Welcome to the Club!

I didn’t know him incredibly well, but if you knew RIchard, you know that he did not have to know you well in order to help you or offer assistance in almost any form. I met Richard in 2006, after having just finished my second year as head coach of the Alisal High School Boys’ J.V. Soccer Team. I will always remember Richard as a kind man, with pure intentions. His legacy will live on in Salinas, and I truly believe, due to his lasting impression on youth in the Salinas community, that one of the new soccer fields in the developing soccer complex in Salinas, be named after Richard Mussellman. It would be well-deserved.

On March 20, 2020, our local soccer community lost an important figure in Ricahrd Mussellman, a great man and advocate for kids’ soccer in the Salinas Valley area. As the one time president of the then El Camino Real Football Club, Richard was an iconic figure in the area. Throughout his years of involvement in youth soccer in the Salinas Valley area, Richard helped a countless number of kids achieve their dreams of playing club soccer, and in doing so, gave kids greater exposure and lasting memories. In fact, it could be said that Richard, himself, helped launch club soccer in the Salinas area.

The following is the true story of how Ricahrd and I met.

I was in room 550 at Alisal High School, working one-on-one with a kid in after-school tutorials. The soccer season had just ended, so it was nice to get back to working with kids to improve their grades. At one point, a tall man entered the classroom. He was a big, husky guy with a pretty easy demeanor. He smiled as he entered. “Are you Mark Cisneros? The J.V. soccer coach?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “How are you? How can I help you?” Richard introduced himself and then said something that kind of scared me. He said, “My team played your J.V. team this past weekend.” I was startled because the season had ended and it would’ve been illegal for the Alisal team to continue playing beyond the normal high school season. Luckily, it turned out that Richard’s team had played our salinas soccer league team, except that I was not there on that day. Anyway, Richard proceeded. “That is the best soccer team I have ever seen at that age. They killed my team (I believe he said my guys beat his team, 10-1). I kind of laughed and said, “Yeah, they’re pretty good. We only gave up four goals this year and didn’t lose a game for the second year in a row. We gave up seven goals last year.” I wasn’t bragging. I was speaking from a great sense of pride in my boys. After some other comments, Richard said, “You know, they should come play for El Camino Real.” I had no idea what Richard was talking about.  “What is El Camino?” I asked. “It’s a travel soccer team,” Richard Said. “We train and travel to other cities to play other teams.” I had a vague idea of what travel soccer was, and most of what I had heard about it was negative, mainly because of the ridiculous fees clubs charged for a kid to just play soccer. My response to Richard was, “Nah, man. Sorry. My guys don’t have the money to play travel soccer. It’s pretty expensive.” Richard answered quickly. “No, no! They won’t pay. I’ll pay for everything. They don’t have to worry about that” What I was hearing was intriguing but almost too good to be true. “Where do you guys train?” I asked. Richard said, “We train in Gilroy. That’s where our club is.” Right then I knew it was going to be almost impossible for my guys to play. I said, “Oh, man! There’s no way my guys can get to Gilroy to practice. Their parents work late and the kids don’t drive or have rides.” Richard smiled and said, “We will pick them up every Tuesday and Thursday from Alisal High School and we’ll drop them off, too.” Wait! What? Now, it was definitely too good to be true! I was definitely intrigued, and the thought of the guys playing club soccer was pretty exciting. Knowing what I know now, a lot of coaches would’ve probably said “No” for fear of losing their players, but when a great opportunity comes along for any kid, it’s important for us to help them reach out for it. “Let me talk to the parents and share this information with them. I’ll get back to you,” I said to Richard. We exchanged contact info and he left. Little did we know that what had just happened in room 550, would go on to become a pivotal moment for club soccer in Salinas. 

Meanwhile, I was excited to share the news with the boys the next day. I told them what had happened and about Richard. Once they knew, we had a parents’ meeting so I could share the info with them. I called the parents that could not attend. The parents saw value in the opportunity and the boys were thrilled at the opportunity. They didn’t know that they would be in for the ride of their lives. 

In the end, Richard was completely true to his word, 100%. He transported the kids back and forth from Alisal High School every Tuesday and Thursday. He bought the boys dinner, too, paid all their fees, bought them cleats, and paid for their hotels when they traveled. When I needed a van, RIchard simply put the keys underneath the mat on his porch, and I returned it when we were done with it. Again, I didn’t know him well, but he went out of his way to help where and when he could, even if you weren’t his best friend. 

That year, he took some of my best, young players, guys that help the school win its first ever Central Coast Section Championship in 2010:

Joni Cruz (CCS Champ)

Carlos “Charlie” Ortiz (CCS Champ)

Eduardo “Lalo” Hernandez (CCS Champ)

Armando Serrano (CCS Champ)

Ivan Manzano (CCS Champ)

Santos Oritz (CCS Champ)

Augustin Martinez (CCS Champ)

Edgar Prieto (CCS Champ)

In the years that followed, Richard and El Camino Real moved their operations to Salinas, and more and more kids, not only from Alisal, but from the other high schools in Salinas, were introduced to club soccer, many for the first time. Today, El Camino Real is still in existence under a different name, but Richard’s impact on youth soccer is still felt today. 

During that time, in 2006, club soccer was pretty well known in the San Jose area, as well as in other larger cities and counties. It was also known then, as it is now, that access to club soccer wasn’t always attainable to some kids, mainly because it was pretty pricey. Thus, a lot of kids from low-income families and/or under-served areas were priced out. The bad side for clubs was that they weren’t necessarily getting the best players. Instead, they were getting the players that could afford to pay the high fees to kick a ball around. 

This changed when Richard rolled into my classroom. All of sudden, club soccer was a real possibility for every kid in Salinas, and they flocked to the opportunity. Richard and El Camino Real made it possible for hundreds of kids to travel all across the state, region, and country to experience the game on many different levels. It was truly a beautiful thing. 

On another level, the experience of playing year-round, against teams that our guys would not normally play against, was awesome. I had been the J.V. coach for Alisal for two-years, and I had a first-hand view of the varsity team. I saw the varsity team train and compete regularly for two-years. They were always good locally, but when they traveled to San Jose, it didn’t always go well. I attributed this to a couple of things. One, the San Jose kids played on the same team all year long. Many went to the same high schools, and when that season was over, they would return to their clubs where they were all on the same teams there. In terms of recognition and chemistry, this is a huge advantage for any team. Knowing how your teammates think and being familiar with their tendencies provides a huge advantage in the game of soccer. In contrast, the Alisal guys returned to their Sunday teams, with most kids playing on different teams. There was local pride in these teams, rightfully so, and many are drawn to them by family members who’ve also played for the same Sunday team for generations, so it was in the blood.  As a result of this dynamic, however, in Salinas, usually the only time the best high school soccer players played on the same team was during their high school seasons, for four-months out of the year. Once the final whistle blew on that season, it was off to their Sunday teams. 

Another reason I believe that Alisal kids had a hard time in San Jose is because they lacked the mental toughness that comes from playing against tough teams all year-round. The kids from Mitty and Bellarmine were big and physical, characteristics not usually associated with our guys at Alisal. The teams in San Jose liked to talk trash, too, sometimes spewing racial epithets as the games went on. This had a negative impact on the minds of our players. They never really had to deal with this sort of stuff in the local areas. I personally have had players tell me to take them out of the game because the opposition got in their heads. It was interesting and I knew it needed to be addressed. 

