I look directly into the camera and see myself reflected in the lens, my image no longer distorted by filters of fear and ignorance. The reporter asks, “por que piensas que debemos festejar el cumpleanos de Cesar E. Chavez?”
Holding back six years of anger, tears and rage back, I tell them about Mrs. Dullard, about how much her ignorance hurt me and how much I wanted to shatter her coffee –stained teeth as she told me while the class stared, “You obviously misunderstood the assignment. I specifically asked you to write on an American hero, not a Mexican.”
For as long as I could remember I wanted to succeed in school it just seemed that I always got sidetracked, sometimes by my own design and sometimes by other peoples distractions. I wanted to be in honors English where students went on field trips to colleges, where I would hear about all these wonderful accomplishments. I tried many times to transfer into these classes but my counselor would say, “You’re not ready. You would be better off in a class where you have friends.” She meant shop class. But I kept coming back until one day she looked up from her computer and asked, “Can you handle it?”
After several keystrokes, she smirked, “good luck, Mr. Anaya.”
The night before classes started I removed the store tags from my new shirt and jeans. New underwear and socks would have to wait until Christmas. The next morning I awoke before the sun and the rest of the family to be the first in line for the hot water shower. At school I waited with my friends, leaning against the gray metal bars, staring down the passing guys, looking the girls up and down. The bell rang and we strolled across campus.
“Where are you going?” they asked as I turned away from them.
I pointed to the new buildings where most of the honors classes where held.
The smell of coffee surrounded me in the classroom like it does in the coffee aisle at Lucky’s. I slipped into an empty seat near the back of the room. I didn’t know a single person there. Oh I recognized some of them as the messengers who passed out attendance sheets and passed out detention slips.
Then it hit me. The guys were all wearing slacks, not jeans. And polished dress shoes. I moved back one seat with my back against the wall, put my head down, and pulled my feet under my chair to hide them as if I was at Payless buying new shoes and trying to hide the hole in my sock.
The final bell rang, but there was no teacher. In my other classes we were not trusted to be in the room without the teacher. Here the students chatted, bragging about their summer vacations, and the new cars their parents had just bought them.
Finally three minutes into class, a gaunt woman in clothes two sizes too large strolled, coffee cup in hand, to the coffee machine, hunched over and refilled her cup. Her glasses covered most of her face, except for the deeply engraved crows’ feet near her eyes. Her wrinkled skin, also two sizes too large, hung from her jaws and her arms. She had more lipstick on her cup than on her lips. Setting the cup down, she ran her cadaverous fingers through her thinning hair, exposing white roots.
“Turn in your homework.”
Homework? It’s only the first day. Yet everyone passed sheets of paper to the front of the class. What was this a clandestine society that met over the summer to make me look bad? Everyone had been assigned the Grapes of Wrath as summer reading and had to turn in a report based on the project.
“Where is your homework?” she asked.
I started to respond.
I sank further into my chair.
All I could hear was, “Failure…fail.” She pointed out how, if people followed my lead, they were sure not to succeed. Then she outlined the class content and the major project. For the next three weeks she drilled us on thesis, margins, footnotes, keeping the topic of our final project a secret. Finally she told us the topic was an eight –page research essay on an American hero of our choosing.
It seemed easy enough. Now I could prove that I belonged in this class of khaki-clad students. I soon realized that my heroes were my hardworking parents, not Jefferson, Franklin, or Washington. But, since no one had written about them, how could I write about them. How could I write about their heroic lives to give me a better life? How they had to sacrifice and leave their families and how they had to work two jobs so we could eat. How my mother sat in front of a sewing machine into the morning hours so we could complete the rent.
In frustration, I leafed through my history book and in bold text the word “HUELGA!” caught my eye. Spanish? In my history book? Next to it was a picture of a black eagle and a photo of a dark-skinned, white haired man of gentle warmth. As I read the half-page biography of Cesar E. Chavez, I knew I had found my hero. Someone who’s family struggle mirrored my families, someone who spoke spanish, ate bean and tortillas, and heard the same scary stories form his abuelita. I had found someone who I could look up too.
I did as much library research as possible, but the materials were repetitive and of little substance. However, I pieced together on 3X5 cards the life of an extraordinary man who fasted nearly to death and les a movement against pesticides and oppression. I was ready to type up the essay.
