A Testimonia from San Antonio

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Maria Antonietta Berriozábal is quite beautiful at the ripe age of 71, but don’t let her striking looks and quick laugh distract from her tough politics and quicker tongue. As we sat down to cold lemonade and slices of blueberry loaf in her turn-of- the-century San Antonio home, Maria dug around in her purse, while I wondered how the hell I was going to glean any new information from a woman who had written more than 300 pages about her life. Her memoir, Maria, Daughter of Immigrants, was recently published.

“I have to put on my lipstick before doing an interview,” she informed me matter-of-factly before applying a layer of plum color. Beneath the table, her cat twirled figure eights between my legs.

Berriozábal’s story is similar to that of many Latinos of her generation. She is a child of immigrant parents, and she spoke Spanish at home until she learned English in school. Upon graduation from high school Berriozábal, née Rodriguez, worked full time to contribute to her parents’ income. “My mission was to help my parents so that my brothers and sisters could finish school and then go on to college,” Berriozábal writes in her book. “I didn’t develop the idea too deeply.”

Her lack of planning proved to be the roundabout means to her success. Though she did not attend college until well into her 30s, she had a successful 40-year career in public service and was a formidable political activist. She served on the San Antonio City Council, the Inter-American Commission of Women of the Organization of American States and the participated in the 1995 World Conference on Women, to name a few of her accomplishments.

She is the first to claim that her story may be typical, but unlike many people with a similar background Maria Antonietta Berriozábal is a household name in San Antonio. She has been a statewide symbol of the Chicana experience since she became the first Mexican American woman elected to the San Antonio City Council in 1981. She was on the council for a decade and ran unsuccessfully for mayor. Berriozábal is also historically significant as one of the first Mexican American women on the national political stage.

Her book reflects her groundbreaking political career. Yet her autobiography can be wordy at times—the result of the 20 years of journaling that inform the book. Still, her lengthy personal history is surprisingly engrossing: Maria, Daughter of Immigrants barrels through 30 years of family history, as Berriozábal chronicles how her father and his family journeyed wearily to the United States just before the Mexican Civil War and their years as farm workers in South Texas. Her account, while deeply personal, is similar to that of many experiences in the Mexican American immigrant community: “This is a testimonia,” Berriozábal tells me about her book. “It is a memoir within a political context, a womens’ rights context, a racial context, etc. It tells a story but keeps to reality … it is the story of a group of people, with my own personal experience.”

Her style can be disconcerting: Lists and notes appear throughout the book detailing her political and personal life as one would a grocery list, yet it is clear that the book has been carefully edited. (Readers might have a hard time buying the legitimacy of the 31-year-old Berriozábal’s scandalized response when her future husband asked her to visit him at his home in New Orleans: “‘I don’t visit men,’ [she] said emphatically.”). Non-Spanish speaking readers may also find themselves frustrated by the lack of thorough translations for the many Spanish passages. Despite Berriozábal’s vague re-wordings, Spanish passages and conversations are often inaccessible without a complete translation for her Anglophone audience.

Autobiographies, as a rule, are formulaic—the author shares a childhood struggle, growth to adulthood, a struggle and a triumph over struggle. Maria, Daughter of Immigrants is no different, but what distinguishes Berriozábal’s autobiography from the average retired politician’s publicity stint is her unusually noble method in writing. She considers her work to be greater than herself.

Maria gave me a warm hug and parting wisdom before I left. “I hope my book inspires young people to learn their history, and identify what their values are, know who they are. They should know that the shoulders they stand upon are strong, and that someday they will be these shoulders.

“This is the story of only one woman. There are others like me, and it’s an ordinary story. I hope it encourages others to write their own story.”

No doubt that it will.

Emily Mathis is an intern at The Texas Observer.