“You are smart — for a Latina.”

An early encounter at Bergfeld Park impacted Paulina Pedroza to do the work she does in Tyler. Pedroza's story originally appeared in July 2020 as part of Out of the Loop, season 4.

Hello, my name is Paulina Pedroza. I was in one of my dozens of visits to Tyler from my hometown, Aguascalientes, in central Mexico. I was visiting my six uncles that I have here in town. This was typical for me. I made visits to Tyler every three months. At the time I was studying finances and marketing at a university in Mexico.

I wanted to improve my English skills, because I learned English in Mexico. I was in shock, starting at the age of 16, to hear American English. I wasn’t familiar with the accent, and people spoke so fast. I could only catch a couple of words in sentences, so it was helpful to show up at places like parks, the mall and Tyler hospitals to have a conversation in English, with English speakers. 

You may think this is awkward or uncomfortable for me to start talking in English with strangers –  to strike up a conversation. But I have the charisma, and we will break the ice easily.

July 15th, 2008: Another opportunity to use my English skills.

I took my little cousins to Bergfeld Park and sat on a nearby bench. As they played on the playground, there was a woman sitting on the other end of the bench. She was a white lady in her sixties, short hair and deep set eyes. I had the impression she was a wealthy woman. Her car was a luxury Mercedes. 

She spoke at a high level of English. She told me she lived nearby; she was there watching her grandkids. We started talking. First, she mentioned the weather, but quickly, the conversation changed, and we ended up talking about the demographics in Tyler, the economy and the city’s potential. 

Because I wanted to be informed, I had done my research about Tyler. I knew the issues this woman was discussing with me.

“It looks like you are new in Tyler. Do you know there is a north and south dividing Tyler? North Tyler is very dangerous. The farthest I go is downtown. I avoid north Tyler, because it’s unsafe; you can get robbed.” 

I think she was trying to warn me or protect me, assuming I didn’t know much about the city.

She also talked about the city’s potential and the city’s population. Thankfully, I read about that recently and had the exact number of residents. I also was able to speak about the developments happening in south Tyler, because I read about that, too. Here in 2020, many of those projects have happened, but in 2008 they were just plans and ideas.

So, that woman is looking at me like, “Oh, she’s informed. She knows about what is going on in Tyler.”

For about an hour of time, we talked about issues ranging from how clean was the park and the traffic in Tyler at that time. I was happy, because I was getting a big lesson in English, improving my English skills.

It was getting late, and we were wrapping up. And then she turned to me and she said something that is still ringing in my ears – something that has pushed me to do the work I do today. Guess what she said? 

“You know, you are very smart – for being Latina.” I was in shock; I was speechless. I sat there confused. Was this a compliment? Was she making fun of me? Was this because of my accent, my broken English? Or certainly because I was, and I am, Latina in East Texas. 

Now, I know this English expression: a backhanded compliment. This is how it felt. She said something that sounded nice, but it had a sting on it that left me thinking. 

She said two things: I was smart for being Latina.

I could have focused on the fact that I was smart. I could have focused on my education, my knowledge and made my mission to let the world know I am a Latina and I am professional. I’m different from what you assume. And this is true.

But in addition to this, I couldn’t help but think of all the other Latinos in East Texas.

I wish this woman knew about the small businesses owners who have three different locations here in Tyler. 

I wish this woman knew about the Latino attorneys that we have here in Tyler.

I wish this woman knew about the housing developers who are super-talented and growing Tyler – all of the construction workers that are building Tyler. 

Without them, we wouldn’t have the two new high school buildings. 

All the women who work as housekeepers and nannies.

I wish I could count all the toilets in Tyler that are cleaned daily by these silent workers. I wish this woman could know how many of these women who started out as housekeepers now own their own cleaning businesses and employ others. 

I wish this woman knew about Latino-owned restaurants in Tyler with multiple locations.

I want this woman to know about engineers, doctors, CPAs and teachers from Mexico who come to the United States, and now they are painting houses, they are mowing yards. 

I have made this my mission over the last 12 years: for Tyler to know and respect the Latino community; for Latinos to be visible and have equal opportunities. 

This mission has led me to many people and organizations in Tyler: Literacy Council of Tyler, PATH, Bethesda, East Texas Immigrant and Advocacy and Resource Center, East Texas Children’s Defense Fund, Tyler Paper, Tyler PD.

With these groups, I’m constantly acting as a bridge. I give Latinos confidence and resources to go to these entities for help. They need to be assured that these groups are safe for them. I give the Tyler police department training and survival Spanish, helping them to have empathy for residents who can’t understand basic questions.

I give Latinos classes in survival English. I want them to have the ability to know what they’re getting paid. I want to protect them from being taken advantage of.

Today, in 2020, I look at Tyler – this place I have called home for 12 years. My hope is that everyone can see how Latinos are the backbone of our city.

They are keeping Tyler beautiful. Muchas gracias.

Paulina Pedroza is a community advocate and teacher. She has taught English to language learners for 12 years, as well as immigrants preparing for their United States citizenship test. She also teaches Spanish to Tyler police officers. Paulina is an active liaison between Tyler and East Texas organizations and city services and local Latino communities.

Love what you're seeing in our posts? Help power our local, nonprofit journalism platform — from in-depth reads, to freelance training, to COVID Stories videos, to intimate portraits of East Texans through storytelling.

Our readers have told us they want to better understand this place we all call home, from Tyler's north-south divide to our city's changing demographics. What systemic issues need attention? What are are greatest concerns and hopes? What matters most to Tylerites and East Texans?

Help us create more informed, more connected, more engaged Tyler. Help us continue providing no paywall, free access posts. Become a member today. Your $15/month contribution drives our work.

Support The Tyler Loop!