A green light to greatness.®

Crossing the line

By Virginia Riddle

“El que nace para maceta del corridor no pasa.”
“He who is born to be a flower pot will not go beyond the porch.”

Sitting low to the road in my Firebird, its shiny, navy blue hood baking under the noon high, hot summer sun of South Texas, I guided its rattling wheels across the railroad tracks that divided the town of Alice, Texas. I was surprised when the pavement petered out on the other side of the track, and the landscape began to change. The sights, sounds, and smells were all foreign to me even though I had crossed no neighboring country’s border. Most of the yards were dirt: no trees, grass, flowers or fences. The streets were marked only by tire tracks that cut ruts into the dirt, some deep, around which I navigated my low-slung sports car. From somewhere, music with a Latino beat added color to an otherwise dusty, dull landscape. Homes, mostly some combination of tin-cardboard-concrete brick-board and batten construction, dotted the dirt in a haphazard configuration. In a few short blocks, I arrived at my destination. The only brick building in sight, Saenz Elementary School, stood out as an oasis in the neighborhood it served. Finally, familiar territory, I thought as I walked up to the door and into what would become a most interesting and learning filled year of my life.

A note posted on the school’s closed office door told me that the principal with whom my interview was scheduled had been called away by maintenance staff to an emergency on another part of the open multi-hall ’50s era campus. I was to make myself at home in the meantime. The foyer and adjacent darkened cafeteria and kitchen looked neat, cleaned, polished and readied for another school year to begin. Concrete brick walls were painted in dull, dark primary colors reminding me of classroom photos posted from foreign countries in Africa and Central America. In contrast, a bright artistic display on the one large bulletin board greeted staff and students back to their 1970-71 school year. I had a seat and tried to gather my thoughts. There had been so many changes in my life in the past three months, and, by all appearances, those changes were only the beginning. I felt like a fish out of water. This interview was so important, because I needed this job so badly, but I suddenly doubted I was adequately prepared.

My first 21 years of life seemed so long ago and far away, but it had only been the previous May in which I had ended my coed years at Baylor University, first by saying farewell and thank you to my two supervising teachers who had guided me through my fourth-grade student teaching experience. The following day, I had married a fellow graduating senior, Dennis Chandler, in a large, very formal wedding at my home Baptist church in Waco, Texas. We had flown to Mexico City for our week-long honeymoon, a gift from his parents. On our return, we went through Baylor’s graduation ceremony; packed a few wedding presents, my clothes and Sheltie, Judge Baylor; and headed for Beeville, Texas, Dennis’ hometown, for a summer as lifeguards and swimming instructors at the city’s private swim club.

But summer was nearly over now. I should have had a teaching job lined up long ago. Time was scarce during the past spring in between wedding preparations, lifeguarding lessons at the YWCA, a choir trip to Canada during spring break, sorority obligations as a senior member, not to mention mastering 15 semester hours of course work in order to graduate. But I had still filled out teaching applications and mailed them to the Corpus Christi and Kingville school districts in Texas. Followup calls had netted me no interviews. As the summer weeks of sunscreen at the pool ticked off the calendar, I was becoming desperate. Dennis had been accepted as a fulltime graduate student at Texas A&I University in Kingsville. I was to be our sole financial support for the next year as he fast tracked through a master’s degree program. My father-in-law, a retired U.S. Navy commander and current bank executive in Beeville, assured us that I could have a teaching job in town, but Dennis and I wanted to be independently poor and live closer to the campus.

My final call to CCISD must have sounded desperate because the secretary took pity and advised me to seek employment in the smaller communities nearby. “Maybe one of them still has a last minute opening. We fill our openings with teachers graduating from A&I and with Navy wives from area bases,” she offered. If only I had been aware of that information earlier. The next day, I took the morning off from the pool, called smaller districts in the area, and found that Alice ISD was the only one within an hour’s drive of Kingsville that had any openings, and they had two openings! Could I come the next day, fill out an application and interview with administrators, the superintendent’s secretary had asked. Could I?

The day had already been a long, anxious one for me. I had driven to Alice, nearly an hour’s drive, and found the superintendent’s office by 8 a.m. After filling out my application, I had met with Dewey Smith, the superintendent. He was impressed with my Baylor degree. “We don’t get many Baylor graduates down this way,” he told me. I was qualified, at least in his eyes, to interview with both principals who had the openings. A vocal performance minor requiring 32 college hours of symphonic and choral performances qualified me for the junior high music teacher interview, and my major in elementary education and newly framed Texas teaching certificate had gotten me the interview for a second-grade position at Saenz. Both principals were on their campuses and would be available to interview me. Mr. Smith drew directions for me and sent me forth with instructions to start with Mr. Bruce Love at the junior high, then go to Saenz where I would meet with Mr. Eugene Garcia, and finally return to his office.

