservative path, marrying young and raising families while teenaged Irene discovered an independent streak.

“It took me sitting down with my father. I told him, Dad you’ve taught me this life. Do you ever stop and think what I want, not just what you think I should be doing?”

“I said I think I’ve proven to you that I’m responsible; that I can take care of myself. That I do help all I can. You’re going to have to start trusting me and not be so afraid. You have to understand that these things that you want for me I want for myself too. I don’t want to go out there and mess up.

Her father, too, must have understood that he was living in two cultures. In the end, he softened his Mexican strictness and allowed Irene new freedoms, including the right to go out socially without a chaperone.

“So I won my independence from my dad.”