This is where club soccer bridged the gap. All of sudden, the Alisal players were playing against the Mitty guys and the Bellarmine guys and the De La Salle guys on a weekly basis with El Camino Real. They were gaining valuable experience against these guys. They were hearing the trash talk and taking the blows. They got used to it and learned to work through it. This made my job easier, as I knew from watching the varsity team for two-years, that we needed to toughen up mentally. And we did! When the guys returned to high school soccer, they were seasoned players that had already seen many of the players we were facing in our Alisal season, and they were not phased by any of them. We focused on keeping quiet and playing the game the right way. They boys were taught to let their actions speak for themselves. It’s no wonder that the group of players that Richard opened the El Camino Real doors to were the same group of players that lifted the first ever CCS trophy for Alisal High School! We found ourselves in a win/win situation. 

It was a fun time then. The boys were genuinely happy to be playing soccer, and many are still very close friends today. Many earned soccer scholarships to universities across the nation. Many are now married, too, with kids and full-time jobs. A ton have gone on to earn four-year degrees, with many others becoming cops and nurses and probation officers. A few are even coaching youth teams, giving back to their community. It was a special time. I don’t know if the clubs in Salinas are keeping soccer affordable for kids, but I believe that in the name and spirit of Richard Mussellman, they more than likely are.

Richard was a champion for community based, grass roots soccer. As the Director of Coaching for the Monterey County Condors Soccer Club, our club is doing our best to honor Richard’s legacy by helping make soccer accessible to as many kids as possible. Viva el futbol!

This is dedicated to Richard Mussellman. Thank you for all you have done for our youth. May you Rest in Peace.

P.S. I would also like to dedicate this to Joseph Cairel. He passed away a few days ago. He was the son of a family for which I have great respect. Artie Sr., gave me my first ever opportunity at coaching youth soccer. I hope that the Cairel Family can find the strength and courage to get them through this difficult time. Rest in Peace, Joseph!

Mark Cisneros
Opportunity Program Teacher
Head Boys’ Varsity Soccer Coach
Alisal High School

Here We Go, Again!

“No, I don’t take any responsibility at all.” 

Know who spoke these words. Remember them. They were uttered by America’s president in the face of a pandemic, in the face of social injustice, in the face of economic collapse, in the face of racial unrest, and in the face of death. Know who spoke these words, and let them reverberate to the core of your being as you try to make sense of the America we are and have become. The world was a better place three and a half years ago. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better, because we had a real human being in charge.

The issues we are dealing with have always been, and for generations, our Black and Brown peoples have challenged the status quo, gaining ephemeral victories here and there, only to watch the gains fade away, and the ugliness that has always been once again rear its racist head. People like to fall back on the voting option as our easy fix. “We have to vote!” they cry. Well, we did vote! Our current president had three million less votes than his rival, and he still won. When you are ready to seriously think about this–when you let this fact sink in–you begin to see the roots of all our problems. The system is not designed for us. It does not take us into account. It is grossly flawed. It is rotten.

Yes, I have the time and the privilege to be able to sit here and write this, but this wasn’t always so. I had to work for mine, and if it wasn’t for my striving to earn an education, I don’t know what my life would’ve become. But I am here now because I didn’t give up, and when I see the images of young people fighting for their rights, fighting for a change, fighting for better lives, and not giving up, my chest fills with pride! We need to be there for them. We need to guide them. They are our children.

The inevitable is happening. It was never a question of “if,” and always a question of “when?” Now, the historical lid has once again blown off the the pot, and although I do not condone violence or looting in any form, the massive crowds, the people protesting and marching with positive intent and for the all the right reasons, is a sight to behold. I only hope that the spirited marches and the peaceful protests, along with the love and support from our community leaders, continues, not only for days, but for weeks and months, all the way to November, and even past November, into generations upon generations, louder and larger, until the system as we know it, is a thing of the far behind past. I know it will be difficult. History has proven this, and what makes it even more difficult is our own complicity in most of it, including my own. It’s not on purpose, but the system is designed to camouflage our involvement. We need to wake up! It is happening.

Black and Brown culture has been taken advantage of for far too long.  America’s appetite for it is insatiable. The music. The sports. The walk. The talk. But it stops at these thresholds. You like using the “N” word with your homies? Back it up, now. Go walk a mile in a Black man’s shoes. Go break your back in the fields. Feel what they do. You won’t want any of it.

“No, I don’t take any responsibility at all.” 

My heart goes out to my Black and Brown brothers and sisters, and I can’t pretend to know their suffering. I, myself, have been a victim of police brutality, and I have had a family member shot down and killed by cops, so I know a little bit about it, but the suffering in the Black and Brown communities is on another level. It is never ending. It doesn’t abate! 

Unfortunately, cops bear the brunt of our ire. Sometimes it’s deserved. Sometimes it’s not. Nevertheless, there are bad cops out there, just as there are bad teachers and bad leaders, and we know there are great cops out there, too, just as there are great teachers and great leaders. The greatness will always outweigh the bad, and so we need all of our great leaders, young and old, and all of our great teachers, young and old, to unite so that we can bring a halt to the pain and suffering that continues to plague our Black and Brown communities. The young people in these communities deserve a fair chance at becoming something. They deserve the opportunities to shine. 

“No, I don’t take any responsibility at all.” 

I am a teacher, and I have been for over twenty-years. I have been a firsthand witness to the potential and greatness that our youth can reach when presented with opportunities. I also know that our youth sometimes cannot recognize opportunities because they’re not familiar with them. Thus, we must teach them to recognize these potentially life changing moments so that when they do come along, they can reach out and grab them. When they can recognize the presence of opportunity more clearly, we then have to teach them to fight for these opportunities because we, who have been there, know the rewards are not easy to attain. Nothing of genuine value rarely is, so we must continue to encourage our youth to push forward, to work hard, to deal with adversity, to never give up, and to plow through and destroy the barriers designed to hold them back, because the good stuff is on the other side. And finally we must teach them to give back, to pass down their knowledge to the generations that come after them. This is the ultimate revolution. This is the ultimate protest. This is our molotov cocktail.

“No, I don’t take any responsibility at all.” 

Support the movement and ignore the voices and opinions that want to suppress it. We don’t have time for that shit. To the ones out there on the front lines, keep it rocking until the world sees and accepts that fact that Colin Kaepernick’s knee carries much more weight and power than the knee of a crooked cop.  

This is why kneel.

Happy birthday to my brother, Juan D. Cisneros, Jr.

Dedicated to all the people fighting the good fight.

Ganas: An Alisal Story

This 2018-2019 school-year marks my 14th Year Anniversary as a teacher at Alisal High School. When I first arrived to the area, as a transplant from Los Angeles, I knew nothing about Salinas or East Alisal or Alisal High School, but I did know that I was excited to begin a new chapter in my teaching career, at a new school, and Alisal seemed the perfect place. I mentioned to the few people I knew that I had found a teaching gig in Salinas and then watched as their jaws dropped when I said “Alisal.” They were sure that my life would be in danger, and that I was stepping into a deadly place. I didn’t know it then but East Salinas had a bad reputation, but it was born from people who just didn’t know any better. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the negative rap on Alisal was completely unwarranted. These people were wrong. Alisal was and continues to be the best school at which I have ever worked, and this is saying something, since I’ve been to some pretty cool schools, including John Muir High in Pasadena and Norwalk High in Los Angeles. I ignored the noise and began my career at Alisal, armed with five-years of teaching experience and a master’s degree in English. My first assignment included five sections of 11th grade English, ideal for me, as American Lit was my emphasis, and I liked teaching writing and mechanics.

Throughout these fourteen-years, I have met some incredible kids, each one with a history, a beautiful, sometimes harrowing story that has shaped them and influenced the courses of their lives. As a new teacher at Alisal, I set out to immerse myself in the school’s culture and to learn as much as I could about the students of Alisal High School. I wanted to know who they were, who they wanted to be, and why. I didn’t just want to learn about my students’ lives—I NEEDED to learn about their lives, in and out of the classroom. As an English teacher, there’s really only one genuine way of doing it: writing.