Mrs. Dullard had assumed that we all owned a computer. Wrong. I told my parents that I had to type up my paper, so early on a Sunday morning we went to the swap mmeet. “Ven, Paca. Mira Esto,” my father said pointing to a Smith-Corona typewriter with the “M” missing. Not exactly a computer but it would have to do. Back home I learned how to insert the paper and peck out the words. I would not catch typos until I pulled a completed page out, ad would have to redo the page. The end-notes would have to be redone. I must have retyped that paper a dozen times. My family had to go away on a family emergency the final weekend before it was due, but I kept working even while away in Mexicali
We got home Sunday night and that night I put the final touches on my paper.
When I looked outside the sun had already begun to light up the sky. A hummingbird hurried from flower to flower; trying to get as much nectar as possible. I rested my eyes.
The smell of coffee woke me up. Not Mrs. Dullards coffee, this was family coffee, the kind my parents usually would forbid I drink. Someone had covered me up with a blanket. I bolted upright, wiped my laganas from my eyes, and saw my typewriter in the corner, the papers stacked neatly on top.
I took the fastest shower ever not even noticing that all the hot water was gone. My mother dropped me off at school, asking, “No le das beso a tu madre?”
“Ay Ama, “ I grunted pecked her on the cheek and walked away to class.
Paper in hand, head high, I entered the class, hear the noise and laughter, and saw that the essays that everyone else had were bound in pretty covers, not a single staple like mine. They knew how to bond their lips to the teacher’s bony ass. They carried their essays to her desk and stacked them. Discreetly, I waited, then slipped mine into the middle of the pile were no one could see it. I returned to my desk, put my head down, and waited for the bell to ring.
Thee weeks passed, then five,. Each day I asked, “Have you had an opportunity to grade my paper?
“Not yet, but Ill get to it,” she would answer.
Finally after five weeks, she carried in a plastic milk crate with our papers peeking our over the top. “Finally our papers, someone whispered. We sat in silence while Mrs. Dullard poured her coffee, this woman must have coffee for blood. She adjusted her glasses, and peered as if to size us up.
I felt as if I were trapped in a Charlie Brown cartoon; the teacher’s words a mumble in my ears. One by one she reached in an pulled out a paper, announcing the writers first name, with a smile, a remark on the quality of the paper, or a simple good morning. Toward the bottom of the box, she started using last names, quit smiling, and avoided eye contact.
My paper was at the bottom of the pile. “Anaya,” she called, but not wait for me to reach her desk. Before I could get to the front of the class she put the paper on her desk and began explaining the grading as if it did not apply to me. I grabbed my paper, but did not look at it until I was back in my seat. I had expected to see some corrections on it, but I was stunned. It look as if she had cut herself with one of my staples and bled on every page, the red ink blending with the coffee stains that had saturated and wrinkled the top of my entire essay. Next to the stain she had written, “Please see me.” But there was no grade.
In the silence, while the others reviewed her comments on their papers, I went up and asked her what my grade was. As I moved forward every student looked directly at me, She stood and looked down on me. Silently I handed her my paper. All watched as she pointed out how grammatically flawed my paper was, how my endnotes would have looked better had I used a computer.
She paused, sipped her coffee, and said, “You obviously misunderstood the assignment. I specifically asked you to write on an American hero, not a Mexican Hero.”
Did she not see the part in my paper where he serve this country in the military, that he lived and did his work in the US. The fact that in Mexico they did not know of his work.
I could see my reflection distorted in her glasses. I could feel the class dissecting me , waiting to see what I would do. I tried to hide behind the lectern. I did not want the class to see my eyes tearing up with anger. All I could seem to think of was my grandmother working in the lettuce fields in Calexico and how much she suffered.
“This is exactly what happens when you don’t follow directions.”
I reached back to try to answer, but could not find the words. When they did come, fear held them back, fear of being corrected in front of the class for a mispronunciation or my lisp. I swallowed the words straight into my gut, where the lining absorbed them into my blood. I left my paper on her desk, avoided the eyes of the class and returned to my seat, heart racing, ears ringing, a fire of rage kindled in my veins, in my mind, in my spirit.
With over 1000 people crowded into the San Diego Convention Center I listened to a young man read his essay about Cesar. My hidden fear was that the audience would react as Mrs. Dullard had reacted towards me. I was wrong, the audience stood and gave him a standing ovation, moving the student to such emotion hat he left the stage in tears of overwhelming joy. I cried later that day knowing deep inside that our youth today can celebrate Cesar, his legacy, and his life
I never met Cesar and our youth today never did either. But his life values, and legacy continue to inspire countless of people throughout this entire country to create a community of service, to honor his sacrifice.
Que Viva Cesar Chavez!