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Contents

Prologue


Book 1: Beginnings

Poverty: Hearth and Dirt

Adversity and Satisfaction: Hooah!


Book 2: FRAGO

Other Cultures: Argentina

Universidad de Buenos Aires

Iguazu Waterfalls: Memories Unlock

Hatred and the Innocence of Children

The American College Experience

Undergrad, Tucson, and Graduation


Book 3: Close to the Sun

Graduate School: First Year

Larry and Washington, DC

Bond, Mexican Retard shot

Never Surrender: Paradise Lost


Book 4: Spiritual Awakening

Teacher of the Year, Splenectomy

The Human Spiritual Awakening

Shots Fired, Hospitalization

Applause and the Path

A Call to Arms: Union Fight

The End and Conclusion

[Prologue]

I began writing this book in 2006, a time when my career and social life were reaching new heights. I was working for the United States Congress, was doing PhD research for an extraordinary biochemist, and had been on a date with a model. I had just completed the Bataan Memorial Death March with heavy gear. For someone like me, I felt like I was Icarus flying close to the sun.


I come from a deep poverty of dirt floors, born in 1983 in Socorro TX to immigrant parents who don’t speak English. That beginning made every new experience up the socioeconomic staircase an exciting adventure. By 2006 alone, I had met many amazing and deeply inspirational people who I never could have imagined meeting as a Mexican-American peasant from an emotionally abusive childhood. Treasuring these people was how this project began. It would morph into a record of grief, joy, loss, and love.


On May 1st 2012, I made the decision that the relentless struggle that was my life was something I could no longer justify. I put a 9-mm weapon to my head and pulled the trigger—a suicide attempt, as it’s better known. I lost part of my brain and fractured my skull. I should have bled out, yet somehow, I survived—a miracle that I still don’t understand to this day. Lying on my deathbed made me realize just how much I had felt and lived in such a short time. It made me want to share my story and its message: Life is beautiful, for all of us—if we can see past the filter of our mind—and its expectations.


In sharing this book, the risks I take are outweighed by the hope that anyone with a seed of doubt and anger about who they are and what they’ve accomplished will listen to a message from someone who has been to the edge of the afterlife and back; the message is this: you are enough.


I don’t pretend that any of my life has been an adventure, or that it is grand and worthy of retelling. My tale is important to me because I love and care deeply about people and I love and care deeply about this beautiful and unknown experience of life that we all share. My hope is that by reading some—or all—of this book, some person trying to decide what path to take will be inspired to consider college That someone completely down on her luck, feeling like there is no hope, will take a deep breath, plan a small step forward, and take it; that some wealthy person disconnected from life will remember what it means to value it at its most basic level. Shit, if all you get from this is that you appreciate your coffee a little more the next morning, then I’ll have wildly succeeded.


Be kind; first to yourself, then to others. Seek help when you know you need it. Never give up.


I’ve either omitted the full names of people and locations or have changed them entirely to protect their privacy.


This was never a book. It was a peasant’s journal. It was a journal that grew wiser as the years passed. I hope that I’ve compiled it enough to make you laugh a little; that I’ve compiled it enough to inspire you to fight the good fight, if only a little.









Book 1:

Beginnings

It wasn’t until I made it out to The University of Texas that I started to realize just how poor I was. I had experienced situations of deep poverty for years, but it all seemed normal because I never had access to the rest of the world around me, only to my own little microscopic world of my neighborhood, Campestre, in Socorro TX. I couldn’t ever imagine that anyone alive could have a life routine different from my own; even the imagination needs some experience to feed it.


Being dirt poor allows you to focus on the richness and depth life has in its bare state, free from wealth and possessions. It allows you to learn that the connections and experiences you have with those around you are the true currency of life. It’s the human element that binds us all and it is invaluable.




