English Professor and STC Alum Reflects on Hard Times and Redemption, Work and Inspiration
From the dangerous streets in the Midwest to the Texas ranchlands, South Texas College English professor and Department Chair Daniel Mendoza says he has always connected with authors who wrote fearlessly about working-class struggles but conveyed beautiful ideas in the process.
Growing up under difficult circumstances, South Texas College English professor and Department Chair Daniel Mendoza said he shared the opinions of many in his social circle who feared they could never rise above their class, much less teach at a college one day.
After all, most college professors came from families who had parents who went to college, Mendoza said of his thinking at the time.
As a child in northwest Indiana, right on the border of Hammond and Gary, Mendoza said he was exposed at a young age to gang violence and drug abuse. In the 90s, Gary was dubbed the “murder capital” of the United States, and Mendoza said he and his siblings were caught in the middle of the drug warfare.
Among the youngest of 10 children, Mendoza said he witnessed friends and family succumb to the violence and drugs in the region until out of necessity, his father made the choice to relocate the family to Hebbronville in the ranchlands of South Texas.
“We moved there (Hebbronville) because that was my dad’s home. That's where he grew up. And I think he figured he could at least get us out of the violence and crime in Indiana,” Mendoza said. “It was still pretty hard growing up in Hebbronville because we faced a whole different set of challenges. While there wasn't gang violence, it was a small ranching town and education wasn't really much of a priority.”
Left to raise Daniel and his two sisters on his own, Mendoza said his father worked in tough labor jobs before saving enough money to open a small automotive shop where he repaired tires and performed light engine work. When Mendoza came of age, he would assist his father after school at the shop by changing tires and rebuilding carburetors.
It was the start of many fairly menial jobs that Mendoza said he undertook to help the family.
“These were jobs I had to help support the family, but my dad would always push me to realize that there was a world outside of Hebbronville, and a world outside of work,” Mendoza said.
One job in particular became a turning point and offered a glimpse into his future career as an educator, he said. One day while working at a roadhouse-style restaurant called “Frank’s Cafe” the owner known to many of the locals as “Big Bob” Gutierrez presented him with John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row set in the Great Depression.
“I’m sure I was like many students who, when they first thought about poetry or literature and Shakespeare and other great authors, felt like they were mostly talking about the upper class and things far removed from everyday working people. But when you begin to look into somebody like Steinbeck or Zola you begin to see that there were in fact writers who didn’t shy away from telling what the working class went through every day, and in writing and thinking about those things found beautiful ideas.”
“You know, I had never really read a book before, but he (Gutierrez) gave me this book and he would just talk to me about it,” Mendoza said. “It was strange because in high school I guess teachers already assumed I was going to work on a ranch or do some kind of manual labor. But when I would go to Frank’s Cafe and talk with Bob about books and life, I guess he was really trying to inspire me and encourage me.”
Graduating high school in 2001, Mendoza said he entered the workforce with vigor. He bounced around jobs in Corpus Christi, Laredo and San Antonio and took everything that came his way, from labor to roofing jobs.
He recalls the scorching Texas summers as he worked in attics repairing and installing ventilation ducts, and then coming home itching from being exposed to fiberglass insulation.
During his lunches, Mendoza would talk to the older workers and the conversation would always come up – what if?
Like his initial experience at Frank’s Cafe, Mendoza felt as he was being drawn to college from an unlikely source.
“They were all older guys. I was the only kid to work in that job doing duct work, and the older guys would say how they wanted to go to college but they kept putting it off,” Mendoza said. “They would tell me how they had a wife, kids, a house payment, car payment and how it was just too late for them, but not for me. They would tell me how I just had to try it because one day it was going to be too late. I had suddenly realized that in the time between high school and all of those different jobs what I was really doing was putting off college.”
Mendoza arrived at South Texas College in the mid-2000s. There were a lot of starts and stops as he became acclimated to college and learned to be a successful student, he said. There were times when he returned home and found inspiration in an old friend.
Throughout the years Mendoza said restaurant owner Bob Gutierrez was instrumental in encouraging him to pursue his dreams, and perhaps give literature a shot. Reading books by Emile Zola, Sherwood Anderson and Eric Williamson reaffirmed what Mendoza said he initially learned from his talks with Gutierrez, that there were in fact people writing about the working-class and their experiences, and it was something Mendoza could relate to.
“I’m sure I was like many students who, when they first thought about poetry or literature and Shakespeare and other great authors, felt like they were mostly talking about the upper class and things far removed from everyday working people,” Mendoza said. “But when you begin to look into somebody like Steinbeck or Zola you begin to see that there were in fact writers who didn’t shy[JG1] away from telling what the working class went through every day, and in writing and thinking about those things found beautiful ideas.”
These days as chair of the English Department at STC, Mendoza says he can relate to powerful authors from the Rio Grande Valley including Rolando Hinojosa Smith and Dr. Gloria Anzaldua. Among his influences include Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Walt Whitman.
The running theme among the authors that he draws inspiration from is one that he uses to connect with his students at STC. It's the pursuit of an idea, running into conflicts, figuring out how to address those conflicts and engaging philosophical concepts.
Life is like that, Mendoza said.
“We will challenge students to think about their biases, to think about their perspectives and opinions,” Mendoza said about the goal among faculty in the English department. “Students arriving here will be asked to try to think outside of their perspectives and to learn how to be a well-rounded person who can think beyond their surface thoughts. Just having that analytic mind, just having that power, you know, to drop into any time is important. And it's going to help you not only in your professional life, but it will provide true meaning to your everyday life. You will be a more complex person and you will be better for it.”