9. Singing in the Santa Rita
IN THE NEXT ROOM Frank is singing alone this evening. His guitar has a nice, deep tone. He is singing dreamily. I imagine his pleasantly melancholy mood comes from loneliness (he does not take part in riotous play with his half-brothers) and the gentle, nostalgic springtime. His voice is not strong but it is pleasingly husky and sounds musically true. He won't sing in school. The others say it is because of stubbornness and flojera [laziness]. I think it's his age. His vocal apparatus is rounding the curve to maturity, and he won't risk it in public. It is a surprise that he is singing in there now when he knows very well that I can hear him. Could it be that my efforts have got somewhere? At any rate he is freely singing in my hearing, and perhaps that is his way of thanking me for the
He is singing “Las Gaviotas” (The Sea Gulls) which is very popular this year along the Mexican border. As he sings the meaningless words to the fascinating tune, it probably reminds him, as it does me, of the night before the rodeo parade and of our triumph as entertainers in the Santa Rita Hotel lobby. This is the song we sang best, the one that made the biggest hit. That night, to my wonder, Frank sang aloud with us, pitching in to make the harmonies right, although at first he was cold with stagefright. Demanding a place to sit in the crowded hotel lobby, he slumped into a tall-backed chair against the wall behind a group of our little ones who stood up facing masses of strangers—well-dressed grownup Americans—and sang for all they were worth.
It was the little cowpunchers' finest hour, and came as a masterstroke of good luck for it was entirely unplanned—a spur-of-the-moment event for all concerned. One reason our audience (a milling group of winter visitors, cattlefolks, rodeo people, and interested towns-people) took our performance with startled gusto was that it came up in an unannounced, offhand way. Suddenly there we were and the children sang spontaneously as if they were in school singing for their own pleasure. Without fanfare or advertisement, in we walked—a varied group of young Mexicans dressed in Western costumes, singing our hearts out. It was the eve of the big annual Fiesta De Los Vaqueros. The city was full of visitors expecting a good time. And we were that something added—an unexpected touch of the authentic ranch-country West.
We had gone to town early in the afternoon, planning to find the wagon set aside for us and decorate it. Hours of anxious waiting passed. No wagon showed up. At dark we separated in search of food, agreeing to return to the grounds after supper. Three young men were on the lot to guard the valuable oldtime vehicles ready for the parade next day. They assured us that our float would eventually arrive and that there would be lights. When we returned, they had news for us. Arrangements had been made with a Papago Indian to bring a load of hay and leave his wagon for Baboquívari School. Because he misunderstood, or prized his wagon too dearly to take chances, he had driven back into the desert—nobody knew where. The young man was positive that it would be there early in the morning and that our materials lying about on the ground would be safe.
I faced the disappointment of my children. We might not have a float after all; if we did it would have to be fixed in such a hurry that it could not make a good showing. There on the big lot lay the long poles Ramón, Edward, and I had gone up the river to get, the two car loads of batamotes for the roof, and the sand and wood for our campfire. My little cowpunchers were in town—a rare occasion for most of them—with nothing to do but wait in uncertainty for morning. Impulsively I made suggestions.
I had just contrived a crisis: I was an impresario without booking. My mind busily cast about for a ready-made audience. On a hunch I ran across the street to a telephone and called the Santa Rita Hotel manager Nick Hall—the mayor of Old Tucson, a famed movie set—interrupting him with my wild request at his busiest time of the year. He was talking to someone else as he listened with half an ear. Gruffly he uttered three words: “Let 'em sing,” and hung up.
I rushed back to my kids with the thrilling announcement that we had permission to sing for the people in the Santa Rita Hotel lobby. Pascual and I loaded the excited bunch for a hurried drive across town to get costumes and as many of the missing little cowpunchers we could find. Somebody said that Víctor was in the picture show. We couldn't sing without Víctor!
It was a Spanish-language movie house a few blocks up Congress Street. I parked and went in, telling the young lady at the head of the aisle that I must find a small boy. Sensing an emergency the señorita went along with me turning her flashlight into everybody's eyes, sparking a murmur of protest.
Víctor and Chelo were staying too far out of town to go for their costumes. Chelo had to appear in her skimpy gray dress and faded brown coat bursting out at shoulder seams. What matter? Her serious little oval face with straight bangs and remarkable brown eyes shaded by long curving lashes took attention from her clothes. But Víctor. Víctor was a prize. Barefooted, his legs and narrow hips encased in tight patched jeans that had been washed until they were only a milky blue, his chest bulging with the new vest (cut to grow into) My-Mother had made from a man's discarded tan lumberjacket, Víctor was a sight. The proud manner with which he wore the thick homemade vest, with only the thin cotton sleeves of his blue shirt to protect him from the cold as he strode through the brilliantly lighted lobby, marked him as a real personality. And all he had to do was to open his mouth and sing and the audience was his without question.