[Hearth]

I was very small when we came to live in Socorro. My dad had bought a tract of land and started building a house. He had a degree in “la ley de la vida,” which translates into “the law of life.” There are many people—from many walks of life—who have a similar phrase. It simply means that you do whatever is necessary to bring food to the table. It means that you pick a craft and learn it as best as you can and then improve it through trial and error, never embarrassed, always determined. My father had friends who were “electricians” or “plumbers,” but building our home was mostly a learn-as-you-go effort. To avoid calling it a “wreck,” I choose the word “shoddy” to describe its completed craftsmanship. When my family moved in, we all slept in the living room. Our house had a hard-packed dirt floor, we didn’t have windows, and a plastic sheet served as our roof, covering a cinder block exterior and sheet rock framing for walls. There was no running water. Instead, our family would receive 5-gallon water donations from the local church. To bathe, my mother would heat water for hours until it was mild and then dump it into a large tina (tin tub). We’d get in and then use empty Blue Bunny Ice Cream gallon containers to pour water over ourselves. We didn’t have electricity.


My mother would cook on a tiny iron stove fueled by wood. It had a little grate door you had to open to put the wood in. Sopa de repollo (cabbage soup) was often on menu: water, cabbage, spices. Sporadically, people in the neighborhood would donate or barter items like potatoes and vegetables. We would have a piece of chicken once a month. A few times, Mom fed us dirty little catfish she would catch in the canal behind our home. My siblings and I each had one or two pairs of jeans. If we outgrew them, too bad; when clothes got torn up, my mother would sew them back together or put a patch on them. Mom sewed a few dresses for my sister which my sister would recycle and reuse for middle and high school. My shoes were too small for me for many years. This pushed my pinky toe on my left foot over all my other toes and to this day my left pinky overlaps my other toes.


While Dad worked painting and fixing cars mom worked at a sweatshop (maquiladora) full time. There was no baby-sitting except for a few pockets of time when we had neighbors who could come and watch any one of us. When my sister was about 7, she was tasked with taking care of us. I was a good kid but my brother would give her a run for her money by setting fire to things in our home and otherwise just being a pain in the ass. One time, he was so bad that she chased him out of the house with a broom; he went without eating the whole day and when our parents got back from work they found him unconscious at a playground. Haha, pendejo!


If we got sick, we stuck it out—there was no visiting the doctor. Life was surprisingly perilous—barbed wire fences, broken glass bottles glued to walls, dangerous bike stunts, violent loose dogs. My mother and sister tell me of a time, my brother got involved in some real shenanigans. He had managed to pierce a hole in his abdomen so large that it revealed his guts; my mother had to get him to calm down and lie down, then poured a ton peroxide on the wound. Splinters gushed out in a bubbly mess, to which she taped a gauze pad. “There, all done.” If we ever visited the doctor, we went to Juarez where the care was a lot cheaper but the industry was much more unstable. The “surgery” years later for fixing my overlapped pinky toe was a catastrophe, and after we went back to complain to the “doctor,” he had vanished. My first legitimate doctor visit came when I was about 16 and only because there was a government insurance I qualified for.


I remember the day when natural gas was finally run into the house. My brother and I were playing outside when suddenly we heard an explosion and a shattering of glass. My brother always had the goofiest look of shock I’ve ever seen in a kid and I looked at him wide-eyed while he gave me the goofy look. As we ran to the house, we saw that all our windows had shattered, and the glass had shot outward. The service man doing the installation was ambling his way towards the door—he looked at us and we saw that all his facial hair had turned to ash as he pawed at his face and coughed. We laughed hysterically. The propane tank was a drastic change in quality of life. It was a pretty common setup with a huge cylindrical tank set outside that provided natural gas for cooking and heating. (It was also a pony or a wild buffalo for poor kids without toys.) And now we could shower with warm water and heat our home during the winter. My mom would eventually get a gas range with knobs to control the flame level, a bit of an upgrade from throwing wood into a piece of iron.


After a few years, our humble home became a decent place to live. We eventually even got evaporative cooling and electricity! Our home required a lot of maintenance so all of us were tapped early in life for the job. We washed dishes, cooked, cut weeds, swept and mopped to my mom’s obsessive standards, which we never met. At one point, my sister put it upon herself to grow a vegetable garden for us to help our nutrition. She was about 11 years old.


