In The White Boys, Elizabeth tells of her struggle to be comfortable with her own identity outside the boundaries of the racial norm. She tells of the normal awkward struggles of adolescent love with the addition of struggling to find acceptance of her own racial features.
Have any of you been asked “what” you are”? How did it make you feel?
Do you find people attractive based on their skin color? Do you think people do the same to you?
What do you find most unique or beautiful about your features?
When do you identify who you are as a person based on your racial makeup? When is it not a factor?
Beauty Begins: Making Peace with Your Reflection by Chris Shook The Beauty of Color by Imam
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking a Stand/Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Elizabeth Gomez. I must have been about 37 when he walked into my life. He was about 10 years my junior and built like a god. Actor Ryan Gosling is everything I ever wanted in a man. He was tall and blond and perfectly sculpted, and, not to mention, he was white.
So. So, white. Ryan Gosling represented, to me, everything I never thought I could have in a man. He was white. You see, white boys don’t kiss brown girls – not brown girls like me, brown haired, frizzy bo…, frizzy-haired, chunky bodied, acne scarred skin, totally obsessed with Ted McKinley because one day we were going to actually get married on the Love Boat. Girls like me! White boys liked white girls and this is the way of the world.
I realized this as I sat in my fourth-grade chair turning over my letter that was marked no. I spent the night before working on this letter so hard. I made sure my handwriting was festive and straightforward and, yet, feminine. I made sure that every box on the wo… note were straight lines, sharply angled, square boxes, so that you could mark yes or no, so that your potential new lover would be able to tell you that you could or could not put his name all over your notebook.
Tyler was the whitest boy in school. He was a kind of white that was almost transparent. Near summer re… near summertime when we went to recess, I always thought it was very irresponsible for the teachers to let him out because the moment he hit the sun, his face would turn a vivid, bright red. And his neck looked like it was just burning, but I would stand there and bathe in the radiance of Tyler’s strawberry glow.
As I sat turning this letter over and over in my hand and looking at that box marked no, I noticed these notes next to it, which said, “You’re ugly.” But I knew exactly what he meant. When he said I was ugly, he was talking about my broad nose and my crazy, dark, thick hair and the fact that I didn’t even have Adidas from, like, a real store. They’re the K-Mart kind with the two stripes. What Tyler Jackson didn’t realize that he had did was set me on a path of destroying all white men. I mean, not really destroying all white men, but I was definitely set to crumble some hearts.
A year later, my next potential bu… bo… boyfriend, when I was in the fifth grade, was a guy named Jason McCleary. That’s not his real name. Okay, it’s totally his real name! I think he should know that because, you know, I’ve grown into quite the lovely lady. My skin is cleared up and I’ve really pulled my stuff together. Jason was everything I wanted in a man. He was white. I watched him every day and I imagined myself looking at him and just spending hours and hours and hours looking into his oceanic blue eyes and just talking about Megadeath and doing our hair together with hair spray. And I knew he was going to be my next boyfriend.
I also knew that if my Korean mother found out that I had a white boyfriend that I would be like “top notch, gal.” For example, my mother said to me that she didn’t care who I ever dated as long as he wasn’t Puerto Rican because my father was Puerto Rican. Also, she wanted him to be white.
Growing up in a small town in Virginia, I was the token “what are you girl.” It was, basically, that I didn’t know very many people of color. So, everyone who looked at me was like, “She’s not white and she’s not black. So, what are you?”
As a kid, it never really bothered me but as I was growing up and as a well-rounded adult, I look back at that and I wonder if that was really kind of the core of my problems. What are you? What are you? Is that the reason that I felt this need to be, like, neatly labeled and categorized and put into this box. Like, if I could do that, would it make me somehow justified or my presence or my life a r… given, uh, validation.
So, a year later I’m sitting at the desk again, looking at another note that says “no” and Jason flirting with Kim Cullerton, a petite, blonde, long hair girl. Kim Cullerton is not her real name. It totally is because she should know that she ruined my life.
Anyways, years and years later, because I didn’t date anyone in high school, I was afraid of being rejected. I was standing in my dormitory, my college dorm, when I hear this, “Come on, Liz, Elizabeth. You know you got it like that.”
I was standing with Tyrone, my new boyfriend. He wasn’t white. He was dark, dark, dark, dark with like this beautiful body and this Barry White voice.
And he looked at me and he’s like, “You know, guys, they got a thing for Asians. Latin girls too. You got it all. You know, you’ve got that thing, Elizabeth. You know, you got that thing.”
“Thing. What thing are you talking about? Why have I had this thing and no one’s ever told me about it? Did I catch that when I was in the gym bathroom without my flip flops? What is this thing, Tyrone? I wanna know and I need to know now.”
Tyrone laughed at me, he laughed at me ’cause he thought I was funny. He thought I was charming. He said that my hair was great and that a big, fat, broad nose looks good on me. He told me that it didn’t matter what I looked like because I had so much other stuff. But I definitely had that thing, whatever that thing was. He kissed me, and everything was wonderful.
The next day, I kept thinking to myself, “What am I doing? Why is it that I’ve been wanting to be white this whole time? You know, white like my friends, like the Keatons on Family Ties, like Olivia Newton-John. What was white going to make me that I wasn’t already?”
At that moment, Ty opened a whole world for me, where I could realize that there are so many beautiful, colored people that I could love. And he did the best thing for me. He made me realize that it doesn’t matter what my color was or what I… my features were like.
But that I had that thing and I like that thing. And I would always have that thing. His warmth and his honesty made me feel accepted and made me understand a lot about what I was going through.
Look, I still like white guys, especially, if they look like Ryan Gosling – even if they look like Seth Rogen. But my insecurities are no longer about my race or my face. But really, it’s about me finding the way to love who I want, when I want.
A story about Elizabeth, an “Army brat”, who must navigate the world for her Korean immigrant mother. Through this process she learns to stop being embarrassed by her mother and shifts to fighting for her.
How many of you are recent immigrants or have immigrant parents?
What are the daily struggles you have or that you see your parents and other family members going through?
If you have immigrant parents, are there times you are embarrassed by them? Can you share examples and reflect on from where the embarrassment comes?
What steps can you take to make you and/or your parents’ transition in America easier?
What do people who have been here longer need to understand and how can they be a support to new immigrants?
Learning a New Land by Carola Suarez-Orozco Korean Immigrants and the Challenge of Adjustment by Moon H. Jo
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, I’m Elizabeth Gomez. It was 1983 in Virginia. I was laying in my room in the dark with the covers over my head listening. She was yelling and I was only nine years old so I wasn’t really sure what to do. My mother and I had been here before, just listening to her struggling and screaming. I pull the covers tighter over my head when I heard, “Risa, Risa, you come here. You come here now!”
As I walked out of my sanctuary, my eyes widen and I slumped into the kitchen. She stood there in a polyester robe with a brown phone dangling from her hand.
“Risa, you speakie to him. He no understanding me.”
I stood there flushed with embarrassment, and took the phone from my mother’s hand, “Hello.”
“Could you just help us get your mom’s account number. We’d really like to help her.”
“Mom. What’s your account number?”
“Oh, you terr him, you terr him, jero-jero-sex-sex-four-eight-sex.”
“It’s 0-0-4-8-6.” (0-0-6-6-4-8-6)
“As I talked to this man, my mom walked around in the kitchen. She was pacing back and forth, getting angrier and angrier. She didn’t understand why Americans didn’t understand her when she spoke to them, especially because she’d been in this country for over a decade. I watched her pace through the kitchen, back and forth, her small Asian frame just blowing in and out, and in and out until she was rounded out like one of those monsters from Where the Wild Things Are.
After I completed the phone call, I hung up. I looked at my mom. This lady demon who was slowly morphing back into this four-foot-something Asian lady.
“Why they don’t understanding? Why don’t understanding me? I speakie good Engrish.”
I watched my mom sit at the kitchen table and I put my hand over hers. I looked at her as her face was beginning to worry and her body started to fill with self-doubt. At that moment, I decided I have… I had to stop. I had to stop running away and hiding and I had to really commit to being her English (Engrish) to Engrish (English) translator for the rest of my life. And it was always like that.
My father was a Puerto Rican-American, U.S. citizen, who served in the military. He met my mother in Seoul, Korea. They married; they had kids. Most of my mom’s life, as a military wife, was traveling abroad and she spent very little time in America. While she was here, she did okay. But when my dad was gone on duty or training missions, my mom had to make her way through and I was rela… relegated to just, basically, being her translator.
I spent tons of time just, like, watching her try to talk to sales people and clerks and merchants, just trying to get what she needed. It was like watching a Charlie Brown episode where the teacher’s talking to Charlie Brown and all Charlie Brown can hear is this muffled sound of nothingness. And I would just stand and watch my mom wave her hands around, and gesticulate, and try to convey what she needed, without being able to tell them in the way that they needed to hear it.
And every time, I’d be broken up with this sound, “Risa, Risa, you terring him, you terring him right now, Risa. You terring him, ‘Me want to buy fridgey.’”
“She wants to buy a fridge.”
“You terring him we need to move to Browning Street.”
“She wants you to know that we live on Brown Street.”
“You terring him, ‘It’s too expenses’.”
“She means it’s too expensive.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, she named me Elizabeth. She doesn’t even know how to pronounce Elizabeth, so she started calling me Lisa, which she also does not know how to pronounce. In addition to that, my mom would have to go to conferences, like, parent-teacher conferences, and those were the most embarrassing, humiliating, and petrifying moments of my life. There they were, these well-articulated, ecedga… educated teachers looking at my mom with these plastered smiles, just nodding their heads, trying to understand what she was saying.
And my mom is basically screaming at them, trying to convey, “Oh, Risa, she so razy.”
In addition, I couldn’t have any friends. Anyone who came into my house, got pinched by my mother when she would say things like, “Oh, you so fat!” Or, “Oh, why your eyes so big?”
Every single friend I ever made, who came to my house, basically, never came back and I accepted that. That was my life. I was gonna be the town recluse and I always was gonna have this rude mother.
Late one night, I could hear my mom talking to someone on the phone and it was my dad’s new girlfriend. I dropped my blanket and I walked to the wall that separated my room from my mother’s. And I could hear her just softly begging this woman to let my father go. And I heard her say, “Prease, prease go way. We have kids.”
I listened for a long time, and my heart started pounding as I felt for her. And I just listened, as she kept begging and begging. And I didn’t even really like my father and, up ’til that point, I’m not sure I liked my mother that much either. But at this moment, I felt what was going on with her, and I understood that this was painful. And I pressed my head closer against the wall as I listened to her hang up the phone and sob and cry. And I wanted to go to her but I couldn’t. I could just listen. And I did. I listened until I fell asleep to the sounds of what pain was for her.
A few, a few weeks later, after months of not seeing my father, I was really surprised when he came to pick up me and my brother to go to New York and see my grandmother. Not only was I surprised to see him, I was surprised that I was allowed to leave with him.
“I don’t wanna go.”
“Risa, you take good care of Ab-e. You be good girl, okay?”
“No! I don’t want to go.”
As we drove up to New York, my father stopped at a rest stop. He went to go use the phone booth. And as he was in the phone booth, I could tell that he was just being himself – super charming, and laughing, and flirtatious to someone on the phone. Eventually, he started walking toward our car, and I felt a little weird. And I wasn’t sure what was going on. So, he said for us to come over and, uh, talk to this person on the phone. And I pick up the phone and, huh, I hear this voice come over.
“And she says, “Hello, Elizabeth. It’s me, Jane, your dad’s friend. How are you?”
At that moment, all the anguish I had for my mother, the loss of my father, the not understanding of what had been going on with my whole family, this whole entire time came rushing at me. My heart pounded. My ears… like sounds of, like, waves came through my ears. And I felt nothing but anger when I replied, “I know you’re not my father’s friend. You’re his girlfriend! As a matter of fact, you keep calling my house, and I hate you for hurting my mother.”
And I hung up the pho… er, I dropped the phone and I ran back to the car. And I watched as my father, like, fumbled around with this phone and he’s spewing out apologies. And then he comes back to the car, he slams the door shut, and smacks me across my face. And he starts talking, just talking about something or another, and I have no idea what he’s saying because I don’t care. I just didn’t care.
All I knew was that, at that moment, I had been able to tell this woman the things that my mom wanted to say to her. And in some small way, this 9-year-old was able to score a big point for my mother.
After our trip was over, we came home. I could hear my mom and my dad arguing out in the front porch about this or that or what the kids knew or didn’t know. And I was pretty sure as I was standing in the kitchen, that when my mom came back, she was gonna spank me or discipline me for re… disrespecting my father. Instead, she walked in with these bloodshot eyes, mascara tears dried on her cheeks. She looked at me. She made me a bowl of hot ramen noodle soup. She smiled and then she went back into her bedroom.
I still translate for her to this very day, especially with my own family. I mean, huh, we’re still not used to the idea that when you get pinched, and to be told, “You’re fat,” that that actually means, “Hey, are you hungry?”
We’ve learned to communicate in ways of, like, laughter and shared experiences and gestures. And now, when my mom asks my husband and I if we’ve bought a condom, I know she means condo.
Jasmin takes you into the rabbit hole of panic that she faces when she gets engaged to be married. Questions about her identity and her role as a woman surface as she tries to weed through old world Latino expectations while being an educated American woman today.
Give examples from the lives of women in Jasmin’s story that show societal expectations or limitation on girls and women.
What stereotype does Jasmin believe to be true, at the beginning of the story, about being a married woman?
How does her Colombian aunt expose the layered complications women face? When do/can women have power? What holds women back?
What could it mean that Jasmin keeps her maiden name?
What is your cultural identity? Think of a time when you struggled with your identity, how did society support or challenge you?
In your life, do you see women treated unequally to their male counterparts? Where? (give examples)
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Film Documentary: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwidehttp://www.halftheskymovement.org/pages/film Website: Remezcla is a grassroots project among writers and creatives to cover Latino culture, that grew into an influential media brand for Latino millennial’s with national & international contributors and reach. www.Remezcla.com
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Jasmin Carenas. I have been in Chicagoan all my life. But in 2006, I took off to Columbia, South America, panicked because I’d gotten engaged a month and a half before, and the bombardment of questions about my dress, the rings, the wedding, the location, it was just all too much. I didn’t know the answers. And it felt like the more I got asked, the more I lost myself in the answering. The questions came from everywhere.
One of the Senoras from church asked, “Jasmin, are you going to have niños right away?”
“No, I want to figure out how my new life partner and I work first. But I…”
“Si, quierro niños, just not right away.”
One of my party girlfriends asks, “So, are you sure you’re ready to settle down, Jazz?”
“Yes. It’s what I’ve always envisioned.”
Then one of my colleagues from work asks, “So, you gonna take his name?”
“Nuñez…and trade in my own? No!”
“Who’s Jasmin Nuñez? She doesn’t have a history, a story, an actor’s union card. Jasmin Cardenas does. Am I too selfish to think that way?”
It’s just that all my life, I’ve been groomed by my mother, my aunts, and Latino society in general, to be una mujer buena, a good woman. A good Latina woman takes care of her husband, serves him, cooks for him…Oh, I’m so in trouble. Cooking? Baking I can do. But cooking…I can’t cook to save my life.
I mean, my mom and my aunts, especially my Tia Gloria, they are the model image of mujer buena. You can’t turn on Spanish network TV without seeing your stereotypical Latinas. Mujeres, women, who take care of their husbands. My mom, I’ve watched all my life, wake up and make my dad’s breakfast and coffee, down to the sugar in his café.
You, I mean, maybe estoy loca. Was this really what I wanted? Was I signing up for this? I knew that I loved Jesus but I’d broken my one cardinal rule. You don’t even talk engagement unless you’ve been dating for at least a year. And here I was engaged in less than 10 months. When he asked me to marry him, I did not question it. I practically jumped into his lap.
Okay, so what you need to know is that Jesus took me to Mexico under the guise of meeting his familia. And then he took me on a secluded, romantic trip to a rain forest. A lush rain forest, fragrant with life. Butterflies darting around the canopy of trees and vines. And we walked along these pebbles stones, past one rushing waterfall after another. And we had the place all to ourselves. When we got to the base of the most majestic waterfall, El Capitán, I looked at Jesus and he looked a little nervous. But I was just so overwhelmed by the beauty. And then he got down on one knee. And I thought, “Oh my, it’s happening. It’s happening. Memorize this moment, Jasmin. Memorize this moment.”
