When Dr. Norma Elia Cantú was growing up in Laredo, Texas, on the U.S./Mexico border, she was the oldest of what would eventually be eleven siblings—so she stepped into the role of coparent early. "When one of my younger siblings got in trouble at school, they called me," she says. "They [didn't] call the parents because my father was working, and my mother, who didn't speak English, was not able to go."
Norma lived at home and continued to help support her family when she went to college, but left after two years, when she became the primary breadwinner of the family. She finished her degree in night school while working at the local utility company, but even now, she says, she "wonders what would have happened had [she] not been so dutiful a daughter."
She eventually completed her degree and went on to get her PhD. Now she's 74, a writer, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, and the president of the American Folklore Society. I talked with her about how she's supported both her family and her own ambition at the same time throughout her life, as well as about how she processed the deaths of her parents, and her younger brother Tino, who was killed in the Vietnam War when he was only 19.
Head over to our Instagram page to see some photos of Norma's family that she shared with us. And Norma graciously agreed to read some of her poetry for us, all from her 2019 collection Meditación Fronteriza: Poems of Love, Life and Labor:
My Mother's Hands
Song of the Borderland (English)
Canto A La Tierra Fronteriza (Español)