The interview with Mr. Love went well, I had thought, and the campus was beautiful and surrounded by a middle class neighborhood. I would teach seven classes a day comprised of seventh- and eighth-grade students and, of course, produce two shows a year for PTA programs and host an end-of-school concert. The job description was within my abilities as long as I could find a student piano accompanist for each class since I didn’t play the piano well. I was buoyed by the idea that I probably had passed muster, but I wasn’t that sure I wanted to teach choir all day, every day. Vocal performance was my joy; I wasn’t certain I could keep that joy while teaching the junior high age group.

So here I was at Saenz feeling very out of place until I saw a rather diminutive man dressed in a suit opening the door and walking toward me and into the only air conditioning on the campus. I had dressed in one of my trousseau suits for the occasion, and was regretting having done so with the heat and humidity that existed everywhere except the offices which were cooled by humming window units. Mr. Love had been dressed casually as most principals do when readying a school before classes begin, but that wasn’t Mr. Garcia’s style apparently. His greeting was warm as he unlocked his office door.

Once past the greeting, however, we hit a language barrier. Mr. Garcia had a master’s degree and was bilingual in English and Spanish, but my ears were untrained in understanding heavily accented English. Embarrassed, I had to ask him to repeat everything, sometimes multiple times, before I knew what he was telling or asking me. We took the campus tour, but I was sure I wasn’t what he was wanting since he had told me that the entire staff and all the students were Hispanic, and many of the students and their families didn’t speak English fluently. The staff was bilingual, but I wasn’t. The 61st Texas Legislative Session had passed the bilingual education bill – following the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the enactment of the federal Bilingual Education Act of 1967. We had discussed the legislation only briefly in my education classes at Baylor. Mr. Garcia had headed the district’s committee to institute the legislation into action in Alice after the Health, Education and Welfare Department had approved the ISD’s program in the previous June for the 1970-71 school year. He was excited that the Saenz staff would be pioneers in bilingual education, but how could I fit into that plan?

I was surprised, when upon my return to Mr. Smith’s office, he announced that both principals wanted me to become part of their staff. It was my choice. I had grown up in multiple environments fortunately, so while I knew I could handle the music job well, I had decided during the short drive back to the administration building, that if I was, by some miracle, offered the job at Saenz, I would find a way to meet the challenges it would bring to me. Without hesitation, I chose Saenz! I had a teaching job.

Upon my return to Beeville, everyone around the pool that evening celebrated my having achieved gainful employment, but wondered at my choice. I didn’t know a lot about the city of Alice or its inhabitants, so I had to agree with the naysayers that I would have to prepare well and didn’t have long to do so since I started in-service on August 17, and this was the last Friday of July. At least Dennis and I had Mondays off each week, so we could search for an apartment and start learning about the area.

However, Mother Nature had another plan. By Sunday, we were “battening down the hatches” for Hurricane Celia. Meteorologists were predicting landfall at Corpus Christi on Monday, August 3. Another new experience for me, Celia’s winds were clocked up to 125 mph and spawned multiple tornadoes that ripped inland habitations. We spent that week cleaning up debris and waiting for electrical and telephone connections to be restored. The following Monday, my mother-in-law volunteered to apartment hunt with me in Alice. What we found was dismal news. The nice apartments near the country club would cost my future month’s salary, and the rest of Alice’s rental properties were marginal choices and battered by the hurricane. Only one of those available apartments allowed dogs. It was a one-room, furnished 1930s-style stucco efficiency with little rollout windows and no air conditioning. A closet and tiny bathroom were two indents into a wall and had only curtains covering them. It was unlike anything I had ever seen! To make matters even worse, there were layers of aged grime on everything, and sand topped the grime. Refugees from the hurricane had rented the apartment on a daily basis until they could return to Corpus Christi.

There wasn’t a decision to be made − this was to be our new home. My mother-in-law, having been a Navy wife and experienced in preparing homes and moving, promised to come to Alice that week with  her maid  and a friend’s maid. “We will make the place sparkle while you lifeguard and pack,” she promised. What a deal!

“No hay ciego como el ciego que no quiere ver.”
“There is no one as blind as the person who does not want to see.”

