1968, a year of hope, discovery, fear and loathing

A WHILE AGO I saw a Facebook post in which people were asked about their memories of 50 years ago, of the year 1968. I was tempted to write something but I quickly realized that much, way too much, happened on that year, and that much of it was memorable.

In 1968, I was at Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University). I had moved there the previous September to finish my college education after commuting for two years to Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde, 40 miles north of my hometown.

I had started at San Marcos majoring in political science but after struggling through one semester of history and government classes that demanded a lot of writing, I switched to art education, having decided that I was not a writer.

Even though Southwest Texas State was known as a party school, I was not part of that scene. The wildest parties I attended were those hosted by the school’s Newman Club, a club for Catholic students. Mild affairs, all of them, with very little drinking and no drug use (at least none that I was aware of).

By the end of the spring semester, 1968, I had been elected president of the Newman Club and I was excited about leading the group the following September under the guidance of a wonderful liberal and literate chaplain, Father John Salvadore. A number of us in the club would meet for dinner at Jones Hall, one of the campus cafeterias, then go across the street to the Catholic church for Father Salvadore’s mass and his always stimulating sermon.

That summer I travelled to New Jersey with two follow Newmanites to attend that annual national Newman Club convention. We drove, stopping in Washington on the way up. We toured the monuments other tourist attractions, of course, but one night we also drove to a seedy part of the city, at the insistence of one of my traveling companions, to go into a topless bar. It was horrible and it took a long time for me to forgive myself for not having the courage to tell my friends I would not go in.

I don’t remember anything about the convention itself but I do remember that one of my friends fell in love with a girl from Maine and how he became obsessed with her. And I remember watching the Chicago Democratic National Convention on TV. I remember the anger and rage against Mayor Richard Daley and against President Johnson, and even poor hapless Hubert Humphrey.

When we returned to San Marcos, it was to learn that Salvadore had been replaced as our chaplain by an obnoxious dictatorial rightwing priest. I don’t even remember his name but I remember spending long hours in his office arguing with him about the direction of the club, but also about religion. Within a few weeks I had not only resigned as president of the club, but I had also resigned from religion. I decided that the God of the Bible is a myth. I still believe that.

IN 1968 I TOOK my first (and only) speech class and I discovered the joys of exposing my life and my heart to others and thrilled in realizing that that my words, if uttered right, could move people. That year I lobbied for and got an appointment to fill a vacant seat in the Student Senate and quickly forced through a resolution commending the school’s student newspaper, the same newspaper that spent months condemning!

It was a year of activism – against the war in Vietnam and against the president of our college, who had been accused of plagiarizing his PhD dissertation (he was to resign the following year). I remember the first anti-war demonstration by a handful of students. It was quickly broken up by a group of kickers as the campus police stood by. (One of them lived on my floor in my dorm and for weeks I had to put up with his bragging about his bravery and patriotism. Within a year he too was demonstrating against the war.)

And I’ll never forget sitting in the crowded living room of Arnold Hall, my dorm, to watch LBJ announce he would not be running for a second term. I was pleased and relieved, but I was also extremely sad for this man who had already accomplished so much and was capable of accomplishing much more.

THE YEAR 1968 was a year of pain. I remember watching Bobby Kennedy on TV as he announced to an Indiana gathering that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. I remember the sad faces of the King family at his funeral. And then, a couple of months later, I remember waking up on the morning I was to drive to California for my summer cannery job to the news that Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles, and driving through the California desert on I-10 as the announcement came over the radio that Bobby had died, and then driving through LA as the plane carrying Kennedy’s body took off on its way east.

The fall of 1968 was a year of hope as Hubert Humphrey began to show signs that he just might overcome all his baggage and win the presidency. The highlight of that campaign for me was a huge Austin rally for Humphrey where he delivered the best campaign speech I have ever heard and made us believe a victory for this decent man was possible.

Alas, it was quickly to become a year of despair as election night revealed that it was the dark and dreaded Dick Nixon who had gotten the nod to lead us for the next four years. We were convinced that Nixon was the worst the Republican Party could give us. Nobody was around to warn us of what was to come.






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‘BANG’ Offers a Dark Look at the Human Cost of Mexico’s Drug War

Daniel Peña is not sparing in his assessment of Texas, where farmworkers are poisoned by fertilizer and pesticide, and Mexico, where guessing who will be next to die in the drug wars has become a lottery game.

Book review by Juan R. Palomo

To read the full review, please go to The Texas Observer site.

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Leaders and speeches: HHH, LBJ and the COWH

I HAD GREAT plans for this afternoon to do productive things. Instead, I’ve spent most of the afternoon listening to/watching old political speeches on YouTube.

