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UCLA Magazine Spring 2005
From Murphy Hall
Living La Vida 'Lorca'
Stress Fractures
What's at Stake
The Importance of Being Elma
House of Cards
The Quest
Through Women's Eyes
Dynamic Duo
Bruin Walk

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Spring 2005
The Importance of Being Elma

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Elma Gonzalez as a child with mother and brother

González, 6, with her mother Efigenia and brother Ovidio, 3, around 1947

Her life’s story, from a backwater town to the distinguished halls of academia, is almost epic — a tale of courage, determination and optimism overcoming grave adversity.

Every summer, for eight years, González picked crops alongside her parents and three siblings, harvesting cucumbers, cherries, beans, tomatoes and cotton in states like Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin. The family slogged for three months, six days a week, up to 10 hours a day, spending the nights in cramped labor camps that every now and then filled with the cries of women being beaten by their husbands. By the end of the harvest, “we finally had enough money to buy books and clothes,” says González. Once, heavy rains in North Dakota destroyed the entire potato crop just as González and her family got there. “It was cold,” she recalls. “We used up all our savings and had to come home empty-handed.”

Despite all the hardships, González excelled at school, but even there the odds were stacked against her. In her English-speaking school, ethnic Mexican students like her were punished if they spoke Spanish. At her home in Hebbronville — the seat of Jim Hogg County, in the midst of the flat scrub and chaparral landscape of Texas’ Rio Grande Plain, 65 miles west of the Gulf Coast and 28 miles north of Mexico — no one spoke English. Because there wasn’t anyone to help her learn spelling, González had to memorize entire lists of words after carefully studying them in a textbook. Then she would put the book aside and call up the words from memory. The exercise did have the benefit of eventually making her a very good speller, and a stickler for grammar.

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