A child of the 1950-1960s, I had an upbringing that mirrored, to an extent, the Anglo characters’ lives in the book and subsequent movie, The Help. My mother was “old Waco” since a branch of her family had established the family farm about 13 miles down the Brazos River from Waco before the Battle of the Alamo. During my childhood, my grandmother and uncle ran the farm, and many of my weekends and summer days were spent in the Victorian farmhouse and surrounding fields and pastures. The oldest of my parents’ four daughters, I was the first to do basic barnyard and household chores with Caldonia, my grandmother’s maid, in charge. Valentine was in charge of all hooved animals and the third generation of his family to work for us. He was the head of the only Hispanic family I had ever known. My sisters and I were often the only Anglo kids on the farm, so our playmates were Valentine’s grandchildren and black kids whose parents worked on my grandmother’s farm. Some of the families lived in houses along the pasture road to the Brazos River and on plots of land my family still owned or had deeded to them. As an owner’s grandchildren, we learned that we were privileged but would inherit the responsibility to further the farming operation and preserve it for future generations.

My parents owned our home located in an upper middle class, newly developed neighborhood in Waco. They were members of the elite Ridgewood Country Club even before I was born. My dad − a lawyer, Army Reserve officer, politician and businessman − and my mother − an accountant,  business owner and community volunteer − were often gone, so they left a series of my mother’s maids and my maternal grandmother in charge of us four girls. My dad’s family was comprised of ranchers, teachers and oil field workers, and the “N word” was often used in conversations. However, my dad and mother insisted that we never use that word or any other derogatory terms toward anybody. “Switchins’ and having our mouths washed out with soap were automatic consequences if we dared to try our parents on this rule.

I experienced the Jim Crow laws first in my church attendance. When my parents were gone on weekends, my sisters and I stayed at the farm. On Sunday mornings, we would occasionally walk with Caldonia to her church since my grandmother usually didn’t attend church. We were always welcomed in “Miss Cal’s” church, but I knew she couldn’t attend my grandmother’s church which was closer to the farm. I don’t remember ever asking why; I just accepted the separation by race on Sundays and loved the differences in preaching and music.
By my teenage years in the 1960s, race riots and anti-Vietnam demonstrations filled Walter Cronkite’s nightly news reports.

My mother, who has always seen the world in absolutes, had her opinions, and her opinions were the only acceptable ones her daughters should have. Our destinies included fulfilling Mother’s family legacies: taking our bow as Waco Symphony Belles, going to Baylor, pledging her college sorority, picking out the right china and silver patterns before marrying well and settling in Waco. My dad, on the other hand, was a trial attorney who saw the world in “what ifs.” Dad had autoed through Mexico with his Spanish teacher mom with her students during the summers of his youth. During his WWII army days, Dad was trained in India and had served in China, so he had experienced those countries with all their cultural differences. While my mother chose to push against the vast sociological and psychological shifts that the American youth of that day were making, my dad was making his daughters think more openly about everyday news happenings. Dinners at home were often debate meets.

I was raised in Waco public schools that were very segregated. The only “minority” students I had known in my college-bound schools were Jewish kids. However, every summer of my youth, my dad was on active duty with the U.S. Army as an instructor at Officer Candidate School, Command and General Staff School and War College postings across the 48 contiguous states. We lived the army life in officers’ family guest quarters. The military was desegregated, so we were exposed to a different world than in our hometown of Waco.
Now, with a signed teacher’s contract in hand, I was floating on air with confidence that with my childhood upbringing, I was ready to meet this new environment and challenge head-on with success. I thought I had my eyes wide open as I entered this new phase of my life. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Hablando se entiende la gente.”
“By talking people understand each other.”

On August 17, 1970, I reported to the newly built, gleaming Alice High School for teacher in-service. That night brought the first time I had ever spent by myself overnight. Dennis and I had U-hauled our few things and moved in during the previous night, but he had to return to the pool for another week. We had not been able to get a telephone installed due to crews trying to reconnect existing customers after the hurricane, so I had no way of contacting family if I had an emergency. While it was still daylight, I checked in with Dennis from a pay phone, went to the apartment, locked Judge Baylor and myself in for the night and prayed. With windows opened in the stifling heat, I could hear my neighbors, who mostly seemed to be Navy personnel stationed at a nearby auxiliary air strip. In my darkened apartment, rats nearly as large as my puppy, Judge, scurried all night. I pulled the covers up around me and promised myself a rat trap shopping trip to the hardware store during lunch the next day.