I started with Hubert Humphrey’s civil rights speech to the 1948 Democratic Convention and ended with LBJ’s speech to Congress in March 1965, in which he prodded both houses to do the right thing by passing his voting rights legislation. (You can read the transcript here.)

I had convinced myself that the era of great speeches is long gone until I remembered some of President Barack Obama’s speeches, particularly the one he delivered after the church shootings in Charlestown.

I cried as I listened to those three speeches and I don’t know whether the tears were from the beauty of powerful people using their voices to bring hope to people or from a sense of loss, from a realization that those days of great speeches by great persons are long gone, that we must now settle for the weasely words of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick, little people with little brains and little hearts.

You have probably guessed by now that I’ve been reading Robert Caro’s LBJ books (I’m actually listening to them). For all his faults – and he had many – Lyndon Baines Johnson was a giant of an American and remains one of the country’s greatest presidents, despite his record on Vietnam.

Caro’s books are about Johnson’s quest for power. He was shameless and ruthless in this quest, and too often cruel and vicious. Caro describes in great detail the chilling details about how LBJ unabashedly used McCarthy tactics to defeat Truman’s nomination of Leland Olds, the chairman of the Federal Power Commission, for a third term.

Johnson and Olds shared many of the New Deal views, particularly those having to do with making electrical power to poor and rural Americans. Yet LBJ was willing to crucify him to prove himself loyal to the Texas oilmen whose money he would need to fuel his path to power.

Johnson was also a selfish, vain and pride-filled sadistic egotist who often treated his family and his staff, and his allies, like dirt. He was an ugly chauvinist, crude and rude. None of those personal quirks can be excused.

His pursuit of power, and what he did to amass it, however, can at least be, if not excused, then understood – if you are willing to look at the entire panorama of his life, particularly that period that formed his sense of what is right and what politics and government (a great society) can and should do for people, from his childhood in the Hill Country to his two years as a teacher in a Mexican-American school in Cotulla.

“Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face fo a young child,” Johnson told Congress that evening, speaking of his students in Cotulla.

LBJ wanted to be president. He thought he was qualified to be in the Oval Office and he also believed that only as president could he bring about the kind of changes he knew could bring hope to the nation’s poor. People like those he grew up with. People like the poor Mexican kids he taught in Cotulla.

Johnson was also in a hurry. He was convinced that, like most men in the Johnson family, he was doomed to an early death. He wanted to have enough time in the White House to make his dream of a better life for Americans a reality, and he could not afford to wait around for the nation to come to him to beg him to be president. (He also believed it would be next to impossible for a Texan to be elected to hold the nation’s highest office, so he couldn’t be just another Texas politician.)

COMPARE THAT TO the Current Occupant of the White House (to be referred to as COWH on this site from now on). COWH shares many of the same traits as LBJ: ruthless, cruel, rude, chauvinist, etc. Like LBJ, COWH is using his position to enrich himself and his family.

But that is where the similarities end. LBJ wanted to be president to do good. He put the full force of his White House behind the voting rights bill even though he knew it meant he would lose the South if he were to run again. COWH wanted to be president to avenge himself, to prove wrong all those who ridiculed the idea of him in the White House.

LBJ was a student of history and government and politics. He knew how government works better than anyone else. He knew the Constitution. COWH knows cowshit about government and is proud of it.

LBJ surrounded himself with bright, hard-working men who were loyal to him. COWH surrounds himself with ignorant sycophants who can’t wait to leak every last detail about their boss and to undercut their colleagues.

And, finally, Lyndon Johnson may not have been the greatest public speaker in the world, but he knew what a good speech was and what it could accomplish, and he knew how to get the right people to pen the right speech for every occasion. He knew the power of public words and chose to use them to uplift us, not insult and divide us.

And COWH? All I can say is, “SAD!”




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In defense of Yuli Gurriel

I WASN’T IN the Astros’ dugout when a camera caught Yuli Gurriel making what has been described as a racially insensitive gesture, so I don’t know what he was saying or what was going through his mind when he did that, or when he uttered the word chinito. But his explanation that he was joking with his teammates that Dodgers Pitcher Yu Darvish went easy on him because Darvish thought he too was Asian is plausible to me.

If you look at Gurriel’s face you can tell that he, like many Latinos, have hints of Asian features on them. It is possible that, after having played baseball several years in Japan, Gurriel thought of himself as having Asian looks. As to the word chinito, I categorically reject the charge that it translates into “little Chinese boy,” as The Washington Post reports.

