Editor’s note: In the last Oro Loma Nomad, the writer begins her story of her journey back to her hometown of Oro Loma, after years of being in the foreign service, including a phone call she received from a homeowner there, Marshall Baker.
After the phone call from Marshall Baker in 1998 asking me to buy his home, I sat at my desk in The Philippines and reflected on the many years I had worked in various countries and pondered my future returning to live in Oro Loma. Oro Loma!
To me, Oro Loma had taken on sentimental status in my memories of the Westside of the great San Joaquin Valley. Could I go home again and find a purposeful life and be happy there?
Before I answer that question, I need to tell you something about my life’s work and adventures in foreign lands and what drew me to pursuing a life out in the world, among different peoples, in different cultures, societies, languages, and challenges.
How did a girl of Mexican background who grew up in Oro Loma, without telephones, aspire to an international career? How did I become a competitive young woman who was accepted into the career ranks of the Foreign Service and who retired in 1999 with a rank equivalent to Lt. General?
The persons who were key to my growth and development were my parents and several teachers. My mother had a strong sense of herself, capable of making decisions that many women of her generation did not or were not allowed to make. She was a valuable role model for me and my four siblings.
My father nurtured in me the belief that I was intelligent and capable. During the summers we never went on vacations because it was his busiest season harvesting melons for Three Star Farms. One summer, when I was nine years old, he asked me to help him with an important part of the ranch operations.
“I need you to be in charge of the gas pump,” he said. I could hardly believe what he was saying. It was a thrilling proposition to me: to be the one to gas up the trucks that hauled melons from the fields to the V.H. Azhderian melon packing shed in Los Banos!
My mother was aghast that my father would have me – a skinny 9-year-old girl! – manage the pump and deal with the truck drivers. But my father was undeterred. “Julia, she can do it.” I was elated. Yes, I can do it!
In subsequent summers, my father had other requests for “my help.” When I was 11 years old, he bought me a regulation size bow and arrows set. The reason he gave for this request was that there would be times when I would need to go out and kill a few jack rabbits that were eating the crops.
He showed me how to stand and hold the bow and how to leverage my weight to shoot the arrows and hit the bull’s eye consistently. When I became good at hitting the bull’s eye, he told me, “Now, I want you to show your brother how to shoot as well as you do.” Oh, yes, I could do that!
My father also taught me to tackle some of his work requests by a reverse engineering method. “Think of the end result you want, then go back step-by-step to figure out what you need to do to get to the desired end.”
In 1967, while I was studying at UC Santa Barbara, I could not decide whether to major in a science or in international work. My interests in these fields were fostered by several teachers in the Dos Palos High School where I graduated valedictorian in 1963.
I had already worked as a research assistant for a Hughes Aircraft laboratory that was developing a guidance system for an unmanned rocket to the moon. Using my reverse engineering skills, I solved a problem for the scientists.
They were thrilled with the breakthrough, but they were not happy that I had changed their protocol, even though it worked. They gave me no credit for the success of my model.
I decided that the scientific arena, dominated by such men, was not going to be for me. I called a Peace Corps recruiter and talked my way into being accepted into the Peace Corps to “try” working in a foreign environment.
When the plane carrying 40 new Peace Corps volunteers, including myself and my boyfriend and now husband, landed in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, I thought, “This can’t be the capital of a country. It’s too primitive!”
When the car that took us to the places where we would be housed and dropped us off at windowless rooms with no air circulation next door to the penitentiary, I thought, “Oh, no! What did I get myself into? Can I do this? Will I be able to stick it out for two years in this country?” I went to bed that night, anxious about landing in Tegucigalpa. Tune in to my next column in the Westside Express, and I will tell you about my unbelievable but true experiences in Honduras, the second poorest country in Latin America.