My Sister Remains A Primary Role Model

Rose Marie at her graduation from Stanford

The influence of the author’s middle sister, Rose Marie Garcia Fontana, made the pursuit of academic excellence seem attainable and cool to her little brother.


I’ve always found it funny and yet appropriate that Hispanic Heritage Month isn’t really a month, it sits astride two months, September and October. This seems appropriate for a U.S. cultural group that in many ways sits astride two cultures. What we are celebrating, then, isn’t just our Hispanic side, but our American side too, and our unique position–we have the chance (if not the duty) to bring the wonderful traits of the Latin culture to the U.S. and the flip of that, the wonderful traits of the U.S. culture to the Latin world.

Growing up the only Latino I ever saw in public life was Desi Arnaz’s character, Ricky Ricardo. “Lucy, I’m HOME” was the jingle of my life—we were different, talented and, yes, we were home. In this black and white world, with the civil rights and farm worker battles competing with coverage of the Viet Nam war on our scratchy TVs, role models were few and far between, but I didn’t have to look far for the best role model imaginable.

The Struggle to Excel is Itself the Lesson

Rose Marie in her Youth

We were a family of five, and I was the youngest. Our family had its issues, to be sure, but the middle child, my sister Rose Marie, followed the classic model of the middle child–the peacemaker, the quiet, focused person who got things done. She was the bridge between the older and younger siblings (there was a 15-year spread across the five) and she was the studious one. My parents and my two oldest siblings could be arguing vehemently (but separately) across the table while Rose Marie would have her nose in a book studying Cervantes or Unamuno. Through part of high school and all four years of college she worked as a sales clerk at Sears while carrying a full load of classes, cooking at home to help Mom, getting excellent grades and maintaining a reasonable social life (she got married right after graduation from college). She was an amazing sister and guidance counselor. Looking back I can’t imagine how she crammed all of that into her life at such a young age.

Our mother was a terrible cook so we particularly appreciated Rose Marie’s efforts to help in the kitchen. Her two specialties were enchiladas and lemon meringue pie, which I thought was a uniquely Mexican dessert.

Rose Marie’s most remarkable quality is her empathy. There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. With the former they feel sad FOR you; with the latter they feel sad WITH you. She feels other people’s pain as if it were her own. As the youngest child always trying to get attention in a very noisy and busy household, she was often the only one who would be there with me. When I saw her sitting there reading a novel, safely removed from the madness around us, it occurred to me that I could do that too.

Next-We didn’’t have money for kids’ books 


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