Yes, if you’re talking about a Chinese boy, you most certainly use the word chinito. But for many Latinos – including me and my family and most of the people I grew up in South Texas – there is nothing racist or demeaning about using chinitos when referring Asians.

I grew up never knowing how to say “Asian” in Spanish. Like Gurriel, and like most of the people I grew up with, I would say chinito if I was referring to anyone of Asian descent. If I were to ask any of my relatives how to say it in Spanish, they would either shrug their shoulders or say chinito. If you were to ask the same question of an upper- or middle-class educated Mexican or Cuban, you’re likely to get the correct word, Asiático. I doubt Gurriel grew up among people who used such words.

And, to be quite honest, if I were to be talking to family members today about an Asian person whose nationality was unknown to me, I would probably still use the word chinito or chinita. Why? Because I wouldn’t be sure I’d be understood if I said Asiático or Asiática. And because I’d be afraid I’d be thought of as putting on airs by using such fancy language.

Maybe Gurriel does know the word asiático, and maybe he would use that word in a more formal atmosphere. At a news conference, for instance. But in a dugout, in the excitement over just having hit a homerun, talking to his fellow Latino teammates, I can see how he would use the word chinito instead of asiático.

As to the “ito” part of the word chinito: there is nothing demeaning about it. Absolutely nothing. Spanish speakers use the diminutive suffixes “ito” and “ita” at the end of nouns and adjectives to denote small size or youth or affection. Yes, when I say chinito, I could be talking about a Chinese boy or a small Chinese man, but I could also be talking affectionately or respectfully about any Chinese male, regardless of age or size.

When we say simply un chino or una china, we are taking away a bit of that respect. Chino and china are cold, disrespectful words. Adding the suffixes “ito” and “ita” adds warmth and respect.

It’s the same when we’re talking about people of African descent. We almost always say negritos or negritas. The only time we use negro or negra is when we intend to convey a lack of respect. Two doors from where my sister lives in Crystal City is Mount Olive Church, the town’s only black church (where one of my nephews and his wife were married). We refer to it as la iglesia de los negritos. Never, la iglesia de los negros.

And when we say that, we’re not saying the church of the little black boys, just as when we say mamacita and papacito, we don’t mean little girl mother or little boy father, and just as when we say Diosito we don’t mean little boy god.

Likewise, when Gurriel said chinito, it is very, very unlikely he was saying “little Chinese boy.” In fact, I would argue that the fact that Gurriel said chinito and not chino is proof that he in no way was showing disrespect for the LA pitcher.

The use of the diminutive suffix when talking about other minority races does not indicate hatred or disrespect. It indicates the complete opposite. It shows there is a sense of connection, of shared experiences. (That may be why you almost never hear us say gringuito, unless we are indeed referring to a little white boy.)

SO I WOULD argue that the penalty assessed on Gurriel by the baseball commissioner is excessive. However, I don’t believe there was anyway the commissioner could adequately explain all the intricacies of the Spanish language to an American audience, so he had no choice. He did the right thing, though, by delaying the punishment until next season.




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Potato-picking World Series memories

[I wrote this column for USA TODAY in 1998 (October 14), shortly after yet another disappointing Astros year. A friend suggested I post it here. It starts off talking about my penchant for choosing underdogs when it comes to sports. Those days are long gone; this year I’m rooting for the best team!]



THE ELIMINATION OF my beloved Houston Astros from the National League championship contention has, sadly, left me with very little at stake in this year’s World Series. And perhaps it’s for the better. I’m not sure I have ever recovered from the first two times Houston fought for and lost the National League title. Nobody should have to

face such numbing heartbreaks too many times in one lifetime.

Oh, but it would have been so sweet, so precious – so glorious.

It would have.

It seems that when it comes to baseball, my life has been filled with would-haves, with wait-till-next-years.

From the very beginning, from my first-ever exposure to professional baseball, it was always “maybe next year,” because from the start I was somehow always choosing the underdog, the least favored.


My family picking potatoes in North Dakota. Circa 1952

THAT IS HOW it came to be that I became a Dodgers fan – a Brooklyn Dodgers fan – at a very early age. I’m not sure whether I could tell you exactly how old I was when professional baseball entered my life, but I can tell you that it made its presence known through the tinny car radio of my Uncle Adrian’s old Pontiac, as it sat on the edge of a flat North Dakota field where the grownups picked potatoes out of the black earth.

Because of our ages, my sister Carmen and I were not allowed to help in the fields; so we spent most of our days huddled inside the old green Plymouth that was our family car. It was a lonely time and often scary, for there were many times when the stooped workers were at the other end of the field, half a mile or so, and we felt utterly isolated.