I remember our home fondly, even if I do not remember too many moments spent with my family. Our home was beautiful. We had a big tree planted square in the middle of our back yard. There was patchy yellow desert grass and dried weeds all around. I remember scaling our roof many times to give our evaporative cooler maintenance. I remember walking in the yard to bring in clothes that had been hung out to dry on metal wires, taut between iron poles, as a howling thunderstorm was approaching. I remember constantly stealing away and sitting at the back steps of the house; the stupid dog would come over to me wagging his tail as I sat in the night, looking at the stars, serenaded by crickets. It was such a beautiful home. It was the only place for me.


We had a ton of pets with some outrageous personalities. We must have cycled through ten cats—affectionate, nimble, powerful strays with great indoor manners who came and went as they pleased. Waffles, Breakfast, Ninja, Mace, Snow. Waffles was a neighborhood boss. I’d spot him a few times just laying into other street cats and sometimes he’d return limping—victorious from showing some scrappy Tabby what’s what I imagine. The most terrifying was Bubbles, who was a good friend to me, but whom I would later find splayed on the roof of a junked-out car next to the house. She had gotten into the roof space to chase pigeons and they must have gotten to her, leaving a clean cut all along her belly and knocking her onto the roof of the car where she died. To this day, Mother thinks it was all the work of a satanic cult.



[Dirt]

To play Quemada (“to get burned”), you need a group of at least 3 people. Each person digs a hole in the dirt about the size of a tennis ball. You then take turns rolling either a tennis ball or a rebote ball (racquetball), trying to land the ball into another person’s hole. The game was complicated, but if the ball landed in your hole, it was your job to whack someone with it. If you failed, you get a rock put in your hole. Get 3 rocks and you’d then get fusilado (executed). This meant you’d stand against a wall with your back to the group and your hands behind your head. Each person then got three throws at you. Pain was the objective. Being fusilado sucked ass, man. Sometimes, you would start trembling not knowing when the ball was coming. Sometimes, you would hear the rebound in your ears for a few minutes from the ball striking so hard right next to your head.


Today, Willy was getting executed. He was the youngest one of us all. We had a group of six today, and Willie’s older brother and bully Rafa was with us. He was a ruthless executioner. He kept threatening Willy that if he fucking moved, he was going to get his ass beat. Willy started crying and yelling out, “No, Rafa, no!” The execution continued. Rafa’s aim was precise, his throws powerful. Because I was a kid, it was fucking hilarious. Writing it now, I’m still laughing. Rafa was mostly just teasing him, and I think overall loved his little brother, maybe. This was one of the biggest games in the neighborhood.


I say that I am from El Paso Texas but really, we were from Socorro Texas, a suburb that to this day El Paso has not annexed. Socorro runs right along the Rio Grande. As a kid I would take bike rides along the many irrigation canals and through dog-filled cotton farms to get to the Grande. I would finally reach a canal created by the US Border Patrol for driving their patrol cars. The canal was the last obstacle for immigrants trying to come in, and it was pretty deep. But the dirt road on top was wide and perfect for kids on bikes.


Our home was close enough to the Grande that oftentimes we would have immigrants running through our back yard. The dogs would bark, it was 3 am, and you’d wake up just in time to see them run by. Without touching the politics of illegal immigration, I will say that I have seen—and lived—the conditions people flee from in Juarez, Mexico. There is murder, extreme poverty, lawlessness; there is no opportunity for living even close to what’s considered poverty here in the States. People risk their lives to come here, and the only reason they are willing to is because it is worth facing an unknown, uncertain, and dangerous future. It is worth the risk of dying to leave. I still have quite a few aunts and cousins that live out there, and an uncle that lives in a home made of cardboard. I remember visiting our aunts in Juarez and it strikes me completely that my aunts always offered (and still do to this day) plenty of food and drink to visitors; they offered everything they had to their guests, even if they are strangers that don’t speak their language!!. During birthday parties and other celebrations, they’d bust out a piñata, beer and tequila, and play some 50’s jazz and never stop dancing. The kitchen was always filled with wonderful smells. In sickness and turmoil, they would help one another; their family unity and joy was a beautiful thing, even despite the poverty.


