In the Land of the New

Mexican immigrants find home in el nuevo South

Marigold Flower 2 by Alex / CC-BY-NC 2.0

When I was in the fourth grade at Grant Elementary School, our teacher introduced us to the word "ecology" and to that alternative version of the American flag that flew sporadically in the 1970s, the one with green and white stripes and a lowercase yellow e in a green field in place of the fifty stars. We couldn't raise our ecology flag in front of the school where Old Glory flew, but our teacher claimed that space in the name of Mother Earth with a class project to put a planter box at the base of the flagpole. We raised the money for the material to build the box, learned about compost and mulch, and debated whether we should plant daisies or roses or drought-hardy jade plants with fleshy, oval leaves. In the end, we filled the box with shovelfuls of moist black soil and planted marigolds, whose deep orange sunbursts are seared into my memory.

Thirty years later our planter box is still there. I see it whenever I return to my old neighborhood, which has suffered the many insults of recent California history. A few years after my sixth-grade graduation, a gadfly named Howard Jarvis led a middle-class rebellion against California's high property-tax rates, and the wellspring of money that had funded the Golden Age of California public education dried up. With each passing year, my old elementary school looks more like an exhausted old ship; its windows are sealed off with steel bars, and the blacktop where I once played touch football and baseball was wiped out long ago to make room for a flock of trailer-bungalows, "temporary classrooms" that have been fixed in place for decades. No one bothers much with the old planter box anymore, other than to repeatedly add layers of paint over the old redwood to erase the latest graffito. The building is sealed off most of the day, the better to protect the children inside against any outbreaks of unexpected violence, because in modern Los Angeles you just never know what kind of lunatic stalker might be out there. No one bothers or dares to lead groups of green-thumbed children to plant marigolds or roses or anything else in what has become a forgotten box of dirt.

Other Los Angeles schools have fared worse. At the Eastside elementary school where my wife once worked, teachers have resurrected the old "duck and cover" drills from the Atomic Age as an emergency response to the poorly aimed gunplay of local gang members; when bullets explode outside, the children know to dive under their desks, making a game out of it, giggling while their teachers cast worried eyes toward the windows. When I became a reporter at the Times, I inherited the thankless job foisted on all rookies: rolling out to the scenes of campus homicides to interview grieving classmates and stunned principals, and to reconstruct the path of bullets that somehow ended up in the torsos and skulls of children. For many years, it was hard for me to think of being a mother or a father without remembering the convulsive agony and sorrow of those parents I'd interviewed an hour or a day after they'd lost a son or daughter. One day an editor handed me a three-line dispatch from a wire service called City News. "URGENT: SCHOOL SHOOTING, COMPTON..." A few hours later I sat down in the newsroom to type a story that began with this sentence: "The stray bullet struck and killed eleven-year-old Alejandro Vargas as he stood at the heart of his school campus—on the front lawn beneath the flagpole...."

Alejandro had been waiting for his mother to pick him up at Ralph Bunche Middle School when a gang member opened fire on the school's security guard, not noticing or caring that there was a young boy standing nearby. His family gave me a copy of his last school photograph; here was a young man with a Mona Lisa smile and a neat part in his hair, standing against the obligatory blue-gray wash background, a lifetime of portraits seemingly awaiting him. My newspaper ran that picture and also a front-page, full-color photograph of his mother, Elisa Vargas, weeping not far from the spot where he fell, grabbing a chain-link fence in a moment of utter despair, a scene I had witnessed from just a few feet away, close enough to hear what she was repeating between sobs: "¿Por qué? ¿Por qué te fuiste?" Why? Why did you go? I had just finished scribbling those words in my notebook when a group of Latino parents corralled me and pulled me away. At first I thought they wanted me to leave Elisa alone, but no, they wanted to show me something, a more mundane injustice, but one that nevertheless helped explain how it had come to pass that an eleven-year-old boy would be shot down at his school's flagpole. They took me to see a small concrete block some thirty paces from where Alejandro died: it was the girls' bathroom. The toilets were backed up with a fetid stew of human waste, a putrefaction that hinted at the greater plague of decay that had swept through the school and the society and government responsible for it. "You see?" the parents said. "You see what kind of school this is?" How is this possible, their Mexican eyes asked, in this wealthy country? Why is it that our children suffer this daily indignity, and now death from random bullets?

