By Antonio Sacre
Antonio explores the challenges and joys of trying to raise a bilingual child. As anxious new parents, Antonio and his wife ask, “Are two languages better than one?” and find humor along the way. (more…)
By Antonio Sacre
Antonio explores the challenges and joys of trying to raise a bilingual child. As anxious new parents, Antonio and his wife ask, “Are two languages better than one?” and find humor along the way. (more…)
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?
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: MR-Ds-CLASS
Hi, my name is Antonio Sacre.
Have you ever been inspired by a teacher to do something you didn’t think you could do? Have you ever felt like you let somebody down for not being able to do what you said you were gonna do? I meet Dennis Danzinger, a high school English teacher, at Venice High School, part of Los Angeles Unified School District where I lived a few years ago. He had heard me tell stories in English and in Spanish. He was interested in me possibly working with his kids about how to write stories and tell their own stories. And so I met with him. And when I met with him in person, I was surprised at how intelligent his eyes were and how caring he looked and also how tall he was. I looked at him and before I even said hello, I said, “Wow, you are tall!” He was well over 6 feet. I just blurted it out, “Did you play basketball in college?” He said, “As a matter of fact, I’ve played in college and my college basketball coach said that if I was just a little bit faster, a little bit taller, a little bit better on the pick-and-roll, a little bit better outside shot, better hands on defense, I still wouldn’t make the pros!” He had me at such ease and calm and I was just laughing and talking with him. Loved meeting him!
He told me that he had gotten a grant from a wonderful organization called Pen in The Classroom. It was for money to encourage kids to tell and write their own stories and at the end of the project, they would publish it in an anthology. An actual book that the kids could hold in their hands. And he was intrigued, he thought that I might be good with those kids. And I was happy to talk to him about the possibility. He told me about the money, though, and there wasn’t a lot of it. And I told him that right away. I said, “That’s not a lot of money!” And he said, “I know it’s not a lot of money but these kids have so much potential and so many people have already given up on these kids. These kids have been given up on by parents, and administrators, and school districts.” And he said, “These kids are almost graduating; they’re seniors. There’s so much potential with these kids!” And his passion for his kids moved me a little bit and I had to still consider it.
So as we sat, talking some more, he talked about how when he first moved out to Los Angeles, he was a screenwriter and a TV writer. And he got his first big break on a huge TV show. I thought that was great. So I said, “What was the show?” He said, “Taxi.” And I said, “Wow!”
And he said, “Yeah, it was a pretty big show.”
And I said, “Yeah, it was a big show. It’s just that you are older than you look. Gosh, you are old, old, old like senior citizen old. Like didn’t they shoot that in black and white?”
And he started to laugh. He said, “Listen, you’re not so young yourself! I see that gray around your temples, you know!”
And we had a big laugh, you know, and I thought it would be great to work with this guy.
And then I thought about what he had done. He said he’d given up working on that TV show, with all the dream and money and prestige that comes from writing for a big sitcom to become a high school English teacher in one of the toughest school districts in one of the most embattled districts in the country. He’d given up a world of wealth and pressure for a world of the pressure and none of the wealth. And he seemed happy. He seemed exciting; I was intrigued. And he took my silence for reticence.
And he said, “Listen, I’ll tell you what, I will buy you lunch before every class at the best sandwich shop in Venice, California and I will give you a copy of my new book.”
He held out his hand. I shook it. I said, “Dennis, lunch better be good and your book better not suck!”
He laughed and he said, “Listen, my book will make you laugh at least once, guaranteed. And if it doesn’t, I’ll give you your money back.”
When he took me to his car and gave me his book, I laughed immediately. The title was “A Short History of a Tall Jew.” He said, “There you are. One laugh guaranteed. See you in a couple weeks.” I read that book for two weeks and it made me laugh out loud a lot. I couldn’t wait to start with Dennis and his high school seniors at Venice High School.
When I showed up at his school (we had lunch before) and he talked to me. He said, “I want you to tell your bilingual stories in English and Spanish. ‘Cause I have kids from 30 different countries. A lot of them from Spanish speaking countries but all over the world. They’re gonna love that you’re bilingual. They’re gonna love you. It’s gonna be fantastic!”