By Wednesday, we had finished our meetings and were on campus readying our classrooms for the first day with students. Everyone was very helpful, but it was embarrassing for me when I would join teachers’ conversations being held in Spanish since they would switch to English immediately. I explained that I really needed to learn Spanish and that it didn’t bother me if they spoke Spanish in front of me. The teachers were horrified and explained that it would be very rude if they continued in Spanish. They wanted me to feel included and comfortable.

I was one of four teachers assigned to teach second-graders. We teamed two and two, so my partner was Ms. Esperanza Rodriguez, a veteran teacher and wonderful mentor to me. Not an artist, I spent nearly $100 of my hard-earned summer job money on art supplies so I could use an opaque projector to create poster board cutouts and trim for bulletin board decorations and letters. At night that week, after checking in with family by pay phone, I cut and painted my creations.

I also had invested in a Spanish-English dictionary. I had received my class roll with all Hispanic names and had looked through the 23 students’ files. No one spoke English! On Friday that week, I worked until after dark, still trying to make the room as perfect as possible. During the weekend, I lifeguarded for the last time and spent that Saturday night in Beeville after the pool closed at 9 p.m. making cards with noun pictures cut out of magazines and printing the Spanish and English words for each object. Hopefully, I would get through the first day with the cards, Dick and Jane readers from the 1950s that I was to use for reading lessons, and some old 45 rpm records of children’s songs in English. I was set for Monday.

“Nada es imposible.”
“Nothing is impossible.”

Dawn found me in my classroom after an almost sleepless night before my first day with students. Dennis and I had arrived in Alice late the night before, and he had dropped me off at school on his way to A&I. Steadily, the pace of activity around the school picked up as mostly moms walked their children to school. As each of my students was escorted to me by his or her mom, I used the few sentences I knew in Spanish to introduce myself and welcome them to take a seat inside. Most of the moms lowered their heads as we met, not meeting my gaze. I had learned from the other teachers that this was a common cultural marker. Yet their children were excited and stared expectantly straight into my eyes.

By 9 a.m. I only had twelve students and two mothers in my classroom. Where were the other students on the roll? I pulled out my register, the state required ledger on which all teachers kept the official daily class attendance, and filled in the letter E for “entered” by each of the present and accounted for students’ names. Later into the school year, my register would become a daily reminder of the migratory status of most of my students as they came and went without warning while “following the crops.” Several students didn’t ever show up while others wouldn’t enter school until October.

At 9:30 a.m. the PA system crackled, and Mr. Garcia greeted everyone in English and Spanish. Then, just like in all other schools across Texas, the Pledge of Allegiance was recited and a choral rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner’ was played. Everyone stood politely and appropriately, but no one was reciting or singing but me.

It was time to get down to business. Music was the international language that would save my day, or so I had thought, but my students didn’t know the common children’s songs I tried playing, so onward I went to my homemade flash cards. I motioned for the kids to circle around me on the floor and held up the A card with its picture of an airplane and the words avión and airplane written in bold print. I immediately saw confusion on everyone’s faces. Maybe the problem was my pronunciation in Spanish. I pointed to the words again and tried saying them. One of the students said, "No miss, no miss,” while shaking his head.

I asked him what he thought the word was, and he pointed to the plane and said, “Aeroplano.” This was to be my introduction to the border lingo called TexMex. 
So much for my dictionary efforts! What was even worse, my students and the 
two moms were probably convinced that I was incompetent, and it wasn’t even lunch yet.

At the appointed time, we took a bathroom break to wash hands and my students grabbed their small brown paper sacks before walking to the cafetorium for lunch. I had also brought my lunch with its sandwich, chips, a cookie and thermos of tea. Most of my students had lunches consisting of a tortilla wrapped around refried beans. Some had the nickel with which to buy a student’s carton of milk; others just ate the tortilla and asked to be excused to drink from the water fountain. It was scant rations, but no student ever showed up without something to eat during these days before the free and reduced federal breakfast and lunch program was instituted into public schools. I felt guilty. Dennis and I didn’t have much to spend on food − we were living on hot dogs every other day and noodles the rest of the time − but that seemed decadent compared to my students’ diets.

The poverty of the neighborhood was also evident in the much faded clothing my students and their families wore. No child was dirty, nor did their clothing smell, which was a miracle in the heat of South Texas with no air conditioning. Some of the students and their moms wore second-hand shoes; others were barefoot. Back in the room, we took a siesta with heads on desks and then joined Miss Rodriguez’ class on the treeless playground of dirt. The hot sun beat down as the dust flew up during the students’ rousing game of kickball. As we supervised the students, our conversation turned to my morning’s experiences and my obvious dilemma as to what to do for the rest of the afternoon.

