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El Paso

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A Mexican Boy from El Paso

May 25, 2024

At the University of Texas

 My parents lived in five rental houses in El Paso before I graduated from college, all within a block or two from each other.  My bed was a couch in various rooms of those rental houses. I never had a bed of my own.

As I was boarding the plane for Austin to start pharmacy school in the fall of 1965 at the University of Texas, I realized that from now on I’d only return home for school vacations. Rather than thinking about the heavy course load awaiting me for the next three years, I smiled to myself that I’d sleep in a real bed of my own for the first time in my life for any extended period of time.  I found a boarding house near campus (my first rental in Austin) and shared a room with three other guys, each of us having a bed, a small dresser, and desk with a chair.  That evening I looked out the window towards campus in the distance and thought about my early life growing up as a Mexican boy in El Paso.

Jim, who I knew from high school, needed a place to live when he started pharmacy school, one semester later than me.  One very cold day in January of 1966 Jim arrived at the door of my boarding house room, needing a place for the night.  I had expected him to arrive the next day so we could go to an apartment I found near campus.  He was in luck because one of the boarders had quit school and there was an unoccupied bed in the room. The next day the maid saw that Jim had slept in one of the spare beds and yelled out to the landlady downstairs:  “Mrs. Johnson, there is a strange boy in the house!”  Jim and I grabbed our bags and hoped that his old Dodge convertible with a dilapidated top had survived the drive from El Paso and the cold winter night parked near the boarding house.  Jim had picked up a hitchhiker about 300 miles from Austin and allowed him to spend the night in the backseat.  He let him use an old blanket to keep warm during the night.  He apparently survived the night because he was gone when we arrived at the car.  It sputtered but started after a few tries.

I found a place on San Antonio Street, one block west of the main drag, Guadalupe Street, that separated the campus from the commercial and residential areas of the town.  That was my second rental in Austin. The house had a detached garage in the back which had been converted into a small apartment with two single beds.  Again I had a bed of my own. The couple who owned the house had been renting it for many years to students.  They were kind and friendly; it was cheap and clean.  It did not have much of a kitchen, but we charcoaled burgers and hotdogs in the backyard when it got warmer.  We survived that spring semester of pharmacy school.

Across the street from the couple’s house was a small joint that had live performers on weekends.  I heard for the first time Lightnin’ Hopkins play his guitar and sing; he is considered to be a major influence on many rock guitar players. I saw him for the price of a couple of beers.  It was a good place to relax after a hard night of studying and have a beer before strolling back to my apartment and falling into bed.  In addition, I went to several concerts that were held on campus.  One in particular that I remember was Duke Ellington and his band; it is only today that I realize that I was in the presence of greatness.  “I love you madly”!   I saw for the first time “A Hard Day’s Night”, an instant classic that confirmed the originality and genius of the Beatles.  There were things that I did not like about the University of Texas but for sure it gave me an excellent education in all aspects of my life.

By the time I completed that first year of classes, I learned how to study and prepare for my remaining years of pharmacy school.  The summer after my first year of classes I returned to El Paso to save up money for my last two years of pharmacy school.  My old couch in the back of my parents’ rental house was there for me.  At that time in 1966, the biggest retail pharmacy chain in the city was Gunning-Casteel, which had a monopoly in El Paso.  I got a job in one of their stores, which were bright, clean, and modern. Not having a car, I took a bus using two transfers to work at a new Gunning-Casteel in the south side of town near downtown.  It was my first taste of working in a pharmacy, encountering demanding customers and working the cash registers during the rush hours.  I also took prescriptions to the pharmacist, quickly learning drug names, and in my free time I’d study some of my pharmacy texts to determine what conditions were treated by those drugs.  I also found out that the chief pharmacist in a retail pharmacy was expected to manage all of the sections at the store besides the prescription area–cosmetics, OTC drugs, gifts and various sundries, tobacco and alcohol, and the fountain if there was one.  I remember an incident that summer when the head of cosmetics accused a senior drug clerk of stealing money by not ringing up certain cash sales.  The chief pharmacist had to handle the situation.  I never found out what happened; I had to attend fall classes in Austin.

