I came to the nation's capital (against the advice of everyone I love and trust) determined to conquer.
Left behind were the 200-acre family farm, cows I grew up milking, my worried mother, my stoic father, six sisters, four brothers and the memory of my Socorro, Tex., high school graduation where we 65 seniors stood sweltering in blue gowns on a 100-degree day in May.
What I brought with me was my prized acquisition: a degree in business administration earned 18 months earlier from the University of Texas at El Paso.
Homesickness is standard for young people who stray from the security of family and familiar surroundings to challenge a big city.
But I wasn't prepared for some of the things I missed terribly:
Corn tortillas that didn't crumble; a whole language -- a speical mixture of English and Spanish -- called Pocho; leisurely jogs down country paths in the moonlight; a family table laden with enchiladas, chiles rellenos and tamales and salsa to season them; a life style paced more to the guitar than to screaming sirens and a friendly neighboring city called Juarez, with its mercados, bullfights, ranchero music and bargains in everything from eight-course dinners to beautiful handcrafted silver and gold jewelry.
With my essential possessions compacted into four suitcases, I arrived at Washington National Airport last Dec. 10, a 23-year-old with a dream. I had passed a battery of federal civil service exams and been offered an entry-level job as clerk-typist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
I didn't know one person here, but a Hispanic recruiter for the department had volunteered to meet me at the airport and lead me to a boarding house where temporary quarters had been arranged.
When I couldn't locate him immediately, I went into cultural shock. I called my mother, who knew the city's crime statistics by heart.
"Don't talk to any strangers," she pleaded, "and catch the next plane home."
Fortunately, my host found me as I hung up. The boarding house plan had fallen through, but he promised to find something else. He located two other Chicanas, also from Texas, who mercifully shared space with me for two weeks (one in a hotel room, the other in a private home) until I found an apartment of my own the day after Christmas.
It was unfurnished and cost double what something comparable would rent for in El Paso. I decorated it with an army cot which deposited me on the floor every time I rolled over; a small, black-and-white TV and an alarm clock. In late February, I finally had my own furniture shipped to me.
During those first few months, my day consisted of going to work at sunup, getting home at dark and securely clicking all four locks on my apartment door. g
At the office, after enduring the blank stares of my coworkers, I learned to eliminate all Spanish words left from my Pocho vocabulary.
Once they took me to a fancy "Mexican" restaurant and urged me to do the ordering. I asked for tostadas. The waiter delivered each of us a hard flour tortilla shaped like a basket with a glob of chicken in the middle.
"How do we eat it?" my friends asked.
I didn't know. I'd never seen anything like it before.
I found corn tortillas in the canned goods aisles of supermarkets for $1.19 a can, or sometimes in the frozen food section, for 59 or 67 cents a dozen. Very different from El Paso where they were still warm and 20 cents a dozen.
To keep from getting trampled, I learned to run everywhere I went and to cross busy streets when "DON'T WALK" was flashing. Engineers have built escalators all over Washington, including from Metro subways to street level, but the people here apparently don't realize the stairs move. They vault them two at a time and knock you down if you're in the way. Now, I've joined them. Last week I knocked over my first victim.
In the spring, the city became a bouquet of history and culture and excitement. Now I'm spending my Saturdays touring its museums and climbing its monuments. Already I've watched some favorites, Kenny Rogers and Aerosmith, perform at Capital Centre. El Paso wasn't big enough to attract them.
A couple of months ago, my parents visited me. I led them through the White House tour and showed them our House of Representatives in action and zigzagged them across the Mall to marvel at space capsules, bones of prehistoric animals, and the world's outstanding paintings and sculpture.
My mother brought me a box full of Texas tamales, real tortillas, chorizo and homemade gorditas and salsa.
When she left, she promised to send me a "Mexican Care package" every month.
At the office, I'm constantly being reminded that because I'm female and Hispanic, I'm going to make it big in government service. Any day now, I guess I'll be moving up the ladder.
I've started to teach two close friends to play the guitar. I joined a Hispanic employes' club. I've been to colonial Williamsburg and hope to go to New York soon.
When friends from back home inquire, I tell them that Washington is an interlude they must experience. Personally I'm committed to two years here, I say.
I guess the cultural shock is beginning to wear off.