We looked forward to the noon break when the rest of the family gathered around the fire my father had lit an hour or so before the appointed time, so that it could bake to perfection the large red potatoes he had nestled under its orange embers. It was those glowing shapes, also, that warmed and toasted my mother’s chorizo-and-bean tacos.

A few yards away, Tio Adrian’s family would be going through the same routine, and next to them, Victor and Lupe, my godparents, would have their own fire. And there would be other families beyond them.

Despite the cold and the harshness of the work, the mood was almost always cheerful, with much banter between the campfires. It was a time for jokes and for tales, all of which we were eager to consume. However, every year during that one week in October, we sat and ate mostly in silence, so we could concentrate on the muffled and crackling noise coming from Tio Adrian’s car radio – the broadcast of the World Series.

As I said, I was very young, and at that time, English was mostly an alien language. I knew very little about baseball and almost nothing about the major leagues. Actually, all those years I assumed there were but two teams that faced each other in that rite of autumn, and those teams were – you guessed it – the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I’m sure the Dodgers must have won at least once during that time, but if they did, I don’t remember. I do remember that each victory by the Yankees ­– each home run, each hit – was celebrated with a raucous grito by Tio Adrian, who was a diehard Yankee fan. Even worse, my cousins – his children – took great delight in gloating over every win by their father’s team.

It was that – the gloating and smarmy celebrating – that made me not only a Yankees hater, but also forever a National League devotee.

In those simple days, I divided the forces of the world into two columns, the good guys on the right and the others on the left. And so the National League was entered on the right column, under Catholics, Democrats and Ford, while the American League joined the Protestants, Republicans and Chevy on the other column. (To this day, I have yet to buy a GM car, although I have been known to vote Republican once in a while — and some of my best friends are Protestant.)

The thing that was really special about those days was that the team loyalties were never able to overpower the sense of community, of oneness, that the series brought into our lives out there in the cold Dakota plains. Yes, we had been a community all along, with much in common. But almost always we were a community united against the frightening forces of nature and the outside world. During the World Series, however, we were united for something. During those days, we were brought together by 18 men whose faces we’d never seen, whose uniforms we could only imagine and whose stadiums we wouldn’t have been able to fathom had somebody tried to describe them to us.

I WAS TO remain a Dodgers fan, even after they moved west, but they had to be content with sharing my loyalty with the Braves (before they moved to Atlanta and became perpetual winners) and the Mets (until they won their first championship) and now my poor, hapless ‘Stros.

But it really doesn’t matter to me which two teams make it into the final round. The World Series remains a special, magical time and place. And somehow no large-screen color TV can replace or replicate the sensuous autumnal memories: the striking smell of freshly turned Red River Valley soil, the sibilant static of a distant and often-disappearing AM radio station warring with the grumbling roars of a field-side fire, the scent of a steaming black-skinned potato newly split in two, and always – always – the ricocheting rumble of a title-happy crowd that follows the electrifyingly beautiful bopping sound of wood whacking a tiny ball into the bleachers.

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A week in paradise, San Miguel de Allende

ON MY LAST morning in this beautiful colonial city, I am sitting outside on the patio. It rained last night and the air is crisp and cool. The sounds I hear are those of a nearby wall-mounted fountain, which, despite its size, produces a mighty rippling soothing sound that could become addictive.

There’s an occasional bird, a steady coo-coo of a dove, and every half-hour or so, the sonorous gong of the towering pink Parroquia, a few blocks away, and the clanging peals of other nearby churches. It’s past 8 and I’m sure the city is wide-awake and going about its business, but there is no traffic noise from the adjacent narrow cobblestoned street. There are probably cars and trucks moving up and down the streets, but their sound doesn’t penetrate the thick walls of this house. It’s so quiet, you can pretend you’re somewhere out in the countryside. This morning, shortly after I woke up around 5:30, I heard for the first time a train whistle blowing in the distance. Like the fountain, it too was a soothing noise.

I’m staying in a huge house in the Centro, the central part of the San Miguel de Allende that surrounds the Jardín, a small park in front of the Parroquia, a beautiful church that dominates the skyline like a massive pink and orange jewel. The house has four or five bedrooms but it’s part of a building that includes other apartments, so it’s huge. Yet, anyone walking on the street would have no idea that such a beautiful and immense residence hides behind the pink wall that faces the street. Unlike Americans, who invest greatly in making the parts of their houses facing the streets into a showcase, Mexicans (and the thousands of North Americans who also call this city home), would rather spend their money on what’s hidden behind the walls.

