Rinconcito is a special “little corner” in Somos en escrito for short writings: single poems, short stories, memoirs, flash fiction and the like.
By Carmen Baca
Rosa was a cherished child. The only daughter of three children, she enjoyed all the attention her parents gave her. Her mother, Yolanda, quit her job at the local parachute factory to be a stay-at-home mother to her little girl. So by the time Rosa was five years old, she knew how to read and write in both English and Spanish. Back in the sixties there was no such grade level as kindergarten or head start, only pre-primer and first grade. Since Rosa’s skills were honed by her mother, she went directly into first grade. That first day of school, her mother and she walked the four short blocks to the institution and stood in one of two lines of pupils and mothers waiting for entry. One boy with the same name as the news anchor on the television program her parents watched nightly caught Rosa’s attention as he just wouldn’t or couldn’t stop clinging to his mother’s skirts and crying softly as though his life were over. Rosa stared until her mother pressed her hand and shook her head slightly. That’s all it took for Rosa to obey and look about at the rest of the children around her. She frowned as her eyes went from this child to that to the next: blondes, auburns, and redheads with green, blue, and hazel eyes abounded. There were perhaps only two or three who had dark hair and brown eyes like hers. Before she could ask her mother about such diversity in the appearances of her classmates, the teachers opened the front double doors and with wide smiles, they welcomed her and the rest of the children into the building. Waving one last goodbye at her mother, Rosa walked parallel to the little boy with the television man’s name. He was still sniffling but walked robotically away from his mother in quiet obedience. Directing the grades to different rooms, las maestras moved the two lines along smoothly until all the children were deposited in the rooms of their respective grades. Rosa found herself almost at the middle of the classroom, welcomed by a short but lovely Hispanic woman with black hair done up in a neat bun at the back of her neck. She must’ve worn multiple hoop slips under her flowered dress which flared out so beautifully from her tapered waist, giving her the hourglass figure worthy of June Cleaver and other television personalities of her day. The teacher told them about herself and welcomed her new class, asking the students to introduce themselves. One tall blond boy behind her stood at attention and addressed the lady as M’am when he spoke, and Rosa wondered why he’d been trained to do that. When the children finished, Miss Bustamante gave them their first assignment and moved about the room to look over her charges’ shoulders as they all worked quietly. Rosa found the worksheet very easy and finishing quickly, she looked around at her peers once more, wondering how she was going to make any friends. Clack clack went the lady’s tiny high heels as she stepped closer, and Rosa was overwhelmed by the flowery perfume her new teacher wore as she walked past. The day passed uneventfully and at the end of the afternoon, her mother was standing right where she’d been that morning. The next day was a repeat of the first, only the little boy with the famous name didn’t cry anymore. Rosa was content her school days had begun and were so far all that she’d hoped. She had a beautiful teacher, a classroom full of potential amigos, and so much to learn. Miss Bustamante selected a little blonde girl to pass out the papers from the day before. So Rosa sat quietly at her desk like all the others and waited for hers. She noticed when the little girl frowned at a paper in her hands and walked directly to the teacher. “Miss Bustamante, I can’t read this,” she explained. The teacher, who was still taking roll, replied so softly Rosa didn’t hear. The little blonde girl walked importantly down the aisle and thrust the worksheet onto Rosa’s desk and tapped it hard with her finger. She hissed with a loud whisper, “Miss Bustamante says you can’t write like this. You have to write like I do.” And she showed her own paper to Rosa with a proud shake of her curls. Rosa was crushed. Her own mother had told her how beautiful her cursive handwriting was, so why did Miss Bustamante forbid her to use it? Why did she have to go back to using print like a baby? After school that day after having conferred with the teacher, Yolanda did her best to explain that the rest of the class couldn’t read cursive yet. She tried to convey that Rosa was more advanced in her writing than her peers, and she could still write in cursive at home, just not in school until her teacher said it was okay. As the days in school began to take on a routine, Rosa became aware of a few things which made her feel inferior, as though she lacked something her classmates had, and she didn’t know what it was. Miss Bustamante hardly ever called on her, even when she raised her hand like a good girl. The little blonde girl and her friends quickly became the favorites, called upon to pass out papers, to paste the stars on the reading board, to be the leaders when they formed lines to go to the cafeteria or the library or where ever. Whereas Miss Bustamante shared her good morning and good bye hugs with the blondes, the auburns, and the redheads, she only offered a pat on the head to the morenas like Rosa. She felt like a puppy, not like a human; and again those feelings of being less, of being not-as-good as the lighter-skinned kids took hold. She didn’t understand that this was only the first of the many life’s lessons to come. And they would only serve to confirm that she would never be good enough to earn a hug from her first woman role model. With first grade behind her, Rosa went into second grade somewhat jaded—at age six, mind you. She’d made only two friends in first grade, Eunice and Doris; and all three were almost exactly the same: Hispanic, introverted, and meek. Mrs. Mason, their teacher, was a plump white-haired older