The neighborhood we lived in was called Campestre. It was a very small neighborhood at the time I was playing Quemada. Its dirt roads were eventually replaced with asphalt. Similar to ours, houses had all been either constructed by amateurs or were trailer homes. The people of Campestre had bought tracts of land to build on and claimed them with a chain link fence. I was good friends with many of my neighbors and I absolutely loved sharing a “Buenos dias” or “Buenas tardes” with my neighbors across the chain link fences as they their fed chickens or just sat outside. There was Pipi the carpenter, Esme, the lady who sold Avon and gave injections, Fidel the guitarist at church, Don Elpidio who raised chickens that our cats would constantly ambush. It was a wonderful little community.


Because the original land was all hard dirt, sand, and weeds, this remained what the front and back yards were made of. Desert landscaping didn’t exist; everyone fought hard to make green things grow. People would steal water from the irrigation canal running right behind us for our many trees and efforts at grass. To steal water from the canal without a pump, you take a buddy, fill a water hose about half way, plug both ends with your thumbs, then drop the hose simultaneously, one person into the canal, and one into tree or grass. Capillary force does the rest, bringing a continuous stream of water from the canal. Occasionally, a city truck would drive by making sure no one was stealing water, so you had to conceal your hose with dirt really well. Dirt had so many applications, what a commodity! And it was everywhere!


Having a canal right behind you was ideal for a kid. When it was dry, we would jump down and play among the tires and broken bottles. For a time, I would collect broken glass shards and use them as pretend money to barter with my neighbor; we’d eventually get in a fight over who had more “money.” Making a sand bridge on the floor of the canal was the best. The dirt was so soft you could dig deep into it and create a hole with a bridge over it, then drive your toy cars over the bridge. The dirt also tasted pretty good. When the canal was full, you could take string and tie it to a nail, then steal a piece of weenie (hot dog) and put it at the end of the nail. Casting it in, sometimes, you would feel a tug at the string and get excited; it’d meant you had nabbed a cangrejo (crawfish), and with care, you could try to bring it out, its mean pincers strongly clinging on to the weenie. The mean kids would pull out two of them and egg them on to fight one another, which they did, both of them menacingly displaying their pincers and going at each other. I always walked away for the gladiatorial games. I felt bad seeing the animals hurt each other.


We had a few other ways to entertain ourselves besides playing in the canal or playing Quemada—from street football games to dangerous bike stunts using make-shift ramps. We’d create powerful slingshots (tiralilas) using a plastic bottle top and a balloon. We’d load up on ammunition, strange, hard, green seeds (lilas) and hunt each other mercilessly throughout the neighborhood. There were desqualabrads (concussions), cuts, and bruises plenty to go around. It was life on the edge at 8.


Most days of the year, dogs would bark or yelp endlessly, but at night, the sun would go down with a beautiful pink transition to the blue sky with a multitude of stars above. There was no smog, no artificial lighting to impede your view. The stars were yours and yours alone. This was still true in 2011, when I returned to say goodbye to our home.


Sometime later on, my buddies and I ventured out to an abandoned sewage facility some 3 miles west from home, just south of Socorro road. When we arrived on our bikes, our first discovery was a large fiberglass pipe, about 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide. One end bulged larger than the other. It looked pretty clean and was light blue. Arriving to the sewage plant, there was a long dirt road sloped down about 15 degrees, the left and right ends drop off suddenly to reach the ground level about 8 feet below. Cool. We rolled the pipe up to the top. Anyone want to get in?