Jim and I found a modest and inexpensive apartment (my third rental in Austin) for our second year of pharmacy classes in the fall of 1966 a few blocks south from our garage apartment on San Antonio Street. This one was bigger and had a kitchen that we rarely used.  The front door opened to a living area consisting of a double-sized bed, sofa, and a small desk and chair.  We flipped a coin on who’d sleep in the bed; I won.  We stayed in that apartment for two semesters.

One interesting feature of this small apartment complex was that it was owned by a retired pharmacist who lived on the first floor directly below us on the second floor.  When we returned from classes, she seemed to be around as we went up the stairs. Jim and I politely took time to chit-chat with her about our pharmacy classes.  She was somewhat amusing; I did not really mind talking to her.  But one day she was quite agitated when I passed her front door, and she grabbed me by the arm to tell me that the older lady living next door to her was taken to the hospital by ambulance.  I hoped for a medical explanation of her tenant’s condition, she, a licensed pharmacist and all and me, a pharmacy student eager to learn more about drug effects.  Instead, she told me that the old lady had a taken an overdose of her sedative, and to quote her–“she went coo-coo!”  So much for a detailed discussion of a drug’s pharmacological action on the brain by a highly educated pharmacist.

When I returned for my final year of pharmacy classes in the fall of 1967, I found a modest and inexpensive apartment behind the landlady’s home (my fourth rental near campus).  Jim had found a girl to marry, and I luckily teamed up with Nick who needed a roommate. This apartment was the best of my four rentals with a fully carpeted living room and a spacious bedroom with separate beds and two desks. I fell in love with my new bed. The rooms were soundproofed with egg cartons nicely arranged on the ceilings of the different rooms. Nick and I became friendly with the landlady who sometimes invited us for supper with her teenage son.  But I had very little money for food and other living expenses.  My answer was to work about 25 hours a week as a kitchen worker in exclusive private dorms for rich co-eds whose parents demanded the best living arrangements for their daughters and as a pharmacy clerk at a discount pharmacy in downtown Austin.  My reason for working so much was to save up money for a new car before I graduated.

When I started out at as a Mexican boy at the University of Texas, I did not know what to expect. By the time I graduated, I knew.  Mexican American students at the University were definitely in the minority, and I was usually the only Mexican kitchen helper at the private dorms.  I saw more signs of discrimination at UT and in Austin.  I was able to make friends with other Mexican American pharmacy students, and mainly studied and went out with them.  Because of my grades, I had the opportunity to associate with some white classmates in student organizations and honor societies.

I was nearing the end of my patience with not having a car. I had saved a good sum of money for two years but was still not able to buy a new car outright. I did not want a used car. What made the difference was that I received a scholarship for my final year of study.  I got the check in the mail and immediately cashed it.  I could do whatever I wanted with the money—presumably quit my jobs and concentrate on my studies and use the money for tuition and living expenses. Instead, I bought a 1967 sky-blue Mustang and continued to work at my two jobs to pay for car insurance, gas, and my other living expenses.

The Vietnam War was heating up.  I definitely did not want to be drafted, but I knew if I were drafted, I’d not leave the country for Canada.  A couple of my professors encouraged me to think of graduate school and to consider a career as a pharmaceutical scientist.  They were very optimistic that I’d receive a graduate student deferment.   I took the GRE and applied for several fellowships to cover my graduate tuition and living expenses.  Then I waited to see if I’d get a draft deferment for graduate school.  Several months before graduation, I learned that I had received a prestigious, nationally competitive fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which allowed me to use the fellowship funds to attend a university of my choosing.

My parents, my older sister’s family with her husband and three kids, and my unmarried younger sister came to Austin to celebrate my graduation.  After the College of Pharmacy graduation ceremony in early June of ’68, where I received several pharmacy textbooks for graduating with Highest Honors as the top student in my class, I took my family back to my apartment to eat. Nick and I went to Kentucky Fried Chicken and got several family meals. We ate, talked, and laughed.

The next day I said good-bye to my family and took off for Houston to take my pharmacy board exams. My next stop was the University of Kansas to begin graduate school.  I knew I could not work as a pharmacist for the rest of my life, but a pharmacy license would be handy to have while I was in graduate school. One month after my arrival in Kansas, LBJ canceled all graduate student deferments, and I was inducted into the army on October 6, 1968.  The next bed of my own was a barracks bed in a room with 30 or so strangers, my fifth rental so to speak.

