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Please begin with an informative title:

I'm writing this on the anniversary of my mother's birth.  She would have been 88 today.  She was an elementary school teacher, and that connection prompted me to write this story.

I've been going through old photos recently, and I came across two from when I was in elementary school.  They're from a play I was in, and I'd always been kind of proud of my performance, and of the whole show that my rural elementary school put on.  But now, as I look back, something that seemed a little peculiar at the time really bugs me now.

I'll take you back to the small town of Calipatria, California, located in the Imperial Valley.  Calipatria's claim to fame was that it was the "lowest down city in the Western Hemisphere, and that it had a flagpole that went all the way up to sea level: 186 feet.  It was right outside where the Cub Scouts met, and we would sometimes get to raise or lower the flag (that wasn't easy, the flag was huge, flapped in the constant wind, and took several of us to move it on the pulleys.  It took a whole troop to fold it.

Calipatria in the late 50s and early 60s was a very socially stratified town, like a lot of them in the area.  There was a group of predominately white farmer families who owned farms and ranches, and who were quite well off.  There was also a large group of Hispanic families who mainly worked for the white farmers.

Now you'd think that a town of 2500 would probably be able to get by with one elementary school, and indeed, the school I attended, Fremont, seemed to have plenty of room, and it was mostly quite modern for the time.  Yet there was another elementary school not that far away, called Bonita Elementary.  Fremont was attended primarily by children who looked like me, but we had a few Hispanic students.  Bonita, as I am given to understand now, had Hispanic students only.  Even then, although I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it, it didn't make a lot of sense to me why the Hispanic  kids had to go to another school.

Follow me down.


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Then, in 1962, when I was in the 4th grade, the teachers decided to put on a big spring pageant/show featuring kids from both schools from grades 1-4.  It was circus theme, with acrobatic acts, lion taming, and music.

As it turned out, the teachers seemed to feel I was the best male singer, because I got the biggest singing part in the show.  It came early in the show.  My two friends Larry and Don, both good singers too, had singing parts, but theirs were nothing like mine.  Larry played the peanut vendor, singing a simple song of "Peanuts, Peanuts, hot roasted peanuts" or something like that, for one pass through the high school gym.  Don followed with his "popcorn, popcorn" song.

I was the organ grinder. I sang a real song with quite a few verses.  My dad built me a prop crank organ, and my mother made a nice costume.  I practiced my song constantly so I knew the lyrics cold, at least back then:

Beppo is fine-a monk,
Not what you'd call a-junk.
He's with me every day,
From me he never stray.

We go from town to town . . .

I think you get the idea.

Now since I was an organ grinder, I had to have . . . a monkey.  And I got one.  I just saw these photos for the first time in probably 45 years.  Here we are doing our act.

The Organ Grinder and his monkey.
We got paid, too.  As you can see there are kids throwing money to the "monkey."
I believe my co-star's name was Armando (it's been a long time).  He was in first grade, and wore a monkey suit with a tail and a kufi.  I liked him, and we practiced together a number of times.  I didn't think much about it, because I figured the little kids got those parts because they were little.

Once we got to dress rehearsal, I finally got to see the whole show, since I was the end of Act I.  I'm not going to say I had some big revelation, because I didn't, but I did notice that the lion tamer was an Anglo kid, and the lions were Hispanic.  I also noticed that all the monkeys were Hispanic kids.  At one point during the show, "my" monkey ran off to join the other monkeys.  There were several other acts.  The Anglo girls played the magician's assistants, while the Hispanic girls played the horses, and on, and on.

But I was nine, and just glad to get through my part without screwing up.  Then it was over, I moved away the next year, and I forgot about it.  I never saw Armando after the show.

So fast forward 50 years.  I got that song back in my head, and I began to see images of the show too.  What had seemed a little odd to me then became abundantly clear to me as an adult.

It's my understanding that lawsuits eventually closed the Bonita school, partly because it was a delapidated fire-trap that didn't meat earthquake standards for schools, and partly because it was pretty clearly a segregated second-class warehouse for kids the powers that be in the town had little regard for, except to be able to drive up in their Cadillacs to the fields, roll down the window, ask "aqua aqui?" to those kids' parents, get told "Si, Senor," and then drive back to their air-conditioned homes and offices.

I don't know if I'll ever get over it now.  I don't believe that the teachers (including my mother, who taught 3rd grade at Fremont), meant any ill-will or even thought there was anything wrong.  Nobody did - it was just the way things were.  But that may be what bothers me the most, that it seemed like it was normal to treat children who looked different like animals.  It hurts me a little to know I was a part of it, and I regret that this didn't come back to me sooner, while my mother was still alive.  I'd have liked to have talked it over with her.

Perhaps I'm making too big a thing about this, but it bothers me a little every day, especially when I hear these mostly Republican, mostly Southern politicians talk about race, Acorn, etc, and act as if we're in a "post racial" society.  I know that's not true, and sometimes it makes me feel as if nothing's really changed in 50 years.  I hope I'm wrong.

11:04 PM PT: Thank you for the Rec List.  My mother would appreciate that.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to greggp on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 08:27 PM PST.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges and Community Spotlight.

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