woman who didn’t smile. She exuded authority, and she wielded her power over her charges as though she enjoyed every moment of their discomfort. At least it seemed that way to Rosa, Eunice, and Doris, who were her “victims” at any given time, day, or moment. Of course, they were separated by the teacher’s seating chart, so when one became the target of the teacher’s negative attention, the other two weren’t in close proximity to offer even a supporting smile. Rosa found herself seated at the front of the class, right smack in front of the teacher’s desk, as if the lady knew inherently that she would need a close watch, as if she’d been pegged as a trouble maker just by being there. The abuse began almost immediately. First, Mrs. Mason insisted that Rosa didn’t give her the two dollars for her month’s supply of one milk bottle per day. Rosa ran home that day in tears, and her mother went back to school with her the following morning. Yolanda insisted her daughter didn’t lie; she reiterated how she’d handed the two dollars to Rosa in a white envelope the previous morning with instructions to give it over to the teacher immediately, which she had. But the stern-faced woman insisted she’d never received the money, and with no proof, Yolanda had to dish over another two dollars right there in front of Rosa and the rest of the class. Rosa could see the defeated look on her mother’s face, and she disliked her teacher so much more for making Yolanda feel that way. Days, weeks, and months passed with Rosa, Doris, and Eunice trying to keep low profiles and hoping not to anger their teacher. Mrs. Mason ruled her class with an iron hand, literally, and both Doris and Eunice had felt the slaps of that palm on their behinds before Rosa did. The teacher’d told the children they could sit quietly and entertain themselves when they were finished with their work until all the others were finished with theirs, and because all were cowed by what they’d seen her do when she’d spanked the two girls, they always behaved accordingly. So one day when Rosa finished her work and began to draw quietly, waiting for the rest of the class to complete their worksheets, she had no idea she was about to be the subject of her teacher’s wrath. One of the other students called for assistance, and as Mrs. Mason passed Rosa’s desk she stopped cold and yanked the Big Chief tablet from her desk. “What’re you doing?” she asked abruptly and loudly. “Drawing,” Rosa replied quietly and lowered her face as though she should be ashamed of her art. Rosa loved playing with her dolls, and she also enjoyed drawing girls with different styles of dresses and hair styles so she could show her ideas to her mother. Yolanda was a skilled seamstress, and she always made matching outfits for herself and Rosa. And she also made clothes for her daughter’s dolls. Rosa loved when her mother curled her long, dark hair into caracoles, perfectly-formed ringlets that framed her face and cascaded down her back. She did the same with her dolls, only using her finger as a curler instead of the iron wand her mother heated on the flames of the gas stovetop. She’d been concentrating on drawing curls on the girl she’d outlined when the teacher chose her as a lesson to her peers. She jumped when Mrs. Mason threw the tablet down on Rosa’s desk so hard the slapping noise echoed in the silence. But what happened next Rosa didn’t expect and never did understand why she’d brought such anger down upon herself. Mrs. Mason pulled Rosa’s chair back from under her, holding her up with a tight, painful grip on her upper arm. Then she grabbed Rosa from the back of the neck and forced her face forward over the desktop before throwing her dress up over her nalgas so everyone around could see her ruffled panties. The slap of the woman’s large hand cracked on both cheeks and the smarting pain made tears flow from Rosa’s eyes, but it wasn’t quite over as the woman again gripped Rosa’s arm and forced her down onto the chair again. With one harsh look and a stern warning spoken through clenched teeth, “Don’t ever do that again,” the teacher walked away, leaving Rosa shattered as she fought to stop crying. The humiliation mortified her; everyone saw her underpants, everyone saw the teacher spank her, and she had no idea what she’d done to avoid doing it again. And Yolanda, already having dealt with the teacher and seen for herself the type of person she was, didn’t go back to confront her during class time like she had with the milk money. She merely went into the woman’s classroom after school that afternoon after finding Rosa red-eyed and still fighting tears. She laid down the law about the woman laying her hands on her only hija ever again, and for the remaining months of that school year, Rosa didn’t have to fear physical abuse again although the emotional and mental abuse was sufficient to add to her feelings of worthlessness. So cowed were Rosa and the rest of the class by their austere teacher that they behaved like model students, so quietly and so quick to move at only one narrow-eyed glance from the woman that the rest of the teachers envied her classroom management. Closer to the end of the school year Rosa got her revenge, but it wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t something she was proud of, but it was memorable. She was sick, something from breakfast perhaps or the beginning of a virus, but Rosa sat in her desk right in front of the teacher and tried her best to push the sickness back down. She rose and stepped quietly up to the woman’s desk and whispered she needed to go to the bathroom. Mrs. Mason shook her head no. Rosa tried once more, pleading she was going to throw up. Mrs. Mason told her to go back to her seat. Rosa did as she was told. And she sat there, knowing any moment the vomito was going to come up and there was nothing she could do about it. She didn’t even think of defying her teacher by making a dash to the bathroom, her fear of the woman was so great. So when the first heave began and the teacher looked right at her with those narrowed eyes and that expression which seemed