Interview: Maria Rodriguez

Maria Rodriguez“The summer in Texas was spent working in the corn fields to save money to work on our house in Mexico; but, some of the money went towards funding my father’s gambling habit, and he was not a very good gambler. After that we returned to Arvin. I dreamt of leaving on a regular basis…. When I was 11 or 12, I’d calculate how many buckets of onions or garlic I’d have to pick in order to survive on my own.” — Maria Rodriguez 4/14/21


Who is Maria Rodriguez?

Maria Rodriguez is a Portland-based hardware engineer for an international electronics firm. Maria was born in a small town near Monterrey, Mexico, where she lived until the age of ten, when she moved with her mother and siblings to California, joining her father and doing farm work in the Bakersfield region. A brilliant and inquisitive child blossomed into a brilliant and inquisitive adult, and evenually, Maria found herself living and working in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by a natural beauty she has come to love. I first met Maria through my wife, Lisa… the two of them hike and backpack together regularly. I was struck by Maria’s intelligence, down-to-earth charm, and, especially, her wonderful sense of humor. Plus, she tells a good story.


The Interview…

J: Where are you from originally… where’d you grow up and what was it like growing up?

M: I was born in Los Ramones, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. It’s a small town in Northeast Mexico about an hour from Monterrey, the state capital. As a kid, I remember it as a nice place to grow up, we had a lot of freedom to roam and explore. We were surrounded by family, so we couldn’t go far without being watched. Within a two block radius of the house I grew up in, I had my maternal grandparents and at least seven aunts/uncles from both sides of the family and -of course- a multitude of cousins. My paternal grandparents passed away before I was born so I never met them, but their house was catty-corner from mine and two of my aunts (the mean aunts) lived there. My maternal grandfather was a musician and my grandmother always had a business (she was a former teacher); they were both a great influence and we spent a lot of time at their house (one block away).

My father was a migrant farm worker in California so he was gone most of the year. We would only see him around the holidays for a few weeks. That changed when I was 10. He finally managed to get us all green cards, and we moved to a farm near Arvin, California. It was a big change since none of us spoke a lick of English. We still had freedom to roam but there were only two other families on the farm, just a handful of kids to play with. To add to the difficulty of having to learn a new language and try to fit into a strange mixed culture, we also had to adapt to living with a tyrannical father who was also an alcoholic and equated physical abuse with discipline and authority. My mother was always sweet and kind and did her best to take care of us, but she was no match for him. In short, growing up in California was not exactly fun.

J: I love how you told that story. I’m thinking about placing a preorder for your memoir. But I can’t wait that long… I need to know how you managed to find your way out of Arvin. And how did you develop such great English language skills? You could probably find work as a writer.

M: We lived in Arvin for a couple of years and we all worked, alongside my mother, in the summers (picking onions or garlic). Then we went to Texas for one summer on our way back to Mexico for our first visit since we migrated to CA. The summer in Texas was spent working in the corn fields to save money to work on our house in Mexico; but, some of the money went towards funding my father’s gambling habit, and he was not a very good gambler. After that we returned to Arvin. I dreamt of leaving on a regular basis, not because it was such a horrible place to live but because of my circumstances. When I was 11 or 12, I’d calculate how many buckets of onions or garlic I’d have to pick in order to survive on my own; pay rent, food, etc, even though I knew I’d have to wait until I was old enough to leave.

I have six siblings but only five of us had to move to California with my parents, the older two were already in university in Monterrey so they only came out to CA in the summers -to work and save up money for school. English came a little easier to my younger brother and I, probably because we were less inhibited at ages 8 and 10. My older siblings learned it just as well, but it took them longer and they had more of an accent.