Writing assignments are magic. They help peel back the veils on student lives and create openings to catch glimpses and flashes of who they are. Through my students’ writings, I learned about their triumphs, defeats, pains, and struggles. All I had to do was assign writing topics, prompts that engendered introspection and which allowed the students to delve into themselves, to reach inwards and extract the pain, to help put the struggle to rest, or to simply lay their problems and dreams before their eyes, in front of their faces, right on their desks so that they could stare at them and take in the light and power that emanated from their own words. Through writing, along with long classroom talks about the world, I was let into their lives. They gave me permission to learn about who they were and where they came from. More importantly, however, much more importantly, I learned from them. They taught me everything I would need to know in order to succeed at Alisal High School. They gave me permission to become one of them. All I had to do was to remain true to my own self. I did and I have.

Like I said, I have met some truly amazing kids. I’d like to celebrate my 14th Year Anniversary at Alisal by sharing stories of some of these kids as a form of celebrating their triumphs. I begin with Gerardo.

Gerardo was a student in my 12th grade, A.P. English class. He had been in the Honors English class the year before, with Mr. Battaglini, but I had gotten to know him when he was a junior. He played on the J.V. soccer team, and I knew a lot of the soccer players on both the J.V. and varsity teams, as many were my students. They would swing by my room and we’d talk about soccer and our favorite teams and whatever else. Watching soccer in my classroom at lunch was pretty normal. That’s how I got to know Gerardo.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Gerardo was a super smart kid. In my A.P. English class, he was the best writer, the best reader, and the best thinker I had. He was always attentive and always curious. Learning mattered to him, real learning, and so he set out to get as much of it as possible.

We read a lot that year. It was my first time teaching A.P. English, and so I wanted to make it special.

We read Dracula, Frankenstein, Paradise Lost, Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, and Catcher in the Rye. It was an awesome list of novels, and I did all I could to keep them interested, and to their credit, they were.

Writing, too, was essential, and I had the students respond to the books in order to help them gather the meanings and themes of each novel. Gerardo’s responses were the best. He was eloquent and thoughtful, and he got as close as anyone when it came to discovering motive and intent. In short, Gerardo was a superb student, and every teacher felt the same about him. He just had a way of rising above everyone, academically and intellectually.

What makes Gerardo’s story so inspiring is that he arrived from Mexico to the United States at the age of thirteen! When I found this out through his writings and through conversations with him, I was blown away! Even now, I don’t really know how to put this into the celebratory context it deserves, but you need to understand that Gerardo was writing and reading and thinking better than any student in any of my classes, and I’m talking about students that were born here and claimed English as their primary language. It was exhilarating to have a student like him, and I counted myself lucky to be in his orbit. But still I could not help but wonder: How did he do it? How did Gerardo, who attended El Sausal Middle School at the age of thirteen, as an 8th grader, and then to Alisal, become so smart, and how did he learn English so well? Granted that he had a pretty significant accent—picture a Mexican Arnold Scharzenegger—but still he was natural with the language. I needed to know his secret! Weirdly, though, I was a little embarrassed to ask him. I think I felt that maybe I would offend him or embarrass him if I pried deeper into his personal story, so I never took the time to ask him how he acquired his language skills…until one day!

It was a morning in May, around 7:20 a.m. I was driving down Williams Rd., one of East Salinas’ main arteries and one that runs directly in front of Alisal High School. I was about ½ mile from campus when I saw Gerardo walking alone on the eastern side of Williams. He was heading towards school. I knew it was my one chance, so I knew right then that that I had to pick him up and immediately ask him, “How do you do it?” And this is exactly what I did.

I pulled up beside him, put the window down and said, “What’s up, Gerardo? Get in. I’ll give you a ride.” He got it in and off we went. I didn’t waste any time, as the question escaped my mouth before I could control it. “How do you do it?” I asked. He was taken aback a little. “Do what?” he said. I said, “How do you do it? You read better than any of my students. You write better than any of my students. You think better than anyone in the class. How do you do it?” He went quiet for second and I waited. I knew I had probably caught him off guard, and that he probably couldn’t answer or didn’t want to answer. Then, finally, he looked straight ahead down Williams with an intense look in his eyes and said, “Sabes que, Cisneros. Cuando llege de Mexico al los Estado Unidos, le puse un chingo de ganas al escuela!” (You know, Cisneros, when I came to the U.S. from Mexico, I put forth a shitload of desire and effort into my education). The words came out fast, and I could tell that he was proud to have said them. There was strength and power in his response. It came from a very proud place within him. I think he was excited to have been asked what a lot of people were probably wondering about him, too. My own pulse sped up a bit when I heard his response. I was stunned. I thought, “You mean there was no secret power to his success? There was no magic potion? No special privilege or help? It was simply ‘ganas’?” And it was true. Ganas, or desire, is all that Gerardo relied on. His ganas put him head and shoulders above everyone else.

Before that moment in the car, I respected Gerardo a great deal, but after hearing about what propelled him, I cultivated an even deeper respect and admiration towards him. He became one of my heroes. I still regard him in this way, which is why, fourteen-years after meeting him, I’m now writing about him. Unfortunately, meeting Gerardo and knowing of his success forced me to look at my other students with slight disdain. A lot of my students were born in the U.S. Their parents worked and they had money. English was their first language. They had everything that most immigrants die for, and yet many of my students were squandering their privileges. They didn’t care about school. They didn’t care about their attendance, and they failed classes. They simply were indifferent towards school and towards their parents and towards life in general. This is still true, today. They didn’t have the power that this proud, hard-working, Mexican immigrant kid had. They didn’t have ganas!

Gerardo graduated from Alisal High School in 2006, and was awarded the most prestigious, full-ride academic scholarship Fresno State had to offer. It was called the Smittcamp Family Honors Scholarship, and it came with a laptop and a student parking space. In his senior year, Gerardo was one of only two students in the entire school that passed every single A.P. Test he took, which included Calculus, Spanish, and History. Gerardo graduated from Fresno State in 2010. He is now a licensed civil engineer, having passed his licensing exam last year, in 2017.

Unfortunately, to this day, Gerardo is still very worried about deportation and Trump’s policies towards immigrants. Gerardo said to me, “Deportation is something that I worry about to an extent. I know it can happen, but I stay out of trouble and try to be as good a citizen as I can.”

Gerardo has plans for the future. His next big step is to open his engineering firm. He’s more informed now and knows that opening a business is possible for him, despite his immigration status. I’m sure it will happen for him because he has what it takes. He has ganas!

The End

The Accidental Teacher

by Mark Cisneros

I never wanted to be a high school teacher. This idea simply did not exist for me, and the “influence young lives and be a role model” battle cry that propels most into the teaching profession couldn’t reach my ears, not even as a murmur. I didn’t have my own life together, so there was no way I was going to slide into a classroom and preach the gospel to the right path to a bunch of teens going through the most tumultuous periods of their lives? Nah, I was more concerned with my life and on trying to carve out a decent career for myself, whatever it was going to be. Teaching was not an option. Besides, I hated my own high school experience.

At 28, I was basically like that stupid vacuum—you know the one that people leave on in their houses while they’re away—the one that bumps into furniture and table legs, trying not to get stuck. That was me, bumping into dead ends and different jobs and different majors. But still, I always had one ear peeled back in hopes of hearing my life’s calling.
I was earning $865.00, a month as the English Department Grad. Assistant at Cal State Los Angeles. It was an easy gig, and the hours meshed well with my class schedule. I worked mornings. In the afternoons, I worked towards earning a Master’s Degree in English. But I was nearing my 30’s, and making $865, a month was embarrassing. I was living at home as a young adult, and my mom was still asking me where I had been the night before. I needed change.