Oscar (Kalin) was some kind of South American Indian. We really didn’t know a whole lot about him except his dad was the soccer coach, and Kalin had a hell of an accent, of what origin we weren’t sure. He had very dark skin, darker than mine, and thick black hair. We coaxed him into it. He fought and fought, but peer pressure is a bitch. He crawled in and, with his back curved on the bottom of the pipe, struck out his feet and hands to the opposite end to hold his position. We started rolling him down. The fiber glass was a pain in the ass; slivers would shed off and dig into our hands. The pipe started rolling a little bit, slowly; you could hear Kalin’s muffled voice in his weird accent “Oh man, Oh man”. We kept pushing faster and harder and soon the pipe outran us. We hadn’t calculated that the bulge on one end of the pipe would cause it to favor rolling to one side, where the steeper drops were. Uh oh, it’s starting to roll towards the steeper ends. “Wow, it’s really picking up speed”. At this point Kalin was yelling out loud “Help guys!” It turned a deep right, and for a second I saw him! He had lost his stance and was being rolled about inside, like South American Indian clothes inside a dryer. The pipe rolled off the deep end in a nasty jump and we saw Kalin fly out one end into a cloud of dust.


“Wow, cool!”

Struggle and adversity can lead to transcendent satisfaction. I initially thought that satisfaction in life was connected to how far I had gotten away from poverty, by how much money I was able to make. How wrong I was! My battle with poverty has been a tiring one, and because my mistakes led me away from financial abundance, there is always someone in my family needing more. Fuck fighting for money, it’s endless.


No, the gold medals of my life, those transcendent moments of satisfaction, came from pushing my human will and ability to their highest levels. I got my first true taste of it working out with Army cadets. Our workouts were incredibly excessive and painful. Every day I felt like I was about to collapse, completely expended of all my energy, and then I would push more. It was those moments of feeling like I couldn’t possibly succeed, like I couldn’t go on, because the task was so challenging, that taught me about transcendent satisfaction.


You’ll find yourself trudging in those moments, miserable, exhausted. Then, suddenly, you have succeeded, and you feel like you are overlooking a mountain sunrise. You feel relief, safety, calm. THAT satisfaction is the stuff that makes memories that will bring you a smile for the rest of your life. It doesn’t have to be a physical feat…anything that challenges your ability to its greatest level is capable of gifting you with transcendent satisfaction.


[Hooah]

We went out to Mount Batel in Texas that day for our morning PT (military Physical Training) run. I had graduated high school in 2001, and by that August I was an undergraduate student at UT. A friend of mine introduced me to the Army ROTC and I naturally leaned towards joining the “elite” platoon detachment they offered, the Ranger Detachment. It was led by a Sergeant B who had spent time with the Rangers; he had an Airborne and Ranger Tab, among other decorations. I’d later learn that training under him would be synonymous with pain.


Daylight somehow broke at 7am without fail. For this morning run, we were all running in the beautiful quietness of 0600 under a blanket of stars and nasty humidity; Our hard breathing and landing footsteps thundering in the stillness.


Mount Batel is a wealthy community built on extremely steep hills. We ran the roads up and up until we hit a structure built as a view point at the top of the hill. It was an endless staircase that stopped at some stone architecture providing a very nice view over a large lake. We’d sprint up that thing a few times towards the end of the run, come down, then do push-ups, flutterkicks, and other tortures to muscle failure. On our run that day, Victor, an older prior-service cadet in his 30’s, called out to the cadets, “Hey guys, check these houses out to the right…ol’ Herma is going to be living in one of these houses one day.” Victor was a mentor to me. My own father was always very absent from my life and so I have adopted mentors throughout my entire life to guide me. Victor was my first. When I first joined the ROTC, he quickly took notice of me, that I stood out from the rest, and he was always quick to point it out to everyone else. “Yo Herma! Those are some nice looking push-ups!”, “Shit I’ll be happy when I can run as well as ol’ Herma.” This morning, he believed in my academic ability in biochemistry and that I would make the right choices to lead to success. Victor is respectful, polite, kind, and a badass. The perfect mentor.


The ruck march was the meat and potatoes of our little pretend “Ranger” group. A ruck march is a fast-paced march carrying a back pack (ruck sack) on your back…for our purposes, we’d fill our rucks with at least 40lbs of weight. Our pace made it really more of a fast jog than a march.


