THE ASTRONAUT’S BREAKFAST
Terrell Burgoon was the first person who ever mentioned chorizo in a class at school.
He also turned out to be the first white person I can remember speaking a word of Spanish. I remember it clearly now but for years I had hidden away the memory. My son reminded me one day and it all came rushing back.
My son’s mother, Petitioner, and I were divorced when he was very young. She moved Mark and herself to Modesto California and we shared our time with him. His mother, being of good solid Italian and Germanic trace background gifted our son with the sort of skin and complexion which allowed my son to “pass.”
That’s pass for a white person folks. We never insisted that he make a decision regarding his racial makeup and he still has not for the most part. It is just not that important to him at this time. Maybe it will become important for him in the future.
Unfortunately, I know it must and will become important to him for a lot of terrible reasons.
I remember one exchange we had when he was 6 years old. I had just picked him up for our weekend together and I could see he was upset. I tried to talk to him and then tease him into responding, when I could see he was having none of the frontal attack.
“How’s my little Mexican boy,” I asked. He instantly snapped his head around to mine and caught my eye. His voice was flat and short, hurt and confused.
“I’m not Mexican. I never can be Mexican.”
He looked away. Out the window, Highway 99 was flying by. Signs that talked about “Judges being Judged,” “Read the Bible” and “Farmers for Choice” flew by outside the window. It was one of those moments that you can never prepare for as a parent. I had to know.
“Why can’t you ever be Mexican?” I asked.
I knew this was something more than being upset with his mother or some simple teasing. I could tell he was torn between telling the truth and hurting my feelings but he went on anyway. He knew I was Mexican but he said it anyway.
“Because Mexicans are dirty,” he said defiantly.
“Who told you that?” I continued.
“Some kids at school,” he answered.
We went on to something else and the questions and confusions about “dirty Mexicans” were forgotten. We drove along and talked about everything until he fell asleep. As he slept I remembered when it happened for me. When it became less simple I suppose.
It was near the year of the moon landing. I was 8 years old and I had been in the public school system in Santa Paula, California beginning when I was 5 years old. We, as a class of students, as a country, and as literal world humanity were interested in everything having to do with the moon landing.
Needless to say big business did not fail to see the commercial possibilities in sponsoring these scientific endeavors.
To this end, McKevett school has been supplied with charts, stickers and classroom exercises designed to show us how our lives and the lives of the astronauts intersected. Product placement was much more blatant in those days. I remember that these “learning tools” came to the classroom through the bigheartedness of a certain breakfast cereal that was hawked, then as now, by some sugar-hyper striped animal with a deep voice like that long haired guy in the Oak Ridge Boys.
One morning we had the task of comparing the breakfast we had at home to the average breakfast that a moon astronaut ate. We needed to know what they ate and how they ate it. We compared and contrasted what they ate on a daily basis and what we ate, on a big chart supplied by the aforementioned cereal conglomerate. That morning we were sitting around class when Miss Hamilton asked what we had for breakfast that morning. The sea of brown and pink faces that greeted her was definitely drawn along distinct class and cultural lines.
One has to know that in the 1950's and 1960's in Santa Paula California, brown faces were a somewhat new addition to McKevett School. The civil rights movement, as it related to the migrant farm workers and other persons of a brown persuasion had all but missed this small Southern California town. “The Glen City” as Santa Paula was sometimes called, had an active KKK unit until sometime in the early 1930’s to take care of Catholics, Jews and Mexicans.
There were very clear lines drawn by and between the white power structure of the realtors, ranchers and landholders and the Mexican labor force that made it all revolve. Racial equality under these terms was tenuous at best and not well received by most in 1968, or at any other time for that matter.
McKevett School was built as part of a residential enclave at the bottom of Hospital Hill in 1911 and was originally designed to educate the children of those ranchers and business people.
My uncle Chuy said he went to Barbara Webster School near 12th street just a block from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. He said that the main feature of the playground was the largest array of broken glass for miles around. There was no grass, no playground equipment, no nothing.
This was called the “Mexican school” as it was situated on the outskirts of “Mexican Town” which was
the name for everything east of 12th Street in Santa Paula. McKevett School had only recently integrated and had only done so after being threatened by the federal government with withholding of some federal funds. So starting with my sister in our family, we went to McKevett School, along with the white kids.