And then his lips parted. “Will you marry me?”
“Yes! Yes!” I jumped into his arms and threw my arms around him as the waterfall cascaded down and we kissed. Our own movie moment.
But standing here, in my aunt’s kitchen, in Columbia, so many days away from that moment of clarity, I couldn’t help but wonder. Watching her, in her tile kitchen, in her high heels, at 6 o’clock in the morning, with her jeans suction-cupped to her tush. Is serving a man the rest of my life really what I wanted? Is my college degree going to become a paper doily?
Now, what’s crazy is that Jesus had never given me a reason to think that I was going to end up barefoot and pregnant during our, all of our marriage. He’s a first generation American, just like me. A well-educated Mexican guy. He’s not machista. A machista is a guy who likes to put a woman in her place, who likes to be taken care of by women. Jesus is not like that.
But what if it’s in his DNA? And we haven’t been together long enough, for me to see signs of it creeping out, and then he expects me to be his mama! No. Jesus is really quite awesome. I won’t want to marry him if he wasn’t. So why was I so nervous and freaking out about this new role as his wife? I mean, it’s not like when my mom was a kid. You know, my mom never got to learn how to ride a bike when she was a little girl, because little girls weren’t allowed to ride bikes. And when I was young, I learned the same message.
I was walking down, uh, town, in one of those small little Latin American towns, with my prima, my cousin and we saw an arcade room. It was just ooo… you know. Concrete floors and a few pinball machines but they had Pac-Man, so, I went right in. And all the boys inside stopped and stared at me. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. And then, I realized my prima, she had stayed outside. I was the only girl in the arcade room and the boys said that I couldn’t be there. That it wasn’t proper for a girl to be an arcade room. Man, where’s the manual to be your own Columbiana Americana?
That morning, in Columbia, my aunt prepared my uncle’s breakfast, down to the sugar in his café. He left through that toll… tall, wrought iron gate. There was a dog barking and a fruit vendor. “Mamay! Platanos! Y Yuuucccaa!”
And my aunt turns around, after having locked the padlock door, and she looks at me. And I must look like a scared little girl because she’s like, “Jasmin, que le pasa mija?”
“Nothing. Nothing is wrong, Tia.”
“Tia, yo no puedo cocinar, I don’t know how to cook. I don’t like to clean. And the idea of serving a guy until the end of my days like a good mujer Latina should, makes me want to jump off a cliff.”
(Laughter) “Ay boba!” My aunt looked at me and she said, “Ay, muchacha. Usted no se tiene que preocupar por eso, you don’t have to worry about that. You prepared yourself for more than that. Ay, Jasmin.”
“Pero Tia, I thought I was supposed to take care of my husband the way you and Mami do. Taking care of him, cooking and cleaning.”
“Jasmin, you prepared yourself for more than that. Your mom, she didn’t have the choices you have. You studied. Your mama was a worker, una tradajadora. And she had to work, to support la familia. And she sacrificed leaving Columbia to go to the United States so that you would have all those choices. Just to hire someone to do all the cooking and cleaning for you.”
“Really?” My jaw hit the ground. “Pero Tia, I thought I was supposed to make Jesus feel like a man like you and Mami make el Tio and Papi feel like a man.”
“Jasmin, we make your father and your Tio feel like men in these little ways, but they know who the boss is. They go to work but we get a paycheck.”
Wow. I guess I just needed somebody else to tell me what my mom has always told me. Estudie y sace su carrera para que nunca tenga que depender de un hombre. Study and pursue your career so you never have to depend on a man. That conversation with my Tia Gloria, was all the talk I needed. There’s lots of different ways to be una mujer buena, a good woman.
I got home, back to Chicago, and Jesus asked, “Babe, is everything OK?” And I assured him that was.
And nine months later, we stood in our own outdoor, jungle wedding, surrounded by our friends and familia in Mexico. And Jesus standing there, in his white linen suit, and I, in my Princess Diana dress and veil, just like my mother always envisioned. And the pastor said, “I now present to you, Jesus Nuñez and Jasmin Cardenas.”
The application process is long and sometimes too expensive for many people looking to emigrate. It also depends on the country from which you are emigrating. For instance, some countries have longer waiting periods than others for visas. If people cannot obtain documents, why do people make such a dangerous trips to get to the U.S.?
Do you know people who have escaped war, famine, who have risked everything to be reunited with their families? If you were facing violence or starvation and such, would you think about leaving?
What are some of the risks of getting caught by the immigration authorities?
Do you know anyone who has been deported or incarcerated for trying to come to the U.S.? Do you think it’s fair that if refugees are caught, they are never able to legally apply for U.S. citizenship?
What are some of difficulties of adjusting to life in a new/different country?
Besides the language, the newcomer has to learn the many different traditions, customs and idiosyncrasies of the country where they emigrated to without losing their own identities. What do you think would be the strangest aspect of American culture for a newcomer? What part of your identity would you never want to lose?
Teenage Refugees from Guatemala Speak Out by Gerald Hadden The Quetzal in Flight: Guatemalan Refugee Families in the United States by Noria Vlach
Since 1990, GCIR has sought to influence philanthropy to make donations to programs that address the needs of the country’s growing and increasingly diverse immigrant and refugee populations. Nestor was helped by this organization: ttps://www.gcir.org/
Family and Childhood
My name is Nestor Gomez. I’m going to tell you a story about my, my journey from Guatemala to the United States.
After many days of silently traveling by bus across Mexico, we arrived at Guadalajara which is basically half way through Mexico. From there, we were going to take a train that was going to take us all the way to the border of the United States. Now many people make this travel by train but many people don’t have the necessary money or funds to travel as passengers on the train. They are forced to take freight trains. And they are forced to go on top of these freight trains and sleep on top of the freight trains as they travel across Mexico. Many people fall from the trains. Many people lose their lives or their limbs. Not only that but they also run the risk of being assaulted, being robbed or being killed by guns as they travel on top of these freight train. As if this wasn’t enough, the Mexican immigration authorities stopped these trains and take people to jail for traveling undocumented. However, we were lucky enough that our mother has saved enough money to send money with our father so we didn’t have to travel on these freight trains. We actually were able to travel with passengers on a regular train.
But half away, half the way through our travel on the train, the train suddenly make a stop and the Mexican immigration authorities boarded that train. They started to question everybody. And our father told us to remain quiet just like he had instructed us. When the Mexican authorities started to question us, we remained silent and our father tried to tell them that we were just shy but they didn’t believe him. They handcuffed him and took him off the train. We just sat there looking at one another afraid that we had been caught, that we were going to be sent back to Guatemala. But after a few minutes, which to us seemed like hours, our father came back into the train and told us that they were going to let us go but they had taken most of his money. When we arrived at Tijuana, which is on the border with the USA, our father contacted a coyote, who is a person to helps undocumented immigrants across the border. Now this coyote agreed to take us across the United, across the border to the United States to a safe house, where my mother was going to save more money. So, my father gave the coyote the rest of our money.
Now, there were several ways in which we could cross the border. We could go across the desert but that was a dangerous trip for me and my siblings because we were just little kids. We could also cross across the sewer lines but this was a nasty undertaking. It was dangerous and it was full of disease. We could also go across the river but once again we were little kids and that was dangerous. So, our father and the coyote decided that the best way for us to cross the border, was to run across the border, across the hills of Tijuana. So that’s what we did.
We started to cross the border, on an afternoon with a lot of other people that were crossing the border. And at first it was a huge group of people, but as the night, as the day went on, our group got smaller and smaller. Soon our group consisted only of the coyote who was running in front of us, my father who was carrying my youngest brother in one arm, and behind him, me my sister, and my middle brother were running holding hands. Now, now I live in Chicago for many years and I have seen many people participating in 5K’s and 10K’s but it took me many years for me to be able to take part in one of those races. Because every time that I see people running, it still reminds me of the fear I felt as we run across the border. I was afraid that we’re going to get caught. I was afraid that we were going to get separated from our father. I was afraid of many things.
As we kept running across the hills of Tijuana, it started to get darker and darker. Suddenly, I saw some lights out in the distance. At first, I thought that it was going to get rain, it was going to start raining because it sounded like thunder to me. But then the coyote explained that those lights and the sound that we heard were not, wasn’t thunder but those were helicopters. And I got really excited because I had never seen any copters ever in my life before. So, I started to look out the horizon, trying to see just helicopters coming. But the coyote pulled me to the ground and hid me on some bushes. Telling me that this wasn’t time for sightseeing. This was time to hide. Now we have been praying for a moment to rest. However, the moment we got to rest was as we were hiding on the brushes, hiding from the helicopter. It wasn’t a pleasant time. We were afraid again that we’re going to get caught. After a few minutes of the helicopters flying on top of us and trying to illuminate us, they flew away. We stay under the bushes for a few minutes. Until the coyote told us that it was safe to keep running.
We started to run, again. I don’t remember how long we ran. I just remember that we ran for a long time. When we made it to a place where there was a car waiting on the bushes to take us to the safe house. We were placed into this car and there were more people in the car and we were all told to hide. The car drove away and for many hours we just hide. Until we were taken to a safe house where they put us into a tiny little room and they told us to be quiet. Now, the coyote at the safe house, called my mother to let her know that we had arrived and immediately decided to ask her for money. Well, my mother didn’t know it was that the coyotes were going to charge my mother an extra $100 for every day that they kept us in the safe house. So, my mother had saved enough money but she didn’t know that she had to pay extra money for safekeeping. So, she didn’t have money to send for our release right away. So, we spent a couple of days maybe weeks in this safe house, just hiding there. Every day that we stayed there, the coyotes told us to be quiet. However, they were not quiet when they called my mother asking for money.
I remember on one occasion, the coyote told my mother that if she didn’t send the money right away, they were going to send us back where we belong. Now, this is really sad because this is the first time that I ever heard somebody telling me that that I should go back or that they’re going to send me back to where I belong. I mean, it’s really sad because the people that first told me something like these, were people, Latin American people maybe descendants, second generation of Latin Americans. My mother was able to save some money and she was able to borrow money from family and friends here in Chicago, and she send for us. The coyote released us. Taking us to the airport, where they had a contact that put us on a plane.
When we came to Chicago, when we arrived to Chicago onto the plane, we were taken out the of the plane, again by some contact that they have. And they help us get out of the airport. We got to the train station, as soon as we could. And we took a train from the train station that took us to our modest apartment. We head to our mother’s apartment, and we knock on her door. And when my mother opened her door, we were finally able to break our silence, as we cheer, and laugh, and cry, hugging our mother.
After that, after the moment we got united with them, with our mother again, she decided that to celebrate she was going to take us to a special place to have breakfast. So, she took us to McDonald’s. And I know a lot of people think that’s funny because McDonald’s is just a fast food restaurant. But for us, McDonald’s was a special place that was reserved for special occasions like somebody’s birthday or somebody’s graduation because we were poor people in a third world country. But maybe because of the fact that we were on a strange land or maybe because of the fact that my mother was speaking another language and people were speaking a different language, it didn’t feel a home, it felt strange.
After our breakfast we went on a sightseeing tour of the city. Our mother took us to see the Sears Tower. It would always be the Sears Tower to me. She took us to the zoo and she took us to the lakefront. At the lakefront, we met with a friend of our mother who had been living here in Chicago for many years, and when he learned that we were here for our first day, he decided to take us to celebrate to a special place. No, he didn’t take us to McDonald’s. He took us to a Latin American restaurant. And he say that he was going to order the most expensive meal on the menu. When we arrivd at the restaurant we were surprised to see that the most expensive meal on the menu were black beans. And we laugh when we actually tasted the beans because to us, they tasted like beans that have been cured with baking soda. After our meal, we say goodbye to my mother’s friends and we continue our sightseeing tour. Our mother decided that it would be a good idea for us to walk all the way from the lakefront to her apartment. It took us several hours to walk back to her apartment. By the time we got there, we were hungry, we were tired. We went into the apartment and our mother told us to sit in the living room, while she prepared dinner. A few minutes later she called us into the dining room. And at the moment, as I sat around the table and our mother started to say grace, I pretended to do the same thing. And I look around the table as everybody was praying and, at that moment, as I found myself surrounded by family about to eat, about to eat. Black beans from my mother kitchen, at that moment, I finally found a home.
Some of the most poignant and beautiful writings are created by students simply sharing their life circumstances with one another. Powerful and moving, this story told by Antonio Sacre is a true personal experience that shows that anything is possible and that all students should dream big. Listen as Antonio relates his time spent with a class of high school seniors, the connection he made with them, and their remarkable achievements.
Thirty teenagers from twenty countries, one Jewish teacher, and one Cuban-Irish-American storyteller (story artist, Antonio Sacre) set out to publish a book of writing in one of the poorest and most challenging high schools in Los Angeles. Will fear and distrust stop the project before it begins, or will they stand together?
Classroom Reflections & Activities:
Big project: have students create a class anthology of their own. What would their story be?
Introduce a poetry assignment to students that talks about who they are – struggles, talents, dreams, etc. Bio-Poems are great examples of this type of work.
Brainstorm with students several questions they think would be important to know about someone. Then, have students interview each other. Interviewing sessions could be videotaped and class biographies could be created.
Listen and move as this spoken word piece takes your mind and body through an insider’s/outsider’s understanding of immigration, identity, and family. The story began when Arianna and her now husband wanted to get married and had to prove, with evidence, that their love for each other was real. Complexity arose as they entered the immigration process better known as: K-1 Non-Immigrant Visa. As they hit barrier after barrier, they quickly learned how unpredictable the U. S. was about immigration,
Immigration Stories by David A. martin and Peter Schuck (Non-fiction)
Mama’s Nightingale: A story of Immigration and Separation, By Edwidge Danticat
Living and Traveling Abroad
My name is Arianna Ross. It was 2006. I was watching the sunset – the sky was a wash of purple and peach. I, I turned to face my boyfriend, Alexandre. He was smiling; there was a twinkle in his eye.
Right behind him was a statue of the Madonna holding baby Jesus, awash with the same colors as the sky. He looked at me, “Você quer você orar comigo? Do you want to pray with me?” We held hands and we took a deep breath in and were silent for a moment.
When I opened my eyes, he was looking at me hesitantly. And then he said to me in a very tentative voice unlike his normal voice, “Você quer ser meu noivo? Do you want to be my fiancé?”
For the next 24 hours, we were in pure wedding bliss. We discussed where we were going to get married. The kind of food we were going to eat, the type of music we were going to have and, of course, the most important part for both of us – the ceremony. We decided that my parents would say prayers in Hebrew and that his parents would say a few prayers in Portuguese. And we would have a master of ceremonies run the entire event.
We were excited until we sat down in front of the computer. We decided that we were going to spend the first half of our life in the United States and the second half of our life in Brazil, which meant that we had to get married in both places. We turned on the computer, we loaded the USCIS website, the Immigration Services website, for the United States.
We looked up the K-1 fiancé visa. There were nine pages of instructions.
Step number 1, fill out the I-129F document in dark ink. Step 2, gather evidence that proves that you are planning on getting married and staying married. That proves, essentially, that you are in love. Evidence that proves that we are in love?
I called Immigration Naturalization Services. I asked them, “What exactly do you mean by evidence? What kind of evidence or what form of evidence? I mean, I recognize that there are people who try to dupe the system. We’re not one of those people so I would appreciate clarification?”
And the man over the telephone calmly explained to me, “Excuse me, you need, essentially, to provide simple evidence, simple evidence that proves that you are in love and you are truly planning on getting married and staying married.”
“Sir, I get that. It states that in the document, in the instructions. But what do you mean by ‘proves that we’re go… in love’ in evidence? What kind of evidence?”
“Anything you deem necessary.”
All right, I went home to the United States and I started to gather evidence. I gathered photographs, receipts, letters from my parents, letters from his parents, letters from all of our friends. I had two hundred and fifty pages of evidence when I turned in our application. I crossed my fingers and I waited.
Six months passed and we received a letter. They were telling us we had made it to the next step. We needed to turn in more documentation and more evidence. I mailed in 150 more pages and we crossed our fingers and we waited. One year and two months later, we received our interview date in Rio. I got on a plane. I met my now fiancé there and we arrived at 7:45 am at the consular office. Our appointment was not until 11:30 but I didn’t want to be late. We sat and we waited patiently. Eleven o’clock rolled around, 11:30 rolled around, 11:45 rolled around, 12:25. All of the couples had gone in and out, in and out. There was only one consular office left in the entire room when he motioned us in. We sat down and the first thing I noticed was that he was behind a Plexiglas bulletproof window and then he smiled. He had his hand… a stack of papers.
