It was Fall of 1938 and my long-awaited moment had arrived: I was going to go to to school!
My brother Ben had been going for three years and my sister Carmen had gone to Our Lady of Guadalupe Elementary for a year. And were already English speakers, well on their way towards leaving the dark ages of monolingualism.
They were even able to make fun of me in a foreign language. But I'd run to mother shouting: "?Am?! ??Mira!! Benny y Carmen se 'tan burlando de mi!"
"Que te 'tan dijiendo, mi'jo?"
"No se..me 'tan hablando en ingles!"
"We're not making fun, mother! We just letting him get used to hearing English." Carmen reported in her best English that she already knew, which made mam? feel proud.
So one can imagine my joy as mam? took me by the hand to take me to Zavala to enroll me in Miss Herrera's lst Grade class, while Benny and Carmen ran, laughed and played as they led the way.
Miss Herrera welcomed me for she knew that Benny was the school's top student and that Carmen had also come to school already knowing how to read.
But by the time I started school it was very dramatic, for Miss Herrera's sense of urgency seemed to have grown to a high pitch.
"Children!! Now pay attention, please!! It very, very important for you to understand that you can only speak English in class. Do you understand?" she told us.
"?Qu? dijo?" was whispered throughout the class.
"Dice que no podemos hablar hasta que aprendemos Ingles," an English speaker reported to the "disadvantaged" classmates.
Miguel Torres broke out laughing and said "?Entonces nunca vamos a poder hablar nada!"
"I heard that young man..and there is nothing funny about it" said Miss Herrera with a thick Spanish accent.
Luckily, she had lots of brand new text books with fairy tales and beautiful pictures to pass out. And we all had a strong urge to look at them, with a lot of excitement.
After several minutes Miss Herrera announced: "Alright children, close your books and bring them up and stack them on the table."
Irma Saldivar and Terry Garcia quickly got up and the rest of us followed suit, as if we had all understood our instructions.
Miss Herrera was patience personified. And yet a real disciplinarian, never letting the sound of a Spanish word pass without saying: "Children! Speak English only!!"
Before too long the class broke down more or less as follows: Over half who came to school not knowing any English were eager to learn. Some like myself who had been exposed to English quickly became Ms Herrera's favorite, for we were living proof that her teaching skills were paying off. The rest resisted but nevertheless learned a lot. A small handful resisted, failing to understand what was so terrible about speaking the language of their forefathers.
Censorship of Spanish inevitable led to "accidents" and from time to time students had to be send home to change clothes because they had not been able to communicate that they had to go to the restroom.
The incident clearly traumatized some of us. And alerted Ms Herrera to work on lesson plans to teach us how to get permission to "go".
"Children..remember now! If you have to go just raise your hand and say: 'Teacher I have to go to the rest room.'"
One day Musio Flores -- who had been one of the very few who had not had his named changed into English -- raised his hand and blurted out: "?Teecher..tengo que hacer caca!"
And Ms Herrera seeing the urgency in his face replied: "Pos, andale pronto, no te vayas a ensuciar!"
Just about everyone breathed a sigh of relief knowing that Ms. Herrera also found it necessary to speak Spanish once in a while.
But speaking of having our names changed: My brother Benito had already long been known as Ben, which had a smart ring to it. Short and sophisticated. Carmen was lucky for she was born a Carmen and remained one.
I had been called Kiko all my life and had not even been called Franscisco at home. Besides when my mother went to have my name officially recorded, they wrote down Francis even though she had said my name was Franscisco.
So when I started school they naturally gave the English name: Frank.
The school took complete liberty in changing our names. Leopolo Mendez became Lee. Miguel of course became Mike and quickly learned to love it. Later when my sister Juanita went to school and became Janie she fell in love with the English language for it meant no more teasing with "Juana la marrana..se cayo en el soquetal..vino el zapatero y no la pudo levantar."
And my sister Petra who never could stand the name was named Patsy.
My brother Jesus became Jesse, a name he enjoyed from the go for being named Jesus was hard to live up to. Besides, Jesse was the name of an American folk hero: Jesse James!
As I said Musio kept his original name because they could find no translation for it. They couldn't call him Muse, I suppose. It was unfortunate because as time passed, our sense of cruelty grew as if it had been a prerequisite to growing up. And we started teasing him, calling him Mucio el sucio!
Another classmate named Teofilo didn't have his named changed either. And we'd teased him also saying Teofilo el feo!