And I got to his class; they had a little podium in the front. Huge seagulls right outside screeching away.- not too far from the beach. And I began to tell my stories. My bilingual stories of growing up Cuban Irish American, like one of my friends calls me, a leprechauno. And as I was telling those stories, those kids mostly listened and mostly looked at me. Although one kid was texting underneath his desk, another kid had his head on the desk the whole time. A bald kid over here, looked like a gang banger for sure, shaved head, tattoos, piercings, black clothes! Looked like he was gonna do something to me after school and none of it was going to be good. When I was done, nobody clapped. Nobody said anything. And then the bell rang. Those kids walked out of the classroom, not even looking at me. Mr. D, Mr Danzinger, came up to me afterward. He said, “That was brilliant! That was incredible! I’ve never seen them listen for that long!” Now he had a way of inspiring me, making me feel like I did better than I actually did.
The next lunch meeting a week later, he said, “Listen, keep going on. Tell them how you write your stories. Tell them what you do when you’re coming up with stories.”
And so I told them more stories and I told them about all the things I do when I’m writing stories. And the same response! Silence! Kid still head on the desk, kid still texting, bald gang banger kid staring daggers into me. And again, when they left, no response.
The next week at our lunch meeting, I said, “Mr. D, maybe I’m not cut out for this, maybe I can’t reach these kids.” He says, “You know what? I will talk to them.” The next class, he’s cajoling and pleading and joking with the kids and making them listen. And they’re very excited and he sits back down again. And they’re looking at me again and I just looked at them. I had no idea what to do. Maybe I couldn’t reach these kids. Maybe I was too old, too out of touch, not with it with these kids. Maybe I just didn’t have anything to say. And I finally just said, “Look, I told you all the stories I know. I’ve taught you the things that I do when I write stories and I’m at the end here. So maybe it’s just time for me to shut up and listen. Maybe it’s just time for me to see what kind of stories you got. So what I’m gonna do is I’m gonna sit down on this desk right here and I’m going to leave this podium open. It’s open podium. You come up and you just tell me one sentence of one story that might go in our anthology at the end of this little time that we have together. ‘Cause you have an opportunity to be published in an anthology! An amazing opportunity to do that! Mr. D and I are working hard to do this. It’s up to you now.” And I sat down.
And Mr. D was silent. And I was silent. And those kids didn’t look at anything. Just sat there. The longest 5 minutes that I’ve had in my performing career, my storytelling career. I sat there and I didn’t say anything. Just the seagulls blaring on the way to the beach a mile and a whole world away.
And then, Courtney stood up. Courtney, long hair, she looked younger and older than she should have been. She stood at that podium and she said, “I left my mom in Washington State 2 years ago. She was doing things that I don’t want to tell you about. I got on a bus with my under-the-mattress money, and I came to Venice. Got me a job at the grocery store, I work, I put myself up in my own apartment, and I’m a straight A student.” And she sat down.
And there was silence. And then, a kid got up, took his head up from the desk and walked up to the podium. And he said, “I don’t know if many of my extended family survived the Tsunami in Japan.” And there was a deeper silence in the room. And he sat down and put his head back on the desk. Maybe that’s why his head was on the desk these last three weeks.
More silence and then a kid walked up, wispy kid, blonde hair, blue eyes. He said, “I’m not Mexican enough for my friends and my white friends think I’m too Mexican. I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m 100% Mexican. I don’t know. They call me Little Blondie, Whitey… I don’t understand.” And he sat down.
And then bald, gang banger kid stood up. I didn’t flinch… or maybe I flinched. He was scary. I don’t know. He came sauntering up to me, just passed me; stood at that podium. Turned around, growled at the kids and he said, “It’s not easy keeping this head so smooth and shiny.” (Moves hand down head as he says “smooth and shiny.”)
And we all busted out laughing. 30 kids from 20 countries and 2 old, old, old as dirt dudes laughing, laughing as this kid went, “smooth and shiny.” (Moves hand down head as he says “smooth and shiny.”) And he walked back to his desk, high-fiving and fist bumping. And kids now, could not be contained in their chairs. Leaping at that podium. Everybody wanting to speak with one sentence of what their story might be in an anthology.