“Here are three hundred and fifty of your four hundred pages of documentation. I would like to return them to you because I really don’t want them clogging up my filing cabinets. If you have more evidence with you, which I’m sure you do, please don’t give it to me. I believe that you are going to get married. I believe that you are in love. I would just love to know how the two of you met.”
“Ach! How the two of us mmmet?
I was ready to screech at the man! My hands actually balled into fists! And then, suddenly, I felt my normally nonverbal husband reach down and relax my fingers. He looked at me. He looked at the man and he began to tell our story. The story that we had documented in all those photographs and all those letters. By the time he was finished, I was surprised. He knew all those details.
The consular office reached underneath his desk. He grabbed his stamp and in one fell swoop, he stamped my husband’s passport.
“Welcome to the United States. I can’t give you your passport. I need to mail it to you. Do you have the self-addressed stamped envelope?”
“Yes.” We handed it to him.
He explained to us that it would arrive in five to six days and then he hoped my husband had an excellent journey. One year and six months later, my husband got off the plane. He looked at me and he smiled – a twinkle in his eye. He was wearing my favorite T-shirt. I knew that we were ready to bring joy into our world and to start our pre-wedding bliss.
The differences were easy to see, Catholic/Jewish, Brown/White, Spanish-Speaking/English-Speaking, Mexican/American, rural/urban. When Carrie Sue and her fiancé decided to marry there were many who thought their relationship would not last long – including the representative from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico who was handling their Visa.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: No-Aguantara
What do you judge people on when you first meet them? Have you ever made a judgment about a person only to realize when you get to know them better that you were completely wrong about them? If so, did you discover anything about yourself?
Do you think that we learn things about ourselves when we meet people who are different from us? Why do you think that?
Many people, including the American Visa Clerk objected to Carrie Sue and Facundo’s relationship. Why do you think it mattered to the other people?
Why do you think many were surprised that their families did not disapprove of the relationship?
In Their Own Words: Drama with Young English Language Learners by Dan Kelin – a resource for anyone working with 2nd language learners
The Earth Mass by Joseph Pintauro and Alicia Bay Laurel (Carrie Sue and her husband used a poem from this collection in their wedding ceremony and still try to follow its advice.)
Living and Traveling Abroad
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
My name is Carrie Sue Ayvar and just after I graduated high school, I went from Pittsburgh, PA to Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico. (No aguantará) It’ll never last! That’s what they said! (No aguantará) It’ll never last! They were like wisps of rumors, never said to us directly but rumors that wisped around and spoken always in concerned tones, mostly to our families and friends.
It was 1973. I was only 17 when I met Facundo but there could hardly have been a more romantic setting. It was a warm, sunny day that January morning and it was on a small island just off the west coast of southern Mexico. The air was filled with (breathing in fragrance) mango and coconut oil, salt sea breezes and pheromones.
I watched as a muscular, strong young man, probably about 20 years old, carried several scuba tanks up onto the beach. Oo! The salt water and the sweat made his coppery skin glisten and his long dark hair had streaks of red and gold in it from days in the sun. Oh ho… I had never seen a more beautiful, gorgeous human being in my entire life! Like an Aztec Adonis emerging from the waters! When I could finally catch my breath again, I remember thinking, “The guy’s gotta be a jerk! I mean, no one is that good looking and nice too!”
But (como dice el dicho) as the saying goes, (caras vemos el corazón no sabemos) we see the faces but we do not know the hearts. Now on the surface, Facundo and I had very little in common. He was a Spanish-speaking, Catholic, indigenous, brown-skinned Mexican from a very small fishing village and he lived on a beach while I was a fair-haired, green-eyed, English-speaking, Jewish, white American who lived in a three-story brick building in a very large city.
And our experiences growing up were completely different. I mean, while I watched Tarzan’s adventures on TV, he lived them slicing green hanging vines for cauldrons of water, climbing tall palm trees to gather coconuts, diving off cliffs into beautiful blue tropical waters. I mean, while I went ice skating, he was free diving. From my father, I learned how to make flower arrangements. From his father, he learned how to build dugout canoes.
Para cemos conocemos! But we did get to know each other. And we got to know each other’s stories and each other’s hearts. (E descubrimos) We discovered (las dos querer) that we both loved (el mar) the ocean and the feeling of weightlessness during those underwater dives. (El savor) the taste of salt on our tongues when we came up for air. (El sonido) The sound of the waves drumming against the sands. (E también descubrimos) We also discovered (los dos querer) that we both cherished (familia y mis les) family and friends (mas que) more than everything. (Nos conocíamos) we got to know each other (e nos enamoramos) and we fell in love.
Now it was amazing how many people were there to tell us, “No aguantará, it will never last!” From both sides of the border, there were so many people who disapproved. They would say things like, “Oh, you know he’s only using you to get a green card.” Or (Ay, esos gringos de como de es sabe) You know how those gringos are, man! (rico e consentido) They are rich and spoiled, (ya sabes) you know! Or “Ah, what a shame! She couldn’t find a nice Jewish doctor?”
But all of those things didn’t really phase us! Even when we finally announced our engagement and, to our surprise, we heard rumors of a pregnancy that we knew nothing about! But, as I said, all those doubts and criticisms didn’t really bother us. I mean, we were happy and, to the surprise of many, so were our families. I mean, Facundo had actually met my parents a year before I ever met him; they’re the ones who actually introduced us to each other there on the island. Jesus, his papa and his parents – (madre tomas su propia hija) they treated me like their very own daughter. Dona Christina, his mother, used to say ,”(Tenemos que cuidado de ella) We have to take good care of her. (Sus propios padres están tan lejos) Her own parents are so far away.”
So really, what did it matter to us what other people thought? I didn’t think it mattered at all… but sometimes it does. Since it was hard for my grandparents and other elderly relatives to travel to southern Mexico where we lived, we decided that we would have the wedding in my home town of Pittsburgh, PA.
Now after a 12-hour overnight bus trip, we finally arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Under a smoggy, gray sky, we waited for hours and hours to finally speak to an American visa clerk. And when we finally did, instead of helping us, instead of telling us what kind of visas we were eligible for, this unfriendly, unhelpful, unhappy little bureaucrat of a man lied to us. Lied to us repeatedly and began to make things up. Let me ask you, do you know how hard it is to get a copy of a form that doesn’t actually exist? Oh, yeah, he knew that he controlled the information and the situation.
But much to his dismay, we did not give up and go home like he wanted us to. Ah, ah, every time we went back, he looked more put out, like, like he was sucking on sour lemons or smelled something foul in the air. I mean, he was, quite frankly, openly disapproving of us. He told us that we were too different and finally, he dismissed us with an arrogant look! “Just go back to your own kind! You are young, poor, powerless and you don’t even realize that I’m doing you a favor!”
(Sigh) Well, (pobres) We were poor; we had little money. (E jóvenes) We were young! Powerless? (Las caras vemos corazones no sabe) You see the faces but you do not know the hearts! His attitude only strengthened our determination – pulled us together! Facundo and I, we found our voices and our power! We did not give up; we went back to that embassy again and again until, at last, we found someone who would listen. Though I will admit, it did take months, a career ambassador, a 3-star general and a United States senator to finally resolve our case!
But we did get a visa and we did get married. Now maybe we were naïve, I don’t know. I know as it was pointed out to us again and again, we looked different and we sounded different. We had different religions and we came from very different cultures and experiences. And (nunca sabes) you never know; there are no guarantees in life anyways. But I do know that we just celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary and, yeah, we’re still happy! (Como dice el dicho) As the saying goes, “Look at the faces and see the hearts!”
Can a teenager make an impact in a world full of injustice? Jasmin looks back at the roots of her involvement in social justice issues when she joined the cause to free the young Mexican-American artist, Manuel Salazar, who sat on death row falsely accused of killing a police officer.
What forces in Jasmin’s life caused her to care about the young prisoner on Death Row named Manuel Salazar? Who played an important role in helping her to volunteer in the ways she did? Why did she choose Art and Theater as her vehicle for action?
The play Jasmin and her group created encouraged people to sign a petition to support Manuel’s Freedom. What technical advancements exist today that were not available in the 1990’s that could help in creating civic action and discourse?
This legal case had two clearly different narratives depending on whose perspective was being considered. Can you compare and contrast these different perspectives? How do we decide what’s “true”?
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hello, my name is Jasmin Cardenas.
“He shot a cop!”
“No, he didn’t. It says the gun was in the officer’s hands when it went off. Some forensics test shows that.”
“Then why did he run, Jazz?”
This was my friend Mari and me going back and forth about this young Mexican-American guy. His name was Manuel Salazar and it was 1993. He was on death row and we were sophomores in high school. We were trying to decide if we should tell his story at this young Latino leadership event. Mari wanted to do a merengue dance.
“Come on, Jazz! I think we have enough guys to do a bomb-diggety-sexy merengue!”
“I know, but this guy’s innocent and he’s on death row! We should tell his story. Besides, this would be totally different from anything everybody else is gonna do.”
Our friend and fellow club member, Ali, had met Manuel’s lawyer. She told Ali, that he had international support for his freedom. That there was people from all the world behind him. And that, and that he had been represented by a shady lawyer. This guy who had totally rigged his first trial.
“C’mon, you guys, we should do this. We could, we could tell his story and, and people would be amazed. He was just driving in a car with other Latino and black kids, minding his own business. The cops stopped him for no reason. And then they beat him. And, and now he’s on death row! I mean, we should interview the lawyer. Tell his story.”
“That’s such a downer, Jazz. Why don’t we tell the story of the Taino Indians and we could dance and get costumes! That’s awesome!”
“You guys, this could have been any one of us in the car with our friends.”
Just that summer before, my brother, Favian, and I had been driving down the street and I saw a friend of mine walking down the road. And I laid on the horn to get her attention. When we got through intersection, this car in front of us, a white Caddy, stopped, all crazy about it. And his older white guy, in slacks and a white shirt, came out and was yelling at us, raging mad. He was F this, and F that. You stupid Mexicans, (we’re actually Colombian), Favian started opening the window to explain. And the guy was having none of it. He punched my brother in the nose. Broke his nose. I couldn’t believe it. We, we, we put out a police report. And my parents took him to the Chicago Children’s Hospital and they did nothing. He got away with it.
“This could have been ANY one of US!” I told my girlfriends.
I got them to agree that at least, at least we’d go talk to the lawyer and learn a little more. So, we went to her office.
It was in the Pilsen neighborhood, in Chicago, 18th Street and, uh, Blue Island. There was a big sign, this banner that said, “For the defense of Manuel Salazar,” hanging outside. We got inside and the room was full of people working the phones, doing paperwork. The lawyer, Marlene Kamish, told us all about the case. She told us about how the official police report had stated that the car was suspicious because there were Negroes and Hispanics in the car together. How the, the, the, Manuel had a, a, a gun in his gym bag and, and he was nervous because it was unregistered but he had been target practicing that day. So, he ran from the car with the gym bag. And how the officer chased him. And when he realized he had nowhere to go, he threw the gym bag, with a gun still inside, over the fence so that the cop wouldn’t get the wrong idea. And turned around and surrendered. But then the cops started to beat him. Even as Manuel was saying, “I give, I give!”
And how Manuel had acted in self-defense. The autopsy report shows that there was gunpowder in the officer’s hands, proving that the gun was in his hands when it went off. It was starting to feel like a movie. My friends and I were sitting on the edge of our seats, listening silently. Then, Manuel ran after the gun went off. He ended up at his friend’s house. He was unrecognizable from the beating. They said he looked like Frankenstein. Then the police department, put a “shoot to kill” order out on his life. Manuel was just 18 years old and scared. He ran to Mexico. And in Mexico, he was sleeping one night, when these masked men came and kidnapped him. They dragged him back to Illinois and couldn’t, put him on trial. This violated an extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico. But still, he was put on trial. Meanwhile, he had no idea that his lawyer had been working for the same police department of the officer who had died.
That lawyer failed to represent him and bring in witnesses and even, he didn’t even show that critical evidence of the toxicologist report that showed that the officer had a high blood alcohol level, proving that he was drunk. Manuel was convicted and sentenced to death. And while on death row, he found out that that shady lawyer had been disbarred. No longer allowed to practice. Marlene said that the British parliament, Amnesty International, even the Pope, was behind the support to free Manuel Salazar.
She showed us paintings. He had started painting while in prison. He had been doing all of this self-taught. And he painted this beautiful piece called, “My Brother’s Keeper.” My friends and I all were teary eyed. We were convinced we would tell his story.
We decided to use the facts of his case and we created a play. That and his paintings and his poetry. And we used our bodies as, as characters like the police officers and, and, and the narrator, and, like, the prison bars. And we created a dream sequence where we would show how he ended up on death row. The final line in the play, the last line, was from his poetry his paintings. “Let us stop blinding ourselves to the suffering from others and take the time to care. For I ask you, to ask yourself; Acabo no soy yo el guardian de mi hermano?..Am I or am I not the keeper of my brother?”
The Latino youth leadership organization loved it. We got a standing ovation. Better yet, Marlene Kamish, the lawyer, loved it. She organized new performances for us and we went everywhere with his paintings. We toured public events, private events, Latino events, youth events. We even marched in the Mexican Independence Day Parade with Manuel’s mom.
I got more involved. I started volunteering for his case, making phone calls, stuffing fliers. I became pen pals with Manuel. And over the course of a year and a half, we toured his, his production, “Reflections: the story of Manuel Salazar,” everywhere his paintings went. And I even got to know him. I visited him in the Pontiac Correctional Center with Marlene. But as things go, senior year hit, and with school, homework, after school clubs, practice for basketball and soccer, and then college applications, I just kind of lost track with Marleen and with Manuel’s case.
But then, my junior year in college, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a high school predominantly Mexican-American, on the southwest side of the city, in Pilsen, contacted my university. They were looking to add an afterschool drama program. And my professor said that I should take it on as a project. The kids were fantastic. We had so much fun together and when we were nearing the end of the afterschool program, they wanted to perform. So, I suggested “Reflections” and they loved what it was about. It got me thinking, what had happened to Manuel?
My mom helped me locate Marlene, the lawyer. She was so surprised to hear from me. She said that Manuel had gotten his second trial and he had won and he was, in fact, free. She gave me his phone number. I called him right away. His voice was so soft spoken. He was so calm. He was so happy to hear from me. He told me that he was still living with his mom in Joliet but that the police department was harassing him and his family. They were angry that he’d been released. They, uh, they were harassing so much, that he was thinking of moving out of state. He also told me that his paintings were, were being looked at by people from the Art Institute. I told him about the play. I invited him to come see the show he had never gotten to see. He didn’t hesitate. My insides were exploding!
The day of the performance, I sat in the audience – super anxious, feeling like a teenager again. But afterwards, Manuel’s eyes were so warm and inviting. He was telling me about how much it meant to him, all that we had done. I couldn’t believe it. He was sitting there in the seats of my university with a buttoned-up collar shirt and a big sweater, hiding his muscular body from working out in prison all those years. And yet, his presence was so quiet. “Gracias, Jasmin. I can’t believe you did all this. This is something else. Something else.”
I might not be the British Parliament and I might not be the Pope but I know that what we did mattered. And to Manuel, while he was standing behind prison bars, what we all did to support him made all the difference. So, yeah, I am my brother’s keeper.
Jasmin struggles with the decision of where to live: a culturally vibrant Mexican-American community that struggles with safety or a picturesque middle class neighborhood where her son might be the only brown boy on the block. How does this educated Latina seek out community? And how, as we grow older, do we stay true to our values of making a difference in the world?
Hi, my name is Jasmin Cardenas. And this life struggle is part of a larger story.