to say “don’t you dare,” Rosa’s mouth opened and her liquified breakfast spewed all over the top of her desk and ran down…well, everywhere. “Why didn’t you run to the restroom? How can you be so stupid to just sit there?” The woman’s remarks caused snickers and giggles among the classmates behind her and gulps and dry heaves from those near enough to see and smell her degradation. Tears filled Rosa’s eyes. She sat motionless as Mrs. Mason got up with the roll of brown paper towels and the trash can and knelt beside her desk to clean it up. The woman muttered and mumbled and grumbled and coughed the entire time, but she was the one stuck cleaning up the disgusting and smelly mess. It was only years later that Rosa felt a kind of satisfaction that the odious teacher got her comeuppance even if Rosa didn’t mean for it to happen in such a way that it traumatized herself. Grade three brought a disconcerting change to Rosa’s situation: Doris and Eunice both moved away and she was left to herself. None of the blonde, blue-eyed girls seemed to notice her, much less befriend her; and she became invisible. She concentrated on her school work and dedicated herself to her education. This was how the rest of her elementary years passed: unremarkable and soon forgotten. Middle school wasn’t all that much different other than the fact that feeder elementary schools throughout the district sent all their students to the school, so there were several hundred rather than just a hundred kids. Rosa finally found a group of girls like herself to call friends, and she was finally finding acceptance. The only issue still puzzling her was the fact that once more, she and her friends were still in the minority. The Anglo students seemed to be more self-confident, more outgoing, and as a consequence, more popular. They were the cheerleaders, the student council officers, the members of every club, and once more—the ones who seemed to be more appreciated by the teachers, most of whom were also Anglos. So it was no surprise that one day on her way to class with a couple of her friends as they spoke in Spanish, the vice principal stopped them—right smack in the middle of the stairway as the rest of the students came and went all around them to their classes. Having grabbed her arm above the elbow, he reprimanded her in a loud voice, saying, “Don’t speak Spanish in the halls; Spanish is spoken only in the Spanish classes.” Now, not only did Rosa feel inferior to these more confident, more authoritative adults, but now she also felt that her culture was somehow to blame for her low esteem. The days of celebrating bilingualism were still years ahead. During the ’60s and the’70s, Rosa did what many Hispanics did: she focused on learning English and let her Spanish slowly slip away. Over the course of the next four years, she lost her ability to speak fluent Spanish, and she also lost her identity.
Little Rosa’s experience mirrors those of many baby boomers today. As adults, we are capable of seeing how individuals’ perspectives color their behavior toward their fellow humans. We now realize why and how our early childhood interactions with grown ups influenced our attitudes about ourselves. They may have never even given a thought to how their treatment of Hispanic children like Rosa affected us so profoundly; they certainly never realized how they affected these youngsters’ adult lives because of their thoughtlessness. Much of our sense of worthlessness, inferiority, and self-loathing stemmed from others’ treatments of us, whether because of prejudice or because of their own personal issues. As an adult, Rosa now knows that Miss Bustamante suffered injustices of her own as the only Hispanic teacher of a predominantly Anglo school. Her colleagues and her students’ parents didn’t see her as their equals either, and though she strove to be the best educator she could, she felt she would never be good enough. She knew that she must favor the white kids to keep her position since their parents were the ones with power in their small town: the mayor, the councilmen, the school board and administration among them. In her experience the Hispanic mothers were meek and listened to her observations, comments, and recommendations about their children with deference. The Anglo mothers were more demanding of her, questioning her observations and her suggestions as though they were better equipped than she to know how to teach their children. But little Rosa knew none of this and didn’t realize for decades that her lovely teacher didn’t dislike her and didn’t find her lacking. On the other hand, Rosa never did discover what was behind Mrs. Mason’s victimization of her and her Hispanic friends. Because her detrimental actions were directed toward them, she can only conclude that it was mean-spirited prejudice which guided her. Since she’s long gone by now, Rosa can only hope that at some point in her life, the woman’s perspective changed for the better. In any event, we who are baby boomers today learned some harsh lessons at a very young age, and those experiences affected our self-esteem and our own perspective toward our culture. Rosa learned to like herself eventually; she learned that there would always be those who thought themselves better than she because of their color, their race, their upbringing or some other factor. Where there are people, there will always be prejudice against all sorts of others for diverse reasons. As individuals we need to discover how special we are because of our uniqueness. Even if some of us, like Rosa, still find ourselves feeling inferior deep inside where we never let others see.
Carmen Bacataught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels in northern New Mexico where she lives, over the course of 36 years before retiring in 2014. She published her first novel in May 2017, El Hermano,a historical fiction based on herfather’s induction into the Penitente society and rise to El Hermano Mayor. The book is available from online booksellers. She has also published eight short pieces in online literary magazines and women’s blogs.