By the time we reached the 4th grade most of us had become bilingual. And speaking a mixture of both languages became as natural as the air we breathed.
However when we were in the hallways and out playing in the playground, Spanish was our first choice.
Our 4th Grade homeroom teacher was Miss Grimes, a young and lovely lady with the biggest rump I had ever seen. So big that I was able to imagine sitting on it much like one sat of rumble seats in Model A Fords.
She was a science teacher, who kept even those whose English remained limited interested by showing pictures of such things as the solar system. She even had the good grace to overlook our expressions of excitement in Spanish. And she never sent any of us to the corner to sit with a dunce hat and a tag over our mouths saying "I will not speak Spanish".
By the time we reached the 5th Grade, about 80% of us had gone from speaking only Spanish to being able to get by in English. But among the remaining were those who learned just enough to get passing grades. However, they were getting further and further behind. And not surprisingly, most of them were those who were pulled out of school early to go with their families to the migrant stream to work in the farms in the outskirts of Austin or all the way to Colorado, Michigan, Ohio and California.
These school mates were the envy of many of us, who watched them leave the drudgery of school in large trucks as if they were going on a big adventure. And since they also came back sometimes long after school started, they remained within the warmth and security of the Spanish language spoken by the parents. So that by the time we were promoted to the 6th most of them had already been "pulled out" of school altogether.
The Zavala School teachers and administrators had a missionary zeal: To teach English, America's God-given language. A zeal that became hysterical once the country was at war throughout the world.
Sadly this meant more demand for farm workers; and more of our classmates failed to return to school.
So by the time we were in Miss Durham's 6th Grade Homeroom, just about everyone spoke good English. But at that point the school staff became even more aware that when we were in the halls and out in the playground during lunch and recess, we continued to prefer talking in Spanish. It made the administrator and teacher believe they had failed.
Some of them even continued to suspect that some students were even cursing at them.
This made the Zavala staff more determined to send nothing but English speakers to Allan Jr. High. And they strained their brains for ways to force us to use English at all times. Somehow they figured new ways to motivate us were needed: So they invented the Bean Contest.
They gave all the 6th Graders a Bill Durham bag filled with pinto beans. And they gave us instructions: Each time we heard a classmate speak Spanish we would take a bean away from them. At the end of the contest the student with the most beans would win the contest, with the reward being that this person would get a ride to Berstrom Field in a jeep and get to have lunch with the Air Force personnel.
So naturally, the predominantly English speakers who usually only hung around with each other suddenly started hanging around with those who would not speak English if they didn't have to. Among they was my sister Carmen and Irma Saldivar. And those who remained loyal to the first language would cheerfully take out their beans, enjoying the novelty of the game.
Some students pooled their beans and took them home to cook and came back the next day with bean tacos for their lunch. Others would give away their beans freely and raided their bean bag at home to replace them. One student who was apparently destined to be an agriculturalist planted the beans in the South of the building, inspired by the story of Jack in Bean Stalk, thinking that in a short while he'd have enough beans to win the contest heads on.
The bean contest in one way or another became fun for everyone. Those who continued to speak Spanish did so with pride, as if they would break out any moment singing "?Aye, Jalisco no te rajes!"
In truth, I was a middle of the roader who enjoyed hanging around with the Spanish speakers, enjoying handing out beans while willfully speaking Spanish in front of my sister Carmen and Irma. But Carmen confronted me and told me: "Kiko, you are such a phony! You know you speak English at home all the time. I'm going to tell mama!"
However, things suddenly seemed to go haywire. And fights started erupting.
"I heard you..I heard you.."
"Tu sabes. You said 'pelota'!"
"But you said 'pelota' too..and also said 'tu sabes'"!
"Well you said 'tu sabes' too!"
And zaz zaz: Mike Arredondo hit Lee Mendez.
"Le voy a dicer a mi hermano que me pegaste..and he's going to get you!"
"Him and what army," responded Mike who already thinking of joining the U.S. Marines.
Other similar fights were started so that the teachers realized that the contest was just making our ears more attuned to hearing Spanish. So the Bean Contest was abruptly canceled.
And when the beans plant began to sprout, they sent the school janitor to hoe them up, dashing dreams of Jack and the Bean Stalk at la escuela Zavala!
Frank M. Sifuentes:
Frank M. Sifuentes was born in Austin,Texas, l932, the third of 13 children. Married to Sarita, he has six children & 10 grandchildren. He has a BA from UCLA in History/Spanish. He writes short creative non-fiction, essays, poems, novels in progress.