Monday, September 10, 2007

A life that almost never got written

To hear Ruben Dozal Jr. read is to hear him enter another world. He reads with an intensity and conviction that can only come from putting himself back into the state of mind that he had when he wrote.

He writes his anecdotes only once, but he writes them straight from the heart. If tears could be put directly into words, they would sound like Dozal's writing.

Ruben Dozal, Jr. was born in the U.S. His family was Mexican-American, and he and his family got deported to Mexico when he was young, because somebody thought that his father didn't have papers. His father did not know where he was born. After some years, the family came back to the U.S., but somewhere between the detour and working in the fields to support himself, he didn't really have a childhood.

When he was 11, his school placed him in the third grade. He spoke a mixture of Spanish and English at home, but didn't know enough English to follow the classes. When he was 14, the employer he had been working for for two years finally asked how old he was. He couldn't go on working for the same employer after that, but he ended up with a different job soon enough. At 18, he was discharged from a school system that had not served him, unable to read or write more than his own name.

Unable to read and without a high school diploma, he lived a life of manual labor, working variously as a field hand, truck driver, and other odd jobs. If nobody would teach him how to do the work, he stayed extra hours practicing to learn.

In his fifties, with his young grandchildren, he began watching Sesame Street. They thought he was playing, but he was really trying to learn some words for himself. It was his grandchildren that inspired him to take his first steps toward literacy. He recalls going to the adult literacy program four times, walking up and down the street, not quite able to open the door and go inside. He envisioned being placed into a classroom with others who were much younger. Nonethless, on his fifth visit, he made it through the door.

His tutor started by helping write his words for him. Then one day, she asked him to read what they had written. As he tells it, his entire body broke into a sweat, right down to his toenails.

Gradually, he got over his fears and learned to read and write. He now reads with relative fluency and writes with great power. He calls his writings stories and does not set out to write poetry, but many of his pieces have a poetic quality about them by their strength and tone. His work is at times touching (stories of his grandchildren), at times heart-wrenching (the hard labor, the racism, the demands, the put-downs).

I asked Mr. Dozal whether he ever wrote in Spanish. He does not yet know how, but he did show me one piece he attempted to write anyway. It was not all spelled correctly, but it was remarkably close, and just as powerful as his other works. He would like to learn, but he has not yet found somebody close to home who can teach him. Even as I told him how close he was to reading and writing Spanish, I could see traces of old fears in his eyes.

Mr. Dozal published a volume of his works in 2005. It is titled My Dad's Thoughts: Bits and Pieces of Life, and is available here. It is a small selection of his writings, which he has transcribed from the notebooks he carries into several large binders.

Mr. Dozal found it difficult to take pride in his work after struggling for so long, but he does not regret his education, and he has certainly accomplished something to be proud of. Whatever Ruben Dozal may have missed in school, he more than makes up for in determination and spirit.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A nice bio.

04 October, 2007 20:08  

Post a Comment

<< Home