Tencha Avila came to La Junta last Thursday a little early for her appearance at Kimi Lews’s English Class and Lunch & Learn presentation on Friday. She came early because Midge Cranson, another La Junta fan of Avila, wanted her to go to International Foods Night with her. She did and they met and talked with many of the international students at OJC. Avila is a retired diplomatic core representative and budding playwright who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This meeting was important, because Avila’s experience in public has not always been that pleasant. In the opening of her Lunch & Learn speech on Friday, “From the moment one steps out in America with brown skin or slanted eyes, one cannot ever go far away enough or find anywhere to hide to revel in quiet moments of utter contentment that you are who you are - that you are an American, a natural-born American, a clear-cut full-blooded American. …’where are you from?’ ‘Colorado.’ No, I mean - where were you born?’  ‘Colorado.’ ‘And your parents?’ ‘Oh, you want to know about my parents - they’re from Mexico.’ ‘Umm. Then you’re Mexican-American.’

“No. I’m American American without a prefix. Just plain American. It still happens today in the street, restaurants, at the theater, and a long time ago, even on the beaches of Vietnam.”

In the early days of the Vietnam War, Tench Avila was a diplomat there. How did she get from an immigrant labor colony for a sugar company near Fort Lyon to the diplomatic corps of the United States? It’s a long story.

She had a hard time in the first grade as the only child who could not speak English. She couldn’t say the sses in Mrs., so she called Mrs. Martin “teacher.” Avila thinks that may have been the first thing that annoyed Mrs. Martin, aside from the fact she didn’t speak English. At recess, on the merry-go-round, she got swatted for swinging her bottom out to get the cool breeze. When she told her mother, she scolded Tencha. “But Mom, I didn’t know not to do that. I don’t know English.”

“Well, you figure out how to know. Watch what the other kids do and don’t do. Your job in school is to learn and stay out of trouble” Her mother’s happiness revolved around the fact that her children were in school. As Tencha learned English and passed through school, her mother and father worked tirelessly at any job they could find to keep the children in school.

Tencha had many more rejections before the tide turned for her. She heard a girl say in the second grade as the applications were passed out for the Brownies, “We don’t want Mexicans in the Brownies.” She took the application home, although she was crying, and her mom wiped her eyes and scolded her. “What’s the matter with you? You want to be a Brownie, you’ll be one.”

She signed the application and that was that. By the following Monday, she was the only brown Brownie and a very happy one.

Her first lessons about democracy came from that Brownie troop. Mrs. Beck was the leader, Tencha recalled.

“Kindness and respect was the order of her troop, and she made us all feel valued - valuable. No one was left out of anything. We all got to be officers in turn, even president," said Tencha.

Tencha’s favorite office was parliamentarian. She loved the order, and reminding the other girls of it. Her father, of course, stayed with his old Mexican manners.

“He immediately let me know he was in charge at home and my democracy ideas could stay in Brownies. Mrs. Beck opened the door to a free spirit in America."

Avila remembers those days in the labor camp well. “Everyone was expected to work the fields - even pregnant women and children as young as eleven from sun-up to sun-down at very low wages. Sometimes ten cents a row and they were about two blocks long. At best fifty cents an hour for cleaning and thinning beets and onions in the spring and ten cents a crate for the harvest of the fall. They might bring in $4 for the day.”

Although she often wanted to go to the fields, Tencha never went, because she was so small and her eyes were so sensitive to the sun. Instead, she stayed at home to take care of the little ones. The summer she was nine, she cared for five children, from ages 8 months to 7 years, dawn to dusk, for a month. It was the hardest job of her life.

She was very close to her dad. She would meet him coming home from work and he would give her half his lunch taco. She loved it because he enjoyed seeing her eat it. He wrote little plays for them and birthday verses and listened to all her joys and woes.

She had good times at the colony, too. They played round-robin base ball and kick the can. They rolled in old tires and splashed in the irrigation ditches. They listened to stories of their father and grandfather.

When Tencha was ten, the family moved to Las Animas. Her mom, and eventually her dad, got a job at the Bent County Hospital. She immediately decided she wanted to be exactly like her principal, the whitest woman she had ever seen, but the most in command. Tencha thought she looked just like the principal, Mrs. Eichel, who arranged for the Avila girls to have a free hot lunch every day and put her in every program for the PTA.

It was at school in Las Animas where she met Judy (now Judy Thomaczek) who introduced Tencha to her friends and included her in all the games. Judy’s father had died young from war wounds and her mother worked far from home. They became after-school pals. Others objected to their friendship, but they remained friends. Tencha was on the student council and Judy was president of the pep club.

Then Tencha’s sister left for nursing school, and her responsibilities caring for the younger children at home kept her from after school with Judy. Tencha and her younger sisters made lighter work by singing along with Johnny Cash and dancing to Rock Around the Clock. Meanwhile, her parents were working hard at any job they could get. Judy had to drop out of school her junior year, but she encouraged Tencha to go out for everything - cheerleader and bandleader.

“Do it for both of us,” she said, “I’ll be cheering for you.”

Tencha became the first brown drum majorette of the 92 piece band of Bent County High School. She was also head cheerleader when the basketball team won the state championship in 1958.

She really wanted to go to the University of Colorado and actually had a scholarship to Colorado Women’s College, but she got scared of attending a rich girl’s school and chose instead to go to Palomar College, a community college near where her sister, now a nurse, lived. That community college  gave her her start.

Her sister left for the Army Nurses Corps and she had no place to live and tried to drop out, but her debate coach loudly objected  and found her a place to live. She was invited by his wife to live at their home for room and board. She went to Colorado University in the Fall and was befriended by everyone and helped to find affordable housing on campus.

In the summer, she spent some time at Lake Tahoe and came back chocolate brown, which brought on more discrimination. She was living with a Russian professor, who said to the motel owner, “You no put American Indian out - you put me out - I communist. Do you want communists in motel?” He put them both out. Tencha reported the incident to the Dean of Women, but there were no laws to protect them then. It was 1961, and the Civil Rights Act didn’t pass until 1964.

Nevertheless, she graduated, and the whole family joined in the fun when she graduated. She got a teaching job, to help her family.   She loved teaching, but she wanted to help her family more. She decided to apply for the diplomatic core.

When the clerk there told her she should apply for the Peace Corps instead, she said, “The Peace Corps is for rich kids. I have to make money to help my family.” Then the woman told her to study hard and learn everything she could about the United States.

When the time came, three very white state department officials gave her the oral exam.

“They happened to ask about a treaty I had studied,” she said modestly in her talk at OJC. At any rate, she had to call out to ask if she passed.

“We would be happy to recommend you to represent the United States in any post in the world!” was their answer. And so Tencha was a member of the diplomatic corps in Viet Nam and southeast Asia.

There is still racism and discrimination in the world, but her last words to the group at Lunch and Learn on Friday were: “Sometime ago, Andrew Young said, ‘We [America] are not a melting pot. We are a stew. And it is the variety of all the vegetables that makes the stew so good.’ That is America. As an American - daughter of immigrants - That is the America I love and want to keep forever.”

bmcfarren@ljtdmail.com