Ofelia Zapata

As interviewed by Zachary Walgren, March 8, 2014

Ofelia Zapata: In Her Own Words

I was one of eight kids, but my mother was a widowed when she was very young. I didn’t have much of a childhood because we had to help my mother. We couldn’t do many of the things we wanted to, at least my sisters and I. My brothers could do whatever they wanted to do. They actually got to enjoy their childhoods, but my four sisters and I, we missed out on everything.

I used to work as a secretary for the Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, and all my life, I didn’t know that I was legally blind. Eventually, I couldn’t see anymore. I couldn’t read my papers, I couldn’t dictate letters, I just couldn’t do my job. I went through my whole life without knowing that I was visually impaired. Even in elementary school, when my mom took me to the eye doctor, and I was in the fourth grade, he told her that I was just clumsy, that there was nothing wrong with me. So all my school life I had lots of accidents, and kids thought I wanted to fight because I would run into them. It was really horrible. I hated school.

My boss caught on, seeing all of my mistakes, and she was going to fire me. So I told one of my co-workers, and he told me that there was this agency for the blind I should visit. So I scheduled an appointment, and they told me that they could prevent me from losing my job. However, I was still worried that they would discriminate me in other ways. This was true, because even though I kept my job, they kept me from doing any real work.

Every time after that, when I applied for a job, I was refused. They would say, “We found someone else with better skills.” I had a lot of skills that didn’t require being able to see, though. They would even hire some inexperienced person over me, just because I was blind. I knew that this was injustice, but it was difficult to hold them accountable for how I felt and what they were seeing.

Because of those experiences, when I became a widow, I didn’t want to go outside. I was so afraid of the outside world because I didn’t want people to know that I couldn’t see, because they might have hurt my daughters, so I would stay indoors all the time. I didn’t think I could do anything because I didn’t know there was a place that could help me.

At my church, a group called Austin Interfaith talked about education, and the reason I went to that meeting is because my daughters were in kindergarten and first grade, and they wanted me to go to the parent meetings. I was reluctant because I had been afraid of that school, with all my experiences. But they begged me, and I went. The only reason I went is because they told me, “If you go, we get a pizza party or an ice cream party, and we want to have that party.” So I went. You know moms, we do everything for our children.

I went to every meeting, and I was still scared of everything because I was so intimidated by everyone who was above me. I had graduated from high school, but I never really learned anything because I could never see the board, I could never read my books, but because I never missed a meeting, the principal voted me to be PTA president, and that terrified me because I didn’t know what it meant to be PTA president. The title terrified me, and I cried all summer. I didn’t have the courage to tell him I didn’t want to do it because he was the principal. So I still had the mentality that he might punish me as though I was still in school. Here I am as a grown adult, and still in my mind I was afraid like a child because I didn’t know what I could or could not do.

When the church invited members to come to a meeting, and I thought, “Oh, God is answering my prayers, and now he’s going to help me be the PTA president, because this meeting is on education”’ So I went, and there wasn’t anything about education and being PTA president. It was about my school, which was East of I-35, an elementary school. It was one of the poorest schools in the district, and at the time, 16 of the poor schools were known as “priority schools,” because the district put in more money into them so the poorest neighborhoods would have more schools resources, like full-time kindergarten, vice principals, and full-time counselors. There are a lot of schools on the west side that had all of those things, but these schools didn’t have them, so the district gave them money to improve test scores.

However, parents were never informed about test scores. Even though so much money was put into it, the test scores remained low due to parental uninvolvement. The schools were not improving. They said they did this for five years, and the schools were not changing. They were going to cut the funding. And that made me worry about my children’s education. I didn’t have a good education, but they and all the other kids at their school needed to have that education.

Austin Interfaith challenged me to go teach other parents what I had learned. I was still very scared. I cried, and I was so shy, I couldn’t even look up. All the time I would walk around with my head down. I had to really learn how to keep my head up, I had to learn to listen, because I couldn’t see anymore, and I had to accept my blindness. But still I wanted to make sure that my kids had the best education, and that it didn’t matter what part of town we lived in, we should all have the same quality of education.

Austin interfaith began training me. They teach us how to be leaders. I didn’t want to be called a leader. That was like calling me a bad name you know -- don’t tell me that! And so it made me learn that I can still learn, it made me learn that just because I can’t see doesn’t mean I can’t do anything, it made me learn how to talk to other people, so I wouldn’t be afraid to make a relationship. It helped me learn how to talk to other people in other parts of the city, not just people on my block, or just the parents in my school. I learned at Austin Interfaith what no one else would teach me.