There are many houses like this in San Miguel, owned by Mexicans and foreigners, who spend a few weeks or months here then go back home and let strangers rent out their homes. Many of the renters come from the United States and other countries, but many of them are Mexicans from Mexico City, although I’ve heard several homeowners who say they refuse to rent to Chilangos, as Mexico City residents are called, because too many of them have no respect for the properties and treat their household staffs like dirt.

Of course, rude, crude behavior is not limited to Chilangos. Ugly Americans (and ugly other foreigners) also can be found in San Miguel. A few minutes ago I gave María, the woman who takes care of this house (and whips up some mighty tasty breakfasts), a small gift of appreciation and saw tears form in her eyes as she said she’ll miss our group. “Not many groups treat me as you all have,” she said. “You have been wonderful to me.”

I am lucky that I am with a group of people who are considerate and loving toward all the people with whom they come in contact in San Miguel. I don’t think I would have stuck around the entire week had any of them behaved otherwise.

I HAVE BEEN to San Miguel twice before and I really thought I would not be coming back, even though I am in love with this city, for the simple reason that there is so much more of this country that I have yet to see. But my host, a dear friend, insisted and persisted until I found it impossible to say no. I’m so glad I didn’t.

Each time I come here, local expats, as the Americans and other foreigners who live here call themselves, inevitably ask if I would consider moving here. I always reply that of course I would. Who wouldn’t want to live in paradise? And each time I do give it serious thought and even pore over real estate newspaper ads and websites, but inevitably inertia and apathy and fear and all the other forces of nature settle in and I forget about moving here.

But, as I get older and I become less patient with Houston’s humid summer heat and I think more and more about getting rid of shit and simplifying my life, I may be giving it more serious thought. The good thing about San Miguel is that it’s not just for rich Americans. I have two friends who live here. One survives strictly on her Social Security check and the other one whatever money she earns teaching tango lessons. One rents a studio in a nice neighborhood for $500 (which pays for utilities, cable, phone, internet access, etc.). The other one rents a room in a house for less than that. They are both happy as hell and could never consider moving away, especially to the United States.

And why would they? There is so much going on here, so many opportunities to get involved, to get out and meet people. In my short time here I went to a poetry reading, a performance by an American string quartet and (for free), a concert by a local string quartet. There are museums and private galleries everywhere. Fine restaurants can be found on every street, and for every fine restaurant there are many more inexpensive establishments that offer great food.

And for people who love to cook, the mercados offer fresh fruits, vegetable, spices and meats at ridiculously low prices.

The climate is perfect. Cool in the evenings and early mornings but warm (not hot) during the afternoon. Hardly anyone has air conditioning; a good fan is all that’s needed.

Because there are so many rich foreigners here, there are a lot of excellent doctors and some great hospitals here. For those who can’t afford to pay for this first-rate care, there are good alternatives. My friend who lives on Social Security says she pays $54 a year for free medical care, including medicines.

Whenever I talk about San Miguel back home, inevitably I get this yeah-but from others: “Yeah, but do you really want to live in a city that is overrun by Americans?” San Miguel, these people claim, has been ruined by foreigners. (Some of these critics have never been here.)

Listening to these people, you’d think you can’t go anywhere here without risking being trampled by hordes of Americans. That is far from the case. True, you see Americans everywhere, but you see Americans in almost every other popular Mexican city. Foreigners have not taken over this city. You can still walk around in San Miguel and be among Mexicans.

And foreigners have contributed a lot to this city and its economy and way of life. Most expats are involved in volunteer efforts and they raise money for various causes. Many salaries are paid by the expat community, so even if the locals were to resent such a large expat presence, they tolerate los gringos – kind of like how Houston tolerates refineries.

SO THERE’S A lot to be said for this beautiful city, and a lot to be said for how it’s evolved as a haven for expats. Will I ever be one of them? I don’t know. But I’ll continue to dream about it.


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Applying weight to the memories that feed our souls

[Six years ago I posted this on another blog. I’ve long since abandoned that blog but it still resides in the Internet. One day it will probably die of neglect. So I’ve decided to migrate some of my favorite posts to this blog. ]

DID YOU EVER wonder how your elementary school teachers pictured you?

Not many of us ever get the opportunity to go back into the minds of those old teachers to find out what they thought of us. A year or so before The Houston Post folded, I wrote a column about some of the great teachers I had in my hometown of Crystal City, Texas. (See previous blog post.) I wrote primarily about my junior high teachers, but I also mentioned Lucille Busby, my second-grade teacher.

