One of the childhood memories I hold on to is the day my father went to visit my first grade classroom during the first week of school. My parents and I had spent the previous couple of days at odds with each other. I could not figure it out. I knew I had not done anything wrong, and yet my parents were getting frustrated with my answers as to how each school day had gone. Having older brothers and sisters, I was able to meet up with them outside my classroom and walk home. Since my mother did not pick me up from school, my parents were trying to rely solely upon my answers, which for reasons I could not understand those first two days of first grade I was not able to give. I had gone to the school’s kindergarten the year before and my brothers and sisters had also attended this school. This gave my parents some assurances about the school. These assurances, however, were short-lived.
Each day at school I did not understand much of what was going on. I remembered the clock in the teacher’s hand as we all sat in front of her, trying to answer her questions. What was she asking? I was not sure, but I thought it had something to do with the time shown on the clock. When I heard my name, I just looked up and answered, “Huh?” After the teacher’s voice raced through some words I thought were beyond my vocabulary, quite foreign in fact, I sat in silence with what must have looked like an expression of total ignorance on my face. Realizing I was not going to answer, she moved on to someone I will call Andrew, a boy sitting next to me. Apparently, he responded correctly. I did not know. I did not even understand the question. Later that evening when my parents asked how the day had gone, I had very little to say. I just looked up at them and gave the universal response of kids throughout America, “Fine.” “What did you learn today?” “What did you talk about at school?” “Did you read a story?” “You must remember something.” To each question and statement, my response was either, “No” or “I don’t know.” After two straight evenings of this, my parents were not too pleased. Neither was I. Was I stupid? Was I an idiot? Why couldn’t I understand what happened each day at school so that I could give my parents some answers?
Well, after the second day, my father thought they should look into my folder to see if the teacher had sent home any notes, possibly one explaining their child’s lack of attention and understanding in class. Could their baby boy actually not be as smart as they thought? Could their little Billy not be as bright as they convinced him he was? My parents’ worst fears that evening were quickly assuaged. Did they find a note from the teacher? Yes. However, it was not what they had expected. “Estimados Padres,” this letter began, and gladly it did end the conflict brewing between my parents and me. Being bilingual, my parents were able to read the letter. They then asked me questions which, once I realized my parents might no longer be upset with me, I was able to answer with a bit more detail. It turns out I did not understand much of what was going on at school because it was all in Spanish. Though I knew some from conversations with my grandparents, I was by no means fluent or confident in front of strangers to speak any Spanish words. My father and his family had experienced some problems back when he was a child on a farm in the south of Texas, partially because of his Mexican heritage. Though he loved his ancestry and was proud of his Tarascan native-Mexican blood, he knew that speaking English and speaking it well was one major key to success in this country he loved dearly. For this was the country that offered him social mobility from a rural farm in southern Texas to a suburban middle-class home and occupation. He made much of the opportunities set before him. Though he had seen an ugly part of America, he did not let it taint his image of this land for he knew the freedom existing here in this country afforded each and every man the means to realize dreams. This he and my mother, another Texan but from the western town of El Paso, imparted to me throughout my childhood.
Well, with the experiences of discrimination in his past, he did not like it that his son had been put into a “bilingual” class without his permission. This was America—not a totalitarian state where families are dictated to—and his son would learn in English. No exceptions.
So, the next day my father drove me to school, and we first went to the principal’s office. After a few minutes listening to them talk, it became clear my father was angry and yet in control of this passion. At the same time, it was also clear that the principal was stretching for answers. One comment I will never forget is when my father referred to the principal’s own race. He was a black man, and my father resented the fact that a black man who obviously knew enough history to know the sins of racism and discrimination would not only tolerate but promote further programs of discrimination based upon one’s ethnicity. During the conversation, the principal let it be known that I was put into this “bilingual” class because of my Spanish surname. When my father asked why this would still be the case since I had gone to kindergarten (in English) the previous year and since their permission had not been sought, the principal returned to his swim against the stream of my father’s insistence. He struggled to get out an explanation, and each time he did my father candidly demonstrated why this latest reason was not applicable or valid. So, the principal said he would place me in the “English” class, adding that he wished my father would only visit the original classroom and observe the good things that could be accomplished for those not “used to English.”
The next few moments are a scene I have never forgotten and one that, as the years have passed, has made me extremely proud of my father. We entered the classroom and my father stopped cold in his steps. The principal looked back and wondered what was the matter. “Where is the flag?” my father asked. “Up against the side wall.” “No, I don’t mean that. I mean the flag, the American flag.” Then, it hit me. Each of the previous two mornings, we students in this California town in the United States of America had been led to pledge allegiance (at least go through the actions) to the flag of Mexico! Outraged is putting it lightly with regard to my father’s reaction. After he explained to the principal in some choice words (with surprising calmness still in his demeanor) that he did not make the sacrifices he had made in his life, including proudly serving our country in the United States Army and defending freedom in South Korea, so that his son could be placed, without his permission, in a form of inferior education that would most likely keep his last son behind the pace of others and, more importantly, possibly preclude him from reaching his intellectual potential. (As things turned out, my father was right. The “bilingual” education was not “bi” and it was truly inferior. Very little instruction was ever done in English, and of the thirty-plus students in that class, many did not graduate high school on time or at all, one notable exception being an understandably quiet child: a recent Filipino immigrant with a Spanish surname.)