And at the end of that class that bell went off and nobody moved. And baldy in the corner said, “Yo, we just got started!” And Mr. D said, “That’s what I’m talking about. We just got started. You got eight more weeks with this guy and me and that podium to create an anthology that’s gonna be published in the world!” And a kid started almost to smile. And he said, “Next week he’ll be here, I’ll be here, that podium will be here! Don’t forget to read Chapter 7 in your book tonight and get on out to 5th period and don’t be late you Scallywags!” And the kids, as they walked by, looked at me through the corner of their eye and almost smiled. Mr. D came up to me, held his hand out, I shook it. He leaned into me and said, “It’s about time, Shorty!” I laughed and said, “Thanks a lot, senior citizen!”
And Mr. D and I worked with those kids. And those kids wrote their stories and after 12 weeks, we submitted them to Pen in The Classroom. And they published this book, “I Stand Alone: A Collection of Stories and Poems From Mr. D’s 12th Grade English Class.”
And if 30 kids from 20 countries and two old as dirt teachers can create this. (Points to book.)
In my heart, I sometimes feel that we can do anything. Now I don’t always feel that way but when I do, it’s powerful.
And I want to read to you the poem that I wrote for those high school kids that is included at the end of this anthology. It’s called “For Mr. D’s High School Kids in the Anthology.”
I came to Venice High School to work a two month writing residency with questions.
Would Mr. D be as cool in the classroom as he seemed outside the classroom?
Would I be able to find the office through the maze of jean-clad, texting teens?
Is this really where they film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High?”
Would I be too nervous to share my stories to seniors who are ready to graduate? Would they listen? Will I ever be able to help them write anything?
Is that kid white or Mexican? Is that gang banger in the corner going to kill me after class? And how does he get his head so shiny and smooth? It’s so smooth and shiny! I wonder how he does it? And then those high school seniors began to read one sentence of their story from that podium after that one break through. And they started talking and listening and I had more questions. Do they have the courage to face their woundings and put it on the page? Will that kid ever stop texting? Will that kid ever get his head off the desk? Will that girl ever have the gumption to leave that boyfriend of hers? And how did that kid get his head so smooth and shiny? It’s so smooth. And will he kill me after class? And those kids started to write and rewrite. And then they’d stand at that podium with the recycling piling high in the corner and the seagulls screeching. And they started to pour forth a rumped up, drizzle down, gush over, scream, whisper, speak secrets, reveal wonder, reveal wonder, show courage, rip tides, tear hearts open…Revealing wonder, revealing wonder, revealing wonder! Making me laugh, making me sigh, making it hard to keep my eyes dry! And I would witness and talk and question. And they would pour forth, knowing that I couldn’t take away the pain of what they’d face in a day. But I know that they’re survivors because they are here in class. They are not dead. They’re not in jail. They’re not ditching. They’re here struggling to graduate.
And I knew it didn’t feel like anything to them. But to me, it’s amazing! And José wrote an amazing poem where we got our title saying that he stands alone. He stands alone. And I say to José, “You do not stand alone. I stand with you. You stand with me. We stand together.”
And I will carry your memory from this class out into the world as I tell stories. And I will tell it and tell it and tell it. And journey with you even though we may never see each other again. And you gotta know and we gotta know and we gotta remember that we stood together for a time. We stand together, we stand together!
And even though I have more questions, always questions, at least I have one answer. For a smooth head, all you need is Neutrogena and a Mach 5 razor.
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.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Looking-for-Papito
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.
by Storyteller Antonio Sacre
While studying to become an actor, Sacre happened into storytelling through a class at Northwestern University. Because he found that he was often excluded from acting jobs because he was seen as either “too ethnic” or “not ethnic enough,” he took on storytelling performances to pay the bills. He started to understand the power of his bilingual storytelling and remembers an encounter with a grade school bully where learning the other boy’s story made all the difference. (more…)
By Storyteller Antonio Sacre
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:
By Antonio Sacre
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. (more…)
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.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Music-to-Dream-of-Cuba-By
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.”
By Storyteller Antonio Sacre
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. (more…)