In the Army

For my first eight weeks in the army I was assigned to a platoon that was composed mostly of draftees who were white, young, and came from lower income families.  There were a few who were volunteers and wanted to go to Vietnam.  There were a few Hispanics like me and surprisingly only one Black. Most of them were in their teens or early twenties.  I was one of the few college graduates in the platoon, who were no longer able to keep their school deferments.

Although I tried to keep to myself, it was hard because of the tight space in the barracks for thirty GIs and the close sleeping arrangements with bunk beds. Yes, I had a top bunk bed of my own. There was one large area for communal sinks, toilets, and showers. I made friends with several of the Hispanic guys who were recent high school graduates and who teased me about being the old guy in the platoon.  In the first week of training, our drill sergeant sarcastically made an announcement, making it clear he was not happy with the company commander’s order to inform us about a new program for officer training.  I am sure he thought none of his recruits were interested.  I asked the company commander if I could get more information about this opportunity.  One of his lieutenants (who was a Texas A&M graduate) whispered to him: “Who does he think he is-a Harvard graduate?”  I did not know if he knew I was a UT graduate; the Longhorns and the Aggies are bitter rivals in academics and especially in sports. The captain smiled and told me that I needed to take the morning off from training to fill out an application.

The drill sergeant was mad that he had to drive me to the other side of base to complete the application. To make matters worse, he drove me in his very sporty ’66 Mustang with a special paint job and an upgraded interior.  It was nothing like my base model ’67 Mustang.  I started to tell him about my car, but he quickly told me to shut up. I filled out the application and quickly forgot about it. There were three or four drill sergeants that I encountered throughout my training; one was a Hispanic who I thought was a Mexican American.  He did not play favorites and treated all of us the same.  The troops saw that he and white drill sergeant often disagreed on the format of some of the training exercises.  In the third week of training, there was a vocal outburst between the two of them, and they agreed to settle their differences mano a mano on the weekend.  The next week the white sergeant had been assigned to another company.  That is all we knew about the incident.

After completion of basic training, we received our next assignments.  Many of them were assigned to the infantry and had to take advanced warfare training.  They were going to ‘Nam.  Because of my college degree in pharmacy, I did not need any advanced training and was given several weeks of Christmas leave in El Paso.  I was one of the few lucky ones assigned to a base in the states.  My older sister, Tina, was now working at Ft. Bliss as a civilian administrator at the base EEO office.  When I told her that I was still waiting for news about the status of my application for officer training, she recommended that I contact the Inspector General at Ft. Bliss and make an official complaint.  I gave him all of the information and explained that I had tried to get more information from the First Sergeant at my basic training unit.  At that meeting with the sergeant, who was very courteous and a model of professionalism, I saw the company commander’s office near his desk.  It seemed that the commander had been informed of my meeting and that his lieutenant and drill sergeant were whispering in the office when I arrived in my civilian clothes.  They saw me enter, angrily stared at me, and said nothing to me. They knew that I had filed an official complaint and knew if they said anything to me it could be viewed as intimidation.  The Inspector General apologized that his investigation had to take a month or two to complete and that I had to report to my next assignment.  I was assigned to Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah as a pharmacist at the base hospital, which served to train helicopter pilots and to treat returning pilots who had been wounded in the war.  I retrieved the Mustang from my parents’ home and drove to Georgia to begin my first year of two years in the army.

A few months later at Hunter Army Airfield I received an official letter from the Department of Army in Washington, D.C.  The letter explained that my application had been misplaced in a bottom desk drawer of the file clerk, most likely a private first class or corporal, at my basic training unit headquarters.  I read between the lines that the file clerk was probably told to hide the file because I was informed in the letter that the drill sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and their superior officers–a major and lieutenant colonel-were all given an official reprimand which was placed in their personnel records.  Such a blot on their military records may have affected their future promotions.  That was not my intention; I just wanted to see what happened to my application.

The Department of Army apologized for this incident and wished me well in my future endeavors in the army, which I did not consider after my two-year commitment to my country. Oh, by the way, I was able to get permission to live off base and found a comfortable bed of my own in a spacious room rented out by a gracious Southern lady.

Dan Acosta is a first-generation Mexican American, whose mother and grandparents emigrated from Mexico. He is a former professor, research scientist, and administrator, who retired in 2019 at age 74. He writes about his experiences as a Mexican boy trying to succeed in white America.


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