“Try some of the reading books starting with the sight word cards,” she advised. “That way you can tell how well they read.” Hot and sweaty, my students headed to the water fountain and bathrooms, and then for the reading circle. Some words were known, most were not, but the students and moms repeated the words after me and spelled them with me. I read the first story in the Dick and Jane first of two second-grade readers and then invited the students to read with me. It was obvious to me that some of them understood my English words a little, but couldn’t yet say anything in English very well. I had not expected the mothers to remain all day, but the two moms were joining in with the lesson. I would find out later that it was common for moms to stay for classes; they learned English, and, for some, it was an opportunity to get an education they had been previously denied.

But what about tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that one? We hadn’t had to turn in lesson plans to the school secretary for that first week, but I would have to do so by the end of that week for the second week of school. I felt totally incompetent to do so. Teaching is communication, and as my students met their moms who were waiting in front of the school that afternoon, I knew I had not communicated well at all with my students or their parents that day. I had barely been introduced that summer to a South Texas bilingual world but was now living for eight hours a day in a Spanish speaking world. Having gone abroad for one summer to Europe and the Holy Land, I had been immersed into other languages, and had gotten adept at using body language and facial expressions to communicate. However, how could I really be a bilingual teacher without being bilingual? I went to the principal’s office after my last student had waved good-bye to me. I was so frustrated and confused and in need of guidance.

Mr. Garcia listened attentively to my concerns to which I added that resigning wasn’t an option. I was in this predicament and was desperate for direction. His comment: “Are you totally frustrated?” I nodded. He continued, “Well, so are your students, so now the learning begins. I don’t care what you teach all day long, as long as you do so in English. I can’t get Anglo teachers to teach in this school. The students you get to keep all year will not speak English like I do. They will be understood because they will have been taught by you. They hear Spanish everywhere they go − shopping, church, newspapers, radio, television and in the barrio. School is the only place they hear English.” His eyes had tears in them as he continued to speak, telling me his story of being a first generation immigrant who had grown up in that neighborhood. With his words that day, my career as an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teacher began.

“Si tienes dinero gobiernas pero si no, te gobiernan.”
“He who has money governs, and he without money is governed.”

On the day I was born, my parents rejoiced at my healthy arrival but were upset by the news that Lyndon B. Johnson had been elected over Coke Stevenson for a seat in the U.S. Senate. A hotly contested race, LBJ had lost, but a few days later, mysteriously, 202 previously uncounted ballots from “Box 13” were found in the Jim Wells Courthouse basement. Stevenson had two of those votes while LBJ had 200 and thus LBJ won the election by 87 votes. The Duke of Duval, Archer Parr, was accused of having the ballots “cast” for that specific purpose. My parents, Stevenson supporters, never forgot the incident. When I arrived in Jim Wells County, I knew that it and its neighbor, Duval County, still operated on a waning system of political patronage, misuse of funds and total Democratic Party political control based in beliefs in white supremacy, states’ rights and limited government. There had been many investigations through the years, but farming and ranching families still dominated the Mexican population socially, economically, and politically.

To understand my new environment and students better, I spent several of my first Saturdays in the A&I University library researching South Texas. What I learned was illuminating. Alice had been founded in 1888 as a depot on the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway. This land had originally been settled in 1831 by Anglo-Saxons and Mexicans as part of the Charco de los Presenos land grant. I knew the area had many wealthy landowners, business leaders and professionals of Anglo and Hispanic heritage. There was a definite class structure. The ruling class of the area had Anglo or Spanish blood running in their veins; however, most of my students were of mestizo heritage and were used to being referred to as wetbacks, wets, greasers or “Mescanes.” Their fathers were braceros, lower class day workers in the field. The word literally meant “those who work with their arms (hands).

I became a tourist and went to area museums and took the King Ranch tour.  I discovered that many of the counties in the area reflected the names of Anglo pioneers – Kingsville (King Ranch fame), George West, Kenedy, Kleberg, Jim Wells, Brooks, and Willacy counties. Extreme wealth and power were inherent to these pioneers who had imported Mexicans during WWI and WWII to replace Anglo men who had gone to war. Those families had stayed in the U.S. and many had become a Hispanic middle class.

I had grown up with many examples of Jim Crow laws, but I soon came to understand that these same laws also supported Patrón-Peón relationships. Jim Wells, in his day, had given free representation to Mexicans in court, and folks spoke about Archer and his son George Parr’s benevolent attitude toward “their greasers.” The Hispanic tradition of looking toward the head of the ranch for guidance and help aided the Don or Patrón system of governing in these counties. However, migrant farm hands did not recognize this tradition as easily as ranch hands who had served their successive Dons for generations.

