The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Resurrecting Mr. Spanish

My memories of reading Rudolfo Anaya?s Bless Me, Ultima last week in Marfa, Texas, are already receding into the selfsame happy, retrospective blur that this blog was designed to prevent. So, before memories of my present New York swing displace Marfa any further, a flashback?

The most outrageous story to come out of those 36 idyllic hours in Marfa, I didn?t even recognize as such until I casually mentioned it to Marcela Valdes at the National Book Critics Circle award nominations last week. Like the good journalist she is, she kindly pointed out that what I?m about to recount was a good story. The implication was that if I didn?t at least rough out a version of it somewhere fast, she?d be forced to do so herself and win embarrassingly wide acclaim for it.

I heard the story from Big Read co-organizer Joe Cabezuela as he toured me through his childhood alma mater, the Blackwell School. Joe is a friendly middle-aged Marfan, recognizable, with only a little prompting, from one of the high-school team photos that line the walls. Empty now but for memorabilia, the school isn?t a school anymore. From Joe?s description, in a way it never was.

Blackwell was where Marfa sent its nonwhite children. Despite some happy memories of Joe?s, and some good teachers who apparently did a lot with next to no funding, it sounds uncannily like the substandard school in Topeka that I visited in 2006 as the Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site. If not for a PTA that did what the school board wouldn?t, Blackwell might conceivably have been a school without books.

Nowadays, Joe wants to turn the Blackwell School into a historic site too. On the basis of something he showed me, I don?t blame him. There, in a corner of the surviving building, almost lost among yellowing photos and frayed uniforms, lies the coffin of Mr. Spanish.

Mr. Spanish was the name given to an effigy created and buried by the students -- under teacher supervision -- in a solemn assembly on school grounds. From that day forward, the speaking of Spanish was forbidden on campus, and anybody caught speaking his first language risked a good cuffing around. To contemplate that day, to stand next to the grown man once forced to participate in it, and then to look around at Marfa today, with its art galleries and fine independent bookstore and terrific new partly-bilingual public-radio station, is enough to give a visitor vertigo.

Marfa isn?t all the way there yet. To an extravagantly welcomed stranger passing through, the old Marfa and the new seem on cordial, nodding terms, friendly but not yet friends. That?s what made the Big Read kickoff at the stylish dancehall-turned-art-gallery Marfa Ballroom such a revelation. All of Marfa looked to be there, young and old, natives and new arrivals, all scoring their brand-new, free copies of Ultima. When San Antonio-based folksinger Azul invited the throng to join in on "Cielito Lindo," there wasn?t a dry eye, or a silent voice, in the house.

In the mid-1960s the Blackwell School was closed, and all the students had to carry their desks through the streets to join their new classmates across town at the white school. The Blackwell School sat more or less empty until Joe and other alumni began to envision it as a new community center in town. A few years ago, they publicly disinterred Mr. Spanish from his shallow grave and restored him to his current place of honor in the Blackwell School exhibit. The irony is, they had to make a new Mr. Spanish for the occasion, because the old cardboard coffin and its contents had long since crumbled away to nothing.