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>Acculturated & Seventh Grade – Again

June 27, 2010


My dictionary defines acculturation as “The modification of the culture of an individual as a result of contact with a different culture.” The key word here is “modification.” Most Americans were in daily contact with the life and culture of Mexico, but were never changed (modified) by it. Instead, they actively resisted it, often criticizing it. If Mom hadn’t made the decision to enroll my sister and me in Mexican schools, we might  have traveled the same path. I’m grateful she made the decision, even though it meant three years in seventh grade.


After fifteen months in Mexico, Valerie and I were fully acculturated. We could read, write and speak Spanish fluently. We attended Mexican schools, had Mexican friends, visited in their homes and went to their parties. We watched Mexican movies and listened to Mexican music. We were familiar and comfortable with Mexican standards of courtesy and respect.
I knew downtown Guadalajara as well as I  knew my own neighborhood in Colonia Chapalita. I knew the names of all the downtown streets and in which one-way direction they ran. I knew where to get a cheap lunch and which were the cheap movie theaters. I knew which buses to take to wherever I wanted to go. I still enjoyed going to the two big markets and I’d learned to bargain with the vendors. I knew by name most of the tienda owners in our part of Colonia Chapalita: dona Luz or don Ramon or dona Felipa.
SNAPSHOT: Don Mateo, the broom man, is stooped over, a burlap sack stuffed with handmade brooms slung over his shoulder. He wears an old black felt hat and a rope holds up his baggy pants. His face is weathered and covered with several days of stubble. His warm smile makes up for his lack of teeth.
I knew which day the scissors-grinder man, don Emilio, would come around with his familiar “scissors” cry: T-i-j-e-e-e-r-a-a-s!” or don Mateo, the broom man with his E-s-c-o-o-o-o-b-a-s!cry. Don Joaquin, the tortilla man, pedaled by every day between 11:45 and noon, a large basket of fresh masa and hot tortillas wrapped in towels on the back of his bike. Irene usually bought a half kilo of the fresh masa and began making tortillas right away. When I came home from school for lunch the warm, subtle smell greeted me as soon as I opened the door. It filled the house and I could hear the soft, rhythmic pat-pat-pat of her hands as she shaped the little balls of masa into tortillas for all of us. The mailman signaled his arrival each day with piercing notes from his tin whistle.

SNAPSHOT: She’s young, maybe seventeen, petite, and wearing a white maid’s uniform. It’s smudged with dirt and the hair on one side of her face sticks to her cheek with sweat. But I can see that she’s very pretty. He must be in his thirties, tall for a Mexican, over six feet, and solid. His black mustache is neatly trimmed, his hair perfectly groomed, not a hair out of place. His arm circles her tiny waist and she’s giggling as he pulls her out of sight behind his bread truck.
The bread man’s arrival was always jarring. He had modernized, driving a panel truck to make his deliveries. He pulled up in front of our house a couple of times a week and simply leaned on the horn to let us know he was there. He was handsome and a ladies’ man. I saw him regularly in my travels around Chapalita. Sometimes he’d be holding hands with a young maid at a house where he was delivering. Then I’d see him another time discreetly kissing another maid at another house. Did they know of his philandering ways? Probably, probably. But he was almost certainly a welcome break in their daily routine.
My acculturation also involved learning about what H. Allen White in his book, The Pig in the Barber Shop, called “The Great Obscenity.” Drivers do it with their horn, others do it by whistling. We recognize it as the familiar seven syllables of “shave and a haircut, two bits.” This is a non-verbal rendering of the greatest obscenity that can be used in Mexico: ¡Chinga tu madre, cabron! Our English equivalent would be “motherfucker.”
I also learned to avoid using the number “41.” Its use implied homosexuality. When I asked a friend at school for an explanation, he said that there was a club of homosexuals in Mexico City and it had forty-one members. I believed it.
There were many significant changes in our lives that were part of our acculturation. Courtesy and respect were, and are, an integral part of Mexican culture, much more so than in American culture, then as well as now. Respect for age is paramount, whether children for adults or adults for aging parents or grandparents. The language itself has much to do with this, given its two forms of address, familiar and formal. From the time children learn to talk (and, for Valerie and me, from the time we started learning Spanish), they learn which situations demand which form. The younger the child, the more circumscribed is the use of the familiar, generally limited to friends and siblings (including older ones). The formal, respectful form is used with adults: parents, other close adult relatives, teachers, priests, nuns, the shopkeeper on the corner, adult family friends, and even strangers. There is also a clear class distinction in the use of the formal versus the familiar: servants and others considered to be of lower status are almost always addressed in the familiar “tu” by those of higher status who, in return, are addressed using the formal “usted.