I’ve always loved school—especially math—and I was an inquisitive kid so I asked a lot of questions. Luckily, back then, schools had funding for English tutors which was a big help. That said, my biggest motivation came from a desire to understand what was going on around me without depending on other people. My assigned “buddy” on my first day of school (last part of 5th grade) was also Mexican but she’d grown up in the U.S. and spoke both languages fluently. She was supposed to show me around and help me out but she almost got my butt kicked at recess due to a misunderstanding between me and another student. I still remember her name, Edna, and I remember that day vividly. I couldn’t stop staring at Edna. She was super tall and had a big afro (and I’d never been around black kids before). I was intrigued by Edna, and she was greatly annoyed by my curiosity and my presence. We exchanged a few words—through my interpreter—and Edna started getting angry and calling me names. I asked my interpreter what I should say in return and she told me to call her a “negra” which, literally translated, means ‘black girl”. That didn’t make any sense to me since she was clearly a black girl. So I had a side argument with my interpreter over this suggestion, while Edna hovered over me, ready to pounce. My interpreter insisted it was what I should call her, especially since Edna had already called me a wet back…and this is how I learned the “N” word (without any knowledge whatsoever of it’s true meaning). I was saved by the bell, but Edna kept her eye on me and I kept my distance…at least until I learned enough English to manage on my own. Edna and I became friends by 7th grade.

I think that experience on my first day of school, coupled with blatent exposure to discrimination and my parent’s growing dependency on me to translate for them are what pushed me to learn English quickly. Leaving Arvin, however, took quite a bit longer.

J: Oh my gosh… great cliffhanger… you’re a natural storyteller. I’m still on the edge of my seat, and I still really want to know how you managed to find your way out of Arvin.

M: I was always kind of into school and did well in my classes. When I was in high school, I was one of those nerdy kids who took classes like Physics, Advanced Biology and Trigonometry just because. I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t really have a plan or any guidance. My school counselor suggested I apply to the University of California, Santa Barbara since I would likely get a scholarship with my good grades. The only problem is that I would not be 18 before I graduated from Arvin High School and my father refused to sign the financial aid applications and provide the financial information. So, I took the only other way out I knew of and followed in my sisters’ footsteps. They had returned to Monterrey, one by one, shortly after graduating high school.

My three sisters and I rented a house together in Monterrey. My eldest sister sort of assumed the role of matriarch, by default. She had long since graduated from University in Monterrey with a degree in biochemistry and pharmacology. The next oldest was in university, pursuing a teaching degree and working. The next (only 15 months my elder) was working at a private kindergarten teaching English,  and I wanted to study Chemistry. I ended up getting a job managing a clothing store in a shopping mall and then left that to work as a secretary at a French school while waiting to enroll in university the following year. I really enjoyed a sense of liberation and independence (well, at least from my parents) during my 9 months living there but, ultimately, I realized that working and going to school in Monterrey would be extremely difficult financially and a huge challenge academically since my Spanish was not exactly at university level. I then decided to return to California; somehow, working and going to school seemed more doable in the U.S.

I stayed with my parents for a short time, then moved into an apartment with a friend from high school and started taking classes at Bakersfield Community College. I bounced around between biology, chemistry, computer science and physics to then settle into electrical engineering and eventually I transferred to San Diego State University, which is where I got my BSEE. And, that, is how I got out of Arvin.

J: It’s interesting how you struggled with English when you first left Mexico, then struggled with Spanish when you returned. I guess that shows how fully you adapted to each new situation you faced. One question that came to mind is what made it easier for the work/school arrangement to succeed in the U.S.? Was it just that you spoke better English than Spanish, or were there other factors as well?

M: Honestly, my Spanish was fine in terms of verbal communication and I could read and write it as well; but not at a college level. The thing about going to college in Mexico is that it is far more competitive. There are hard entrance exams on every subject and you have to declare a major and apply specifically for that discipline from the get go… all of which felt very intimidating. On the financial side, I was barely making ends meet while working full time so working part time was not gonna cut it and student loans were not available back then.

I knew I could manage on a part time job in the US (with a roommate) and work two jobs in the summer to save money (plus, I could get student loans if needed).