I am Latina, first generation Columbiana-Americana, and my husband is a first-generation Mexicano-Americano. He was born and raised in La Villita, a vibrant Mexican community on the southwest side of Chicago. He’d still live there if it wasn’t for me. His family is there and all his friends are there. I, on the other hand, was born on the north side of the city in a very mixed community of Asians, Latinos, whites. And I wasn’t allowed to go to La Villita. When we were younger and we drive into La Villita to visit a mon… one of my mom’s friends, she would reach over to us, over our bodies, to manually lock the car doors of our station wagon, when we drove into that community. So, when Jesus insisted that we live there for our first year of marriage, I was very resistant. We lived there for six years and for most of that time, I didn’t want to live there. I wanted to move. But then, the charm of the community started to grow on me. And then I started to relax into it. But then I got pregnant. And so, we moved two months before Mateo was born.
But still, as an artist, an educator, and an activist, I still do meaningful work there in La Villita. So, the discussion has come up several times. Should we move back? I don’t know. I’m not sure what to do. So, I make two columns. Plus: We move back. Minus: No way, we stay put.
Minus: My familia doesn’t want me to move there. “Eso esta muy peligroso por alla!” My mom and dad thinks it’s too dangerous.
Plus: Years ago, I used to work with these teen girls and they’d say to me, “Hmm, must be nice to drive in your SUV and then go home while we got to deal with your ideas of peaceful conflict resolution on the streets. What a joke!” They were right. It was totally unfair to the girls. Commitment means being in it for the long haul.
Another plus: My neighbors. My first summer there, I met David. Baggy pants, big white T-shirt, gold chain, beer can in one hand. “You plantin’ plants?”
I was on all fours, weeding my front garden. “Yeah. Do you go to school?”
“Nah. Not since I got shot. School’s stupid.” Major minus, right? But then, Snowmagedon happened. And what happened, I was out there shoveling, and David showed up with his gangbanger, tattooed brother, or no, cousin. They pulled out shovels and shoveled right alongside me. I had assumed the worst, but when I got to know my neighbors, who they really were, I realized, they were amazing. They were a great reason to stay in the neighborhood.
But minus: Pow, pow, pow. Gunshots. A car speeds by, shouts, silence, the air conditioners buzzing. “Jesus, did you hear that?”
“What?” my husband yells from the living room.
“The gunshots. Did you hear that?”
“No, Babe. Those are just fireworks.”
“No, I know what I heard.” I can’t go back to that.
But then another minus: I’m on all hands and knees, all fours, and this big, hairy rat darts across my fingers. Rats the size of cats! And they’re everywhere. You can’t go outside and hang out in a relaxed summer night without seeing them. I knew that city services weren’t the same but was this is an example, they just don’t bait the same in La Villita as other parts of the city? I don’t know. I wanna fight for equality in city services but I could, could I move back to living with rats? Funny thing is, I left the rats on the south side but on the north side we have snakes. Another plus: My neighbor, my neighbor kids, they couldn’t believe that I was 28 years old and still didn’t have kids. It hits me. I can be an example that you don’t have to be 18 with kids. I mean, when I was growing up, didn’t I have examples of, of people that helped me make it? When I was in high school, I had a 4.0 GPA. But when I went to my African-American counselor to tell her that I wanted to apply to colleges, she suggested that I apply to one city college.
“Set realistic expectations,” she told me.
This Latina, from a youth leadership organization, she told me to apply to as many colleges as I could. And she even gave me vouchers to, to, so that I didn’t have to deal with the application fees. My neighbor kids, they’re just like me. I should live there. I should stand up for them.
But the minus: I have this friend who lives a block over from our old house in La Villita. Her brother was sitting on the front porch. He’s, he was college bound, college, a college student and now he was in rehab. He got shot while sitting on his front porch. It scares me to think that I could be walking down the block with Mateo in a stroller and bullets might fly. I mean, that’s not safe for him but it’s also not safe for my neighbor kids. But what’s safe?
Growing up in a nice, safe, middle-class neighborhood, my friend Socarri got shot. He was college bound and he lit up the hallways of Lane Tech with his smile. And now he’s gone, mistaken for a gangbanger. So, what’s safe? Is there just safer? What if Old Irving Park, where I live now, is safer but it’s not safe enough?
But Plus: I want Mateo to speak Spanish. I want him to be surrounded by our culturo, Español, in the smells and sounds of Latino life. La Villita, you can buy tamales on the street for a buck. Kids grow up with their cousins, surrounded by familia. I want him to be just one of the brown kids on the block. Not the only brown kid on the block.
Minus: No, no. Plus: I don’t know. You decide. One of my neighbors in La Villita, a friend of ours, Rob. He almost had his house firebombed. These gangbangers threw a firebomb on his front porch and instinctively, he went outside to confront them. He told them that this was his house and his block and he wasn’t going anywhere and they couldn’t scare him. And him and his wife, they didn’t run away. Instead they started a mentorship sports program that reclaimed city parks and gave it, and returned it back to the neighborhood. I should do that. I should be like him.
The thing is, I tried. One summer, while I was living in La Villita. I ran a summer theatre arts camp. But the minus is that nobody showed up. Well, not nobody. None of the kids that I ran the camp for, my neighbor kids, not a single family showed up. But the plus is that all the kids who did show up loved it and they loved learning about being green and performing. With the minuses is that I ran the camp two blocks over from my house. And I didn’t know that when you pass Central Park, you pass gang territory. But the plus is that now I lived there, so I know that. If I hadn’t lived there, I wouldn’t have that. And now I could plan around that. So, I don’t know.
I tried dividing my decision into two columns. But it’s, it’s, it’s mind boggling. And my mind, it’s spinning. Both neighborhoods have pluses and minuses and maybe I should move back to the old neighborhood. We have great friends, doing hard work towards change. But I’ve gotten to know some of my new neighbors and they’re really nice. And it’s so peaceful here. But…I should be a person that works towards the betterment of our community. How do I make choices so that I’m doing what is best for my family and keeping us safe but also living up to my expectations for life, my values? How do I change the world without being a sellout? Ultimately, I’m left with questions. Bigger and better questions.
The small Southern town where Carmen’s parents live is a-buzz with political acrimony. Carmen’s mother, Esther, a spunky octogenarian–– and Cuban refugee–– regards her right to vote a hard-won, American privilege. As she finishes casting her vote, she is more than happy to remind her husband, Carlos, of “their views” on local elections. Carlos’ reaction to his wife’s enthusiasm is a hysterical and poignant civics lesson for all who are lucky enough to be casting their vote at Rocky Springs Elementary School that day.
Hi, my name’s Carmen Agra Deedy. And this story is called “A Voting Booth Built for Two.”
The morning did not get off to a promising start. The phone rang and I answered it. Sleepy, almost knocking it off the dresser, “Hello.” “Carmita, it’s your mother.” Oh my goodness! Nobody calls me before seven o’clock in the morning! Not if they have a well-refined sense of survival …anyone except Esther, my mother.
“Mami, what’s going on? Is everything ok?”
“Everything is ok. I just want to remind you that today is voting day!” Today is voting day. How could I not know? She put it on my calendar, she called me the evening before, she sent smoke signals up like at dusk. The only thing I didn’t have were carrier pigeons!
“Mami, I know. Nine o’clock.”
“No, listen! 9 o’clock is no good for me.” And before I could say another word, my husband, (sigh) who lay beside me chuckling, plucked the phone from my hand and saved me from something I or my mother might regret. By saying, “Mami,” (oh, you should’ve heard him cooing into the phone), “No…everything…she’ll be there… no, everything’s fine…I’m making her coffee right now.” I elbowed him. “No, no…Oh…Of course…I will tell her. Love you too, Mami.” He hung up and grinned. “She said 9 o’clock no work for her. She’s going to be ready in 20 minutes. You better get moving.”
I sat bolt upright, “Twenty minutes! I haven’t even showered!”
“Come on, Sleeping Beauty, get up and save us both a heap of misery. I’ll make the coffee. Nineteen minutes.” (She snarls.)
By the time I picked up my mother, I was in a lather. They were on the front porch looking freshly washed. There’s something about that generation that just always looks so dapper. My father was wearing his best shirt, starched. I gave him a kiss on the cheek and he smelled like Ammen’s, it’s a deodorant powder, and the cologne of my childhood – Old Spice. Ah, still makes me shudder. My mother, of course, looks at me and says, “You are late. You don’t got no kiss for your mama?”
“I don’t kiss people who wake me up before seven o’clock in the morning!” And then I leaned over and gave her a buss on the cheek. I can’t help it. I’m like a sucker for old ladies in polyester. Well, I walked them to the car. We made it over to their voting station, which was a local elementary school. (Sigh) And she was right. She was saying all along the drive that the line would be around the block. And, dad gummit, wasn’t she right! It was snaking along the side of the building and disappeared.
“What I say to you?”
It is not easy being the daughter of Cassandra, a Cuban Cassandra. In case you don’t remember, children, that would be the Greek goddess of myth who told the truth and no one believed her. Boy, I believed her now.
“Ay, mami, por favor. We’re gonna be here all day.”
“It does not matter. Today is voting day.”
Let me tell you something. You don’t know someone until you know their backstory. You know when you read a book, and you’re reading about a character and reading about a character and they don’t make any sense and then suddenly you get to chapter 17 and you learn the rest of the story? Well, Esther and Carlos, they were in Cuba from the time they were born, of course.
1931, 1924. They lived through Fulgencio Batista. President Batista, when faced with the re-election that he knew he was going to lose, pulled a coup. Cancelled elections indefinitely. The Cuban Revolution was not about literacy. In fact, by the 50’s, Cuba had the sixth largest literacy rate in Central and South America. It wasn’t about socialized medicine. Batista figured out that one of the things he could pacify, do anyway, to pacify people was to pass socialized medicine. It was brilliant. It worked beautifully but still no elections. And then Fidel came. Fidel Castro. A young revolutionary and he promised democracy. He promised an end to brutality and he promised elections. The country swept him into Havana on their shoulders. And the streets were strewn with flowers, many tossed by my own mother and about 90% of Cubans. Four years of brutality and no elections later, my parents decided maybe it was time to try another place. They were heart-broken when they left their country behind. But when my mother arrived here, the first thing she wanted to know was how she could vote. Well, she wasn’t a citizen. When she became a citizen, the first thing she did was vote!
This may seem very sweet. It isn’t! She drives us nuts! Any, any election, it doesn’t matter how inconsequential, the woman is there. I mean, we’re talking, we’re going through K-Mart and they want you to figure out, they want to vote on something that has nothing to do with any of us. This particular election, this day, this wasn’t a national election. She didn’t wake me up at 6:45 to vote in the president. It was some lousy, dodgy water project and a new superintendent. (Ok, maybe that was important.) She even, I’m telling you, she even worked over our postmaster.
We had a young postmaster at the time, who innocently told her that he didn’t really vote, that he hadn’t voted in years. And he became her mission. She, I’m tell’n ya, she would make trips to the post office with nothing to post.
“Oye, Frankie come here. No, we are not finished. Look you an official, ay, you work for the government and you no going to vote, honey? What’s the matter with you? Don’t… well, you see the post office, you see how few peoples are here? Nobody write letters no more. When they shut this place down, you got nothing to complain about, ok.”
He would look at me and I’m like, “You’re on your own, pal!”
Imagine the day when we walked in and old Frankie was waving, I mean from the door we saw him, waving his absentee ballot. Because one of the reasons he didn’t vote was because he usually couldn’t get away.
I tell you that so you understand what she is like but why it mattered. And as we stood in that line, that snaking line, my father with his cane because he wouldn’t bring his walker. I had given him a walker. He turned it into a tomato trellis. That’s another story; we don’t have the time. A young poll worker saw us, and among all the septuagenarians and octogenarians, my mother and father were clearly the oldest and the most frail. And she offered to walk us ahead of the line. And this group of people (almost all of them old, by the way) ‘cause I wondered, who comes to these dinky elections that nobody ever hears about. Ah…Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. That’s who goes… because they know what it means. And as they inched along, most of them waved or smiled as we went to the front of the line.
We got to the room, the voting room, and there were new machines. That’s all we needed! Throw something new at Esther. She adapts at glacial speed. “What is this? Where are the little paper things?”
I said, “Ma, give me five seconds; they’re gonna teach me how to use them. You and Dad just sit, just, just for a minute. I found two chairs. You know those plastic chairs, those ergonomically made chairs made for maximum… discomfort, I think would be the word. And then they explained how to use the machines. It was really fairly simple. It was a sliding mechanism so I left my father, figuring that my mother would be the diciest, and walked her to the little, you know, sorta, little booth with the curtains, took her inside. And she’s a quick study; in five seconds, she was confident and she shooed me out. I sat next to my pop who seemed to be enjoying the blessed silence. And then… the silence was broken. And we’re not the only ones in this room, mind you; people are voting all around us.
When we hear, “Carlos, Carmita, come here; it’s your turn!” The woman could punch a hole in an eardrum at 20 paces.
My father looked at me, “Do something!”
I jumped up (whispering), “Mami, por favor. Please, shhhh. Other people are voting.”
“What and you cannot talk?”
“Please, I’m begging you.” I hooked her by the arm and nearly took her…made her airborne as I propelled her across the room. Sat her gently down next to my father and said, “Please just stay here for like two minutes. Let me explain it to Pop, I’ll come back and sit with you.
I walked my dad across the room. I opened the curtains, I took him through the same tutorial. He looked at me and he, again, is quick as can be. He’s got a mind like a Cuban machete, it can cut through anything. He said, “I have it.” I stepped outside but to my, well, confusion, someone passed me. As I was going out, someone was pushing their way into the voting booth to join my father. I whipped around to see my mother’s face for a split second before (swish) she closed the curtains. Now other people had noticed too and were turning to look.
And the next thing we heard was, “Ok, Carlos, listen! This water project, here, we don’t like that, ok? And this superintendent we no voting for him. Better say, no. He’s a Philistine. Remember what he…”
On the word Philistine, the most remarkable and beautiful thing happened. The curtain went “swish!” My father, a little Cuban man, was bringing my mother, a little Cuban woman, who was resisting every step, out of the voting booth. He leaned over, everyone (I mean you couldn’t hear anyone breathe) watched riveted as if they were passing an incredible car accident that you want to look away from but you just can’t tear yourself from. And he said, “Estercita, I love you but I did not leave communist Cuba to come to the United States of America to have you follow me into a voting booth and tell me how to vote!” And the room broke into thunderous applause.
In 1964, Carmen’s father, a Cuban refugee, went to work at a steel manufacturing plant near Atlanta, Georgia. When, on the first day of work, he asked to take a bathroom break, he was faced with two choices: before him was a “white” bathroom . . . and a “colored” bathroom. Carmen’s father’s solution would foreshadow how this inventive man would ultimately teach his Cuban-American daughters that, in matters of conscience, we need not accept the only choices placed before us.
In 1964 ‘white only’ and ‘colored only’ signs designated Southern public restrooms, water fountains, etc., and these divisions were legal. When Papi confronts the signs, he doesn’t protest their legality, but chooses a creative response. When he says, “I did what any decent man would do,” what does he mean?
How do you think the factory workers viewed their new colleague before the incident and after the incident? Do you think he continued to ‘whiz’ outside?
How does the use of humor in this story help us look at a difficult social issue?
Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Carmen Agra Deedy. The story I’m going to tell you is called, “My Father the Whiz.”
I grew up hearing stories everywhere I went. It was inevitable, really. I grew up a Cuban refugee in a small southern town. My family came to this country when I was three years old and the little town that embraced us was called, and is called, Decatur, Georgia. Now, back then you couldn’t go three steps without stumbling into a story. You see, turned out, Cubans and Southerners were not all that different. They worship their ancestors, they gathered around food and they were unrepentant, chronic talkers. And so, the stories that I learned told me more about the people than anything I was ever taught. One of my favorite stories ever is about my own father. Now by the time I was 16 or 17 years old, I thought I‘d heard every story my father had to tell. Oh, the hubris of the young. But one afternoon my mother called me to the kitchen and said, “Carmita, take this cafecito to the men outside. They’re playing Dominoes; they’re gonna be out there for the next five hundred years. And then come back inside ‘cause you gotta help me with the dishes.” Which insured I was staying out with the men. Well, I walked out, (screech), opened the screen door, and saw all these Cuban men in their crisp guayaberas, tightly gathered in a circle around an old folding table littered with domino tiles. They were not under a banyan tree or a mango tree but a Southern Magnolia. Life is just weird when you’re a refugee.