To those outside the culture, this respect may have appeared stiff and formal, implying a lack of affection or a distance between parents and children. But appearances are deceiving. If anything, I was struck by how much more time my Mexican friends and their families spent together versus my American friends and their families. Meals were taken together, mass was attended as a family, parties and get-togethers, whether given by the parents or the child, were attended, and enjoyed, by both. Older children spent time playing with and caring for their younger brothers and sisters. The Mexican family was cohesive and the respect expected of children was overshadowed by the love and affection showered on them by their parents.
Children showed their respect for adults in other ways, for example, by standing when an adult entered the room. When I was at Perico and Alejandro’s house and their mother or their grandmother, entered the room, we stood up and offered our seats. This was also true at school: students stood whenever an adult entered the classroom and remained standing until asked to be seated or until the adult left.
Another adaptation Valerie and I made was to add the initial “G” after our last name. We did this at Antonio’s suggestion (and Mom’s insistence).
In Mexico, to have only one last name, the mother’s, is an indication of illegitimate birth so the second “G” was added, making our names Valerie and David Gardner Gardner. In my yearbooks, under my photo, it says David Gardner G.
There are also phrases and nuances in the language that, when not used, can be taken as a lack of respect. For example, not saying “Con su permiso.” (with your permission) when walking in front of an adult. Body language, knowing how to acknowledge an introduction, how to greet an adult, how to say good-bye, how to show deference; these are all things that Valerie and I learned quickly, easily and unconsciously. Without them, we would have still become bilingual. But without them, we would have remained 100% gringo.
Seventh Grade – Again
It’s September and school is starting again. Val enters second grade at Colegio Guadalupe. I return to Colegio Cervantes and enter. . . seventh grade. I couldn’t believe it! I’d done seventh grade at Van Nuys Junior High, I’d entered seventh grade at the American School, I’d finished seventh grade at Colegio Cervantes the year before and now I was to be in seventh grade again?
SNAPSHOT: The school director, Ignacio Martinez Hernandez, sits behind his desk, leaning back, fingers steepled. His wire rim spectacles add a look of severity to his expression. A photograph of Pope John XXIII is on the wall behind him. A crucifix hangs from the frame.
“Yes,” the director told me. “Last year all you did was learn Spanish, you didn’t do any of the work or complete any of the requirements.” He paused, then went on. “If you return to Cervantes, you return to primer ano de secundaria, seventh grade.” I thanked him respectfully, turned and left, stunned at this piece of news. Mom wasn’t real happy either but if it was a choice between the American School or another year in seventh grade at Cervantes, then there really wasn’t a choice. I returned to seventh grade, two years older than everyone else. I was beginning to feel like a professional seventh grader.
In all honesty, once the shock wore off, I don’t remember feeling resentful or angry or bitter, though in retrospect it seems like I should have. Nor do I remember feeling awkward or embarrassed showing up each day so much older than my classmates. Equally strange, but welcome, was the fact that there was no taunting, no one making fun of me. In my memory, life went just as it had before, just as if I weren’t in my third year of seventh grade. I do have to ask this, though: did this contribute to my dropping out of school completely after flunking ninth grade at Cervantes? It’s a question I can’t answer.
In any case, I was once again in Salon 13, and, once again, with Ignacio Alvarez T. as my homeroom teacher. We called him don Nacho (short for “Ignacio”). Behind his back we called him “Dumbo” and a look at his photograph in the yearbook explains why. He was one of the younger teachers at school, wore glasses, had an engaging smile and was well liked, in spite of his uncomplimentary nickname.