At that moment I thought: The public schools are dead, like the body of that boy at the bottom of the flagpole. The idea that the California public schools might be a cocoon of learning and safety for immigrants like the Vargas family had passed into history. Across Southern California, uncounted thousands of immigrant families were reaching similar conclusions about the place they had come to with so many hopes and dreams. They expected a California where their children would build planter boxes and fill them with marigolds, where they might find work planting gardens for Americans, but instead there was this other, meaner place. Socorro Ibarra had gone to Los Angeles at the age of fifteen, but after a few disappointing and exhausting years in California—"what we found there was lies and abuse"—she joined her family in an eastward exodus. Socorro ended up in Ashland, Alabama, pioneering the route followed later by her brother Martin, who came directly from Jalisco, Mexico, and who now plays guitar in the Ashland church band. Flocelo Aguirre, who had arrived in California from Mexico with fake teacher's credentials in 1968, settled near the old railroad yards in central Los Angeles and lived there until things turned sour in the early 1990s, at which point he decided to set out for a town in northwestern Georgia called Dalton.

Many years after that day of horrors in Compton, I visited a school in Dalton, thirty miles or so down Interstate 75 from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Civil War battlefield of Chickamauga. Dalton had undergone a stunning demographic transformation similar to the one that had swept through California a generation earlier. The small seed of Latinoness that I had seen planted in my trailer park in Clay County, Alabama, had become a forest of Mexicanness in north Georgia, a place thick with taquerías and fútbol and rancheras. In Dalton, Latinos made up more than half the school-age population, and I wondered what lessons those children were learning, and if they had to interrupt their studies to practice how to "duck and cover."

I arrived at Roan Street Elementary School late one morning, after all the students had filed into their classes, driving up to the low-slung and clean administration building, taking a seat outside the office of the principal, with whom I had scheduled an interview. The usual school-office clientele wandered in and out as I waited—children with runny noses, mothers trying to sort out a midterm admission. They were all Spanish-speaking children and parents, communicating with staff through an interpreter who patiently translated their questions into the local, Blue Ridge variant of English, which sashayed along as patiently as the rural Spanish of the people settling here. The parents spoke in low voices, as if they might be afraid to disrupt the sense of order and calm that permeated that place. I thought I might have wandered into a seminary tucked in the pine woods that enveloped the town, and not a school for six hundred boisterous five-, six-, and seven-year-olds. You didn't hear the usual patter of footsteps in the nearby hallways and corridors, because every square foot of the building was carpeted. Even the boy with the runny nose had a fresh part in his hair.

Finally, the principal appeared, Dr. Frankie Beard, a petite no-nonsense administrator with short salt-and-pepper hair. She recounted the story of her arrival in Roan, which coincided with the arrival of all the Mexicans. They had seemed to sneak up on the district and the school, she told me. A decade earlier, there were only a handful of Latino students; now they made up 80 percent of the student body. "A few years ago, we were all running around in circles. The teachers couldn't communicate with the students. Our staff couldn't communicate with the parents. We were like that episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel are working at the candy factory, and the line keeps moving faster and faster and pretty soon all the candy is falling on the floor. We just didn't have a clue." The district had tried to recruit bilingual teachers, but it's hard to lure people from places like Miami or Houston to a little Southern burg where a night out on the town requires an hour-long drive to Chattanooga. So for several years now, the district was paying to send small groups of its veteran staff each summer to Monterrey, Mexico, to study Spanish, and to become acquainted with the education system that had first taught their new Dalton charges about the alphabet, numbers, and the story of Benito Juarez, the father of the Mexican republic.

"Isn't that incredibly expensive?" I asked.

"Of course it is," Dr. Beard said. "But the people here think it's important." Dalton's team of newly bilingual teachers presided over most of the classrooms I saw during a tour of the schoolhouse. Each was leading his or her charges with equal measures of "por favor," and please, and "What do you think, Joaquin?" and "¡Muy bien, niños!" A white-haired specialist in language problems floated from class to class to help the small groups of children straggling behind the rest. In Los Angeles, it seemed every other teacher was someone just out of college, working with "emergency" credentials. Here in Dalton the teachers averaged thirteen years' experience.

After local administrators had discovered that most of Roan's students came from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, Principal Beard had decided she needed to go there too. She recalled visiting rural schoolhouses with dirt floors where the teachers ran short of basics like pencils and chalk, a vision that had violated her notions of human dignity and justice. "If I were living in those conditions and were pregnant, I'd crawl across the border to get here."