One day, I heard an adjunct professor mention the name Frank Zepeda. I couldn’t have been wrong in hearing it, and even though I had not heard that name in exactly ten-years, I knew it was the Mr. Zepeda I knew from Mt. View High School in El Monte, Ca. Mr. Zepeda single handedly saved my life when I was a senior in high school. His belief in me gave my life direction and purpose. He didn’t provide me with any specific advice or big game pep talk. He didn’t point me in any direction, and he didn’t talk to me about purpose. He’s just responsible for helping me paddle out of the shit in which I was stuck.

This is how Mr. Zepeda did it. I had just finished walking off the graduation stage, a place I’d never thought I’d find myself just months earlier. I don’t remember my name being called; I don’t remember walking up to the stage; I don’t even remember walking off the stage. I barely remember being there, but I know I graduated.

Then, after the ceremony, I decided to take a solitary walk through campus. I was alone. I strayed from my family, as I needed a few minutes to myself. You see I never thought I would graduate. I had been kicked out of my previous high school. I had poor grades, my attendance was poor, I smoked a shitload of weed, and I hated school. And yet I felt like I owed it to myself to take one last walk through the school, to try to get out of there with solid memory, something intact and tangible. There wasn’t anyone around from what I could see. I was still in disbelief, I think, kinda blown away that I had done it—that I had graduated.

Mt. View High School was comprised of perfectly squared, windowless, brick buildings situated at a good distance from one another. The roofs were flat, and concrete covered most of the acreage. Surrounding the entire school was a ten-foot high chain-link fence, which either made you feel trapped or safe.At the farthest edge of the school was a duck farm. Our athletic fields ended where the duck farm started, so the stench of duck shit was prevalent. The school’s mascot was a Viking, but to our rival schools, we were the Mt. View Ducks. It was just a weird place.

I continued on my walk. I had no aim. I was just trying to be present. I was talking to myself, whispering my thanks and disbelief. Then, without warning, I saw Mr. Zepeda. He was chatting with the school’s Dean. We made eye contact from afar. I could tell from his facial expression that he surprised to see. After all, graduation was over and here I am walking aimlessly through campus. He called me over. I bowed my head walked over.
Even though he was my favorite teacher, I remember not wanting to talk with him. It’s awkward when you’re talking to teachers outside of the normal school settings. We were on campus, true, but school was over and I had just graduated. There was nothing left to discuss.

When I reached him, the Dean said “Hi” to me and then took off.
I’m not sure how long we talked, and I don’t remember what was said, either. I really wish I could remember every word, but nothing from that conversation comes to mind. But this part I do remember.
Towards the end of our talk, Mr. Zepeda put his hand on my shoulder. It caught me off guard, and my body stiffened. It wasn’t a forceful or heavy touch. He just rested his hand on my shoulder in a fatherly way (not a Catholic Fatherly way), but in a Michelangelo’s painting Sistine Chapel’s ceiling kind of way. And then magic happened. With his hand still rested on my shoulder, he said to me in his calm, soothing drawl, “I expect big things from you, Mark.” This is all I remember from our encounter.

“I expect big things from you, Mark.” “I expect big things from you, Mark.” “I expect big things from you, Mark.” He couldn’t have known that these were the very words I needed to hear right at that moment. He couldn’t have known because I didn’t even realize I was that desperate for affirmation, for someone to believe in me. What made these words even more powerful was that they came from the very person I needed to hear them from. I said, “Thanks,” and walked away. I found a quiet spot near my English class and sobbed.

And that’s how Frank Zepeda saved my life. From that point on, I set out to accomplish everything I could, and if I was down or tired, I just remembered, “I expect big things from you, Mark,” and again, everything was possible. For all I know, Mr. Zepeda could’ve uttered these same words to every other student, but for that time, in that moment, I was the only one around, so they were my words, and they are still are my words.

When I heard the adjunct professor mention Mt. View and Zepeda, I had no choice but to pry. “Did you say Mt. View High School?” I asked. “Yeah,” she said. “I graduated from there.” “Oh, cool! So did I,” I said. “Do you know Mr. Zepeda?” She obviously did, since she mentioned him but I was playing stupid. “Yeah,” she said enthusiastically.” I could tell she thought he was as cool as I did. “He was my twelfth grade English teacher,” I said. “Oh, yeah?” she said. “He’s a principal now, at Norwalk High School.” “Really? He doesn’t teach anymore?, I asked. “No, he moved on,” she said. “I guess he got tired of teaching.” She said, “Bye,” and walked on down the hall. I sat at my desk for a few moments. I was stunned, but still a little excited at hearing about my favorite teacher. I returned to my tasks, but I had been wounded by a nostalgic arrow. I thought about Mr. Zepeda a lot after high school. I wondered what he was up to and how he was doing.

I kept thinking about how weird it was to hear his name, but I was also happy to know he was alive. I now knew where he worked, too, and that he moved up the ladder, so to speak. I figured it would probably be a good time to reach out and contact him and tell him about all the good he did for me and how his words and his pat to my shoulder awoke me and gave my life direction. And so I did.
Norwalk’s High School’s operator answered the phone. “May I speak with Mr. Frank Zepeda?” I said. I had pretty good phone etiquette because it was part of my job as a graduate assistant. I used to answer all the phones. It got old fast, though. When I started the job, I went through the entire greeting with the politeness of a butler. “Hello. English Department. Mark speaking. Can I help you?” After a few months on the job, my greeting had dwindled down to, “English!” That was it, but I said it with conviction. I didn’t care who was on the other line. I didn’t care if they knew my name. I didn’t care if they had the wrong number. “English!” That was it. It worked, too, and I answered almost every question that was thrown at me, even the stupid ones.

The operator was polite. “Oh, yes. One moment, please. I’ll transfer you.” It was a short wait. “This is Frank Zepeda.” It was his voice, in the same exact tone with which he said, “I expect big things from you.” “Hey, Mr. Zepeda. How you doing? This is Mark Cisneros.” How could he remember me? Ten years had elapsed since we had spoken or seen each other. “Hey, Mark. What are you up to?” He remembered me. “Oh, nothing much. Just working. I’m earning my Masters’ Degree in English from Cal State L.A., and I work in the English office,” I said. After ten years, this is what I was doing? Hearing me say this to him reminded me of how little I had accomplished in ten years. “You want a job?” I wasn’t sure I heard correctly. I said, “What was that?” Mr. Zepeda repeated, “You want a job? I have an English opening. It’s eleventh grade English.” “Yeah!” I said excitedly. “Can you be here on Thursday for an interview at 11:00 a.m.?” It was Monday. “For sure. Ok, Mr. Zepeda. I really appreciate it. Thanks,” I said. “Ok, see you Thursday,” he said. “Ok, see you later,” I said.

To make a long story a little less longer, the interview went well, and I was given the job. I’m sure my history with Mr. Zepeda had something to do with my landing it, but in the end I was pretty knowledgeable, and I had a lot to offer.
When I graduated from college, it was my intention to become a writer. I don’t know why I felt I had to wait to finish college in order to start writing, but in my mind, this was part of the progression of becoming a writer. The majority of my friends applied to the teacher credential program. Most knew that they wanted to be teachers. I applied to graduate school. I knew I wanted to continue my studies in English and literature, and I figured that more studying would provide me with a broader scope of general knowledge and enhance my poor writing skills. Like I said, teaching wasn’t even a thought at this time.