I started to walk towards them through the miasma of cigar smoke, when I heard my father begin a story. Like I said, I thought I knew every story my papá had ever told. But you see, stories are funny. Stories are like, well, sometimes, they are like a fine wine. You don’t uncork them until the person who’s going to drink, is going to be able to really savor it and know how good it is. My dad must have decided I was ready. But first he called out, “Do I smell coffee or would it be that I am so light-headed from thirst that I am hallucinating?” Now, the Irish may have saved civilization but I assure you the Cuban gave you irony and sarcasm. I plunge towards the men and then they all said, Niña, cómo estás?” And I kissed everyone, it is the way of my people. And as the coffee was passed around, my father continued his story, as though I was not there. I wasn’t going anywhere.
I leaned into the tree, and he said, “And so you know, we had only been here for a few weeks,” less than a month, it turned out before my father finally found work. His English was cursory. He had been an accountant in Cuba. Now he came here with little understanding of the language. He was so grateful to have found work. Well, the first job he found was at a steel manufacturing plant. He was so eager the first day of work that he showed up an hour early and so nervous he drank nearly an entire carafe of coffee before he walked in. Now he was coupled with a man who was supposed to teach him welding—basic welding. (Google, figure it out. It’s a verb.) As he was learning to weld, Big D, a big African-American man, and my father found a way of communicating. Using hand signals and a few words my father knew in English. My father knew, like I said, not only little English, he knew almost no Southern black English. Big D didn’t speak Spanish. And yet, they soldiered on…or soldered on. In any event, within a small space of time, an hour or two, my father said he was starting to get the hang of things, And then, BAM! Like a hammer on an anvil, his bladder just felt like it was gonna burst—all that Cuban coffee he had! Well, he tried to ask Big D…well…This is how he said it went. “Ah, por favor, uh, please, Mr. Big D….ay….ti, ti ti…Cómo se dice? Dónde está baño?”
“What’s that you say, Mr. Carlos?”
“Ay, ay, ay…El baño?…Ah…,” my father unscrewed his thermos, and then he tipped it upside down to show it was empty now. Big D seemed relieved, “Hold on, Mr. Carlos.” And then disappeared around the corner. When he came back, he brought his own large, green thermos, which he unscrewed, and he began to pour my father another cup. “No, no, no!” My father looked like he had just been offered a live rattlesnake. And Big D, thinking that it was he that had offended him, ‘Well, if you don’t want to drink from my cup…” “No, Señor, no, no, no!” My father also increasingly frustrated being thus misunderstood, said, “No, eh, Señor, por favor,…Cómo se dice?” And then he realized, he knew just what to do. He unzipped, an imaginary zipper, fly, and then he made the international symbol, um…for emptying the male bladder. And Big D started to laugh out loud. And then he stopped. And he cocked his head, sort of like the RCA Victor dog and mumbled something to himself. Which my father said to this day that he’s not sure of the words. But it sounded something like, “not my problem, not my problem.” And finally said to my father, pulling him by the shirt, pointing, “Right there.” And he pointed down a long row of men, machinists at work at their stations. At the very end of the corridor, there was what looked like a hallway or corridor. My father thanked Big D and he gunned it. He started, at a clip, down that line of men and as he passed them,..now remember this is the first Latin man in this all black and white factory, the year was 1964, the men started shutting down their machines. And it got quieter and quieter except for the footsteps of the men behind him. Now, my poor father had only been in this country for a short amount of time. He was learning the customs. He wasn’t sure. This thing was uniformly odd. Where he came from men took care of this sort of business by themselves without spectators. When he reached the hallway, however, the crowd began to swell. And it looked like they were everything from laborers to two supervisors, black men, white men. And then he found himself confronted with a conundrum. A puzzlement. At the end of the hallway were two doors. Some of you know where this story is going. One said white and one said colored. And though his own tragic and troubled country had had many problems, this was not one that my father was familiar with, not in this way and he didn’t know what to do. And at this point he heard in the back, someone begin to laugh. And a man called out, “Hey, Mr. New Man, you pick whichever one you want but when you pick one, you stick with it.” My father looked at the men, looked at the doors. And he caught sight of Big D’s face in the very back watching him curiously, studying him. Now this the point in the story where I interrupted. Remember the tree…me leaning against it. I couldn’t stay there anymore. “Papi, what did you do?! I mean, did you quit, did you…”
“Carmen, just a moment, when you have to go you have to go. But, you know, I had come from a country where I had learned sometimes you have to follow your conscience. You cannot go left, you cannot go right. You have to find your own way.”
“Pop what does that mean…”
“Uno momento!” Now the men had leaned forward too.
“Carlos, what you did you do?”
“Can I please finish my story?” And he said, “I did the only thing a decent man with a full bladder could do. I push my way through that crowd of men, I go outside and I whiz in the woods!”… Si!
Susan takes her young adult sons to Guatemala to be inspired by the Catholic clergy, religious and lay people working for justice there. Her own idealism is challenged as she hears stories of the atrocities people are suffering because of Guatemala’s civil war. A moment of grace and wisdom from the Mother Superior restores her sense of hope and dedication.
What role do private agencies, such as churches, play in advancing the cause of social justice? How much of their work is about poverty, how much about justice, how much about evangelism or are these ideas/situations completely enmeshed?
When the nun says the children’s “future is very bright” and “We are doing something about the causes,” to what is she referring and do you agree?
What cultural differences made this Guatemalan journey seem initially “hopeless” to this American storyteller? How did her perceptions change?
Hi! My name is Sue O’Halloran and this is an excerpt from a longer story called “Moments of Grace.” In 1993 I took my two sons Terry and Preston to Central America, to Guatemala. They were young adults at the time and we were going to visit the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA). It was a group to which I had donated for many years. Now when we arrived in Guatemala, they had already been involved in a civil war for 33 years. It was a war between the government (partially imposed by U.S. intervention) and so-called rebels who were fighting to get their democratic government back. So this is an excerpt from that longer story.
Day 3 – The first sighting of the village we were going to visit was a steel windmill all shot up. It looked like somebody had used it for target practice. Oh, the villagers, they were so great to us! They sang songs; they fed us tamales! They sent us home with huge baskets of colorful vegetables even though they had very little to eat themselves.
And on the way home, I asked Bob, the director of CFCA about that shot-up windmill. And he told me that the Christmas before, the government had come in looking for a Communist rebel, they said, shooting, and just to make sure they got the right man! And (at) that village we had just visited and a nearby village, 22 of the fathers had been killed!
Day 4 – Instead of a field trip, we went down the hill to work on the addition to the orphanage. We were joined by men from neighboring mountain villages, some who had walked 7 hours through the night to get there! The men had come to work on that orphanage, their one day off, knowing full well that one day their own children might live there.
Day 5 – We went to visit the teacher training center that CFCA helps to fund. And when you walk into the classrooms, there’s these photographs over the doorways and I thought, oh, graduating teachers, probably. And it turns out, it was true but these were pictures of graduating teachers who had already been killed. Teaching Mayan Indians to be self-sufficient whether that was to read or repair cars was just too threatening to some people in Guatemala who wanted to keep things exactly the way they were.
Day 6 – New Year’s Eve Day, December 31. Every morning when I came out of my dorm room, Leslie would be in the courtyard to greet me. Leslie was the 9 year old daughter of our van driver Martin. And that morning she ran into my arms and I hugged her and I asked that stupid, adult question! “Leslie, what do you want to be when you grow up?” thinking she would say something like an artist because she really loved to draw. But she looked up at me and with this great certainty in her voice, she said, “I want to be a teacher.”
I thought about all of those photographs I’d seen the day before! The picture of those martyred teachers and I burst into tears. I had no idea how really upset I was ‘til that moment. And I hugged her tight and I said, “No cuidado, Leslie! No sea un maestro!” Leslie, be careful! Don’t be a teacher! They kill teachers here!
How do you change things! I mean, we had been in Guatemala less than a week and I already… I was starting to lose it! I knew it! I needed some guidance, some wisdom. I went to find my new friend, the Mother Superior, the elderly woman who was the head of the sisters at the convent. And I went down the hill and, sure enough, she was in the convent kitchen cooking up a big fry pan of rice and beans for the men who had come to work on the orphanage that day. And I sat down in her kitchen and I told her all that was heavy on my heart and I just pleaded with her, “Help me understand, sister!”
And she said, “Oh, Soo-see (that’s what she called me, Soo-see), the future’s very bright for these children. The ceasefires last longer; they spend more time in school. They come to us having been beaten or half-starved or seeing their parents killed right before their eyes and they can hardly talk. And then a year or two years later, they’re singing in the choir. They’re standing in, up in front of the whole liturgy and they are reading, Soo-see! Reading!”
And I said to her, “I know, sister, I work as a teacher. I’ve seen incredible changes in my own individual students but, I mean, how do you get the causes, all the reasons things are going on here! The way the government is set up, the gap between the rich and the poor, the powerful, the powerless! I mean, what do you do about that, sister?” I said. “I came here bringing my boys. I wanted to have them be inspired by people who were working for justice but now I realize that I wanted something for myself. I’m running out of hope!”
“Oh, Soo-see,” she said, “you do not give up hope! We are doing wonderful things for these people!”
I said, “But the causes, sister!”
She said, “We are doing something about the causes!”
And I said, “What!” And as soon as I heard my voice, I felt so rude. I mean, here’s this sister, the nuns who have dedicated their whole lives to these people and I was questioning them?
But she didn’t miss a beat! She just kept stirring those beans and she said, “You know, people get mistreated long enough, they start believing that they deserve what they have. But we teach the people all they can accomplish. We teach them how to learn and the whole world opens up. We are preparing people for a democracy.”
“Then what should be do about our country, sister, I mean, since our government puts so many of these people in power. I mean, is the only option that bumper sticker “America, love it or leave it!”
She said, “Oh, Soo-see, no! You stay put and you love your country. And you make your government behave!” And then she put her spatula down, she came over to me and she rested her hands on my shoulders. She looked up at me and said, “Soo-see, we just keep doing what we’re doing! We get up early, we go to bed late! The rest is in God’s hands!”
Well, that night was the New Year’s Eve party at the church rectory. And I stood in that room and looked at all the people and children. I mean, my sons were there and Bob was there and Martin was there and Leslie was there! People from the parish, the children from the orphanage! And I stood in the middle of that room and I just felt so happy! So lucky to be there! And I don’t know, is it grace or dumb luck when the heaviness lifts from your heart and you don’t even know why? Grace or whatever the reason, I don’t know! I just stood in the middle of that room and I felt open to anything. And then the nuns put on some music and Mother Superior called to me, “Soo-see, fox, fox!” She wanted to dance the foxtrot! I gotta tell ya, up in those mountains, sometimes we had electrical surges, sometimes we didn’t so sometimes we have music and sometimes we would just slow, to this gaaarbled drone. But I took sister into my arms and we were dancing cheek to cheek and then she squeezed my hand. She said, “Ah, Soo-see, there is so much love in this house! And that, I realized, is what I wanted! For my sons, for me, for all of us to feel all the love in the house.
To love our government enough to criticize it right down to its roots and yet to still enjoy all that our country and this life has to offer. So for that night, I had no grand plan on how to change things. That night we danced – the merengue, the cumbia, the salsa and the hokey-pokey! ‘Cause sometimes those moments of grace, they’re what it’s all about!
Why did Antonio and his wife begin to doubt their choice of raising their son to be bilingual?
What is the advantage of speaking more than one language?
Two-way Immersion (TWI) classes or bilingual immersion classrooms are springing up in many urban/suburban communities where people new to America settle. What used to be a rare challenge for the public schools has become mandatory. Also, many English-only speakers want these programs because parents understand that their children’s world is much more global than the world in which they grew up. Would you put your child into classes that teach core subjects in a language other than English?
Hi, my name is Antonio Sacre. Have you ever felt in your head that what you were doing was right but in your heart, you weren’t so sure? When my son was born, my wife and I decided we were going to speak to him in English and Spanish. So, my wife would sing and talk to him in English, and I would sing and talk to my son in Spanish.
And as the months went by and he began to crawl, we began to think, “What will his first word be? Will it be in English? Mommy. Or Spanish? Papa. Cat or Gato?”
And when he was about 9 or 10 months he said his first word. “Ba.” I said to my wife, “What did he say?” She said, “I think he said, ‘Ba.’” Ok, it wasn’t English or Spanish but it was a clearly enunciated syllable.
And we knew from our parenting books that real speech was not too far behind. And it was cute. The first few things that he said was “Ba” for everything. Cat-“Ba,” dog-“Ba,” Mommy-“Ba,” Daddy-“Ba,” fire truck-“ Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba.” And we would laugh. Now after a while, it was still just “ba” and I was beginning to get a little worried, although I didn’t say anything about that to my wife.
Then our neighbor, Catherine, came over. She’s a high school teacher in the Los Angeles school district and she has a couple kids. She lives just, lives a couple homes up; we love her. And she asked, innocently enough, “So is your son speaking any words yet?”
I said, “Yeah, yeah. Watch this. What do baseball players play with, Honey?”
“That’s right. A bat. And what you take before you go to sleep? A…”
“That’s right a bath. And what’s on the other side of your chest?”
“What’s the opposite of good?”
“What’s Ebenezer Scrooge’s favorite word?”
“What’s the chemical symbol for Barium?”
“What difficult exam do lawyers need to pass?”
“See Catherine, my son is a genius!” and we had a huge laugh about it. And Catherine left and that night, though, I sat my wife done after we put our son to sleep. And I said, “Ya know? Maybe we’re not doing the right thing. Maybe he’s confused? Maybe we should just speak to him in English and then he’ll learn Spanish as he got older?”
My wife said, “No, absolutely not! We are going to raise him bilingually.” I love that about her. Things that, in my heart, I wasn’t sure that we doing the right thing for our son. And I decided that we would continue to speak to him bilingually at least until we saw our pediatrician in a couple of months.
Now the reason that this was part of our discussion about raising our son is that my father is from Cuba. And when he came here, he didn’t have any English and it was so hard for him. And all my life growing up I heard about how great it would have been if he had been bilingual. He did learn English eventually, and he met my mom who is Irish American. So, I’m Cuban Irish American. Or like a friend of mine calls me a leprechauno.
I grew up speaking both Spanish and English because my grandmother lived with us. She came from Cuba, as well, and only spoke Spanish. So in my life, I was bilingual. When I got to be about 6 or 7, I stopped speaking Spanish because kids at school made fun of me. And when I got older, that precious gift of speaking those two languages, was gone. Now luckily for me, my grandmother made sure that I continued to speak Spanish. And as a high school student, I learned Spanish from her. And so all of this was part of my background. We wanted to raise our son in these two languages. I knew how important it was but I still was worried about his ability to communicate.
So then we went to see the pediatrician. Dr. George is so sweet and he looked at our son and checked him out. Everything was fine. And then I said to him that I was a little worried about his language. And he said, “No, no, no!” He was adamant that we raise son our son in two languages. He said that kids that have two languages, of course, get to communicate with more people. But, also, there is a lot of research that supports that when they are raised bilingually, their brains are actually stronger in many other functions; not just language.
I had doctor’s orders. Raise my son in two languages. That made me feel a little better. And a few weeks after that visit, my son actually spoke his first word. He said, clear as day, “ball.” Oh, we were so excited! And it was a few… couple days after that, he began to speak more words and then it came in like a flood. Words in both English and in Spanish. It was fantastic! And whenever he said a word in English, I made sure that he knew the Spanish equivalent. So when he said “ball,’ I said “pelota.” And when he said, “Thanks,” I said, “Gracias.” And when he said, “Fire truck!” I said, “Camión de bomberos.” And when he said, “Blueberry,” I said, “Variedad de arándano que es azul.” Why does Spanish need thirteen syllables to say blueberry? I called my dad, “How do you say blueberry?” He said, “Mi hijo,” which means my son, “we didn’t have blueberries in Cuba.” So I looked it up in the dictionary and it says variedad de arándano que es azul, a variety of cranberry that is blue. Ah! It’s driving me crazy!
But there are some words in Spanish that are so beautiful in Spanish they don’t translate into English. And the way my father says to his grandson, “Mi tesoro, mi vida, mi alma, mi corazón,” my love, my heart, my treasure, my soul. It really means, Sweetie or Honey but it doesn’t really translate. And the specificity of English is amazing. We have blueberries and boysenberries and blackberries and raspberries and strawberries. And in Spanish they are just arándanos (berries). So I want my son to have those two languages.