A few weeks later, I received a copy of a letter written by Mrs. Busby to the town’s newspaper editor. Apparently somebody had already mailed a copy of the column to where she lived, in an Austin nursing home. This is what she wrote:

“I’ve a friend … who once lived in Crystal City, briefly, several years go. She is now in Baytown and has been sending me articles by Juan occasionally from the Post, including this one. I feel very proud of that little second-grader that I taught many years ago at Zavala [it was actually at Grammar School]. He was a little migrant child, cute, quiet, very bright, hard-working and has always been at the top of a long line of mostly second graders that I’ve remembered thru the years – Hispanic and Anglo…

“I lost track of [Juan] after he reached the higher grades and desegregation had begun. But I can see the hurt, even anger that might have been growing in the mind and heart of a middle-school migrant child. They [migrant students] usually came in weeks [after school started] and left weeks early, feeling second-class and trying so hard to catch up and keep up. That hurt applied to his classmates, both Hispanic and Anglo. Oftentimes the Hispanic child had less understanding and tolerance than the Anglo.

“I wish Thelma Ford and Mary Campbell [teachers I wrote about in the column] were around to read Juan’s tribute to them. They were deserving and would have appreciate his feelings so much…

“Emma has sent me a few of Juan’s Post clips in recent weeks on various subjects. I especially remember his tribute to Carmela López on her death that you printed in your paper several months ago. Rubén López is his maternal uncle. It was well done, tho I seem to feel a heartbreak in his writing that was deeper than sadness of the occasion. Maybe I’m reading something into it.

“Since leaving Crystal City in June, ’70, just at the beginning of La Raza [La Raza Unida Party, which took over control of local government in the early 70s and ruled for about a decade], I know nothing of my children’s (Hispanic) grown-up years, pro or con, or of their leanings in their adult politics.

“I’m proud of Juan and of his efforts in reaching the goal that he has set and hope for only the best for him. I know that he has worked hard to gain what he has against mighty odds. I wish that I could know that second grader as a man…”

I’M SORRY TO say that I never took the opportunity to pay a visit to Mrs. Busby so she would get to know me “as a man.” I would have liked to ask her what she meant by “hurt, even anger that might have been growing” in my heart. Did she actually see that when I was in her class? Or was that what she read in me through my columns, many of which, I have to admit, were filled with anger at the many injustices suffered by Hispanics and other minorities in my home state.

I would have loved to learn what she meant by “the Hispanic child had less understating and tolerance than the Anglo.”

Frankly, I don’t recall any of my teachers ever asking us what we understood or thought about what we saw around us – the segregate schools, the outright and intentional discrimination, and the institutional neglect of the Mexican kids by the school district.

ONE OF THE reasons Mrs. Busby may have lost track of me was that after spending second grade in her class at Grammar Elementary School, which was three blocks from my house and was attended by all the Anglo and non-migrant Mexican kids – and a few of the migrant kids, including my two sisters – I was told the next year that there was no room for me and I was dispatched to Airport 2 Elementary (so called because it was near the town’s airport, which during World War II was part of the Japanese-American internment camp that also housed German POWs and South Americans of Japanese descent), which was a couple of miles away. The school was one of two that had been used to teach the camp kids; we called it El Campo. Each year I tried again to enroll in Grammar and each year I was again sent to Airport 2, a drafty school equipped with leftover desks and no playground equipment – and which no bus service. Some of our teachers were certified; others had received emergency teaching certificates after a year or two of college (some of these teachers were better than the certified teachers).

In the fourth grade, we had four teachers. The third was an ex-jock named Darrel Bailey, who’d attended two years of college, if that much. To his credit, he never pretended he knew anything about teaching. The only academic topic he liked was spelling. We were expected to memorize the words from the spelling book and then wait of him to call on us to spell a word. If we got it right, we got an “OK.” If we misspelled it, we’d get a paddling. Of course, he knew who the better spellers were, so people like me never got called on and some of the other students would be honored with several paddlings by the time the spelling lesson was over.

But I was not so lucky when it came to art class, which consisted of Manuel Palacios and me – the other class “artist” – drawing pictures with colored chalk on the blackboard. When we finished, the class would vote on the winner. Unfortunately for me, Manuel was a much better artist, so he got the prize – a Coke – and I got the loser’s reward: you guessed it, another paddling. (The one time the class chose my drawing, Mr. Bailey exercised his veto power and I got a paddling anyway.)

The rest of the class day, Mr. Bailey would sit on his desk, holding a softball in his hand and looking up and down the rows of desks. With no warning, he’d toss the ball at one of us. Those who failed to catch the ball got a paddling. When he got tired of these games, he’d sit down to write love notes to a cute female teacher whose classroom was at the other end of the school. It was then up to Manuel or Hector Sánchez or me – or a few other students – to deliver the notes to the teacher, and wait for her reply.