While my friends were studying to become teachers, I was earning my M.A. in English. Sometimes I wondered if I made the right choice to pursue a Master’s Degree in English, but I was hearing horror stories about the credential program, so I was pleased.

Mr. Zepeda hired me on a few conditions. One of them was that I had to earn a teaching credential in five-years. Because I had no credential, and because I wasn’t enrolled in a credential program, I was given an “Emergency Credential.” Teachers needed to possess some type of teaching credential, or at least be working towards one. A person couldn’t teach without one.

There was a major shortage of teachers in the 90’s, so in order to attract prospective candidates, California began distributing Emergency Credentials like gov’t cheese to anyone who show showed an interest in the teaching racket. It was easy, even for a guy like me who knew absolutely nothing about the profession. It wasn’t my calling, and I made a vow to get out of teaching in four-years. I wanted to make enough money to sustain me while I wrote a book.

Well, it’s been nineteen-years, and I’m still in the teaching game. Sometimes I hate myself for it. I didn’t want to be in it this long. I’ve seen what the profession can do to people. I’ve seen the shoulders and backs of good people, young, vibrant souls, droop and hunch and break with the weight of their complacency. It’s depressing. Others walk around zombie like, with eternal downward glances, not even looking up to see where they’re going, navigating their way by the all too familiar cracks and grooves in the cement. I didn’t want to suffer the same fate, and so I took inventory of these people, of the tired and wilted, and I promised myself that I would not suffer the same fate.

I received my very first teacher’s paycheck in September 1998. It was handed to me by the principal’s secretary, and it came in a plain white envelope. I remember feeling both excited and scared. I was trying to guess how much it would be. I didn’t open it right away. I waited till I was sitting in my car. It was parked in the teacher’s lot across the street from the school. Septembers in L.A. are hot, so my car was scorching when I got it, but still I just sat there.
I held the envelope over the steering wheel and opened it. I stared at it for a few seconds, letting the numbers sink into my mind a little deeper. It read: $2345.67. I had never seen a check for this much, especially one that was written to me. The words, “What the fuck am I going to do with all this money?” came out of my mouth. It was a lot of money to me, and I really did have a hard time trying to understand that a check for this much could be given to a human being. But within two weeks, almost every dime was gone. I lived paycheck to paycheck for the next two years because all I did was party and dine with my girlfriend.

Now, when I try to corral all the years into a single memory of sorts, I can see that my teaching career, so far, hasn’t been that bad. It’s actually gone pretty well. I like to think, or hope, at least, that I’ve changed lives in positive ways, and that I’ve been a role model, and that I’ve improved my own quality of life.

I’ve even earned a few awards for my teaching. The biggest was being, recognized as “One of Los Angeles County’s Most Inspirational Teachers.” This was special because the nomination came from the students themselves. I have a picture with then L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and a t-shirt to prove it.

Yes, my life is a little easier now, financially speaking, although, teachers’ dollars still don’t go very far. I’ve had a lot of fun and interesting times as a teacher, and I’ve made some strong, long lasting connections with students. Along the way, I’ve been asked to baptize babies and be the best man at weddings. I’ve also been invited to numerous Quinceñeras and baby showers. I’ve also been invited on family outings to Mexico. Some students have even tried to set me up with their older sisters and aunts. It’s even gone further. Students have also asked me to pack bowls with them, smoke joints, take shots, snort lines, and do keg stands at their kickbacks or house parties. No, there’s never been a shortage of surrealism, comedy, intrigue, and mystery in the teaching profession. Every day is grab bag. You just never know what’s gonna go down.

Meant to Bee

Not many people know this: my wife and I lost a child to complications. Our baby would’ve been close to five-years-old by now.

Finding out we were pregnant with our second child was a cause of celebration for us, just as it had been when we found out Xaria was on her way. We had begun to talk about having more kids, especially because we wanted Xaria to have a sibling.  We decided to go for it, despite knowing that we were going to experience the gamut of nerves and fears associated with pregnancy. Xaria’s birth was no exception, either, but we did all we could to be best prepared for our new child’s arrival.

Guen was in her forties when she was got pregnant this time around, and we were well aware of the potential complications associated with older age and pregnancy. We saw all the right doctors and took all the necessary tests, driving back and forth to San Francisco and Stanford. We were full throttle, all positive, and yet cautious with everything Guen did. But still, at our soul’s core, were over the moon.

We talked about names and gifts and sleeping arrangements and how happy Xaria would be and what age she would be when her baby brother or baby sister was five or six-years-old and how our lives would be made much more meaningful with more children. Xaria was getting a younger sibling, too, and she was super excited about it. We, too, were super stoked for her.

There was still a lot of work to do, and we were determined to be thorough with our preparations and medical options. We took advantage of all the advice and tests that were recommended, leaving little room for future regret. Guen and I fielded a slew of Genetic Screening questions from a specialist in San Francisco. We were asked questions about our families, on both sides, about moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, and great grandparents. We volunteered information regarding any family health issues of which we knew. The conclusion from the screener was that everything was normal. In fact, every test Guen took had come back absolutely positive, making us even more excited to see our baby.

Because of Guen’s age, she was provided information for one more optional test. It was called a Chorionic Villus Sampling (CVS) test, a prenatal exam used to detect abnormalities, birth defects, genetic diseases, and other pregnancy problems. The test was recommended by Doctor Alexander, the same doctor that who delivered Xaria. We loved Dr. Alexander, and we trusted his opinions and judgement.  Guen wholeheartedly agreed to the test

The CVS test involves removing a sample piece of the placenta. It’s done by inserting a long needle through the belly, reaching all the way to the placenta. The sample is then sent to a lab, and the results come back a few days later. Guen was a trooper during the test, a symbol of her determination to ensure a normal, healthy birth.

The CVS results had come in, and so we drove to San Francisco to hear the findings. If I remember correctly, we were apprehensive and emotionally fragile. Up to this point, we had relied on images from ultrasounds and blood samples to tell us that our pregnancy was going well. We studied our baby’s curled form, mysterious and magical on the ultrasound screen, and watched his/her heart pulsate with excitement, my urging him/her on, “C’mon, baby! You can do it! I’ll see you, soon!”

A trisomy is a type of polysomy, when an organism or species produces one extra chromosome.  A normal human is equipped with 46 chromosomes. The first twenty-three chromosomes, called autosomes, look the same in both males and females. The next twenty-three, the sex chromosomes, differ between males and females. The production of extra chromosomes severely throws off the balance in an organism, which could prove dangerous, even deadly.

For women aged 40 and up, the chance of their baby being born with Down Syndrome is approximately 1 in 90. A double trisomy, two extra chromosomes, is exceedingly rare, at a rate of approximately 1 in every 10,000 births.

The CVS results confirmed that were that 1 in 10,000. We were told our baby had a double-trisomy. The double-trisomy meant our baby was to born with Down Syndrome, a disease we were ok living with, but the second trisomy meant that our baby’s life would be a stillbirth, meaning that he or she would more than likely die after approximately 24 completed weeks of pregnancy. It was blow. Dr. Alexander explained our options. He was slow and careful and empathetic.

My heart was completely broken. I can’t imagine how Guen felt, but I know she was destroyed on most every level. After all, this was not supposed to happen. Every test was positive. Every ultrasound was a celebration. Every conversation we had with our team of doctors and every piece of information we received about our baby was positive. The chance of a double trisomy was almost nil.

After many tears and long periods of depression and self-doubt, we aborted the pregnancy. Dr. Alexander assured us that our decision to do so was made much easier by the double trisomy, a surreal, reverse blessing of sorts, giving us no choice. We did not want our boy to die stillbirth.