Some of my students’ families had been imported by the farmers and ranchers during the late 1960s to combat the unrest created by Chicano civil rights leaders, Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, who worked mostly in California with the Farmworkers of America. In Texas, the fire of protest had yet to ignite – the unrest was just beginning. In 1966, Hispanic students at Alice High School boycotted school in protest of their treatment at school, and they were demanding that Spanish be allowed to be spoken in school. Also, many of them were barred from participation in extracurricular programs after school. They were organized by active LULAC and MALDEF units and the American GI Forum from nearby Corpus Christi. In 1969, Hispanics had only a 20 percent high school graduation rate in Texas! My students and I had a lot of work to do so they could beat that 
sad statistic.

Within the class structure, everyone in town looked down on my students and their families. The parents had small dreams for themselves; just becoming a ranch hand was a step up the class structure ladder. But I could already see that the adults in each household in the neighborhood had much higher goals for their children. I resolved I would be part of the solution, not part of the structure that held my students down.

Since these families needed to move quickly, they lived in the substandard rental housing in Saenz’s neighborhood. But even more depressing was the barrio that existed across the highway just a few blocks away. Unincorporated by the city, many of those abodes had no running water. The Alice Mennonite Church, area Catholic churches and the Rancho Alegre Youth Center helped Rancho Alegre Barrio residents survive on a day-by-day basis.

After spending a few weeks getting settled, I visited the First Baptist Church, the faith in which I had been raised. After church, members were warm and welcoming to me until they were reminded as to where I taught. The Alice Echo News had carried a listing of new teachers in its September 9, 1970, issue in which my name appeared under Saenz Elementary staff. The resulting shunning during the next few weeks pushed me toward attending Catholic churches for the remainder of that school year. The same treatment happened when Dennis was contacted by an Alice native who happened to have been a fraternity brother. His family invited us to dinner at the Alice County Club. It wasn’t just the ice in the drinks that turned cold when I answered their questions about my teaching assignment. For the remainder of the school year, Dennis and I were only welcomed in Alice where my students were welcomed. I had committed the unthinkable: I had crossed the line and walked around the wall of racial prejudice by helping my students climb that wall to freedom.

“El que no arroja no gana.”
“He who does not take a chance does not gain.”

As the school year progressed, we settled into a routine and schedule. Ms. Rodriguez and I alternated recess and lunch duties so we could have 30 minutes prep time and 30 minutes to eat in the workroom every other day. We sang songs, read about Dick and Jane’s latest adventures with Spot and worked math on the board. At night, I developed basic science and social studies lessons by working with teacher’s editions from the A&I library. Since we only had the one car that Dennis needed to commute to Kingsville, I rode my bicycle to school each day with my basket and a backpack full of papers, lesson plans, and my lunch. As the fall progressed and the days were shorter, it was dark when I arrived and dark when I rode home.

My mother and father came through town and stayed overnight on their road trip to Monterrey, Mexico, where my dad was to meet with a client. My mother wasn’t that happy with the apartment, but when she saw my school, she was totally dismayed. It was early, before the students would arrive, but Mr. Garcia was there. After meeting him, she asked if I was safe coming into that neighborhood. With a graciousness that should have qualified him for sainthood, he replied that if I fell off my bike and were lying in the road, I would be surrounded and cared for until an ambulance arrived because everyone knew who I was, and they were grateful that I was teaching the children. With a slight twinkle in his eye, he added, “But once she crosses the tracks on her side of town … .” Fortunately, my dad arrived with their car serviced and ready to go. However, I felt that Mr. Garcia’s remarks proved that my work had value.

One of the biggest challenges of my classroom was keeping my attendance register accurately as students arrived, withdrew, had an excused or unexcused absence, or returned to class. My class grew some days to over 35 students; on other days, enrollment might be down to 15 students, and those extremes sometimes occurred on back-to-back days. Whole families packed in the middle of the night and were gone by sunrise, only to return in a few weeks. Sometimes parents would stay in the area but would need to put even their second-grade child in the field to work for several days. When the school year was over, I had only five students who had remained enrolled in Saenz the entire year. Opportunities to say good-byes were rare.

One student in my class stood out among the school’s population as much as I did. Eddie Lee had arrived with the biggest grin, loudest laugh, and was a black face in the sea of brown faces. In South Texas, being black was a novelty, so the other students were fascinated with his hair and skin, and fortunately, Eddie Lee was just the kid to handle that kind of attention.  