This event marked me in ways that continue to offer lessons and guidance. America is a great place. Though there are dark places and have been some dark times, the light still shines. Reagan was right, we are a beacon of freedom to the world. This is what my father taught me through his words and through his actions, those I witnessed countless times and those I heard about from his life on the farm, being kicked out of his house at the age of fifteen after having already finished his high school education, striking out on his own, serving his country in a time of war and even suffering a wound from battle, starting his own newspaper business in East Los Angeles, being his own man and fending off the criticism for being one of the few public men of Mexican heritage who did not blindly join Democratic organizations but rather joined local independent and Republican-minded groups, believing that their philosophy best suited this country, him, and his family for greater prosperity. My father is a man who despises any race-baited thought and further has voiced his concern that the growing behemoth we call government is not suited to the freedoms of the common man.
This may sound like the biography of my father. In ways, it is. On a deeper level, it is my story because he made me so much of who I am today. Growing up in a home where the two public role models put before us were Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan tells a lot about the formation I received throughout the 1980’s. I was brought up to believe in the struggles against communism and the promotion of freedom not just here but throughout the world. And not just political freedom but spiritual freedom, which was expressed through our family’s commitment to Christ and the Catholic Church he established.
As the years rolled by, my parents consistently encouraged reading and intellectual curiosity. We had books throughout the house, and my father even was working on two books, one a historical novel and the other a type of philosophical treatise in the tradition of Plato but set on the streets of Los Angeles. Further, my mother went back to work and then both my parents were working in aerospace. We more adamantly became a defense-minded home, especially since my father worked in management on the B-1 Bomber and my mother, for a time, had a lot to do with the orders her company received for military aircraft. Defense build-up was necessary for our country and good for our family. In jest, I used to think, what better reasons to support Reagan: I wanted to continue eating and playing soccer!
Once I graduated high school, I attempted to follow my father’s example. I signed up with the United States Marine and was committed to go to boot camp the following November. However, due to a hearing loss I experienced from surgery to treat cerebral and spinal meningitis when I was five months old, I was not able to pass my final physical (even after many tries and additional trips to the doctors to attempt to fix the problem) and thus I was not able to stand before the U.S. flag and do as my father had: take the oath to serve one's country, an oath I had longed to profess.
Soon enough, tragedy knocked on our door. One semester, my father came down with cancer of the larynx. He was forced to take an early retirement from Rockwell International since he had suffered much physically and had his vocal cords removed. In all trials, God’s grace can help us find a good. I learned a lesson about love and marital devotion. My mother was saintly in her care for my suddenly frail father. Happily, he survived.
Time moved on, and I took advantage of an opportunity to travel to Italy and study in Florence for a semester. What a time! Not only did I think I had fallen in love each week, but I even managed to find a way to stay once courses were completed by taking a job at a country club-type establishment outside Rome: La Casella. Seeing this side of life began to change me and thus my goals. I saw numerous families in the countryside who appeared truly content and happy. Yet, they did not have a large home, fancy cars, or even much money. No, they did not have those material items. Rather, they had the intangibles. They had love and joy in their lives. From my observations, these seemed to be rooted in the fact that their family life was strong and frequent; their small villages were supplied with the essentials for living: food and some commerce; and most importantly for many of these paesani they had a chapel of God in their midst and each day He would empty Himself and descend upon us in the Holy Eucharist. I was struck by the difference in values and by the difference in pace of life. This was much better for the cultivation of family and order. However, this was the countryside and not the city, where the contrast is well-known and the stifling of creativity and freedom is currently killing traditional European society. To paraphrase one thinker, the next century will be religious or it will not be. Europe is rapidly paving its road to a literal u-topia: no place. For if it does not discover its roots, which can still be seen in many countryside towns, it will not be.
Upon returning, I began to take a stronger interest in my faith and philosophers who dared to believe. I later applied and was accepted to New York University. I thought I was smart. I thought I could compete with these elite students. Once at NYU, however, I quickly learned that though my mind could reason adequately, my breadth of knowledge was inadequate. I then sought a program that would educate me in the riches of Western Civilization. I wanted to know whom those names belonged to that I heard in discussions at NYU, and I wanted to know what the literature of the West was really about. They actually had a meaning relevant to our times? Yes, but where could I get those answers and understand our past as a whole, as something with a tradition that truly passes on from one generation to the next. Where could I be truly educated?