It was pretty exciting! And as we are going along, my son and I would make up our own vernacular. So I have a little watch alarm and it went off one day and my son says, “Oye, Papa, que es eso?” (What is that?) And I didn’t know how to say the watch alarm that chimes on the hour.
So, I said, “Suena las campanas.” It just came to my mind. I didn’t know exactly what it meant. And a few weeks later, I was with my dad and my son and my little watch alarm went off.
And my son said, “Abuelo, suena las campanas.”
And my dad started laughing. I said, “What, what did he say?”
He said, “Mi hijo, it doesn’t really translate but what your son said to me was, ‘Granddad, the bell tolls for thee.’”
So now whenever we hear a bell or a bong or a horn, my son says, “Suena las campanas, the bell tolls for thee!” And so my dad now calls my son, Campanas, (Bell). The first of many nicknames my son is gonna have from my dad as he grows up – a Cuban tradition!
Well, now that my son is older and we’re beginning to think about school for him, I have discovered dual language programs. Dual language programs are when the kids study half the day, or more or less, in one language and half the day in English. It could be Spanish or Japanese or Chinese – whatever it is. Now in Los Angeles, ironically, there are a lot of dual language programs but none close to our house. And the ones that we can get into in other districts are very far away. But I still thinks this is what’s right. I actually did some research and I found out that the research team of Thomas and Collier state that kids’ tests scores are actually higher in junior high if they study in both languages. And we wanted that for our son. Well, I mentioned that to Catherine, our neighbor, and I said, “You know what, the waiting lists are really long and they are really far away.”
And she said, “Oh, no! Your son doesn’t have to be on the waiting list because he speaks both languages already. He’s at an advantage because of that.” And then I knew in my heart we were doing the right thing. And then she said, “Why don’t you send him to our local elementary school?”
And we said, “We’d love to but it just doesn’t have a dual language program. That’s a huge part of what we want.” A week later she called us and said she had marched down to the principal’s office and said that if they wanted, they could institute a dual language program. I never thought…it never even occurred to me to do that. And here’s this neighbor doing that for us, for our family. And a month after that, there was a meeting at the school about possibly instituting this dual language program. I was moved by Catherine’s desire to help us, to help the neighborhood. Now will that dual language program go? I don’t know. But I’m moved by Catherine’s work and by the neighborhood and the principal.
And like my dad said, “Centavo a centavo se llena elsaco.” Penny by penny, we fill the sack.
Susan O’Halloran attends a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through violence. Being at the Memorial sparks a high school memory for Susan of going to a youth conference in 1965 and meeting Cecil, an African American teenager, who became Sue’s friend. One evening, in 1967, Sue receives a phone call that changes everything.
Being at a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through gun violence sparks memories for Susan O’Halloran of people she has lost. At the end of the service, the congregation moves into the streets to plead for peace as everyone asks the continuing questions: Will the violent deaths of young lives end? When? And what is our part in ending violence?
What are the causes of violent deaths in America? People are always responsible for their own actions, but how does America’s legacy of segregation and discrimination play into violence?
Are you for more restrictions on guns? More policing? How would greater educational and job opportunities affect violence?
If you could be Mayor of a large U.S. city, what would you do to curb violence?
Do you believe as Sue says that “these are all our children”? Why would someone in one part of a town be concerned with what happens in another part? How are we connected to one another? How does violence affect even the more “peaceful” parts of town?
Sue remembers that she was directly touched by violence. What affect has a young person’s death had on you?
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Cornell West
Youth Violence: Theory, Prevention and Intervention by Kathryn Seifert, PhD
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
First Nations/Native Americans
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Susan O’Halloran. Do you ever watch the news sometimes and you’re like, enough already! But then every so often, something happens, not things that are just happening to other people anymore. I want to share a story with you about a memorial service I went to in Chicago, November 2011. And a memory was triggered by that memorial, something that had happened long, long ago.
The first thing I noticed was the checkmarks. They had asked us to sign in with our name and then to check “yes” if we had lost a family member or close friend to violence. When I arrived, the memorial service had already begun. I made the long trek from my Evanston, Illinois home, down Lakeshore Dr, across the Dan Ryan Expressway, to the Southside of Chicago and the gothic style church of St. Sabinas. When I walked into that vestibule I heard an orchestra playing inside and I walked up to the sign-in book and I went to add my name. I couldn’t check the box. I was fortunate, my life hadn’t been touched by that kind of tragedy. But what I saw was hundreds of checkmarks already made. Each check said, “Yes, I’ve lost a loved one to violence.” Well, an usher came up to me, an African-American woman with a wide smile, wearing a black pillbox hat, a black suit, white gloves. She handed me a program, an unlit candle, and directed me to follow her. She walked me past rows of mourners and them she offered me a seat at the end of a pew. I was there. I was at the Urban Dolorosa memorial. Urban Dolorosa means “the city of sorrow,” and our city was deep in sorrow.
In those previous three school years, from September 2008 to August 2011, four thousand children had been shot in Chicago. Two hundred sixty-three kids were dead because of violence. Four thousand shot and 263 dead. Congregations of all faiths and other non-profits had gathered together to form Urban Dolorosa to say we had to stop the denial, the ignorance, the indifference, the hopelessness. They were calling for a comprehensive, coordinated plan to end the blood bath.
Now, I walked in there expecting I would hear community leaders rage about, you know, how decades of injustice and marginalizing whole communities, was a recipe for violence. I thought they would remind us that the very victims of the carnage are the people who are getting blamed. I thought I’d hear politicians who would make speeches about how unemployment, inferior education, and pouring resources into youth and community development, this would benefit all of us. But that’s not what I had walked into at all. No, instead, this memorial was a, kind of, sacred musical cane. A mix of opera and choral music, sung in English and Spanish with strains of the blues and African-American spirituals, punctuated by a poetic libretto with an art installation and candlelight and photographs projected images of those left behind. Tear stained faces wide in disbelief or pinched tight in pain. Pictures of people holding each other up – their grief too much to bear alone. My surprise of what this memorial was, quickly melted into a feeling that, yes, this was exactly right. This was how to remember children who would never grow up to be young men and young women.
I remember a poem I read in college, it stayed with me all these years, by the poet Bill Knott; just three simple lines.
The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead
And then youth performers walked the aisles and took photographs from people. Photographs of their slain loved ones. And they brought those photographs to the altar and began to build this tall sculpture of smiling children’s faces – a mound of grief growing before us. And then they scattered all about as the names were read. “Rahim Washington, Eva Henry, Jose Corona…” Each name pierced the air!
And those youth performers, one of them came right by me. A 16-year-old girl with a round face, a very solemn face, so close her hand was brushing my shoulder and she lit her candle and she leaned over and lit mine and then gestured with her head for me to light the candle, the man beside me. And all of a sudden, candlelight was swimming up and down the pews of St. Sabinas as more names were read. “Alanzo Jones, Kabauro Ottowani, Arianna Gibson…” It was as if I could hear a drumbeat underscoring every name, every life. And then, this teenager blew out her flame, and poof, poof, poof, all of the sanctuary, flames gone, blown out. And she handed me her extinguished candle and left. It took me a moment to look into the aisle beside me and see her shoes were still there. All up and down the aisles of St. Sabinas. No more teens, just their empty shoes. My heart collapsed, gave way to the sound of a beating drum, and the memory flooded in.
Nineteen sixty-five. The first time I saw him, he was playing the drums or I should say an upside-down waste basket. I had met Cecil 46 years before. We were both 15 years old and we were at the YCS regional conference. YCS. Young Christian Students. I had met, I had joined the local group at my school that year and I decided to go to the regional conference. It was held at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana just about an hour and a half outside of Chicago. Oh, it was a whole week at the end of summer. Seminars and speakers and panel discussions. It was such great fun. And most of all it meant friendships with kids from all over the city and neighboring states. And since things were completely segregated in the 1960s, that meant for most of us it would be our first interracial experience.
Now the night I met Cecil, we girls decided to sneak out of our dorm. We were going to sneak out of our dorm and go to the boys’ dorm after curfew. For someone like me who rarely broke the rules, this was high adventure. We dressed in dark turtlenecks and long pants. I could almost hear the theme music from the I Spy TV show. Wah wah wah wah. We actually crawled on our bellies, like, pulled ourselves with our elbows across this long empty field that separated us from the boys. And when we got to the boys’ dorm, those boys were in ecstasy… And not at all interested in us. Cecil, of slight build and wearing glasses and his friend tall, thin Joe, had instructed the other boys, who were white, and how to turn their metal wastebaskets into drums. And they’d given them the steady pulse that most of the boys could handle. And then Cecil and Joe, they played on top of their beat. Now Joe was like the master of ceremonies. He’d tipped back in his chair and drum between his legs and the call out to the boys and encourage them. “That’s right. You’re doing it. That’s right. That’s right.” Master of ceremonies.
Cecil was the serious one. He would cock his head to one side always an ear down to the drum. Monitoring if the intent and effect were one in the same. His rhythm seemed to come from the base of his spine, crawl up his back, push his arms from behind so fast that his hands would blur. These boys looked so blissed out, their faces seemed to say, “Yes. What you’re playing goes with what I’m playing, goes with what he’s playing. Yes, yes, yes. We’re in this together. Yes.”
Well, after that regional conference, at the end of the week. We had small group discussions throughout the week. Oh, Cecil was in my group so I saw him every day. And we talked about group leadership and school spirit and racial stereotyping. And sometimes after that seminar Cecil and I just weren’t done; we had to keep talking, piggybacking off of each other’s ideas. We walked the cinder running track back behind the classrooms.
Cecil’d say things like, “They should have a UN for kids!” And I go, “Yeah!” I’d agree. “Yeah! I wish we could meet kids from China and Africa and France!” Having just met kids from the other side of the city, the other side of the color line, we were ready to take on the world. And then by the end of that week was Friday night dance. Now in my neighborhood the thought of dancing with a boy who was black, it would have been unheard of. An impossibility, but by the end of the week, hey, Cecil was my pal. Of course, I would dance with Cecil.
And when Cecil came towards me. He was shorter than me. He looked tall and elegant. And he took my hand like it was a jewel. And he walked me out to an empty space on the dance floor and we began to slow dance. Now in my neighborhood, slow dancing meant the boys and girls would fall on each other and kind of move sideways, swaying like zombies. But with Cecil slow dancing meant walking coolly, purposefully, covering that dance floor three, four times with space between your bodies to twist and dip. Cecil would duck under my arm, he would twirl me in light circles. He would graze his hand across my waist as he circled me. I looked great just standing there.
Well, after that regional conference, I joined citywide YCS. And so did Cecil. We had meetings. We had more dances. We had picnics at the lakefront. We had press conferences to announce our newest initiatives but, most of all, what we did was plan study days, kind of like the regional conference. We bring kids together from all over the city and we would study, look at some kind of social justice issue. And once Cecil and I co-chaired a study day examining the black power movement. Ah, the day was exciting and contentious and scary and thrilling. We got people thinking and some people really upset and angry. And I just remember afterwards sharing a Coke with Cecil and the two of us sitting there saying, “We did it! We did it!” Though, I don’t think either of us quite knew what we had done.
I remember that last leadership meeting in 1967, we were juniors in high school. It was the last meeting that Cecil attended. One of our adult mentors suggested an icebreaker for the beginning of the meeting. He said, “Why don’t you go ‘round and everybody say how they want to be remembered. You tell us what you would want written on your gravestone.”
Well, Katie went first and she said, “I want my gravestone to say she was alive.” And I went next and I joked I want my gravestone to say she IS alive. And everybody started laughing. And then Cecil said. Cecil said. Cecil said, “What?” See, he’s after me and I thought this mixture of pride and self-consciousness because I made everybody laugh so I don’t remember what Cecil said. I mean he was the good listener not me. What did Cecil want on his gravestone. It became so important to remember.
The first thing we heard was that he’d been shot. I stayed on the phone with YCS friends long into the night. It was as if we held a phone vigil. Maybe we could pull him through. Cecil and Joe had been to a dance in their neighborhood that night and they were walking home and this other kid, older a little bit. They didn’t know him. Walked up to them and said, “Where are you from?” And Cecil, just as any good, Catholic, Chicago kid would, he answered, his parish, Sacred Heart. “BOOM!” Just like that. The kid took out a gun and shot him. Cecil’s chest lay open to the moonless sky. We didn’t know many details, we just heard that Joe didn’t know what to do. I mean stay with this friend or go run for help. There were no cell phones back then. And I just keep picturing Joe with Cecil, then running to get help and then like a film thrown into reverse, running back. And then, “No, no! We should get help.” And running, just not knowing what to do.
I’d never been to the wake of a young person, a teenager, somebody my age. When we got to the funeral home, women with hats and powdery cheeks and older women smelling of perfume were milling about. And I was in grief before I even walked into that main room because I realized that Cecil had grown up much as I did. Leaned into the body of mothers and aunties and grandmas. The soft flesh of women’s arms wrapped around him, falling asleep in the heat of their bodies. And I knew with surety that the dividing line, that color line, in our city separated me not only from my black friends but from the familiness of my black friends. And then I saw, uh, Joe and as high as his face could lift and a smile was how far it fell. His skin hung loose over his jaw. “Thanks for coming,” he said. Still the master of ceremonies, we YCS kids, white, black and brown walked to the casket together.
We stared at Cecil’s body of brackish dust. Part death, part Cecil, still. He looked like a jewel floating on the white, pleated linen below him. He looked so young, like a child. Way too young to be dead. I saw that dead people looked a lot like. White people may be a little more pasty, chalky, white. Black people may be more ashy gray. But both as far away as the deepest stone at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
The adults, they knew the manners of death. They held out holy cards to people. They, they prayed their Hail Marys and Our Fathers. But we kids were lucky, we were young, we didn’t have to say things like, “Oh, he looks good.” No, we just stood there silent…shattered. Maybe it was me, I don’t know, who broke first. I don’t know who fell on me and who I fell where my body began or where it ended. I just know the room melted away as we cradled each other in front of Cecil McClure’s casket.
It’s as if we just wanted to crawl into each other’s comfort. To hold each other as we felt the truth of it. Our friend is dead. Our friend dead. Our friend is dead. The truth beat against our hearts like a drum.
“Terence Hollands, Delvonta Porter, Devon Varner…” the reading, the memorial reading of the names continues. Four thousand children shot, 263 children dead. The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead. The same youth performers came out into the sanctuary again. My same teen, my sentinel, at my side, appeared and she gestured for me to stand up. And all over the sanctuary, the teens were leading us outside for a profession, procession, a procession through our neighborhood to reclaim our streets. To put an end to violence.
A musician, one of the violinists, led that procession. Playing a song, now a refrain, we had heard often in the service, so everybody began to sing. “Pour out your heart like water for the lives of our children. Let justice roll like an ever-flowing stream.” We turned a corner and television cameras appeared. It felt like an obstruction, kind of obscene. You know, we’ve been in the quiet of the sanctuary, then the quiet of the night and then, boom, these bright white lights. Like a self-conscious kind of spectacle. But also, you know, lending a kind of layer extra layer of importance to the ritual. I mean we did want people to know. To know so that maybe we could believe that the denial was over. People were coming together because it was in our power to change things.
When their procession was over, I hugged my teen goodbye. I thanked her. And I went to walk to the parking lot to get my car but I thought, “No, I’ll go in the church and a look. I’ll just see.” I went into the church and I found it. The sign-in book was still there. I found my name and I checked yes. Yes, I had lost a loved one to violence. Yes, I will work for peace. Have to commit to peace. For all the children still living, growing and dreaming in every neighborhood across this nation.
Hola! I’m Leeny Del Seamonds and my story is called Castro Dolls and Familia.
Being Cuban American has meant a bounty of good fortune and positive experiences. My father and his relatives were born and raised in la República de Cuba. Their ancestors, having emigrated from Espána in the mid 1700’s. Our family name is DelCastillo which is Spanish for of the castle. Mi papá nació en Cienfuegos Cuba. My father was born in Cienfuegos, a harbor town on the southern shore of Cuba. His name was Wilfredo Augusto Felipé DelCastillo Icopate and his nickname has always been Del.