We rucked and rucked and rucked—down lonely roads, up campus hills, around parks, and sometimes up stairwells of the tall UT Engineering Buildings. It’s a hell of a workout and puts a strain on your whole body. It’s not just that your feet and legs hurt, but your ankles, your arms, your shoulders, your abs, back and entire body ache and strain.


It feels at some point like you can’t go on because of the pain and tiredness, and everyone who has rucked knows the feeling of helplessness. You just have to look past it. You have to endure the pain, convince yourself that your body is healthy enough to keep going and just be determined to keep moving. I remember my first ruck march. I kept falling behind to the back of the formation, struggling to keep up. Kirby, a bald African American fellow with squooshed eyes kept looking back and breaking formation to walk along my side; “Hey how you feeling man? You alright?” “I’m fine, Kirby.” He’d get back in formation.


I kept falling behind, struggling to keep up.


He kept breaking formation and coming back, checking in. He wasn’t doubting me, he was encouraging me. He did it many times until I couldn’t bare it anymore and retorted “Jesus, Kirby! How the fuck do you think I’m feeling! My feet feel like I’ve got iron rods through them! Leave me the fuck alone!” We eventually finished the march, I along with them.


We were all exhausted, huddled in a circle, when someone remembered it was my first ruck march ever. “Oh yeah, good job Herma, hooah!” The team replied in synch, “Hooah!” It was so wonderful, I felt so cared for. I learned much later that Kirby would have kept coming back to me and encouraging me until I finished…and if I’d collapse he’d fucking carry me. It was a commitment we had all made to each other though it was never spoken, it was demonstrated. I would never be given the opportunity to understand it’s full meaning but even having experienced a sample of that type of bond changed my life forever.


Much later in my life I realized that these gestures really motivated me to keep going. Gestures like those became extremely rare in my life, and I’ve missed them sorely. To compensate, I try to offer the same to everyone around me. I check in, I ask how people are, make sure they’re okay. If someone succeeds in something, I celebrate with them, even if it’s just whooping for joy. If they’re struggling, I share their burden, try to encourage them. If they break down, I cry with them. Now, I realize that this is a principle at the core of what good leadership is, you look out for the people around you. You take care of your crew.


I remember workouts at the track where our focus was the Ranger creed. We’d begin with an intense cardio, upper body, and lower body workout. It was always intense, every time. We had a workout called the “about-face” workout where we’d face one squad leader and do whatever they said—pushups, lunges in place, situps, bicycle kicks, jumping jacks, etc…until they told us to stop. Then we’d turn around and do what the other one said. After 30 minutes, it was agonizing; we couldn’t even do arm curls (cherry pickers) or stand straight. We looked pathetic. On track days, there was also an extra focus, the Ranger creed.


After we were done with the workout we’d stand in line, and each person would call out one “stanza” of the Ranger creed, with the others repeating what the first person called. If one person screwed it up, we’d all have to drop and do push-ups, pure agony after a workout. On my turn, I would always stand at extreme attention and fiercely yell out my stanza. My favorite one was the 6th and last one, which went like this:


Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.


It ended with all of us yelling in unison “Rangers lead the way!!” Our workouts were always some form of exaggerated torture, and I loved it. I honed my physical and mental strength to a razor-sharp edge with the ROTC; and I discovered an internal blazing fire within myself from the Detachment. Eventually I became a beast and have managed to keep some level of the same fitness since then: 2-mile run in 13:30, 3-mile ruck with 40 lbs. in 1 hour, 60 pushups in 2 minutes, and 60 sit-ups in 2 minutes. It was such a beautiful thing, standing in formation in a pool of my own sweat—my whole body sore as hell— walking to my car and grabbing my books and a change of clothes, hitting the nice cool showers, then heading to the dining hall for some hot chow and coffee. Fucking fantastic.


I learned a ton of cool things from the ROTC, like setting up and crossing a one-rope bridge, zip-lining, the basics of laying an ambush, and assembling and firing an M-16. We participated in a couple of competitions and field training exercises that were tons of fun. The entire experience raised my threshold on staying disciplined and on my tolerance for pain. After having done training in a deluge for hours, most rain storms now-a-days feel like light drizzle to me.