Like all schools in Dalton, Roan Street was spending more than $7,400 per student each year: few of the Spanish-speaking parents in Dalton knew of this figure, though they surely would have considered it extravagant if they did. It was among the highest in Georgia and significantly higher than the state average in California, then $5,414. The schools were funded by the property taxes paid by the more than one hundred local carpet factories, where Mexicans filled jobs as "roll-up wrappers" and "spinners" and in "yarn mills." The factories of the "Carpet Capital of the World" threw in the rugs for the local schools too, persuaded by local leaders like Erwin Mitchell, a World War II veteran and local attorney who a generation earlier had been one of the first local Democrats to suggest it was time to embrace the demands of the civil rights movement. That role had made him the target of some withering cartoons in the local segregationist media, which were displayed as trophies in his office in downtown Dalton when I visited him later that day. A new set of clippings was gathering on his desk, nearly all of them upbeat articles about the Georgia Project, founded by Mitchell and other local leaders who wanted to ease the adaptation of the new arrivals to the state. "The factories need the workers, and the workers come with families," he told me. Without good schools for the workers' children, the county would leave itself open to a whole host of social problems down the road. Giving Dalton's Mexican kids a decent education was the sensible thing to do, "pure self-interest," he said.

In the person of Dr. Beard, such pragmatism had been translated into the compassionate idealism with which a certain breed of American has always greeted the arrival of downtrodden newcomers, be they nineteenth-century Irish or twentieth-century Italians. "We're trying to build on the strong family values of the Mexican people," she told me. "It's just phenomenal to us how quickly these children can learn."

Word of Dalton's good teachers and the carpeted hallways at the schoolhouse had quickly spread through the Mexican community, reaching by international mail and long-distance telephone to Zacatecas and also to San Luis Potosí and Oaxaca. "When I first got here and started working in the carpet factories, they told me the schools were good," a former factory worker named Rafael Huerta told me. But when you leave for the States, your ears are filled with "land of milk and honey" stories, and Rafael was skeptical. In the case of Dalton, however, those stories turned out to be true. Inside the din of Dalton's factories, mexicano workers could daydream about the quiet classrooms where their children were turning their ears toward their teachers, trying to catch the difference in sound between a "sh" and a "th," neither of which exists in Spanish. Huerta's daughter had learned to speak English in just six months of kindergarten at Roan Street. In California, the majority of the electorate had just voted to keep illegal immigrants out of schools. But here in Georgia, the locals' honeymoon with all things Latin American was just beginning.

At Roan Elementary, there were love and money at work in the way the teachers rounded up their charges into neat lines in the hallways, in the maintenance crews and janitors who roamed the campus to keep the water streaming in sturdy arcs from the fountains and the bathrooms stocked with paper towels, and in the smile of the boy with the runny nose who was now emerging from the nurse's office with a box of tissues. For a moment, I felt the strange sensation that I had been transported back in time to the California of my childhood to cast my eyes once more on that age of optimism and innocence. Suddenly, I understood the pain that had been lurking behind those old memories of playgrounds and schoolyard parades. My parents were divorced at about the same time I left elementary school: the crowding and neglect of my old school felt like a kind of rejection too; it said that neither I nor any other son of an immigrant was worthy of the largesse of a Grant or a Roan Elementary. And yet here in Georgia there were people who wanted to embrace us, who believed we could be geniuses and good citizens. When the bell sounded, the hallways were filled with brown-skinned boys and girls taking silent steps on the carpeted hallways toward the classrooms. I could look into the faces of those mexicano boys and imagine one of them was Alejandro, the martyred boy of Compton. If Alejandro had been resurrected from his resting place at the base of the flagpole and carried across the continent to be reborn that very same day in Dalton, he would have been seven years old the day I visited. He'd be growing up in this nurturing cocoon of el nuevo South, learning to speak English with the drawl of his second-grade teacher.

"In the Land of the New," from Translation Nation by Héctor Tobar, copyright © 2005 by Héctor Tobar. Used by permission of Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.


Education, Equity, Government, Immigration, International, Laws and legislation, Race, Public Policy


1 comments have been posted.

So pleased to read this article. We must do better. Everyone must do their job. Step up to the plate. Order is so important. In facilities, in the home and most importantly in the mind. Children learn by what they See and hear. Management and order is the key. Follow up is ALWAYS necessary.

Patti Strain | April 2016 | Myrtle Point, Oregon

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