Tomás Ybarra-Frausto grew up in the 1940s, just outside of San Antonio, on a ranch that belonged to his grandfather.
"The one thing that was instilled was traditions that were related to the land," Ybarra-Frausto, 83, told his friend Antonia Casteñeda, 78, in a StoryCorps interview from 2012.
An early memory tied to those traditions, he said, was an umbilical cord ceremony. "The umbilical cord they had taken away when you were born, it was in a little box," he said. "You got to pick where you wanted that to be buried."
In Mexican culture, the ritual of burying an umbilical cord stump represents the planting of a child's roots to the surrounding land and community, further cementing one's heritage.
When he was about four years old, Ybarra-Frausto decided he wanted to bury it under a tree in the middle of his family's ranch.
"It was pretty desolate," he said. "But in the middle was this beautiful tree where people always went for shade as they worked. And so I pointed to that."
His family told him: "This is the place where you're born, so no matter where you end, this is where you began."
It wasn't until elementary school that he says he started to understand what it meant to be Mexican American, he said. On the first day of first grade, his teacher told the class that, because they were all American, they were going to learn English.
That's when he remembered the words his father told him. "My father says I'm an American, that's why I speak Spanish," he recalled telling his teacher. Ybarra-Frausto said she punished him by putting him in a corner of the classroom.
His father, he said, was proud that his son was learning English. But that didn't take away from the other language he spoke, his dad told him. "A person who speaks two languages is worth two times the person who speaks only one," Ybarra-Frausto recalled him saying.
In the late 1980s, Ybarra-Frausto moved to New York — and lived there for nearly two decades — to work for the Rockefeller Foundation as the associate director of arts and culture. And even though he was far away from aunts and uncles in Texas, he continued to find solace in his family's traditions.
"I would be sitting there with a book and all of a sudden I would think about my tíos and tías in San Antonio and in Texas and I could feel, like, my ombligo [belly button] going down the staircase, from my apartment all the way down to that tree because I knew that that's where I'm from."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Eleanor Vassili.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It is Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. Tomas Ybarra-Frausto grew up in the 1940s just outside of San Antonio, Texas. He lived on a ranch that had been in his family for generations. At StoryCorps, he spoke with his friend Antonia about the lessons that came from the land.
TOMAS YBARRA-FRAUSTO: I don't really know too much about the ancestors before my grandparents. I would ask, when did we come here? And my grandfather would always say, (speaking Spanish) - "We've been here forever." They were people of the land.
And the one thing that was instilled was traditions that were related to the land. When I was a little boy, they had a ceremony. The umbilical cord they had taken away when you were born, it was in a little box. It was like a shriveled little black thing. But you got to pick where you wanted that to be buried. And the ranch was pretty desolate and rocky. But in the middle was this beautiful tree, and I pointed to that. So we walked out there - my grandparents and my mother and my dad and the padrinos. And they said, this is a place where you're born, so no matter where you end, this is where you began.
ANTONIA CASTENEDA: Mmm hmm.
YBARRA-FRAUSTO: Before I started first grade, my dad said to me, (speaking Spanish). "You're an American; that's why you speak Spanish." But it wasn't until I went to elementary school where I began really realizing what being a Mexican American was. First day of school, Ms. Moran (ph), my teacher, said, boys and girls, in this class, we're all Americans, and we're all going to learn English. And I raised my hand - Ms. Moran, Ms. Moran, my father says, I'm an American; that's why I speak Spanish. So I got put in the corner.
Later on, I got selected as a language monitor, and you got to wear a big plaque that said language monitor. And what you were supposed to do is to spy when you went out during recess on your classmates if they were speaking in Spanish. And so my dad went to school. And he said, you know, I don't want my kid to be put in the position where he's spying on his friends for speaking the language that belongs to us.
Even though they were very proud of me learning English, he would say, (speaking Spanish). "A person who speaks two languages is worth two times the person who speaks only one." So then I would say, well, I want to learn a hundred so that I'll be worth a hundred times. And he would smile and say, good. But he was very wise 'cause he was telling me is English is your language and Spanish is language, and you love both.
CASTENEDA: You need both. You are both.
Sometimes when I was in New York, you know, I would be sitting there with a book. And all of a sudden, I would think about my tios and tias in San Antonio and Texas. And I could feel, like, my ombligo going down the staircase from my apartment all the way down to that tree because I knew that that's where I'm from.
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INSKEEP: Tomas Ybarra-Frausto speaking with his friend Antonia Castenada in San Antonio, Texas. Their interview will be archived at the Library of Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.