I met so many fantastic people, and we had a ton of fun adventures: getting lost in orienteering courses, getting our asses handed to us in paintball matches, pissing off teams in intramural football because of our outrageous teammates, farting in our closed sleeping bags during field training exercises and doing drunken battle rolls across campus at midnight.


The Army ROTC breathed life into me. While my childhood and adolescence had taught me that I was a piece of shit person the ROTC showed me the complete opposite. It taught me that I was a valuable person, that I had talent, and that people respected me.





Campestre; Canal behind home; Home in final stage; ROTC FTX








Book 2:

FRAGO

I am ever so grateful that I had an opportunity to immerse myself in a culture outside of the US and that it was the Argentine culture. Even as a complete stranger from a foreign and despised country, I not only made friends, I was made to feel like family among them.


The time I spent living in Argentina reminded me that there were still societies that practiced the tradition of honoring thy neighbor. It gave me an entirely new perspective on what living in a society could look and sound like; about how fun and friendly it can be; about what it meant to carry yourself with class. It also taught me that life can be really fucking delicious.


[Argentina]

The memories of the day are unremarkably vague but I do recall being summoned to go see Captain Sierra upstairs in the ROTC building. In the Spring of that year I had decided to sign the contract of service with the US Army. I was gung ho about going into infantry and had signed up for Airborne and Air Assault training. I wanted to make Special Forces; I knew that I could. I had drive, was aggressive, clear headed, intelligent, strong, adaptive, and fast. I lived for honor. The way I saw it my life was already forfeit. I had no role in regular life; my childhood and adolescence had taught me that. I was ready to sacrifice my life to help others. I was ready to sacrifice it for my country, fucking hooah.


However, before joining we had to get medically evaluated. I have a heart condition, WPW, Wolf-Parkinson-White Syndrome. It’s an extra piece of nerve tissue running between the chambers of my heart and distracts the electrical flow. It can cause palpitations and at worse sudden death. I decided not to lie about it fearing it would bite me in the ass bigtime later on. I couldn’t see failure as an option especially with the physical shape I was in…what heart condition? I completed the medical evaluation and was asked to wait to hear back. I was so fucking excited.


In the meantime, I was a biochemistry major. When I wasn’t calculating equilibrium concentrations, drawing organic reactions and predicting hybridization orbitals, I was upside-down, pulling myself across a rope suspended between trees on campus. I was kicking ass in all my classes whilst in full Battle Dress Uniform (BDU). It was really really fun. Time flew by.


6 months later it’s December and school is wrapping up for the semester. I had been summoned by Captain Sierra in her office. I go to the 3rd floor, walk the hallway, knock on her door, take a few steps in and snap to attention with salute. “You called for me Ma’am?” “Aurelius, there’s so many other things you can do with your life…”. I had been medically disqualified from serving in the US Army by DODMERB.


I stayed quiet, saluted, faced about, and quietly walked down the hallway, tears welling up in my eyes. She chased after me but I wasn’t listening. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Everything stopped. I went home that day and packed up all my shit; I was shocked, pissed, incredulous. I turned in my uniform the next day. Said my goodbyes. My life has never been the same.


The ROTC presented me with family, an opportunity to fight for a cause, to defend people who shouldn’t be in the business of living in hell. That goal gave my life meaning when I had never felt one before.


And then I lost it all, my only family. The effect was devastating. My last run with the “Ranger” group was at Mount Batel, where Victor declared to our group that he had faith in me. I knew I had to get the hell out of Dodge; I was going to drive myself insane missing my buddies and our excruciating and masochistic work outs. I started looking more closely at my classmates in biochemistry and realized I was way too different from them. I was too fucked up, too fiery, too intense, and they were too soft, sensitive, pampered, and unmotivated. I had tried going with the flow for a while but I couldn’t stay focused—this wasn’t the direction that I wanted for my life, it didn’t feel right at all. Something had to change! Shelving my emotions, I established my new objective: get the fuck out of Dodge.