He was also just the student to play Santa Claus in our second-grade Christmas program for the PTA that December. The school had a very active PTA since most of the Hispanic moms didn’t work outside the home, and the families were involved with their children. PTA membership was also a social outlet for moms, and in this school, the meetings gave the moms an opportunity to practice their English skills. Ms. Rodriguez and I were in charge of the program, so my musical training really came in handy, but we had to teach Eddie Lee his lines in both English and Spanish since it was a bilingual production − first performed entirely in Spanish, then again in English. The applause was deafening. It was a real neighborhood production since the moms had sewn many of the costumes and prepared the refreshments.

Our staff Christmas party was held at Mr. and Mrs. Garcia’s home on the edge of the neighborhood. It was pot luck, so Dennis and I attended with Christmas cookies that I had baked. Mrs. Garcia had prepared menudo. When I helped myself to a second serving, Mrs. Garcia was pleased and asked if I knew what I was eating. After seeing my confusion she defined the word “tripe” and explained that it was a traditional dish that allowed a family to incorporate every part of the cow into a useful dish or tool.

“No le pido a Dios que me dé −nomás que me ponga donde hay.”
“I do not ask God for anything − I only ask Him to show me the way.”

Following our Christmas break, Alicia, one of my fairly regular students, came to school shoeless. With the cooler winter weather, the students had been wearing shoes, mostly very scuffed and scratched. One look at her foot, and I was in full medical mode. A thick black crust filled the space between her big toe and index toe, spilling over across the top of her foot. I called for an aide to take my class and hurried Alicia down to the school nurse. She examined the foot and had a conversation with Alicia. Out in the hallway, Nurse Martinez told me she didn’t have to do anything; the foot would heal well. I was incredulous!

She explained that Alicia had been running in their little home the night before and had run her foot into the leg of an old metal kitchen stool. The sharp metal edge had split the thin flesh between her toes to the bone. Her mother had reached up into the corners of their home’s rooms and gathered spider webs to put into the wound to coagulate the blood. That crust was the result. I had never heard of such a practice. Nurse Martinez reassured me that Alicia would be okay and told me that as an RN she had to constantly balance modern medicine against a parent’s use of Indian medicine practices and the practices of curanderas (faith healers) and parteras (midwives) since the folks in this neighborhood had little access to traditional medicine. I had definitely learned something new.

As spring storms turned the dusty streets into mud flows at times, my students and I were working hard through their second-grade curriculum. I was amazed at their speed of learning − I was blessed with little sponges. Music was the foundation of our English language study, so when I discovered my kids were singing “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog,” a newly released and already a hit song, I had to have a recording of it in English. We sang “Joy to the world …” every day and really meant it.

Also, that spring, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a Disney movie, hit the Alice movie theater nearly two years after it had been released. Several of my students had gone with the youth center group to see the show. They couldn’t wait the next morning to tell me how wonderful “Shitty, Shitty Bang Bang” was. It was horrifying and hilarious at the same time, and I saw an immediate need to work harder with my students on the correct pronunciation of the “ch” sound in English.

I had never celebrated Cinco de Mayo before, but we did so at school, right along with May Day. The brightly colored ribbons wrapped around the temporary pole that some of the dads had erected on the playground looked great and piñatas for each grade level added to the festivities that were held in the evening so fathers could attend. My class was beginning to dwindle as crops started maturing. It was sad to think of this year’s passing, but I would see some of my students in the bilingual summer school we were going to hold in June at the high school. I was excited to teach in such a fine building as the high school but would be sad to leave Saenz. It had been a great year of learning for all of us.   
“Saber es poder.”
“Knowledge is power.”

Many first days of school have come and gone since my year at Saenz. I have 28 years of being a public school teacher, assistant principal, and principal of Title I schools to my credit and am retired from that arena. Combined with my years of teaching on the college level, I will be entering my 46th year of teaching this fall. I still am learning as much or more than my students while teaching developmental reading and writing courses. Needing more income than teaching or serving as an administrator in public schools allowed, I have always taught adults at whatever two-year college was near. I received my ESL teaching certification in 1993 and have used it to help all ages of students learn English. I now teach international students from all corners of the world as well as former bilingual education students from public high schools.

Over the years, I have seen many changes − some good and some not so great. First, that same sense of community and family is not present as much anymore in America’s Hispanic population. The barrio in Alice wasn’t beautiful, but the families were wonderful, supportive and accepting of a stranger like me. Hispanic fathers worked at any available job while mom raised the family. There was no free breakfast or lunch, no welfare, and no free medical or dental plan. However, nobody went hungry, dirty or was unloved. Everyone was rising to something better in life. Education was a priority for the children, but it was a struggle to stay in school and still earn the money to eat. My students and their families didn’t have many worldly treasures, but they treasured each other dearly. They and their families attended church, most often Catholic, regularly, sometimes daily. We didn’t have gangs in the area, and I really did enjoy safe passage on my bicycle each day in and out of the barrio.

