After a torrential rain destroyed the family farm, María Dolores Gonzales’ family was forced to move to Roy where she was born a year later.
Unemployed and homeless, Gonzales’ father found work with the Bureau of Animal Industry in Mexico as a liaison between English speaking livestock inspectors and Spanish speaking villagers. Canuto Gonzales documented his experiences in Mexico by taking many photographs of the villagers and their way of life.
Soon his family would see first hand what life was like in Mexico when they moved to Guadalajara in 1949. Some of the photos are included in María Dolores Gonzales’ memoir “Atop the Windmill: I Could See Forever.”
She seamlessly strings together her years in Mexico as if the events occurred recently instead of during her childhood.
“I started jotting these things down when I was in my 20s and remembering the stories,” Gonzales said. “I think a lot of it had to do with just finding my voice, because when you’re one of five children, I felt invisible. Therefore, I was looking for that voice. By telling the stories, the memories would come back and in the process the voice was there.”
Gonzales created memories in Mexico that shaped her identity and strongly influenced her career path as an adult. Returning back to New Mexico in 1950, living in Roy and Rosebud in Los Llanos, eventually had her questioning who she was and suppressing the one thing she held dear to her heart – her language.
In the book, Gonzales describes the punishment children received for speaking Spanish. Having to suppress that part of her identity took its toll on her.
“You’re being told that your Spanish is bad, or you shouldn’t speak Spanish, or English is the dominant language,” she said. “So that affected me terribly and when I took my first university course in Spanish I was embarrassed. The professor embarrassed me. He humiliated me in the classroom and I couldn’t believe it. I dropped out of the University of New Mexico for 10 years.”
During her 10 year absence from the university, Gonzales got married and had two children.
However, she could not shake her drive to keep her culture alive and returned to UNM to take Spanish classes for four years. There she met professor Sabine Ulibarrí who encouraged his students to love their language.
“I took Spanish (classes) for like four years and any class I could take, I took,” she said. “I was so determined that I was taking back my language. I felt so robbed of something so precious and it was part of my identity. That was the thing, I couldn’t feel complete until I took back my mother tongue… That’s why Mexico was so important to me because that’s where it really just blossomed. That’s where I started speaking.”
Gonzales’ experiences in New Mexico, and the memories made in Mexico, pushed her to help others who have been subject to the same prejudices she endured. She received her doctorate degree in Spanish sociolinguistics and taught at UNM as well as in Las Cruces and Corpus Christi, Texas. She revived and coordinated the Sabine Ulibarrí Spanish Heritage Program at UNM.
“The first thing one has to become aware of is you don’t teach Spanish in New Mexico as a foreign language,” she said. “It is a heritage language. It is our language. It has been spoken in New Mexico for 400 years and so how can it be a foreign language? … These students would come in… I would get to know them. All of them would say ‘I want to learn to speak to my grandmother in Spanish’ or ‘I’ve been trying so hard and people laugh at me or ridicule me’ and I knew what they were talking about and the pain.”
After retiring from UNM, Gonzales established the Bilingual Strategies Language Institute and offers Spanish immersion retreats in northern New Mexico and Spanish conversation classes for adults in Albuquerque.
Her book “Atop the Windmill: I Could See Forever” can be purchased directly from its website at bilingualstrategies.com. Information about her organization is also available on the website.