I was born in 1934 in Long Beach Hospital. My parents had come a long way from Gudalajara, Mexico, and Vieques, Puerto Rico, in the 1920s to settle in Island Park. They were two 16-year-olds who made a journey to an unknown land, not knowing how to speak, read or write English.
We were one of the few Hispanic families in Island Park. I have fond memories of growing up there and having the beach within walking distance from our home. The summers were wonderful!
It was very important for me to fit in and be an American, at the same time holding on to my Hispanic identity. There was never any question that learning English was a priority in our family. When we were at home, we spoke Spanish. The moment we stepped outside, we spoke English.
I had an awesome mother, Esperanza (Hope) Jiménez. On Saturdays in the 1940s, we would usually make a special day trip to the Spanish Harlem marketplace to buy all the Spanish products you couldn’t find in Island Park.
Mother was an orphan and she never had a formal education. She taught herself to read English, spending hours going over comic books and figuring out what the words meant by looking at the pictures. She always emphasized the importance of an education!
I learned at a very young age that if I was reading a book or doing schoolwork, I didn’t have to do chores. As a result, the more I read, the more I loved reading — I was hooked! My good fortune was that I had an incredible teacher in elementary school, and I adored her. Mrs. Shertenlieb was my special angel. She tutored me in English and went a step further to make me feel special.
Once a week, she encouraged me to teach a Spanish lesson to the class. I was 9 years old and felt so important! Years later, I found this letter in the attic that Mother had saved:
Dear Mrs. Jiménez,
Today, Maria taught us a Spanish Lesson which we all enjoyed, especially her teacher. For one so young, Maria has excellent qualities for leadership. Perhaps some day, she’ll be teaching Spanish in one of our high schools. I do believe she would make an excellent teacher.
I did go on to become a Spanish teacher. I taught for 31 years in the Patchogue-Medford School District and was an adjunct professor at Dowling College. Retired, I wrote “¡Adelante! Achieving ‘The American Dream.’ ” It was going to be a memoir for my children, in honor of my mother, but it has taken on a life of its own. It has become my retirement “adventure,” allowing me to make presentations with the message that, above all, NEVER give up on your hopes and dreams.
It’s about one family’s story that so many can relate to. Its strength lies in motivating and inspiring others to do and to be the very best they can, against all odds. It is a testimonial and a chronicle of an exceptional woman — my mother.
Mother taught me right from wrong, a strong work ethic and the belief that I could be whatever I wanted to be as long as I applied myself, and she continues to be my inspiration. This is her legacy.