I: Twenty-One


In the late summer I began to make ready to leave for Columbia. In Toluca the schools had vacation at odd times, so most of my English classes continued throughout the summer. I hated to leave them, but I told Señorita Padilla and Professor Tovar that they would have to find someone else.

A short time later. Professor Tovar told me he had learned that a new American couple had come to Toluca, a road engineer and his wife, and that the woman was willing to take over my English classes. I was glad, because the two Mexican teachers of English I had met there had a good knowledge of grammar, but atrocious pronunciation.

While I went for a final trip to the ranch with my father, Professor Tovar and Señorita Padilla called on the American woman and made final arrangements with her to take over the girls’ school and business school classes. They set a day for her to come to the business school in the Portales to go over the lessons with me, and to visit the commercial classes.

Professor Tovar had neglected to tell the new teacher that I was an americano de color, brown as a Mexican, and nineteen years old. So when she walked into the room with him, she kept looking around for the American teacher. No doubt she thought I was one of the students, chalk in hand, standing at the board. But when she was introduced to me, her mouth fell open, and she said: “Why, Ah-Ah thought you was an American.”

I said: “I am American!”

She said: “Oh, Ah mean a white American!” Her voice had a southern drawl.

I grinned.

She was a poor-looking lady of the stringy type, who probably had never been away from her home town before. I asked her what part of the States she came from. She said Arkansas—which better explained her immediate interest in color. The next two days, as she sat beside me at the teacher’s desk, and I went over with her the different types of courses the students had—the conversation for the girls from Señorita Padilla’s school, and the business English for the pupils of the academy—she kept looking at me out of the corners of her eyes as if she thought maybe I might bite her.

At the end of the first day, she said: “Ah never come across an educated Ne-gre before.” (Southerners often make that word a slur between nigger and Negro.)

I said: “They have a large state college for colored people in Arkansas, so there must be some educated ones there.”

She said: “Ah reckon so, but Ah just never saw one before.” And she continued to gaze at me as her first example of an educated Negro.

I was a bit loath to leave my students, with whom I had had so much fun, in charge of a woman from one of our more backward states, who probably felt about brown Mexicans much as my father did. But there was no alternative, if they wanted to learn English at all. Then, too, I thought the young ladies from Señorita Padilla’s academy might as well meet a real gringo for once. Feminine gender: gringa.


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