When Del was seventeen, he came over to Los Estados Unidos, The United States, to make a new life for himself. He was smart, likable, and extremely handsome. And once he stepped onto U.S. soil, he never looked back. Now Del was a firm believer in speaking the language of his new country. So he spoke fluent Inglés by the time he finished high school. Yet he never lost his Spanish accent, which has always been part of his charm. By 1940, most of Del’s immediate family had come over to join him in the greater Philadelphia area. There, my dad finished high school and college and then he became a U.S. citizen so he that could serve in the Army’s Flying Tigers unit during World War II. He changed his name to Wilfred DelCastillo and his nickname, Del, remained.
Now in 1946, at a party, Del was introduced by a mutual friend to a fiery redhead named Alice Lorraine Guiterman, known as Lorraine. Her parents had been performers in vaudeville. Bessie was a concert pianist and Barney was a stand-up comic who also sang in a quartet. Their youngest daughter, Lorraine, had inherited a beautiful singing voice unlike anything Del had ever heard. It was amor a primera vista, love at first sight. Within months, they were married and settled in Collingswood, New Jersey. That’s across the river from Philly. There they had two daughters. Their oldest was named Alice Lorraine. My Cuban relatives lovingly called her, “Alicita Linda,” pretty little Alice. The youngest daughter, me, was named, Eileen. No middle name, just Eileen. My Cuban relatives called me, “Eileencita,” little Eileen. Well, I didn’t mind except I thought that my first name euphonically didn’t blend with the last. Eileen DelCastillo. Thank goodness for my nickname, Leeny. It sounded better, Leeny DelCastillo. But in Collingswood, New Jersey, we were the only residents who correctly pronounced our last name. Often my dad was called Del Del Casteellio or Del Del Costello, or Del Del Castro. Daddy didn’t care what he was called as long as it wasn’t Spic.
There were times growing up I thought that I was living with Lucy and Desi Arnaz. Like Desi, my dad was handsome with a thick accent and a charm. And like Lucy, my mother, never learned how to habla español and she was a zany redhead. She tried to speak Spanish but she often confused some words. Once when my parents were newlyweds, my dad had all the relatives over for dinner. And when the dinner was ready, Mother proudly came out and announced to her new Cuban family, “Hola. La comida está ala cama. Vamonos ala cama!” Everyone stopped talking and looked up with great surprise. Daddy shot mother a look too. See she had confused two words. Instead of saying “mesa,” table, she had said “cama,” bed. So she had proudly declared the dinner is in the bed. Let’s go to bed! Through the years, this anecdote gave mi familia lots of chuckles. But no one appreciated it more than my parents.
When I was almost three years old, my two aunts, Lilia and Lordes went back to Cuba for a visit. When they returned, my grandmother whom we call, Mamá, hosted una fiesta maravilosa, a marvelous party to welcome them home. After la comida, the dinner, my aunts went and got bags of souvenirs and began doling them out. Colorful shawls and castanets for the ladies and cafė cubano and cigars for the men. And for the four young cousins, what did we get? Dolls! Fidel Castro dolls. Each doll had a plastic face with thick tufts of hair sticking up and a full beard. The doll’s body was dressed in cloth that was stuffed and it wore a khaki colored uniform with a matching Army rebel cap sewn into its head. The men cried, “Dios mio! What kinda propaganda is this, eh? Are they trying to romance the country with caca?” My aunt Lilia just ignored them and proudly presented my sister Alicita with the first Castro doll. It was a blue eyed Fidel with yellow blonde hair and a blonde beard. My cousin, Alita, received the brown eyed Fidel with orange-red hair and an orange beard. My cousin, Denise, gotta brown eyed Fidel with chocolate brown hair and a brown beard. And I, the youngest, was handed the black eyed Fidel with black wiry hair and a full black beard. I took one look at this ugly doll, “Ay miu feo!” burst out crying and ran from the room.
That was the cue for the adults to demonstrate their passion for debate and heated conversation. The men cried, “Castro is a scoundrel! He’s no better than the corrupt Batista! But at least with Batista, we know our enemy.” The women held their ground, “Ay, Fidel and his brother will bring about positive changes, si. And besides, ay eres muy guapo y simpatico, (he is handsome and nice).” The men shot back, “Está usted equivocado, you are wrong! Fidel and his brother Raul cannot be trusted. It is 1955; we know a corrupt dictator when we see one. This will be bad for Cuba.” The women held their ground, “No, he will bring about positive changes. Ver da, true.”
From my hiding room in mamá’s bedroom, I could hear the living room a buzz with arguing but I didn’t know why. All I knew was that I wanted the blonde haired Fidel not this ugly looking thing with a hideous black beard that made him look angry. I decided to give this doll an extreme make over. A few minutes later, I emerge from the bedroom, dragging my new present by the arm. My uncle, Tonio, spotted me. “Oyė, mira mira lo que Leeny! Hmm. She seems to know something about Fidel the rest of us apparently do not.”
The room hushed as they saw what I did to my Castro doll. He was buck-naked with most of his black beard torn out and all of his hair pulled out. He looked pathetic. And that’s how I got the credit in mi familia for knowing the truth about that dictator and for being a good judge of character.
I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba. I never could. I wanted to… just be in this… Cienfuegos on the waterfront. I wanted to sip mojitos and listen to ritmo, the rhythm of jazz, and watch the sunset silhouetted in the sky. But I wanted mi papá to take me. Whenever I asked him, Daddy would say, “When Fidel dies, I go.” Two years ago I asked again. “Hmm. When Fidel dies, I go.”
“But Daddy, you’re not getting any younger and Fidel is still hanging in there.”
“Hmm. So am I. When Fidel dies, I go.”
Sadly, Daddy’s passed. So my hope is on…that someday I’ll go. I will. (Said as father) “I go.” And as I stroll along Cienfuego Bay on that smooth hot sand, I will be strolling in mi papá’s beloved footsteps.
At school Olga was taught to be American first and not to speak Spanish. If she did, she risked being punished. At the same time, Olga’s Japanese-American friends went to an after school program to learn the Japanese language and to study Japanese culture. Olga wondered why she didn’t have something like that and how she could straddle multiple worlds.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Between-Worlds
What are some different ways of being in Nepantla (between worlds)? For example, a teenager is neither a child nor a full adult. A child of divorced parents may feel as if he or she travels to different planets as he/she moves from one house to another.
How do people keep their sense of self when they feel they are between worlds?
What is your Nepantla?
Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Evangeline Anzaldúa
Nepantla: Essays from the Land in the Middle by Pat Mora
I am Latino: The Beauty in Me by Sandra L. Pinkney and Myles C. Pinkney
Family and Childhood
Hi. My name is Olga Loya and this is an excerpt from a longer story called Nepantla: Between Worlds. This story takes place in the late 1940s and early 1950s in East Los Angeles.
English . . . Spanish. American . . . Mexican. Spanish . . . English. Mexican . . . American. All my life I felt like I was straddling worlds and I could never seem to find my balance. I had never even put it into words but I knew I didn’t quite fit anywhere.
One day I met a woman who was putting up an art show called Nepantla.
As we talked I asked her, “What does Nepantla mean?”
She said, “It is a Nahuatl term. Nahuatl is the ancient and still-used language of Mexico. It is the language that the Aztecs spoke and speak. Nepantla means “between worlds.”
I stared at her for a while, just thinking.
“Nepantla,” I repeated. “Nepantla—between worlds.”
For the first time, I had a word for what I had been feeling all those years!
I thought, “I have been in a state of Nepantla all my life.”
Where I grew up there were many Mexicans and some Japanese and Jewish people. I knew I wasn’t Japanese or Jewish but I wasn’t sure about being Mexican. I was six years old when I went to my mother and asked her, “Mamá, am I Mexican?”
She looked at me for a long time and then she said, “Yes and no, Mijita, little one.”
“Yes and no?”
“Yes and no.”
“What does „yes and no’ mean?”
“You are Mexican but you are American. You were born here in Los Angeles, California in the United States. You are a Mexican American just like your father and me.”
“Oh, okay, Mamá.”
I decided to ask my Grandma Loya, too. Of everyone in the family, I trusted her the most. I loved being with her and I wanted to see what she had to say.
I went to my abuelita, grandmother, and asked her, “Abuelita, soy Mexicana, Grandmother, am I Mexican?”
Making the sign of the cross, she said, “Que dios te bendiga, May God bless you. Ay si mijita, oh, yes, my little one, sus bis abuelos, y yo y tus otro abuelos vienen de Chihuahua, México. Ay, si, mijitia, eres Mejicana. Your great grandparents and grandparents and I come from Chihuahua, Mexico. Vives aquí en America pero eres Mejicana! You live here in America, but you are Mexican!”
I was living in East Los Angeles where everyone spoke Spanish. Well, at least the adults spoke Spanish to each other, but they didn’t speak Spanish to us children.
They didn’t speak Spanish to be mean or to deprive us of our cultura. They wanted us to fit in, not to have an accento. They wanted us to be Americanos!
It was the 50’s and schools didn’t allow you to speak Spanish either. If a student spoke Spanish, the teachers scolded, “Don’t speak Spanish in school!” If a student continued speaking Spanish, the student got sent to the Vice Principal. The Vice Principal made the student wait and wait. Finally, the Vice Principal called the student into his office and said, “Didn’t we tell you not to speak Spanish in school!?! Why can’t you people understand?”
If a student kept speaking Spanish, the Vice Principal came to the classroom and stood in the front of the room. He said to the one who had been speaking Spanish, “Come to the front of the classroom—now.”
The student would go to the front of the classroom shaking. Then the student put his or her hand out for what was going to happen. “Whap!” The Vice Principal hit the student on the hand. If the student moved the hand away, the Vice Principal hit again, even harder.
I thought to myself, “Chihuahua, this Spanish is dangerous!”
At the same time that I was not allowed to speak Spanish, I was hanging around with my Japanese friends. All through elementary school, at least once a week they went to a Japanese after school program. Sometimes I went with them. I sat and listened to the lessons about their culture and their language.
As I listened I wondered, “So, where are the Mexican after-school programs? How come nobody is showing me about my culture and my language? What’s wrong with us that everyone acts so ashamed?
I was filled with questions and I didn’t know who to ask. When I tried to ask my family questions, everyone said, “Don’t ask so many questions. You don’t need to know that stuff.”
I was in the sixth grade and still didn’t have a sense of myself.
I just didn’t know where I belonged, but I wanted to find out.
Have you ever had someone give you negative advice? How did you respond?
What is a good way to handle negative advice?
What were the “favors” Olga’s counselor and shorthand teacher did for her?
Why did the college students make fun of Olga?
What was Olga’s reaction?’
Growing up in East Los Angeles by Olga Loya
Land of the Cosmic Race by Christina A Sue
Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena
Who Are You? By Mimi Fox
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi. My name is Olga Loya and this is an excerpt from a longer story called Nepantla: Between Worlds.
The story takes place in East Los Angeles in the 1950s. When I went to high school, I realized I wanted to go to college. I talked to my girlfriends about it, and they said, “Why do you want to go to college? Don’t you want to get married and have children?” My parents said the same thing. My mother was always saying: “We want you to get married and be happy.”
It took me a long time to get my nerve up to go see the school counselor. I was in the 10th grade when I walked into the counselor’s office. The counselor was sitting behind a big desk. He motioned to a chair across from him and I sat down. I could hardly speak I was so nervous. I just sat there.
Finally, he said, “What can I do for you?”
I gulped and said in a scared voice, “Do you think I could go to college?”
I hoped he would say, “Yes, there is no problem. You can surely go to college!”
Instead he said, “Oh no, Olga, you can’t go to college. Your family is too poor. You’ll never make it. This is what you should do—study shorthand and typing. That way you can work and then get married.”
I just sat there, staring at him. I couldn’t believe he had just told me I couldn’t go to college. Finally I got up and left. I thought, “Well, he said I can’t go to college. He should know. He’s the counselor.” Then I went to the bathroom and cried.
So I started to study typing and shorthand but I wasn’t interested in getting married. I didn’t want to be married; I wanted to have some time to myself. I wanted to figure out what I wanted in my life. In my senior year, my best friend got married. There was a joke in her family about me because when they took pictures of her throwing her bouquet, I calmly stood there with my hands behind my back as all of my other friends were reaching out for the bouquet. That’s how much I didn’t want to get married!
One morning in my junior year of high school, I woke up and thought about the advice the counselor had given me. I thought, “What kind of advice was that? Why can’t I go to college? I’m not dumb and I can work. How dare he say that to me? To hell with him—I’m going to college!”
I didn’t say anything to anyone but I began to study hard. Just before I graduated from high school, I found out I had received a small scholarship to go to the local community college. The day after I got my scholarship, I was walking down my high school hall feeling good. Then I saw my shorthand teacher. She had always been nice to me, and I was excited to tell her about my scholarship. I waved to her, and she came towards me. She was short and round with beady eyes. Before I could say anything to her, she walked right up to me and got so close that she spit in my face as she hissed, “What a waste. You shouldn’t have that scholarship—you’ll never even finish college!”
I felt like she had kicked me in the stomach. Anger washed over me. I felt my face getting redder and redder. I thought, “Don’t say anything. Olga. You are almost out of school. Don’t get into trouble now!” And I didn’t. I thought to myself though, “We’ll see.”
As it turned out, that school counselor actually did me a great favor. I would never have made it through college without . . . shorthand. I worked my way through school.
As for the teacher who treated me so disrespectfully, well, she did me a favor, too. Every time I felt like quitting I remembered her beady little eyes and how I thought, “I’ll show you.”
And I did! I got a scholarship; I graduated from college and became a teacher.
As a Cuban and Irish American child, Antonio deals with being “too ethnic” or “not ethnic enough”. By trial and error and with the support of his family, Antonio reclaims all of his ethnic heritage and his Spanish language.
Do you think Antonio is white or brown? What does he think he is?
What could Antonio have done when he was teased about speaking Spanish? Have you ever hidden parts of your cultural background to “fit in”?
Does each group who comes to this country eventually lose its culture? What is gained and what is lost from assimilation?
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez
America Is Her Name by Luis J. Rodriquez
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Antonio Sacre and this is an excerpt from a longer story called Looking for Papito. Spanish …When my father left Cuba he didn’t speak any English at all … and when he came to the United States he met a woman who didn’t speak any Spanish at all … and the two got married. And they had me. That meant I grew up speaking Spanish with my father and English with my mother.
Now I was born it was just me — and life was perfect and on my very first birthday my mom and dad gave me twin baby brothers. My mom was up to her ears. My dad said, “Three boys in one year that’s the man that I am you know!”
We were a handful for my parents of course, and so my dad did what very many other Cuban men would do in the same situation he called his mother. Spanish. My Cuban grandmother came to live with us. We were growing up in Delaware at that time. And so, in my house our first language — my two brothers and I — was Spanish. So, we
spoke Spanish with my dad, Spanish with my grandmother and of course we learnt English from my mom and we all learnt each other’s languages.
Now, it’s typical in Cuban families for the first-born male to have the nickname – Papito … and I was given that nickname by my grandmother Papito. It means little man … little boy. But in my family, it reminded her of my grandfather who died right after they came from Cuba and so it was honor to have his name. And when we got out of diapers my grandmother moved back to little Havana in Miami Florida.
Now my first day of kindergarten I was five years old. I was so excited to go to school to get out of the house with those two other boys and my mom was sad and my dad was happy — “my boy was going to school you know”.
I get to this school and I see all those kids and I am nervous and excited and I looked at them and I spoke in my first language I said … Spanish … And the kids looked at me and said — what? — Spanish … And my teacher … she was very sweet … and she said, “Honey nobody speaks Spanish here we only speak English”.
“Oh, that’s OK I speak English too.”
“Hi everyone, my name is Papito.” And one boy in the back said “Pa-Papido sounds like Dorido!” “No, no its Papito” “No, no its Dorido!”
Now he is just a five year old having fun with the nickname that he never heard before, but obviously I didn’t like it so much. I went home and spoke to my dad. Now if you don’t speak Spanish don’t worry I will translate what I said but this is what I said … Spanish … and my dad said … Spanish… I told my dad I didn’t want the Cuban nickname that my grandmother gave me I didn’t care it was part of the family I wanted to be called a more American sounding name I wanted to be called Tony. My dad said okay.
A couple of days after he dropped me off at school and he said “Adios Papit..aa, Tony adios” “OK Papa, Adios”
And one of those kids is in the playground … he was maybe third or fourth grader — he looked like a giant … he came up to me and he said, “What was that language you were speaking?” “Spanish.” “Sounds stupid.” “Are you stupid?”