J: It’s amazing to me that you had so much focus and determination in your early years, probably because I didn’t. But you were quite accomplished at an early age. So when you got your BSEE, had you planned to become a hardware engineer at that point, or were things still up in the air? And how is it that you ended up working in Portland?

M: Ah, thanks John, but I’m not sure I can say I was truly focused. I knew I wanted to go to college and get a science degree but I fumbled around quite a bit. A degree in chemistry went out the window when I took organic chemistry… it became very confusing and stopped being interesting and fun. After that I didn’t really have a direction so I took a few programming classes, physics, more math, mechanical drafting, technical writing and engineerIng classes.  Eventually, electrical engineering sort of rose to the top.

I was taking classes at a community college for several years (part-time and sometimes full-time). Once I decided on electrical engineering, I transferred to SDSU but even then, my path to graduation took a few twists. It actually took me nine years to graduate.

My first job as an engineer was at Nokia Mobile Phones, where I worked for over 10 years. I absolutely loved the company, the people and the work. When Nokia stopped making it’s own baseband chips, I went to Broadcom Corporation along with a fair number of my Nokia colleagues and worked there for over eight years. In 2014 my business unit was shut down and I found myself looking for a job once again. While interviewing with various companies I heard about a hiring event at Intel. The office in San Diego did not have positions for HW engineers but I was offered a job in Texas or the East coast, neither of which appealed to me. But, when I was given the opportunity to interview for jobs in Portland, I decided to check it out since I had always been curious about the Pacific Northwest.

Leaving San Diego was something I had never considered up until that point and I initially decided against moving to Portland because both of my kids were in San Diego, though they were both out of the house (my daughter had already graduated from college and my son was in his second year of college). It seemed unnatural for me to leave but I really needed a change and it was my kids who eventually convinced me to take the leap. I took the job in Portland with the intention of staying two or three years—enough time to explore the PNW and figure out a path back to San Diego. That was almost six years ago… I hadn’t planned on falling in love with the beauty of nature and all that the PNW has to offer.

J: It seems to me that falling in love, truly in love, kind of sneaks up on you. The first beach sunset sparks infatuation, a misty afternoon in old growth hemlock warms your heart, and all of a sudden, as you pass your third evening with close friends in subalpine splendor, you realize an initial attraction has grown into something very real and meaningful. A person, an environment, a pup you watch grow into an old dog… it’s all the same. Love is love. Okay, sorry about that; I got a little carried away. What’s kind of funny to me about what you’ve shared is that it took me close to nine years to graduate from college, too, but for totally different reasons. I just wanted to hang out, write poetry, and ponder the universal nature of things. Kind of like I do now… it took me a long time to get back to the same spot. For you, it’s clear that you have a true talent in the applied sciences, but I wonder, do you ever just allow your imagination to drift, and if you do, where does it tend to carry you?

M: John, I love that poet spirit of yours and I love poetry. I especially enjoy poetry in Spanish and, more broadly, Spanish literature. I simply love to read. I especially enjoy historical fiction and magical realism. I love books that transport me to a different era and open the door to a different way of thinking (or feeling) about everyday life. Isabell Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are two of my favorite authors.

It doesn’t take much to let my mind drift. I am an avid day dreamer, and I love to travel. So, when I stumble across a movie that was filmed in a remote corner of the world, I want to know more. I might poke around on Google to see what might be fun to do there. I also like to research the lives of authors or artists I enjoy to get a better sense of who they are and what’s behind their book or their song. All these bits of information go into my data bank for future reference.

A couple of years ago, I went to South America on sabbatical and I deliberately spent some extra time in Santiago, Chile so I could see and experience some of the places Isabel Allende so fondly describes in her books and visit the Violeta Parra Museum (Poet/artist) and—of course—Pablo Neruda’s house and a few other sites that had been dancing in-and-out of my daydreams for years.