Fortunately, Mr. Bailey didn’t last long. Without explanation, he was gone one day and he was replaced by a wonderful, caring teacher, Mrs. Jett. She was everything Mr. Bailey wasn’t and I will never forget how quiet the classroom became when she would read to us – “Lassie Come Home” and other classics.

I’ve often wondered why none of us ever complained about Mr. Bailey – to the principal, or to our parents. But I realize that none of us knew we could complain. During my entire 13 years in the public schools (grades 1 through 12 plus what was called pre-primer, the year before first grade when we were supposed to learn English), it never once occurred to me to complain about anything that happened in school to my parents. Our families, our church and our culture taught us that we should be subservient, that we should never rock the boat. And even if we were to tell our parents, what could they do? Most of them didn’t even speak English, and most of them never imagined that, as parents, they had a voice, much less one that would be listened to.

As for the principal, how could he not have known what was going on in his school? What would complaining to him have accomplished?

So, with all due respect to Mrs. Busby, intolerance was not exactly one of our vices.

IN THE COLUMN that prompted Mrs. Busby’s letter, I wrote glowingly about some of my teachers, most of them Anglo. Like Mrs. Jett, all of them were superb and cared deeply about their Mexican students. At least that was what I saw. How they treated the Mexican kids in other classes, I don’t know.

However, their excellence in the classroom does not erase the fact that they were also part of a school district – run by Anglo administrators and Anglo trustees – that systematically and unabashedly treated us as second-class citizens. Why would such otherwise God-loving, church- going teachers never bother to speak out against the injustices that were committed against the Mexican kids? Did they believe that doing their duty inside the classroom was all that was required of them? Wasn’t at least one of them ever moved to say, even in a private, whispered conversation with another, This is not right, what we’re going to these people?

Maybe these teachers privately hated what was being done to us. Maybe they quietly worked to end the institutionalized apartheid. If they did, none ever chose to confide in any of us after La Raza Unida liberated the schools about their quiet protests. None, as far as I know, ever expressed joy at finally having the opportunity to work in a free school. Indeed, most of them quickly packed their bags and moved to neighboring towns – still under Anglo control – to pursue their teaching careers.

I often fantasize of sitting down for a long conversation with one of those teachers and asking her these questions. Not in an atmosphere of recrimination and accusations, but in the spirit of shedding light on a great mystery. I fantasize about that because I’ve always been curious about how large numbers of people are able to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing, or rationalize it to themselves.

You may be asking yourself, “Why doesn’t he just get over this? Why can’t he forgive and forget? What can be accomplished by re-living all that?”

Good questions, all. I am quite capable of suppressing many of those memories for long periods of time. I do have a life to live and I don’t spend much time dwelling on the past. However, it is impossible to forget that which helped shape who I am and what I am. The soul feeds on memories, the good and the painful. It is up to us to assign weight to those memories to determine how to react to today’s realities.

NOT LONG AGO, I read how National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, an African American whose family is a product of the Old South, believes that it wasn’t the Civil Rights movement that toppled and desegregated the South. Rather, she believes the Old South was already on the verge of collapsing from its own weight. She’s a perfect example of someone who assigns no weight to the memories of the injustices suffered by her family. In doing so, she dishonors not only her family, but also the thousands of men and women – black and white – who were beaten, imprisoned, intimidated, insulted or killed to ensure that she would have the opportunities she’s enjoyed.

My bad old days may be gone, but it would be foolish for me to claim they never existed, or that they’re over for everybody. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t read about somebody somewhere in this country taking advantage of somebody else, of those who lack the power to fight back. It is important that, every once in a while, we are reminded of what one group of people is capable of doing to another.

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They got in the truck and drove off (recalling the day I was born)

I GOT A text message from my sister Mariana, saying she had thought about calling me to tell me about the day I was born but that she remembered that she’d already related the details to me. I responded, honestly, that my memory is so bad that I had probably forgotten most of it. And then I called her and asked her to repeat the story.

This is what she said:

It was on a Sunday and we were living at the Morewood farm (between Forest River and Minto, ND), and Tío Adrián and Tía Ester came to visit, with their only two children, Rodolfo and Noelia.

On Sundays, either they visited us or we went to the farm where they lived, so it was not unusual that they were there. But then suddenly, while we were playing outside, Papá y Mamá got in the truck and drove off. Tía Ester and Tío Adrian stayed behind with us.