Mexicans have long loved baseball, and this was brought home to me one October morning in 1957. I’d just bought a torta and a Coke at the school store and was walking over to join some friends when the PA system crackled to life. Just another teacher or director announcement, I figured, and kept on walking, fully intending to tune out whatever announcement might be made. How important could it be? But as I threaded my way around the espriobol and basquetbol games I thought I heard “Noo Jork Jahnquis” and I stopped, puzzled. More followed: Hahnk Bawer, Tony Koobek, Miki Mantell, Waitee Foord. I knew those names! The Yankees were my favorite team and I knew their lineup backward and forward: Yogi behind the plate, Moose at first, Bobby Richardson at second, Gil McDougall at short, Andy Carey at third, and the outfield: Bauer, Howard and Mantle. Pitching aces “Bullet” Bob Turley and Whitey Ford. But why was I hearing their names now? Just then the bell rang and we all made our way to our classrooms, me all a-tingle, the unexpected broadcast whisking me back home again.
I was hoping that there would be more playground broadcasts but no, that was the only one. I suspect someone (the director?) had been listening to the game and accidentally sent it out over the PA. But even those few minutes of listening brought me closer to feeling completely assimilated: Mexicans loved baseball too!
            Back in the old neighborhood all my friends had been Dodger fans; I was the sole Yankee fan. And what a fan I was! I knew the lineups, the batting averages, the schedule, the standings, everything about the Bronx Bombers. I bought baseball cards every week, hoping to get a Mickey Mantle. (I never did.)
            Even after moving to Mexico I was able to keep track of my team. There were occasional reports on Mexican radio, film summaries in movie theater newsreels, and conversations among Americans who had short wave radios. One of my friends also had a short wave and I listened whenever I could. Sometimes I could even pick up an AM station from somewhere in south Texas and get scores. More often, though, I got fire-and-brimstone preachers. I listened to them, too, but it wasn’t the medium and it wasn’t the message. I listened because they fascinated me with their melodramatic denunciations of sin, their ability to bring their congregation to a fever-pitch of excitement and ecstasy and then bring them down again ever-so-gently.
All the rooms were wired to the school’s PA system and announcements could be made from the office to any or all classrooms. The classrooms, in turn, could talk to the office. One Saturday I was over at the house of an American friend, Billy Lowe. His father, beefy, sweaty with straggly white hair, a retired Baptist preacher, asked me some questions about Cervantes. Not simple, pass-the-time-of-day, how’s school questions, but challenging ones: Isn’t that a Catholic school? Are you Catholic? Are they teaching you religion? Does your mother know this? Doesn’t she object? Only half of me was paying attention – the other half was fascinated watching his face turn increasingly red as he allowed himself to get all worked up. He is a Baptist preacher, after all, and I attend a Catholic school where they teach that false, papist religion. He really exploded when I mentioned the PA system to him.
“You mean they can listen in to what’s being taught in the classrooms?” he thundered. His face and neck were the color of a bright red balloon. “Do you know that’s what the Communists do? Why, they’re just a pinko school and I’m surprised your mother makes you go there!”
 I had no idea what he was talking about. Just another puzzling adult tempest in a teapot.
* * * * *
SNAPSHOT: Alfonso and I circle each other warily on the playground, fists cocked. A large crowd of boys surrounds us with more running over to see the fight. You can just see a teacher in the background, also running over.
The second week of my second year at Colegio Cervantes. While playing basketball at recess, I got into a heated argument with Alfonso Sanchez. Like
Luis Gomez, my first-year mentor, he was a gabacho, born in the States but culturally Mexican. He had short, dark, curly hair set on a round face. He was stocky and outweighed me by at least twenty pounds.
The argument started over who last touched the ball before it went out of bounds, each of us claiming the other did. The other students who were playing gathered around us, curious to see what would happen, probably hoping a fight would happen. And it did. Our shouting and verbal jabs escalated until, without thinking, I shoved Alfonso, hard. He took a couple of steps back, smiled, clenched his fists and slowly walked towards me.
Now there’s a curious thing about playground fights, one that sociologists should investigate: how is it that news of a fight is communicated instantaneously to everyone in a radius of one hundred feet? The original small group grew quickly to mob size even before the first punch was thrown.
As it started, we sparred, danced in and out, feinted, looked for an opening we could exploit without being hit in return. I was totally focused on Alfonso, his eyes and his fists. His eyes would signal what he was going to do, his fist would do it. I was oblivious to the throng surrounding us. Most, I’m sure, were cheering for Alfonso.
For a few moments neither of us inflicted any damage or connected with any punches. Then Alfonso feinted with his left and I went for it. That left an opening and he hit me with a solid right cross, flush on my cheek. I was totally surprised, both at actually being hit and also that I didn’t feel it; it didn’t faze me a bit. It rocked me back a step and then I came at him and staggered him with an equally good punch on his chin.