A few days later, we were once again in San Francisco. I don’t remember the drive—only the stillness in the air, the quietude, the sadness. There were no words that day. Only feelings.

My wife asked about the sex of the baby after the termination. They told her he was a boy. He would’ve been named Luke or Santiago, or even Mark. These names were on the list.

The doctors said they were surprised that Guen got pregnant in the first place. In fact, the post-operation counselor told her that she was lucky to have gotten pregnant at all. Even after the initial fertility tests we took as we were planning to have another child, Dr. Alexander told Guen that she had a 1% chance of getting pregnant. She had defied the odds, and a month later after he told her that is was almost impossible, Guen was pregnant. That it had ended was devastating.

A day after the termination, I had a dream.  I was walking into the family room from our bedroom. At the same time, Xaria was walking in through the back door of our house and into the kitchen. We met at the threshold of the kitchen and family room. I noticed her hands were cupped as she approached. “Dad, look what I found.” I looked into her hands, and she was cradling a dead bee. She was so very cautious with this creature, even though it was dead. I could tell she was connected to it on an emotional level, as I have seen Xaria in these situations before. I could sense this connection in the dream. And then I, too, was affected emotionally by the sight of the bee, and I felt drawn towards the bee, too, pulled towards it by a soft sadness.  I knew in my dream that she was holding her baby brother and that I was seeing the symbol of my son.

I told Guen and Xaria about the dream. Guen knew it was our boy. She believes in these things. Xaria was mystified by its meaning. At school, she told her friends, other Kindergartners, that her brother is a bee. We had to counsel her a little from making those types of statements, as elementary kids take everything at face value. But from that point on, we started to see a lot of bees—not in swarms—but individually, and at odd times. Recently, as we were returning home from a family trip to Big Sur, a bee flew into the car. The odds of it happening were pretty crazy because I had only one window slightly open, barely at a crack.  The bee found its way into the car, immediately causing excitement and joy. It hung around for a few seconds to say “hi,” and then he flew out of the car on his own, through the same window. It was pretty cool, and both Xaria and Iris knew the bee was their baby brother. I drive on with a smile.

Last week, on August 8, 2017, I turned 47 years-old. I got up particularly early that day to water the lawn and vegetable garden. After this, I went back into the house to get Guen’s car keys. When I can, I start her car for her and get Iris strapped into the car seat, little things to make Guen’s day easier. As I walked back towards the house, I noticed a speck on my car window. As I neared, it didn’t take me long to realize that it was a bee. It was just resting there, in no particular rush or posture. It was just glued to the window. I called for Xaria and Iris. ‘Xaria! Iris! Come here! You’re not going to believe what’s on my car!” “What is it!” they yelled, rushing outside to see. I was standing at the car as they ran up. “Look,” I said, “It’s your brother, my son! He’s come to wish me a happy birthday!” “Wow,” Xaria said. “That’s cool!” She didn’t seem surprised, but Iris was, and she unloaded a barrage of questions. “Is that my brudder?” “Why is the bee on your window?” “How come the bee is there, daddy?” “Why is he resting?”

I answered every one of Iris’ questions. It was my pleasure. She’s our rainbow baby, the less than 1% girl, the miracle that came after our boy left us. 

Dr. Alexander didn’t think it was possible for Guen to get pregnant again, and if it happened, it could prove tumultuous. We were still reeling from the abortion, and we passed through substantial period of mourning, but Guen and I got through the aftermath together, and with the love of family and each other, we were able to move forward, emotionally and spiritually. We were ready to try again, too!

The months passed, and Guen periodically cried as she thought about our boy and what could have been. I did, too, more in secret, though, hiding my musings from Guen. My son would’ve played soccer, and I would’ve been under the car with him teaching him the difference between open-end wrenches and sockets. We would’ve fished together and he would’ve cursed and I would’ve laughed. And he would protect and take care of me when I was old.

The months went on like this. Then, on one December day, there was good news. I was napping. It was about 1:00 p.m. It was chilly and I was under the blankets. The house was unusually quiet. Xaria was asleep, too.

There was a massive bang on the door. I don’t scare easily, but I jumped, completely startled. Guen was standing at the threshold, crying hysterically. She was clutching a pregnancy test. “I’m pregnant! I’m pregnant!” she yelled. “What?” I threw off the blankets and crawled across the bed to her. She thrust the test into my face, and I read the lines. They were pink and they were positive. We cried together.

Well, here we go again! We were back at it, traveling to and from San Francisco and Stanford. We didn’t want to jinx this one, so we remained tight lipped about the pregnancy. We didn’t even talk about names. However, Guen is Guen, and so she turned to Google. She found that a baby that is born after the tragedy of a previous pregnancy, is called a “rainbow baby!” She believes in these things, and, by default, I do, too. When we found out we were having a girl, we decided on naming her Iris, the Spanish name for “rainbow,” or “arco iris.”

Iris has been a miracle, a truly magical addition to our lives. She has already proven to be fierce in her three-years of life. She is completely different from Xaria, too. Xaria wore a threadbare tutu for the first four-years of her life, pulling it up over every outfit she ever put on, until it finally fell to pieces. Iris, on the other hand, hasn’t worn a dress in almost three-years. She refuses to wear one, and she detests the color pink. Instead, she’s into soccer, baseball, basketball, skateboarding, scooters, and jumping off high places. She has already broken an arm, ridden in an ambulance, and worn several bandages. She does not walk. She runs to wherever she has to be. She may very well be our boy reincarnated, but whatever she is, I know that she is definitely meant to bee. 

“Daddy, I was flying!”

When my daughter, Xaria, was six-years-old or so, she burst into our room one early morning as my wife and I were waking and announced,  “Daddy, Daddy! I had a dream that I was flying. I was actually flying!” She was over the moon (pun intended). I said, “Really? Were you actually flying with your arms or with wings or what?” “I had wings and I was flying all through the sky! They were big wings, and they were colorful and long,” she said. I was happy for her. I’ve had the dream a few times, and it’s unique. If you haven’t had it, I hope that one day you do. It’s probably the most beautiful dream you can have, especially if the spirit of your flight comes from a healthy place.

The first time I had it, I was about twenty-three. I might’ve had it before, but I don’t recall it. In my dream, I found myself running down a childhood street at full speed. I think I already knew that I had the ability to fly, which is why I was running in the first place. At full pace, I then jumped into the air and flapped my arms as fast and as hard as I could. I did so as though my life depended on it. I wanted to fly! I managed to stay in the air for a few seconds, but quickly came back down. I wanted more. I was pretty conscious of my abilities. I tried again. I did it all the same. Then, just like magic, I was in the air. I was in a state of amazement, too, but I was conscious of my flight. I flapped and gilded, flapped and glided, and then I simply controlled myself across the night sky, flapping my arms and guiding myself over neighborhoods in L.A.

Us Mexicans are a pretty superstitious bunch. I told my mom about the dream, and she said, “Oooooh, that’s good, mijo! It means you’re going to get money!” A part of me thought my mom was maybe a little foolish to believe in that stuff, but in the back of my mind, her words were taken as a bit of wishful truth. It just so happened that my brother and I were preparing for a Vegas trip with our dad. It took place two days after my dream.

We were in the Tropicana when my dad hand me a $100 bill. He gave my brother one, too. We weren’t going to spend it. When my dad gave us money, we pocketed it and used it on stuff we needed for school or clothes. I did, however, have three dollars of my own. I exchanged them for Tropicana, one-dollar coins so that I could play the slot machines.

I walked around the casino searching for the right slot machine, theone, lucky machine that would call my name. I found it. It was a corner machine, at the edge of a major walkway in the casino, side-by-side with about ten other machines. It was decorated with colorful pictures of the Tropicana lady. She wore a big hat with fruits and flowers stacked on top it. She wore a bikini, and she had beautiful breasts and long legs. She was the one!