I found this answer in the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco during the 1990’s. I entered this Catholic Great Books Program and relished every moment there. I learned in ways new to me. I learned in the seminar and tutorial methods. I made friendships that are friendships for life, entering into the blessings of spiritual friendship that St. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote about. I was blessed once again to go to Europe, this time during my second year as a student from USF to study with the Dominicans at Blackfriars Studium in the once shining city on a hill, Oxford. I spent one year discovering many of the roots of my Catholic faith through reading the Early Church Fathers and Councils, seeing how Newman relied upon their secure judgment in his own journey of faith, studying Canon Law, and finally beginning to make up for part of my literary ignorance by delving into a year-long intimacy with the English novel from Bunyan to Greene and Britain's poetry from medieval lyrics to the best of the twentieth century. The year abroad culminated in a way I could not have imagined: going to Rome for one last quick trip and then ending up with an invite to a private audience with Pope John Paul II.
I returned to USF and completed two more years of the study of Western Civilization, each year growing closer and closer to St. Thomas Aquinas and many of his students throughout the ages, primarily Maritain, Simon, Gilson, and Pieper, in addition to G. K. Chesterton, whose writings became like a breviary to me, reading him daily and at times prayerfully.
The pinnacle of my studies at the St. Ignatius Institute introduced me to great Christian novelists and the mighty moral theologian, Fr. Servais Pinckaers, OP, whose true ressourcement has not only renewed the studies of moral and Thomistic theology but has also renewed my study of the moral life from a deeper and richer Christian ethics to a more profound analysis and exegesis of the Beatitudes.
Throughout my years at USF, I enjoyed writing for the student newspaper, something I must have inherited from my father who was also an opinion-based writer for a newspaper some years ago. I was apparently effective in fostering debate since I often received hate mail and even had close to a full page devoted to criticisms of my writings, headlined with the title, “PERALES FINDS FEW ALLIES IN THE WEST.” ....
I graduated with a double major in Philosophy and English Literature, along with a certificate for completing the St. Ignatius Institute Catholic Great Books Program. After graduation, I ended up coming home and eventually, by chance, took a long-term though temporary substitute teaching position at a Catholic elementary school .... I loved it, and once the school year ended I found a full-time position teaching the gamut of language arts at another Catholic elementary school .... I have been blessed with wonderful persons as students and with supportive families. Together, we have continued the fine tradition at this school and have caught the eyes of local high school teachers, as our students spend their years in grades 6-8 learning how to write essays, read and analyze great and classic children’s and juvenile literature, study Greek and Latin root words, memorize and recite poetry, as well as learn the other typical areas of a junior high English program.
That said, I still seek more. I seek greater intellectual fulfillment, the further development of Newman’s “philosophical habit of mind” and a greater understanding of freedom and order’s relationship to the formation and preservation of all that has been and still is good, beautiful, and true in Western Civilization. This is one reason why I am .... attending Loyola Marymount University’s graduate program in philosophy.
During the course of my still young life, I have enjoyed much and been blessed much. One event that stands out amidst the many happy memories is the birth of my child, Therese Marie. I have been truly blessed by the Lord to be her father. She is an angel, not just by bringing a message from the Lord but more substantially by bringing grace and beauty into my life. I hope to provide her with the necessary roots for a happy childhood and adulthood. I seek to be a good role model for her in my words and my actions. I seek to live up to the advice a college advisor, Mr. John Galten, told me upon learning that I had started teaching junior high: “Bill, be worthy of it.” I try to remember the purity and innocence of childhood not only when I teach but whenever I act, for it is the things I do each and every day (the little things, even, to borrow an expression from St. Therese) that will affect and hopefully enhance my ability to parent and my ability to be the man I am called to be—to be worthy of this fatherhood and truly care for this little one of God.
As I look back on the years God has given me, I learn a lot. I see His hand in many ways, especially His care during times of trial. I have been blessed to have wonderful and loving parents. They provided me with much, materially and spiritually. Whenever I think back to that bilingual first-grade classroom at Burbank Elementary School, I thank God for having a parent with strong convictions and the ability to control and channel anger. My father stood up for me, stood up to a man and an institution he understood to be harmful to his child’s well-being. Though it might have only been intellectual and educational, the stand was important, for the highest faculty of man is his intellect. And the formation of my intellect was at risk. Further, my dad stood up for his country and me by demanding the American flag fly in that California classroom. By the end of that week, it did. By the end of that week, his concern for me resulted in my placement in the “regular” classes. With that example of my father’s love, I saw a man who faced challenges for his child and country, regardless of who the opponent was. If the fight needed to be made, he made it. I can only hope and pray that one day my daughter may say the same thing of me: that he was worthy of his calling to be my father and a citizen of this great country.
Happy Father's Day, Dad.