As I started to develop the situation I discovered that the daughter of a family friend from El Paso was also at UT. Marisol worked in the study abroad office and through her help I got study abroad squared away within 3 months. I do not clearly remember the details of how I chose Argentina or how I came to win the National Security Education Program Scholarship except to say that it involved a lot of planning, a lot of writing, a lot of persuading, some very good contacts and unwilling but dedicated oral sex…just kidding. Seriously though, I won the award because I proposed researching the impact of bovine Foot and Mouth Disease on the culture and economy of Argentina.


Regardless, my mind was now distracted with something greater than a yearning for the only family I had ever experienced; now, I was distracted with how I was going to survive in a totally foreign environment with absolutely no contacts or know ledge of the area; I was distracted with how the hell I was going to get some productive academia out of my study abroad program (COPA) as it did not offer any science courses in Argentina. I did know that there was a large University in Buenos Aires that offered a science curriculum but COPA did not have an agreement with them. I would be in Argentina 6 months.


I was so clueless about the world, about what other people were out there, how they lived, how they thought, what they ate, what they did. I wasn’t fazed at all by this ignorance; I knew I had the tools and determination to survive and adapt to anything. Back then I felt unstoppable. Hooah.


Over the next months I got my first ever passport then my Visa from the consulate in Houston. Sooner than you know it the big day was finally here. I’d be leaving my country for the first time, entirely on my own, without a single clue of what the future would have in store for me. For months Dad kept telling me that I wouldn’t dare leave, that I was making things up. Fast forward and I’m on the bus to the airport. This pattern has never ended: Naysayers nag and mock me constantly then stare with gaping mouths as I make shit happen. “I said I was going to Argentina, and now I’m going. Peace.” I had 1 piece of luggage and carried it on my back.


The flight was so much fun. We first flew down to Miami which had a raggedy airport with tons of makeshift wooden walls to guide folks to the right spot as it was under a lot of construction. Our flight to Argentina happened on a huge airplane with what I remember were 4 large aisles of seats. It was pretty damn cold and half way through the flight they provided us with a half decent warm meal. I rode next to an Argentine woman on the flight and we had a great conversation in Spanish. She was exotic to me and incredibly sexy. Her accent was awesome. It had so much personality and flavor. Talking to her on a cold night flight felt like something out of a movie. This all felt like such an incredible experience.


I was to be staying with my host “family”. I was so desperate to experience what having a non-hurtful, loving family felt like. I was hoping my host family would provide this experience for me. You know, they’d be a loving couple with a few kids, a nice back yard, and a dog; maybe Clifford the Big Red Dog.


They turned out to be just a middle-aged couple, Emilio and Gloria. Emilio was a fun-loving guy who worked evenings as a DJ at a disquoteca. Gloria was a pretty Barbie doll girl who…well, I’m not sure exactly what she did. They lived in a tiny apartment in a complex some floors tall. The elevator was covered with a metal screen that you had to slide open before entering; it would creak as you compressed it to let yourself in and the elevator itself was darkly lit and felt rusty. It made a ton of noise. I was up on about the 5th level.


The heart of my Argentina experience became the Cafes, the Carnecerias (meat houses, I LOVE meat) and a Tango place. The Café’s were fantastic. They were cozy little diners; normally with unique European looking architecture with polished wooden furniture. They served typical meals like any Argentine restaurant but of course the main menu item was the café. If you just ordered a café you would be given a very strong shot of espresso in a small ceramic and elegant cup, a small glass of carbonated water, and some cookies. This is the equivalent of us Americans ordering a triple venti low fat frappucino caramel super deluxe. I noticed Argentines could sit for an entire hour over conversation, normally very animated with gestures, laughter, and loudness, with these small cups of coffee. My main order became a café con leche, which is pretty much a latte; I felt less of a man knowing I needed a lot of creamer in my coffee and tons of sweetener but that’s how I love my coffee. These cafés were everywhere in Buenos Aires and were the 5am hotspot after a night out. Dinner started around 11 pm daily. The Argentines definitely felt like they were appreciating a different type of life on a different time scale than our busy 8 to 5. God, it was fun.


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