I didn’t know what to say and I went home I did what I lot of other kids do from immigrant families I said … Spanish … I never want to speak Spanish again” … Spanish … “No from now on — only English.” And when my father spoke to me in Spanish I answered back to him in English. And after a while he spoke to me in Spanish. I pretended like I didn’t understand until he only spoke to me in English and little by little my first language was slipping away.
And when I turned eight my parents got divorced… there is a long story behind that part of … with their cultural background and part of the way it just the way it worked. And so, my dad moved out and I didn’t have anyone to speak Spanish with anymore.
But it didn’t matter to me everyone at school spoke English. Everything on TV was in English. Movies were in English. My grandmother was in Miami and maybe I’d see a couple of times a year maximum. And the older I got by the time I got into the high school it didn’t matter to me that I didn’t know any Spanish.
Now in my first day of history class…American history in high school … I will never forget the teacher was reading roll call. He said, “Antonio Bernardo Sacre who’s that?” “Ah…that’s me but…my name is Tony” “What kind of a name is this??” “Well its Cuban” and the whole class turned and looked at me and I said “I am not Cuban. I am American. I was born here. My father, he’s Cuban” he said, “Oh yeah…where is your mother from?” “Well she is an Irish American” what kind of a combination is that?” and the whole class laughed – he was just, you know being funny. It was okay.
Now, at lunch there was a kid who came up to me and said “You are a Cuban and Irish huh? I guess that it makes you a spic – mick – or maybe a “mick-spic”. And soon in my school that’s the nickname that I got even though I had long ago stopped speaking Spanish, even though I fell and looked as white looking as everyone in that high school, that’s what I became known as — I was the “other” in my high school.
Now, what was happening at the time was there is the movie “Scarface” had come out and there is the stereotype that all Cubans were drug dealers and bad and was just this odd thing was happening.
Lucky for me my grandmother wanted to see me this summer after my first year of high school. And my brother was there that whole summer and when I got in to her house (in Miami) and she saw me she threw her arms around me with a beautiful hug. I was so happy to see her and she started speaking and I couldn’t understand her.
And she said … Spanish … she’s screaming at me yelling at me and my brother said “What’s the matter? You can’t speak … you gotta talk Spanish with your grandmother.” The whole family is in a big consternation yelling at me and my grandmother said …Spanish … “You need to learn how to speak Spanish.” So every day she would sit me down and drill words into me tell me stories about my dad.
And every night … not every night… but every now and then my brother and I would go out to these big Cuban dance parties. He knew the salsa and dances. He could dance with all these girls I would be dancing by myself. Whenever we walked down the street the old Cuban men would say to my brother…. Spanish … “You speak Spanish perfect what’s the matter with your brother? He needs to learn Spanish you know!”
And soon in that little Havana neighborhood in my family I was called … “El gringo de la Familia‟ …the Gringo of the family…they were calling me names and my family — the gringo of the family. And so it was odd for me because I don’t fit in with my family. I don’t fit in my high school. I didn’t know what was going on you know and by the end of the summer.
I was jealous of my brother because his Spanish is perfect he looks more Cuban if there’s such a thing. I couldn’t understand my uncles when they are telling jokes with my grandmother, and I said in my halting Spanish “I don’t feel very Cuban in this family” and she said, “You are never gonna be fully Cuban or American” she said “You are Cuban American.” And she said you have to speak Spanish with me because I am too old to learn English and you have to speak English in this country.
And at that point I realized that it was worse to be called gringo in my family than to be called names in the school I didn’t really care about. And so I tried the best I could that summer to accept the gain as much of that language as I could. And sat with my grandmother while she told stories of the family she told me jokes — some silly, some a little racy, some beautiful little stories.
Some of the jokes became basis of the stories that I tell now all these years later. One is just a little joke — a “barking mouse”. There is a cat who chases a family of mice and the mother barks at the cat and the cat runs away and she says, “You see kids it pays to speak another language.”
And I think about my grandmother every time I think about that little silly beautiful message about the importance of speaking another language.
And I went back to my school proud to be the school’s only Cuban Irish American. There’s one of my friends who calls me – a “Leprachano”. And so now I embrace both parts of it. And I still am not fully Cuban in little Havana — and I am still not fully whatever American means or … whatever the words you would say… but I am somewhere in between the both. And I know now, in all my travels around the country, there are many, many other people just like me and we have lots to learn from both sides. And that is just the part I wanted to do.
Do you speak or have tried to learn a second language? Did you learn the new language or did you stop altogether?
If you did learn a new language, please tell about a time you misused a word or created one that does not exist.
What was the outcome of Antonio’s attempts to learn English?
Do you think that making mistakes can help you learn better? If so, why?
Learning a Second Language by The Open University
Learning New Languages: A Guide to Second Language Acquisition by Tom Scovel
Education and Life Lessons
Living and Traveling Abroad
My mother came into the house, sweating from downtown, with an envelope. She put the envelope down and
said, “I have signed you up to learn English because even though I don’t have much of an education,” she says very simply that, “I heard learning a second language will take you places.” And it was like a clairvoyant moment in her life, and I am like, “Ok!” So I went to class, and it was like this tiny little treasure box that opened in my head because I didn’t know how I would be learning English, but it was so exciting to try these different sounds and learn about culture because as you are learning the language you learn the culture. I learned about England, learned about the US, and trying to say “This” because “this” doesn’t exist in Portuguese. You don’t go “Th,” you know. Usually you have a speech impediment if you go “th” in Portuguese. So those things are very kind of intimidating when you are learning a language. It’s really about playing with sound.
But nothing really prepared me for the cultural experience than full immersion because you are learning how to speak the language and you are learning about the culture, but really being there it’s a whole different animal. For example, in the textbook you learn “it’s raining,” that’s what you learn. You don’t learn “shower,” “we’re going to have showers.” When I heard that, I’m like “we’re going to have showers!?!”
So, I had a chance to go to Maine 22 years ago. I went on a scholarship to learn mime. How about that? I’m
learning English as a second language and I come to the US to learn a silent language—mime. And so I’m learning all these new words: it’s not just “snow,” it’s “sleet,” it’s “we are gonna have snow showers.” It was like, all these different expressions, and then there were all these misunderstandings, cultural misunderstandings. People thought that I lived in a tree because I come from Brazil. I had all these silly questions like, “Do you have cars in Brazil? Do you have airplanes in Brazil?” I’m like, “No, we don’t have any of this stuff. I canoed all the way to Maine.”
But you can’t judge those questions because people are speaking of… they’re innocent. They are not trying to
hurt you. Just like for example, in Brazil, the sandwich. Knowing that America is a sandwich-type of culture in
terms of a quick food is the sandwich. The hamburger is the only sandwich we heard about. But I got here, and somebody invited me to go and eat an Italian. I’m like, “Are you a cannibal? You’re going to eat an Italian? What is that all about?” It’s a sandwich!! “Reuben”—another sandwich! You don’t hear these things, unless you sneak into the culture, you know.
And then there was that moment that somebody asked me how I was doing with my host family, I was living with a host family. And I was trying to be very, very good at my English. You learn: you swim, you’re a swimmer. Right? You paint, you’re a painter. So they said, “What do they do?” “Oh, the father is a consultant and the mother, she’s a hooker,” I said innocently. I didn’t know that a hooker was connected with prostitution. I just said, “She’s a hooker,” and my friend said, “No, no, she can’t be a hooker.” I said, “Yeah, she is.” And the more I tried to explain that she was, the more it looked real because I said, “Yeah, she is. She stays home during the day and then twice a week in the evening I stay with the kids, and she goes out, and she is a hooker.” My friends are like, “No, she can’t be a hooker, you misunderstood something.” “No, she hooks rugs.” And she goes, “Oh, we don’t say that, if you hook rugs.”
I started laughing when I understood what she was saying. It was the most hilarious thing, while standing on the sidewalk waiting for the university bus to come and pick me up and learning that new word through that very funny moment. And I got home and I told my host mother what I had said, and she started laughing, and, so, that’s how you learn a new language. You take steps, you fail, and you laugh and you learn. You know, I do believe that if everybody took a chance to learn somebody’s language, especially if you have an issue with that culture, go and learn that culture’s language, try at least, and you’re going take a peek through a window you’ve never looked through before and you’re going to start understanding that culture. And I think that’s what I got from it and that’s what could actually change things in the world, is trying to listen to different cultures’ stories through language.
A director tells Antonio that he would produce his play if only he was Mexican. This makes Antonio reflect on the importance of listening to stories outside our own ethnic groups. Antonio travels to Mexico and learns Mexican folktales to share with the community.
It’s important for communities such as Mexican-Americans to see plays written, directed and acted by Mexican-Americans. However, it’s important to hear stories from other cultures as well. How does a teachers, parents and community theater directors balance both concerns?
Do you know the folktales and history of your family’s cultures? Did you hear them in school? From the adults around you? From books?
How did knowing and learning the stories that have existed in your culture for hundreds of years affect you? Does it make you curious about other groups’ stories?
Mexican Folk Tales by Anthony John Campos
Momentos Magicos/Magic Moments by Olga Loya
Mexican American Theatre Then and Now by Nicolas Kanellos
Living and Traveling Abroad
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
“We might be able to produce the play if you were Mexican.” The artistic director of a medium sized theater in Los Angeles told me this recently. As an actor and a playwright faced with the tantalizing possibility of actually getting a play that I’d written produced in an established theater, my first reaction was… I can be Mexican! Just as in the past being rejected from numerous acting jobs, I have said, I can play tougher! I can be shorter! I can grow my hair! I can shave it off! I can buy a wig! I can be a woman! I can be older! I can be younger! I can be anything you need; I’m an actor, that’s what I do!
But I found myself constantly wrong, as an actor in Chicago. I found I was too ethnic looking for many of the parts I would audition for, and not ethnic enough for others.
But instead of being angry with that artistic director, I asked him gentle questions. “Why couldn’t you produce a play about a Cuban-American?” He told me he went to the local organizations, the churches, and libraries, and school, and they told him they wanted a Mexican production.
Even though it angered me, it made sense to me. I thought of my relatives in Little Havana. They are much more likely to see a play by one of their own, too.
I thought, good for the community, to state what they want, to finally say your theater’s been in our neighborhood for 10 years, and you’ve rarely presented what we want to see. We can fill a house, we can make you some money, we can sell you some tickets, just listen to what we want right now.
And good for the director, to listen to them. It’s not so common yet for artistic directors of English-speaking theaters to reach out to their Spanish-speaking audiences unless they are after some grant. For all their talk of outreach, theater in the places I see theater in (Chicago, New York, LA and San Francisco) and the size of theater I usually see (small) remains as segregated as many of the Churches I’ve been to across the country.
So I said, “If you are going to work in a community, it seems that you should listen to what they want.”
I thought, “How does anybody learn anything? How can these walls be broken down or at least scaled for a moment to view the other side?” The only small answer that I have found is learning and listening and sharing each other’s stories.
As a storyteller, I listened, I read, I traveled to Mexico, I learned the amazing stories they grow up with there. The Nahautl creation and war stories, La Malinche and her daughter, La Llorona, La Mano Peluda, Alacrán de Durango, Callejón de Beso, and the snake girl from the hills of Guanajuata, Las Momias, Perfecto Luna, tales of wonder in Oaxaca and I walked the pyramids of Teotihuacan.
I travel between these worlds Cuban and American, Mexican and American, Spanish and English, and report what I hear, what I see.
So, instead I offered to the director my talents as a bilingual storyteller, offering to do community outreach for him, to serve as a bridge between the cultures.
I said, I’ll go to their churches, their schools, their meeting places and then share their stories with them, and then listen. Listen to them tell me, “No, that’s not how La Llorona sounds, she sounds like this, AAAIIIIIEEeeeeeee.” Hear them tell me, I heard that one too, but it goes like this…watch them tell their children and each other old Pepito jokes, thankful that they listened, grateful to be included, to be trusted with their story.
The director got excited. He went back to the community, and they got excited. So, I’ll probably have to wait a little longer to get my play out here, but I’m patient. But, in the meantime, did you hear the one about the Cuban-American that tried to be Mexican?
He asked for Congi y Picadillo with his burrito, and they just haven’t stopped laughing.
Antonio’s father listened to classical music that transported him back to his beloved Cuba. Antonio thinks of listening to music in the future with his son and the memories and scenes the music will evoke.
Why do you think Antonio’s father rarely talked about his time in Cuba?
How did the music make it possible for Antonio’s father to share a little bit of his childhood memories?
What music moves you? What pictures does it create in your imagination?
The Vintage Guide to Classical Music by Jan Swafford
How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture and Heart by Robert Greenberg
Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
My Dad used to have a state-of-the-art alarm clock, and I feel old describing it to you. It would play music AND wake you up, and it had an incredible feature called the sleep button. You could hit it, music would play, and 29 minutes later it would actually turn off! It was amazing! The problem was, you had to wait the whole 29 minutes to see it work its magic, but that wasn’t too bad, because you could watch the numbers change on the clock, and I mean actually change. Each minute of the hour and every hour itself was its own little plastic tab that actually flipped down or folded over the other number, an interior dial of time perpetually flipping forward, clicking, keeping perfect rhythm, lit by a little light, just bright enough to see the numbers themselves change.
It was endlessly fascinating to watch the numbers flip, time flipping forward, and wait for the sleep button to magically shut off the music.
I loved sitting in my parents’ room listening to the music that played on the only station my Dad listened to before bed, WJBR, Just Beautiful Radio. My Dad’s from Cuba and my Mom’s family is Irish, but they both loved classical music and this station played only classical music, 24 hours a day. My Dad would hit the magic sleep button, the music would start, and I would watch the little plastic tabs click off the time until it was time for bed, but hopefully, not before the sleep timer did its things. My Dad would often stand, transfixed, in front of the radio. I always thought he was looking at the numbers as well, but he would close his eyes, sway very slightly and say, “Mijo, can you hear that?” I strained toward the radio. “What?” I asked.
“That, right there, and there again? There, right on top of the piano, the violin?” I couldn’t hear anything. “And now, the clarinets, and the drums rolling in the back, like thunder over the hills? It reminds me of Cuba, right before a storm, can you hear that?”
I could never hear anything he heard, but I loved watching him go to the place where the thunder rolled over the hills. The only time he ever talked about Cuba was when he listened to classical music, otherwise it was just too painful to talk about being forced to leave and all the family had lost. Then, the sleep button would do its things, and he would scoop me up, and bring me to my room.
When I was about 10 years old, my Dad gave me that radio. He got a new one with a sleep button that could actually be programmed to any amount of time he wanted, from one minute to 59 minutes, and with numbers that actually glowed, floating like green fireflies, silently changing with no click at all to tell you that time still moved, whether you saw it or not.
I asked him what I could listen to, and he said whatever I wanted. Over the course of the next few months, I listened to every radio station my hometown carried. I listened to pop and country and late night baseball broadcasts from far away – 29 minutes every night – but none seemed as mysterious and as beautiful as the classical music station that transported my Dad back to Cuba.
I began to listen to it, and while I never heard drums rolling like thunder over the hills, I pretended like I could, hearing something that only adults could hear, and the complexity and the beauty of the music would make me forget about time falling down and I would fall asleep.
In my home town, WJBR doesn’t play classical music anymore, but where I live now, there is one station left that still does. Now that I am older, I can hear the drums underneath the violins, and the swelling music reminds me of egrets landing in shallow water.
I have a son now and, someday, when he is older, I will stand in front of the radio, or whatever new music playing device we’ll have then, and say, “Mijo, can you hear that? The piccolo over the strings? Like butterflies landing on flowers? No? Can you hear that? The piccolo over the strings? Like butterflies landing on flowers? Can you hear the strength of your grandparents and great grandparents coming from Cuba and Ireland to start a new life here in America? Can you hear that? Don’t worry. When you get older, you will.”
Occasionally, Antonio brings his friends and family to Catholic mass, not always with the results he hoped for. However, in Los Angeles, he goes to church with Mexican-American families where he finds people who are deeply into the ritual and their passion for their religion makes him proud.
Do you go to a faith-based service of some kind? Is your church, temple, synagogue or mosque primarily one ethnic group? How do the ethnic cultures and religions in your community mix, influence and play off of one another?
Why does going to a Mexican-American community’s church make Antonio proud to be Catholic?
Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church by Timothy Matovina
Mexican-American Catholics by Eduardo C. Fernandez