Playground fights don’t happen in silence, of course, and the ruckus quickly attracted a teacher who came over and broke it up. We were taken to the director’s office where we were warned about engaging in this kind of behavior and if it happens again our families will be informed and we will be suspended, possibly expelled and this isn’t the kind of behavior Colegio Cervantes expects from its students and certainly not the kind of behavior that will lead to being good citizens later in life and so forth and so on and on and on. It was the universal “no-fighting lecture” and I’m sure Alfonso tuned out, just as I did.
As often happens in spontaneous scuffles like this, Alfonso and I were friends again the next day, no hard feelings. I stood a little taller in my own estimation for holding my own against a bigger opponent and I suspect the fight helped my standing with the other boys. I am glad to say that that was my only fight. At school, anyway.
The list of subjects taught at Cervantes over the three years of secundaria was comprehensive: biology, physics, chemistry, algebra, trigonometry, geometry, geography, Mexican history, literature (Spanish and Mexican), Spanish grammar, English, music, sculpture, art and religion. There were no writing composition classes and no Phys Ed, although the school fielded intramural teams in soccer and basketball.
Report cards were handed out every Monday morning, to be signed and returned the next day. The first time this happened caught me by surprise. I had known that moving to Mexico meant there would be changes in my life, although I never gave much thought to just what form those changes would take or how they would happen. But it never occurred to me that report cards would be one of them.
In the States, report cards had been major twice-yearly events, one at the end of each semester. Here they were major weekly events and Mom could keep track of my schoolwork and my behavior on a weekly basis. This didn’t strike me as very fair. Mom thought otherwise.
The grading system in Mexico was also different from what I was used to. No familiar A-B-C-D-F with their pluses and minuses. Grades here were on a scale of 0 to 10. Anything below a six was failing. And, yes, it did make a difference if you got, say, a 2 or a 5 because students were ranked based on the total number of grade points on the report card and the ranking was shown in a special box. I occasionally cracked the top ten, and, once in a while, even the top five. More often I hung around the middle of the pack.
 The end-of-the-month report cards were a little more important because these reflected how well we had done on our monthly exams. But the two most important report cards were the mid-term in January and the end-of-term in June. I hadn’t participated in these tests my first year because I didn’t yet speak Spanish so my first time around came in January, 1958. It was a brand new experience.
It’s lunchtime the Friday before the three days of testing and the director makes an all-school announcement. “Testing will commence next Monday at 9:00 AM. Students are expected to be in their places no later than 8:45 that morning. Late-arriving students will not be admitted.”
Okay, no big deal. As a matter of fact, I’ll get to sleep an extra hour or so. Then he went on.
“Please bring three sharpened pencils and notebook paper with you. If this is your first time taking these tests, you will need to write down the address of the testing hall.” Now he had my attention. What did he mean, “testing hall?” We weren’t going to take the tests at school? But there was more.
“These tests will be proctored,” he went on after reading out the testing hall address. “Anyone found cheating will be expelled from Colegio Cervantes. Your tests will be collected, graded and returned to you, along with your mid-term report card, next Monday.” Click.
That was it. I looked around, expecting to see the same disbelief in the faces of my friends as I’m sure mine showed. They were calmly chatting, gathering their things and getting ready to go home for lunch.
“Did you hear that? Did you hear what the Director said?” I was aware of a rising sense of panic in my voice. “What does he mean, a testing hall? What does “proctor” mean? My God! I didn’t write down the address! I’m going to be expelled!” This was it, full panic mode.
David Ayala turned to me. “Relax, cuate, we do this every year and then again in June. We go, we take the test and then we’re free the rest of the day. It’s like three half-days of vacation. Hey, Tamayo! Give the gringo the address so he can breathe again.”
Ruben hastily scrawled the address on a piece of paper and handed it to me. My panic wasn’t allayed, just redirected. Now I had to spend the whole weekend studying.
Nonetheless, I did well on the tests and throughout the school year, my third in seventh grade (God knows I’d had enough practice!), and I secured an award, aplicacion segundo, awarded for effort. There are awards (in first or second degree) for conduct, academic excellence, and attendance in addition to aplicacion. There was also an award for morality. I have no idea what a student had to do win that award, but I’m sure my fight with Alfonso disqualified us both.

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