Because I only had three-dollars, and also because I expected to lose all three dollars in the blink of an eye, I didn’t even take a seat. I just stood in front of the machine and proceeded to give it my money. I put the first coin in and pulled the lever. The wheels inside spun wildly for a few seconds and then one by one they stopped. Nothing. I put the second coin and watched the numbers and fruits and ladies and all kinds of other icons roll to a complete stop. Nothing. Then with one foot pointed in the direction of the door, I popped in my last dollar and went for the lever.

Before  I could pull it, though, the coin popped out at the bottom of the machine. I thought, “Well, at least I didn’t lose.” I put it in again. This time the machine took it. I pulled the lever and watched the numbers and symbols roll across the face of the machine. The first roll stopped. It was the Tropicana lady. The second roll stopped. Again, the Tropicana lady. Finally, the last roll stopped. The Tropicana lady. There wasn’t a sound. No lights, no sirens, no horns–just silence. “Did I win,” I asked myself. I stood directly in front of the machine and squinted my eyes as I stared deeply at the icons and the center-line on the glass. They seemed to be lined perfectly, but still there was no indication that I had won.

Then a voice called to me. There was a woman standing atop the row of machines. I hadn’t notice her, and I didn’t even think it was possible to be up there, but it was her perch and she made sure the machines were functioning. “Did you win?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “The ladies are lined up, but there wasn’t a sound or any lights or anything.” “Yeah, you won,” she said. “You won $800!” “No way!” I said. “Oh, shit! She called me over and handed me eight, $100 bills. “You’re dumb,” she said with a laugh. “If you would’ve put in two counts, you would’ve won $2700!” I didn’t care. $800, was the most money I’ve ever had. Mom was right!

When we got back to our hotel room, I put the $800, under the mattress. There was no way that I was going to spend a dime of it. After two more days, we left. We were on Highway 15 when I realized that I had left the money under the mattress in our room.. My dad was pissed! “Son of a bitch,” he said as he angrily drove us back. We didn’t lock the door behind us, so I went in and straight for the bed. The money was still there.

Xaria was so excited about the dream, and I didn’t want her to forget it, so I said, “You should paint your dream. You should paint what it looked like so you don’t forget it.” She did. My wife always has Xaria’s art supplies within arm’s reach, so Xaria got to painting at the kitchen table. We left her alone. This is what she painted:

Xaria's flying

I’ve since had the dream a few more times. In fact, I just had a few weeks ago. It never gets old. I’m glad Xaria had it. I hope Iris has it, too. I can’t really put to words how beautiful it is to fly. It’s funny, though. In my flying dreams, I never have wings. I always have to use my arms. Xaria is lucks. She got wings.




What I do When My Students Take Tests

Note: I believe I wrote this in 2014. I was administering a state mandated test to my students, and once I distributed the exams, there was nothing much for me to do, so I wrote. It’s an excerpt of something that has no direction. I guess it could lead into a bigger story, but I’m not in the mood to go there.

Well, it’s that time of the year again. These latest rants are a result of my currently having too much time. My students are taking a state mandated test. I’m simply here to make sure they don’t cheat. I sit at the front of the class, I watch, and I write. Today, no one cheated, and so this is today’s piece.

I’m nearing the end of my sixteenth-year as a high school teacher. It’s no milestone, I know. Many have been at it for much longer, especially here at my current school.

I’m not gunning for record-breaking longevity. I don’t want to be that teacher that gets to work at the same hour every day and parks their car in the same space every day. That’s not for me.

I never wanted to be a high school teacher, nor any other type of teacher, for that matter. I got into it because I needed money. What a joke, right? A guy needs money, so he goes into teaching. But this is no joke. I was cash strapped.

Here’s the long version of how I got into the teaching racket. In 1998, I was working as a graduate assistant in the English department at California State Los Angeles and earning a Master’s Degree in English at the same time. I worked mornings and afternoons, and took all my classes at night. I was paid $857.00, a month for my services. I had moved back into my mom’s house that summer, so what I earned was enough to cover my monthly expenses, but just barely. I needed a little more, so to supplement my salary, I pimped out my labor services to all the English professors with whom I worked. I had gotten to know them fairly well, dining and attending parties with them and ordering all their books and supplies and doing odd jobs for them around the department. Mrs. Harris, a linguistics professor, invited a few of her students to her house for a May Day Party. At one point, we all stood around her mistuned piano and sang The Internationale.  It was a different world for me, and I liked it.  My presence probably gave them a glimpse of a different world, too, and I think they liked that aspect of it as well. I mean, c’mon, how many guys do you know that did time in L.A. County prison, twice, and earned a Master’s Degree in English? Yeah, thought so.

My first supplemental gig was for Ms. Benjamin. She paid me to rearrange everything in her detached office in the foothills of La Cañada. It was a rickety wooden shack of an office, camouflaged by trees and foliage and painted in the therapeutic colors red, orange, and yellow.  The only thing that kept it from falling over the cliff was the giant oak tree it leaned against. Inside, she had books everywhere. They were on the floor, on desks, on top of other books. She also had vases and candles and stereo equipment scattered throughout. It was a disaster, but I got it all in order for her. I also cleaned her roof gutters and fixed whatever else needed fixing around her house. She paid cash, and I used the money to get drunk in Old Town Pasadena with my girlfriend. Well, soon, Dr. Benjamin spread the word, and soon after that, I had all the professors lining up to get a piece of my Mexican labor.

Ms. Watkins paid me to take down every book from the library shelves in her Pasadena home. I dusted them and re-shelved them according to subject. I also cleaned and polished the shelves and washed her windows from the outside. She was a real bitch, though, picky about everything. Her inspection of everything I did was the reason I never returned. I never took any of her classes, either. In fact, I don’t even know what she taught.

Mr. Lee was a professor from China. He taught the Modern American Novel.  We read Ragtime and The Book of David and The Jungle and some other novels I can’t recall. He was a decent professor. We never really did much other than discuss the significance of the novels and their relevance to the modern world. It was pinky up kinda stuff, but it was part of the game, so I just played along.

There were only about twelve students in each of my classes. I was the only Mexican, not that this matters, but it was a little obvious to me. All classes met in the same room, whether it was the Post-Colonial Literature course or the Wordsworth and Coleridge course or the Proust course. The room was more like an office, and at its center was a long, wooden table that could seat about twenty-students. The professors always sat at the head of the table, usually hidden behind ridiculous stacks of papers, books, and bags that he or she never looked at or touched over the course of the three-hour meeting.  We’d sit there from six to nine discussing what we read, if we read it. On some nights we immersed ourselves in passionate debate over metaphors and symbols and motifs, while other nights were simply torture.

There was always that one attention-whore in the class with about twenty-seven key chains dangling from the zipper of her patent leather purse. And she was always late. We could hear her coming down the all from the parking lot. The sound of the chains was our signal to stop what we were doing, sit back in our seats, and wait for warden to take her seat. There was usually a snob in each class, too, the one that read everything, including the Forwards.

Will, this is all for now. The kids are done testing. They hate testing as much as I do. I have yet to tell them that every test they take in this class is completely irrelevant. I think I’ll wait till Friday.

Salinas’ Most Shameful Day: February 21, 2017

The term “Sanctuary City” is used to describe any city in the United States which intends, within the legal realm, to shelter and protect its illegal immigrants. Sanctuary Cities also do not allow the use of city money or city resources to help with the enforcement of federal immigration laws. In California, examples of counties that host sanctuary cities include Contra Costa County, Los Angeles County, Orange County, and Santa Cruz County, to name only a few. However, not every city within a county is designated as a sanctuary city. In most instances, a vote between city council members must take place.

