save such small, undeveloped babies. With her twinhood, prematurity, and tiny size, Tina’s infancy was remarkable. It was probably the last thing in childhood to make her feel special. After their discharge from the hospital, Tina and Cristina joined five other siblings in a home where it was hard for any of the seven kids to get much parental attention. One problem was poverty. Lionor’s husband, Mike Rodriguez, has always supported the family as a construction worker. The work is hard and low-paying. But Rodriguez’ education and earnings were constrained by the prejudice and segregation that reigned during his youth in the Kerrville area in the fifties. Lionor also grew up in the Hill Country, on a ranch where her parents worked as day laborers. For young Mexican Americans like them, the civil rights era still lay in the future. They were still relegated to segregated neighborhoods. In school they were punished for speaking Spanish, and their Anglo teachers told them not to bother with academic subjects or college. Amid the ensuing cultural isolation, traditional customs continued, including the old-country, Catholic practice of marrying early and having many babies. Lionor was fifteen when she had her first child. Six more followed over the next fifteen years. The family lived in a run-down, ghettoized part of Kerrville known variously as The Barrio and Nigger Town. They are still there today, in an old clapboard house with peeling paint, moldy floorboards, and cracks snaking down the walls. The Rodriguezes’ insularity, large family size, and poverty were and still are common among Hill Country Hispanics. In addition, Tina’s family had its own problems when she was young. Due to marital difficulties Lionor was jealous of Mike and convinced he was running around on her the couple split up for nine years, beginning when Tina was only a few months old. As Tina’s kindergarten teacher, Jean Tally, remembers, Lionor had a rough time managing the household alone. Tina was a willful, mischievous child, recalls Tally. She and sister Cristina often came to school infested with lice. Lionor didn’t seem neglectful, says Tally just “overwhelmed.” \(When told of Tally’s recollections recently, Lionor lems she perceived, Tally thought Tina “had what it takes” to make something of herself. She ran into her former pupil a couple of years ago in Kerrville. “She looked like she was doing so well; she said everything was great. I was so pleased.” But Tally was mistaken. Long before her meeting with Tina, things had started to go wrong. /t’ s not that she was a bad student. By the early nineties, Tina was at Kerrville’s Tivy High School, where she earned Cs, Bs, and an occasional A. Outwardly, she was a cheerful girl with full cheeks, a quick smile, and friends. She was also a devoted aunt to her big brother and sisters’ babies, who were being born one after another in quick succession, just as their parents’ had been. Tina changed her nieces and nephews’ diapers, prepared bottles, and babysat. But she also told her mother she didn’t want her own children until she finished school and got married. She talked of attending college, and as an upperclassman, applied to the Navy, thinking the government could help fund her higher education. Yet Tina was also involved in a world her family was only dimly aware of. By high school, she was leaving home for days at a time, with no word where she was going. Her mother figured she was at friends’ houses, and the assumption had a precedent. Earlier, Tina had begun hanging out at the Lopez Club, a tavern and dance hall just outside of Kerrville on the road to Bandera. Since the late eighties, the area has seen an influx of newcomers, mostly young men, from Mexico. They’ve come to work in ranching and in the construction industry, which has burgeoned during the last two decades as the Hill Country has attracted retirees and affluent refugees from cities such as San Antonio. Many of the immigrants who build infrastructure for these people are undocumented. But Lopez’ is known as a place that the Border Patrol leaves alone. The father of one of Tina’s girlfriends owned the club, and Tina started spending a lot of time with that family and away from hers. Saturday nights, she would go to the club and party. That is where she met Noel Perez, a Mexican who spoke little English and had no papers. With his football-player shoulders, longish black hair, high cheekbones, and cowboy shirts, Noel was as hard-looking as Tina is soft. The two started dancing together regularly. He was nineteen. She was twelve. By the time she was fifteen, Noel and Tina were “dating,” she says, but they weren’t having sex. Then, sometime in her junior year, according to her mother, Tina got pregnant by someone else who apparently abandoned her soon afterward. “She wouldn’t tell us who the father was,” Lionor Rodriguez remembers. Today Tina still won’t talk about him; she will say only that she had a Hispanic boyfriend who was native-born and cruel to her. Lionor remembers the miscarriage in Tina’s third or fourth month of pregnancy. The dead babies were twins. Tina was devastated. She still mourns eight years later, Lionor says, and sometimes muses about what the babies would be doing now had they lived. These are very private thoughts, though. To reporters, Tina will say only that a boy treated her very badly, and she vowed never again to get involved with someone raised in the United States. Noel Perez was there for the rebound. “He was nicer to me than the one from here,” Tina says. “He used to tell me endearments, to invite me to Mexico and tell me he would show me his land. He made me happy.” But Tina says her mother rejected Noel because he was Mexican. Lionor denies this: “Whether they’re from there or here doesn’t matter,” she insists. Tina, however, says her mother thinks Mexican men are invariably violent: “Once we were at my mom’s house and there was a Mexican movie showing. A woman was with some some guy and her husband came home and killed the woman and the man. And Mom said, ‘See? That’s why I don’t like Mexican men.’ Accurate or not, Tina’s perception of her mother’s xenophobia echoes observations from other Kerrville-area Hispanics about re Sophia Naess 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 3, 1999
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