They didn’t tell us why they were leaving, and after they left, nobody told us why they had left.

We didn’t know. We didn’t know anything about those things.

Later that night, Papá came back and told us that Mamá had had un hombre.

Un hombre? He didn’t say un bebito or un hombrecito. No, just un hombre. I pictured my mother coming home with un hombre, a grown man.

But a few days later she came back with you.

¡Que cosas! No sabía uno nada en esos tiempos.

I REMEMBER THAT because it was right at the end of the war, there were a lot of shortages, so Mamá had to make the corn tortillas. We would buy the corn and she would cook it and soak it and then she would grind it into a masa with a molino. It was hard work and she was nine months pregnant and she still did that! Until she got tired and asked me to turn the handle of the molino.

The same thing with the wash: She would ask me to help her empty the washtubs of dirty water. Why was she doing all that if she was so close to giving birth?

But nobody ever told us anything about babies and how they were born. They were just there all of a sudden.

SHE ASKED IF I remember the story of our cousin José, who one Sunday saw his mother (Tía Ester), washing clothes and remarked, “There she goes, washing again. Soon she’ll complain her legs hurt and she’ll go to the hospital and she’ll come home with another baby.”

Ah, yes: our age of enlightenment! (Thanks, Mariana, for remembering.)

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Serenata a Martina: a Musical Tribute

FOR MANY YEARS, I’ve fantasized about commissioning a piece of classical music to honor my mother.

My mother was never exposed to classical music, except perhaps for the four times a year she would go listen to me play in concert with my high school band. For all I know, she may have hated it, but I doubt it.

She loved music and there was nothing she loved more than waking up before dawn on Mothers Day to the sound of a conjunto serenading either her or other mothers in the neighborhood. So I came up with the idea of a piece called “Serenata a Martina.”


The problem was finding a suitable composer who would listen to what I wanted. Up until a year ago, I knew only one composer, but he is a big-time New York City composer and I never was able to garner the courage to approach him about this project. About a year ago, though, I met a young Colombian composer who lives in Houston, Christian Restropo, who got his PhD. from the University of Houston. I met him through his wife, a classmate in my French class.

The more I got to know him and the more I listened to his music and listened to him talking about music, they more I became convinced that he would be the right person. So late last year I made my pitch and his response was an enthusiastic yes.

I’m glad I came up with the courage to approach him. Tonight I listened to several versions of what he’s composed to date, about two thirds of the agreed-upon five minutes of music. Our agreement was that if I did not like what I heard tonight, we would call the whole thing off. But if I liked it, I would pay him another portion of his commission and he would continue with the goal of having a finished piece by the end of September.

I gave him a check.

I WISH I knew how to write about music so I could describe to you what nearly brought tears to my eyes as I listened. It was not exactly what I envisioned – but it was better.

I had given him a bunch of Mexican and Tejano music to listen to for inspiration but I told him I didn’t necessarily want it to sound like that music, I just wanted it to evoke it. I think it does.

I also gave him photos of my mother and almost everything I have ever written about her. I think that had more influence on the piece than the music I had him listen to. So much so that he decided to incorporate vocal music (a few seconds of a solo hum, because my mother was a hummer, as I’ve written) and the spoken word, quoting lines from Mother’s Day blog post of two years ago, “This is What She Did, This is What My Mother Did.”

The humming and the quotes are in the last part of the piece, which he hasn’t written yet, so I don’t know how it will sound, but judging by what I’ve heard and by how he’s described it, it’s going to be breathtaking.

Needless to say, I am pleased as ponche. (He’s even subtly incorporated a couple of very short but very recognizable passages from my favorite symphony by my favorite composer! If you read my blog post, you’ll know which composer I’m talking about.)

The challenge now is where and how this piece will be performed for the first time. We haven’t decided yet whether it will be a composition for strings, for brass, or for a full orchestra. He is composing all three versions.

We are thinking of shooting for next Mothers Day, an event combining the music and some of my poetry, and perhaps other tributes to mothers (Maybe a conjunto singing Mothers Day songs). Whatever its final form and wherever it’s performed, I want all of it to be recorded so that my older siblings, who live far away and can’t travel anymore, can enjoy it also.

IT’S ALL GOING to cost money of course. Maybe I’ll take the go-fund-me route or maybe I’ll blow all my retirement funds and pay for it myself. One way or another, this beautiful piece will have an audience.




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My first published poems

AS SOME OF you know, about a year ago I decided to take a stab at writing poetry. I’ve learned a lot and I still have a long ways to go. But I’m happy to report that two of my poems were published this week in the Acentos Review. 

You can check them out here

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