Here’s the other thing: Until I attended McKevett School I had never interacted with white people in any meaningful manner. I mean, my father who was a cement mason, worked with white people but I personally never knew or had spoken to any white person before stepping onto the grounds of McKevett School in 1964. By the time 1968 came around I had been liberally schooled on what acceptable behavior was in the white culture.
There were simply no white people living on or walking the streets on the east side of 12th street in Santa Paula California at that time. If there were white people there, I never saw any walking down Saticoy Street where I lived. Dogs that bite only knew Spanish on Saticoy. Down boy just meant bite me hounds!
The exceptions were Okies, who were white, but by virtue or misfortune, they were viewed as being only slightly better than Mexicans because of their whiteness. The fact that they drank Budweiser at 9 in the morning on Sundays or married off their 14 year old cousin to some distant relative in Ponca City did not relegate them to the lowest strata. That was reserved for Mexicans.
Terrell Burgoon and his family were some of these Okies. They lived in-between 12th street proper and Ojai road in some sort of political and racial no man’s land where anything could happen. I saw him all the time in school until I left when I was a senior in high school. He was sort of lower class and people made fun of him.
Well, they also made fun of him because he was a dumb Okie and because he stank. He was always getting soap and deodorant left on his desk or locker and sometimes you could not sit next to him because he smelled so bad. He never noticed or at least he pretended not to notice.
When I started at McKevett in kindergarten in 1964 I thought that white people were nice enough but I also noticed significant differences. White children ate peanut butter with jelly for lunch and Mexican kids sometimes brought burritos or some other exotic concoction. I remember seeing a classmate being laughed at by some kids for bringing out and attempting to eat a burrito wrapped in tin foil. I went home that same day and issued an edict to my poor mother.
I needed peanut butter and jelly put into a plastic bag. Not the bread wrapper from the Wonder bread with a sandwich in it, but a PB and J inside a baggie. Nothing else would do. It broke my mom’s heart that I would reject the food that she grew up on, that she had raised my brothers sisters and myself on, and that she crafted with love for me, but she did as she was ordered, because she loved me more than anything else in the world and she did what she could.
By the time I hit Miss Hamilton’s class in 1968, I was already very wise to the fact that I needed to cultivate the attitude and actions of everyone else. Nothing I did was different from any of the white kids in my class. It was just easier that way, and on some unconscious level, I knew Miss Hamilton could not relate to life in the barrio.
I don’t know where she came from or where she lived but I never saw Miss Hamilton on Saticoy Street either. It wasn’t her fault. It just was not done in Santa Paula, California in 1968. It was in this Mexican stealth mode that class was being conducted in on that morning of the discussion of the astronaut’s breakfast.
When Miss Hamilton asked for examples of the different breakfast foods that we consumed at home there was an uneasy silence in that room. I knew, and so did all the other Mexican kids in that room, that we had eaten a breakfast of some variation of chorizo and huevos, pan y chocolate, tortillas or some other food that was definitely culturally charged.
We all knew that talking about any of these things would just endanger the facade we had created in regard to our behavior. We knew that any discussion of anything slightly Mexican would set off an explosion of misunderstanding and explanations that would just not do.
Because of this we improvised.
Lisa Morua said that they drank orange juice. I said that we had toast. Laurie Uffen, blonde and white as the driven snow, contributed bacon and we went on in this vein for some time; until Terrell Burgoon raised his hand. He started out slowly and seemed to be thinking very hard about what he wanted to say. Miss Hamilton waited expectantly, chalk in hand, waiting to add his contribution to the green chalkboard where the other foods waited.
He spoke in a voice thick like syrup:
“Well, there’s this stuff, it’s sort of orange colored and you can mix it with eggs or potatoes. It’s kind of like sausage…I mean it comes like sausage and then it turns like hamburger meat…… except its orange. It’s real good with eggs and potatoes and you can eat it for breakfast or dinner.”
Miss Hamilton stared at Terrell with a look that beckoned him to continue but also said that this train better get somewhere fast or he was going to get yanked from being the conductor.
Terrell continued: “But it’s not really sausage. It’s orange and it comes in a roll like a sausage but it flattens out when you heat it.”
Miss Hamilton looked at Terrell with what probably passed for her motherly, compassionate look but behind it you could see that she was getting that “This is going to be a long day if we don’t move this along” look on her face. I was watching her face when I heard Terrell say the words that chilled every brown face in that classroom.