J: An analytical romantic. That’s so cool, and rare I think. I haven’t read many Latin American writers, but interestingly, I have read some Allende, Marquez, and Neruda. I’ll have to check out Parra. I think Allende made the strongest impression on me. So now, living in Portland, Oregon, working in hardware engineering, and drifting through seriously romantic daydreams, what happens next for you? Are you following a path or blazing a trail?

M: Allende is one of my favorites.  She’s led quite an interesting life and her books have a way of grabbing your attention right from the start.

I’m not quite sure I have a set path or that I’m blazing any trails. Right now, I’m enjoying the fact that both of my kids are grown, self-sufficient and making their way in the world. My son moved to the Portland area a couple of years ago and seems to be enjoying it and I really hope my daughter decides to give Portland a chance sometime in the not too distant future. Having them both close by again would be absolutely fantastic! In the meantime, I’m trying my best to maintain a healthy work-life balance so that I can spend some time on my hobbies and get out and explore (Covid notwithstanding).

J: So you’re setted in for now. Do you ever look back on your childhood days as an immigrant farm worker or reflect on how your life has evolved? It certainly seems to me that a child living in those circumstances would have to overcome a lot of challenges to arrive where you are now. Do you think it’s possible for others to make a similar journey, and if so, what does it take to do that? Sorry… I’ve sort of strung a lot of questions together, so pick and choose or feel free to expound as desired.

M: I do sometimes look back on my life and reflect on how things have evolved; and, yes, I do think others can overcome and succeed as well. Generally speaking, I’d say most people want their children to have a better life and make a strong effort to provide them with opportunities they never had growing up.  I’ve witnessed this in my immediate and extended family and in the Hispanic community as a whole. Self determination is a must; but, self determination coupled with family support is so much better.

The challenges I faced as a child do come to mind from time to time; but, I’ve had to face a number of other tough challenges along the way and I’ve survived and persevered as a result of hard work, determination and—frankly—a lot of luck. Having and raising two kids has been perhaps my biggest challenge… and, by far, the most rewarding.

J: I have to agree that raising children is an enormous challenge. It’s hard. I’ve really come to admire people who are good at parenting. It sounds like the bonds in your family are strong, and I think that’s pretty cool. Also I agree that hard work, determination, and some luck help get us where we’re going. And I think I would add imagination to that list, because it seems to me that people need to be able to picture what they’re working toward in order to get there. Would you agree with that?

M: Absolutely! Imagination is a key ingredient in all aspects of our lives; but, especially so in parenting.

J: Cool. Okay, so here’s a hard one… using your imagination, if you imagined a good world, not a perfect one but a decent one… what would that world look like?

M: Oh, that is a tough one. Hmm, well, without getting into world peace, solving world hunger and achieving equality for all of humanity… I’ll tell you what I think would be pretty close to perfect for me on a personal level. As I mentioned before, I’d love to have both of my kids close by again. Leaving San Diego with them still there was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I would love to see my siblings and extended family more often; but, not being greedy, I’d happily settle for having my kiddos here… and, maybe someday, I’d be lucky enough to have grandkids also close by. I’d love nothing more than to be an active participant in their lives.

Of course, if my imagination is in the driver’s seat, I’d add a fantastic partner to the mix. Someone who enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, backpacking, kayaking and all the other “ings” in and around nature; a lover of music and dancing; someone who’s into books and movies that feed not just your brain, but also your heart and soul, the kind that make you think and grow; someone who likes to travel and finds other cultures and traditions as fascinating as I do; someone who is passionate about the building the type of relationship that can only be forged through a genuine sense of self, vulnerability, authenticity, intimacy and spiritual connection.

I often joke and say that my ideal partner must have a very poor sense of direction because she hasn’t found me yet. LOL! But, maybe I’m looking at this all wrong… maybe I need to make a concerted effort to get out there and find her!

There’s a Spanish expression that sums it up for me, “Enhorabuena”, which has a wide variety of uses; to convey salutations, good health, felicitations, congratulations, farewell, best wishes and so on. Enhorabuena is a conglomeration of three words, “en hora buena”, which means “in good time”.