The coalition’s first fight, all those decades ago? Demanding that the city fix the West Side’s drainage issues.
Mata’s story is coming full circle.
“When I was young, I just always wanted to just succeed and make my mom proud,” Mata says. “I wanted to break the cycles of poverty and illiteracy in my family. I didn’t want to be just another statistic and I wanted my nieces and nephews to do better and to have a better childhood.”
Life is a race—with different starting lines
When Mata was in the ninth grade, she asked her mother if she could drop out of school. No one in her family had gone past the ninth grade, and her mom had not even been allowed to attend school. Her mom left the choice up to her.
Mata was concerned that her mom could not really comprehend the gravity of the decision, and she decided to keep going. She and her twin sister became the first of their mother’s 11 children to finish high school. But the accomplishment was tainted by another family event that year when Mata’s 23-year-old brother was murdered. She still remembers going to the scene of the crime and seeing his bloody handprint and a hypodermic needle nearby. ”He was a hard worker,” she says, “but he struggled with addiction.”
When you grow up experiencing poverty, “you accept it, normalize it, and blame yourself for it.”
That traumatic experience inspired Mata to go even further than she had planned—not just to college, but to a school far from San Antonio: Texas Tech University.
Her mom told her she was crazy, Mata recalls. “I just told her, ‘Mom, you don’t have to do anything. All you have to do is drop me off at the Greyhound bus station, and I’ll figure it out from there.’ ”
College was an uphill battle. Mata got a couple of scholarships, but they weren’t much. She relied on student loans, which she smartly refinanced later in life using her car as collateral.
Mata grew up in 78237, which was once considered the far West Side, before development started flourishing around U.S. 151 past Loop 410. In Mata’s neighborhood, nearly half of people 25 and older—45.6%—don’t have high school diplomas. Only 3.7% have bachelor’s degrees, compared to 25.2% in San Antonio overall.
Texas Tech was a culture shock to a young woman who had never ventured far from her West Side parish. But meeting people from different backgrounds helped her understand the race of life—and how the race begins differently depending on where you come from.
“And some people are in the race at the starting line,” she says. “Some people are in that starting line with athletic legs, or maybe in a nice fancy car, while some people are crawling their way through it. And then there’s those people that don’t even know where the stadium’s at … Not just that they’re outside trying to get in, but they don’t even know there’s a stadium.
“A lot of people don’t realize the systemic issues that we have, because they are so embedded, so hidden from everyday life that people can’t see them,” she continues.
“It’s become so normalized, and our institutions normalize it—they tell people these things are their fault. In actuality, it’s not their fault. It’s just the way that everything was designed.”
She thinks back to her neighborhood’s flood waters.
“It occurred to me: Wow, so that was not a normal day. Because I remember as kids, we were always playing in the creeks by the water where it would flood down just like a couple of houses from our house. And I just thought that was normal. Like, ‘Oh, if it rains, we can go play in the creek.’” Never mind the danger and the damage being done to neighbors’ homes.
“[Our institutions] tell people these things are their fault. In actuality, it’s not their fault. It’s just the way that everything was designed.”
I know exactly what Mata is talking about, having spent my high school years living with my grandmother on Olga Street, not too far from where Mata grew up.
My grandmother Mary passed last year. To this day, the backyard floods when it rains.
“I mean, it’s an older neighborhood,” I tell Mata. “They just never got around to it. I don’t know if they ever will get around to it.”
“That sounds like just accepting it,” she responds. “I think we would be better off if we were just told the truth—the design of our neighborhood was flawed from the start. I’m not pointing fingers, because that does nothing to solve problems. I’m just saying we need to move forward with the truth, and we need to do better.”