“It’s Mexican food,” he said.
A silence fell upon us just like the silence that falls on a group of people after something has happened and you are waiting to watch the reaction of someone, to see if you are in trouble or whether that transgression was just going to be ignored and be allowed to pass without any reaction at all.
It was so quiet that you could hear the second graders in Miss Powell’s class singing “Sweetly Sings the Donkey” with all the hee-haws in all the right places. It seemed like forever.
Then Terrell Burgoon did the unthinkable. It was one of those moments that get stuck in your mind as one of those times when you make a decision and go with it. It was one of those moments that people have been facing throughout time, time to stand up and be counted or go down with words stuck in your throat and pain in your heart. I have lived with the pain since that time and I have never forgiven myself for being a coward.
Terrell Burgoon turned to his classmates with brown faces and said; “You guys know what I am talking about, don’t you”?
As a group we froze, stared, and then each of us shook our heads in the negative, in unison, silent and worried. We left Terrell Burgoon for dead even though every one of us knew he was describing chorizo.
And not the chorizo you get at some nouvelle cuisine restaurant these days where it is mixed with cranberries or where it’s made out of tofu. This was chorizo of the 1960’s and it only came one of two ways; from the butcher and in those little orange sausage looking rolls from the tienda (store) anywhere in our neighborhood.
It came in that little yellow and orange package with the little pig on the front who wore a cap just like Buster Brown’s. We all knew it. We had all eaten it. That fabulous Mexican sausage that was snouts, entrails and whatever else the butcher had on the floor at the time he was making it. It was divine and we were never going to say so. Some of us had eaten it that morning for breakfast.
We also knew that mentioning it now, in class, especially after all the build up and mystery behind Terrell Burgoon’s explanation, would just begin a round of discussion and questions that we knew we could never explain well enough for anyone to understand. We were cowards but we had to be just to survive. It wasn’t what we wanted or what we liked but it was an act of self-preservation.
We sat there stone faced, as a group while Terrell Burgoon sat there waiting, imploring someone to come to his aid. Miss Hamilton turned away to the chalkboard and we all began to breathe normally again.
Something got lost for me that day. I am not sure if was an important part of myself that I needed.
I just remember driving down Highway 99 with my own son asleep next to me. He is a mixture of German, Italian, Mexican, and Native American descent, with skin the color of café au lait which turns to brown in the summer. But he likes to stay inside with his wife and video games. He is a great man already.
I remembered Terrell Burgoon in that classroom all those many years ago and I realized that we have not come that far and there are still people who are so angry and disconnected from this world that they have to try and hurt everyone and everything inside it.
I know that my son can pass for white and I sometimes think that this is the best thing to do. Just keep his Mexican heritage hidden away somewhere like I did and just take it out and examine it every once in a while just like someone would examine a science project or historical footnote. Keep it hidden until it’s needed.
“When might that be?” I wondered to myself as I continued driving with my son fast asleep and dreaming.
I wondered if he was dreaming about a life where he does not need to feel like a second class citizen because of what I am or what my parents were. Unfortunately, there are still a number of people walking around this world who cannot wait to work out on a person because of whom they love, their race, skin color or how they worship god. My son does not know about any of this because he has not been taught to hate because of these factors.
He hates but for practical reasons only. He hates green vegetables, going to bed too early when his favorite cartoons are on late, dogs that bark too loud and hurt his ears. He has seen hate and it has confused him inside.
Hopefully this will manifest itself in him by him seeing the fallacy of racism and hatred which seems to be fermenting all around us.
He does not know anything about the hatred that is spread from father and mother to son and daughter based on lies and ignorance. He does not know about the hatred that stems from generational pride or adherence to power and privilege.
He considers himself to be like everybody else and he has always had peanut butter and jelly in his lunch in a baggie. He drinks milk and has never broken his mother’s heart by stepping on everything she knows and knew.
I call him my little Mexican boy and he answers he is not, with indignation. He is already displeased at being labeled, much like he is upset when people judge others without good cause. I never know what to tell him after that.
I guess that have always wished that he would like chorizo and menudo and that he would want to learn about Mexicans and the Mexican culture but I also know there is a danger in going there.
Just ask Terrell Burgoon.