Well, on Tuesday, February 21, 2017, such a vote took place. The Salinas City Council struck down a motion that would’ve labeled Salinas a “Sanctuary City.”  Seven votes were cast: three were in favor of becoming a sanctuary city. The other four were not. Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter voted against making Salinas a sanctuary city, as did council members Steve McShane, Kimberly Craig, and John “Tony” Villegas.  Again, seven votes decided the fate of thousands of illegal immigrants living in and around Salinas, immigrants responsible for making a select few very, very rich.

Those who voted against the motion cited a threat made by President Trump, warning sanctuary cities that they would lose all federal funding, including funds that help pay for police and firefighter services, court services, school resources, infrastructure repair, and transportation.  Salinas receives approximately 10 million dollars annually from the federal government. Four of seven felt the threat of losing federal funding was too great. So losing the approximate 2.2 billion dollars a year made off the backs of immigrants is a lesser threat? Oh, but there’s more money involved, still! Illegal immigrants contribute nearly 500 million dollars to California’s Social Security fund, a fund that they themselves will never have access to because they are not citizens. But four city council members saw it fit to ignore these numbers.

Now, I’m trying to do my best to mask the disgust I feel towards these four council members who voted against sanctuary city status, who, in essence, voted against protecting the very people, the workforce, responsible for making Salinas one of the richest cities in the world. Who, essentially voted to give ICE a green light in Salinas, to break up families, and to hunt vulnerable, hard-working immigrants, to put Salinas’ workforce into hiding. Who gave them this power? Oh, we did, by not voting, or for voting for the wrong people.

Si Se Puede

Let’s talk money and numbers, because if immigrants are to gain any leverage, it’s going to have be the sort of leverage that hurts local government in the places they will feel it most: their pockets. How the could anyone in their right mind ignore the fact that lettuce alone, in Salinas, brings in an estimated $869, 447,000, or that strawberry crops generate $861,438,000, or that broccoli cashes in $423,006,000, per year? And are you also going to ignore how these crops get to market? And who picks these crops and readies them and packages them for delivery across the U.S.? Immigrants do, and, in many cases, these people are illegal!

According to the National Agriculture Workers’ Survey (NAWS), “Approximately 48% of farmworkers lack work authorization. However, this estimate may be low due to a variety of factors. Some sources estimate that as much as 70% or more of the workforce is undocumented. Using these estimates, roughly 1.2 million to 1.75 million farmworkers are undocumented and roughly 750,000 to 1.3 million farmworkers are United States citizens or lawful immigrants. According to the NAWS, about 33% of farmworkers are United States citizens, 18% are lawful permanent residents and another 1% have other work authorization.” (www.farmworkerjustice.org). These four poorly informed, out of touch council members might as well have lined us all up to slap us in the face because this is exactly what it feels like.

The best thing we can do to get gain the upper-hand is to boycott. It can prove difficult, but it’s a very productive means to an end. Let the crops rot and see what happens. We can grow our own food. In fact, we should be doing this, anyway. Let us not spend money where we don’t have to. Instead, save more. More rainy days are on their way. Finally, vote! Every Latino that has the right to vote must exercise this right! If you do not vote, sit quietly on the sidelines because you’re right to say anything is sealed in your refusal to vote.

I am a teacher, and many of my students are immigrants. Their parents are immigrants, and their grandparents are immigrants. Most of their families work in the agricultural industry, in many capacities. My students, themselves, put in long, summer hours picking raspberries, strawberries, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, and celery. They know the drill. It’s hard work! They deal with heat, cold, rain, sun, snakes, rats, poison. They tolerate this because they need to make a living—the main reason why they’re here in the first place—why they risked their lives. This and to give their kids an education, something which their parents never had a chance at receiving.

Here is my final thought: the Salinas City Council should be ashamed of themselves. I find it hard to believe that these people, if one can call them people, could go home and eat well and sleep well, knowing that they just voted to throw Salinas’ entire immigrant population under the proverbial bus. Where’s the heart when we need it most? Where’s common sense when we need it most? Holden Caufield said it best as he got the hell out of a place he did not want to be: “Sleep tight, ya morons!”

My Immigrant Parents and Their Immigrant Hearts

My mom came to the U.S. with a sixth grade education.  As a teenager, she got a job at a lamp manufacturing company in El Monte. It’s where she met my father. He, too, arrived from Mexico in his teens. They did not speak English.

Both my parents quickly realized the importance of education as it pertained to success in America. My mother enrolled in adult school and learned English. We made fun of her accent, but she took it all in stride and never stopped learning. She took various exams and earned the licenses necessary to work as a secretary. She began her first real American job with the Los Angeles Unified School District Office on Soto St, near El Sereno, and as soon as she could, she helped her three younger siblings get jobs with the same district. Two of her brothers still drive buses for the LAUHSD.

My mom worked in the district’s Transportation Department, in charge of making sure the school bus schedules were properly coordinated and executed. She was excellent at her job, and after thirty-plus years, she retired. She owns a beautiful house and a nice car. She has some money put away, but more importantly, she is incredibly healthy and vibrant. She always has been one of my most important role models.

My father enrolled in high school, graduated, then joined the U.S. Army and fought in the Vietnam and Korean Wars. He learned to cuss and smoke weed in the Army, but he also learned how to be warrior. Upon his return, he earned an A.A. Degree from East L.A. City College, and much later, after retirement, he earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Cal State University San Marcos. For over thirty-years, he worked as a machinist for Chevron and later as a plant operator for Southern California Edison. He was a true blue-collar man, but he was also a Renaissance man. He taught me to fish, hunt, fix cars, and to persevere.

After nearly twenty-years of marriage, my parents divorced. I was eighteen. My brother was fifteen, and my sister was twelve. Nevertheless, throughout their lives, my parents provided for us,but it was not easy. I remember my mom paying for our groceries with Food Stamps. I remember finding packets of tortillas in a trash can and bringing them home to have with our dinner. We got a lot of hand-me-downs from cousins and friends. There was no room for pride then.

But yes, my parents provided. These two lovely, caring, old-school immigrants, complete with their Mexican values and Mexican souls provided my sister with a private school education and a Bachelor’s Degree. Like my mother, Erica purchased a beautiful home on her own. She bought herself a nice car, and now, along with her magnificent husband, are raising my beautiful niece Sigrid.

My brother, also with the help of our parents, graduated from Cal State University Monterey Bay. He is a teacher and athletic director at a local high school. He is a successful coach, and he is active in the goings on of his school and community.

As for me, my parents helped get me through school, too. In fact, everything I have in life comes from my immigrant parents. My life could be much different had they not had the opportunity to prove their worth to this county, to contribute immensely to the fabric of this county, all while adopting American values, American norms, and the American way of life.

This country is currently home to millions of immigrants, all eager to prove their worth and to contribute greatly to the continued greatness of this country. All they know is work and perseverance. All they need is a chance. A chance to put their kids through school. A chance to earn college degrees. A chance to coach and change the lives of youth in their communities. A chance to provide leadership and to show the world that they are invaluable to America and everything she stands for. A chance to find peace and happiness in difficult times.

Green cards provided some mobility, but it was their gaining American citizenship that truly made them feel a part of America–American!

America is an immigrant nation. Do not allow anyone tell you different. The very paper containing the words that govern this country comes from immigrant labor. In fact, it would be impossible to drive one mile without pointing at something that was not created by immigrant hands. Long live the Immigrant! Arriba La Raza! Arriba los Estados Unidos, amigos!