Many of the Hispanic families who immigrated to the U.S. before the mid-’70s have realized the American dream. They are the professionals, the business owners, and are part of middle to upper class America. I am so proud to have been a small part of their success that was bought by their parents and grandparents with so much blood, sweat and sacrifice. I look at the Polaroid photos I took of my Alice students in our classroom and wonder what place they have carved for themselves in the world of today. By now, they are about 53 years old. I hope all their dreams have come true. since those children and their families gave me what money, power and high social standing cannot give a person.

However, I have also seen the more recent destruction, in some cases, of the Hispanic family structure and neighborhoods. With the initiation of the free/reduced breakfast and lunch program in schools, Medicaid, food stamps and other welfare programs, families have broken apart in order to qualify. With many of these programs, if the father/husband is still in the home, the family doesn’t qualify for the benefits. Yet, those benefits are usually funded based on the number of family members in the household. That regulation has motivated some men to not marry but to live with one or more women for a few months each year, get her pregnant again, thus increasing the family size, and then move onward. So many of the moms don’t work but don’t have a husband to support the household. Often, parental interest and involvement in their child’s education is at low ebb. So many fathers are not a part of their children’s lives. Some children are mid-management in a gang or at least are “wannabes” as early as sixth grade and so many are already addicted to drugs or liquor at a young age. Hispanic gangs are a poor substitute for family. These more recent Hispanic immigrants have a difficult time understanding religious based holidays and vocabulary because they do not attend any church, a fact that affects both their sense of family and community.

During some of the 16 years prior to my public school retirement, I directed and taught ESL at a Title I intermediate school. I lost eight students to gang knifings, shootings, or street racing over that time span, and I’ve lost count of how many of my students have been adjudicated as a juvenile or adult offenders. Many of these students had the latest expensive Nike shoes, iPhones and “grills,” but they no longer had self-respect, parents who cared, or a willingness and drive to learn. Status quo with no status but the gangs’ hierarchy worked for them.

Alice is different now, too. The barrio was finally annexed into the city and looks better with trees, gardens and paved roads. Saenz Elementary School is still educating students in its beautiful, modern facility, and the faculty’s online photos show great racial diversification. The Patron-Peón governance system of yesteryear is almost gone, and a Hispanic middle and upper professional class has taken its place in all areas of life in South Texas. The old way of life has given way to a new, more progressive life, and occasional oil booms have helped the overall economy.

Mr. Garcia and I parted ways that long ago summer. He eventually became an assistant superintendent of schools in Alice ISD where he served until his death in 1984. I spoke to him only once again when I visited Alice ISD in 1978 while on my job as director of Texas Future Teachers of America. I was able then to tell him that it was in those moments at Saenz Elementary School in 1970-1971 that he set the pattern of my teaching and administrative career. I learned to look at people, not at their bank accounts, to see what really mattered to them. I learned that there are good people and bad people on both sides of economic and racial lines and that those racial walls and barriers can be built by the wrong ideals and torn down by the right ideals. I learned how expressive body language and facial expressions can be when people really wish to communicate. I learned to really see injustices and not to assume that everything was right for everyone just because it was for me.

I learned to question some of my ideals, beliefs and practices with which I had been reared as a child. I learned that empty pockets didn’t mean that a person couldn’t have a full, giving heart. I learned that my students’ minds were filled with dreams that didn’t dwell inside their little abodes. I learned that the poorest of the poor still loved and appreciated the beauty of art and music. I learned many of the stories and sayings in Spanish were very similar to my own that I had learned in childhood. I learned to cherish similarities between myself and others, and honor our differences. I learned home was wherever these families were together that moment and that I was welcome in their homes even after “my own kind” had rejected me.

And finally, I learned to be comfortable with the people around me by honoring their customs, culture and language as much as my own. My students and their families didn’t have money, big houses, fast cars or dream vacations, but they had family and a desire to work, earn and learn. Poor in monetary means, yes, but these students and their families were rich in so many other ways. Through this wonderful, first teaching year, I was molded into a much better human being and teacher and was set on my true career path. What a gift that experience has been as I’ve traveled my road of life!

By Virginia Riddle
Thumbnail Image: 
Share Article