Little Pili, six years old, was another street singer dressed for the part. His second best jeans had been patched so much in the seat with machine stitching that he looked as if he carried a cushion behind him. Chelo's outgrown candy-striped dress with round collar and puff sleeves served him for a shirt. His slender body was topped by a large well-shaped head. His large melancholy eyes
When we trooped across the sidewalk to the entrance, some of the little ones got cold feet. There were apparently hundreds of fine rich gringos in the glittering lobby. I herded and shoved the children. Some had to be pushed through the revolving doors by force.
It wasn't a grand entry. In a brown felt hat and last year's short tan coat with black shoes instead of my tan boots (I had intended to be decorating a float that evening), I stepped briskly across the tiled floor, my songbirds close around me.
In the glaring lights our red, yellow, pink, and green shirts showed up sleazy and homemade. We all needed sombreros, chapaderos, chalecos and snappy pants to fulfill our role as vaqueritos. Obviously we belonged to the unromantic West of cattle and horses, cactus and canyons, beans and bedrolls. We were not show people.
Frank, the tallest little cowpuncher, seemed trying to hide his guitar with his legs. He slid into the high-backed chair by the wall and waited until I had grouped the others about him and given him a signal. He touched the strings softly and gave me a quick startled look. Our good old guitar which had sounded so well at the ranch twanged inadequately in the vast high-ceilinged hotel lobby. It wouldn't be heard more than a few feet away. But I knew our singers would be heard!
I wish I were a musician. I'd like to know how to teach voice, for it would be a great opportunity to live as I do with a singing family and have their talented youngsters under my wing every day. They are all truly gifted. I have heard it said that all Mexican people are naturally musical, but that isn't true. These children are the first natural singers I have encountered in years of being maestra to “Mejicanitos.” At Redington, in many ways the crack school of my career, most of my Latin-American pupils, gifted in other ways, couldn't carry a tune. Here at Poso Nuevo all the children sing. Every one of them, and most can harmonize. All I can do is to teach them songs and find opportunities for them to be heard.
Some school visitors have wondered because we sing songs in Spanish during school hours. Mexican vaqueros and laborers passing by sometimes stop and grin at hearing for the first time in their lives Spanish words issuing from the little schoolroom over which the Stars and Stripes waves in the breeze. I think of an incident that happened a few years ago while I was teaching in Tucson schools. Owing to language handicap, Mexican children, especially the beginners, were segregated from the Anglos, yet forbidden to use any language but English. Speaking a Spanish word was a misdemeanor. One predominantly Mexican-American school—ten primary rooms—gave an operetta. On the eve of its performance the supervisor discovered that one of the numbers was Cielito Lindo, to be sung, while little girls danced, just as it was composed. There was a big to-do in the circle of officialdom. The outcome was that little
Isolation gives independence in language as well as other matters. Out here we take as a matter of course that two languages are in use and we appreciate the melodious speech that has been spoken in this clear, dry atmosphere for fifteen to twenty generations. It is a language known in modern times to one of three inhabitants of our big state. Poso Nuevo residents welcome a teacher who likes Spanish. The pupils sing better in Spanish, Frank handles his guitar better during Mexican tunes, and the little children have a chance to join in.
It pleases the children to teach me the songs popular along the border, mostly ballads. Sometimes I catch a few words of a new song the boys are singing, and ask about it at school. The words are then written on the board to be copied in notebooks, and we all learn together. One morning I asked Frank about a verse I'd heard him singing, identifying it by the words “Chiquita…chiquita, de puro cristal.”
Edward objected, saying it was nasty. The Aroses hotly denied this. Edward insisted that it wasn't suitable for us to sing at school. To settle the dispute Frank and Arturo explained the words. It was a drinking song.
Here were hastily thrown together colored shirts, borrowed hats, Pascual's individualistic haircuts, dark-skinned kids from the lonely desert plains to the south—but singing kids! Spontaneously, Mexican fashion, they sang full blast with simple harmonies curiously effective. Even the smallest knew the words and sang them out. There were wild yells from the cowboys scattered among the audience, and gay shouts of approval from all sides. We were a hit.
A dime fell tinkling on the tiled floor near Marcela's feet. She glanced around at me startled. Later she told me she thought somebody had dropped his money. A quarter came rolling over by Víctor's bare foot. Then a shower of silver and copper covered the floor in front of us. We kept singing. I hadn't expected this, so the children were not warned. The little ones didn't understand, and the bigger ones, with proper dignity, stood and maintained the program. Amid general laughter, the men in front yelled to the kids to pick up the money. Whites of eyes gleamed as glances turned to me. I nodded—and the two front rows ducked as one child to gather the silver manna, darting about like little quails, squatting on the floor to reach under chairs and tables, but never letting go of the song.
There were loud shouts for them to get out and give the kids the floor, but they wouldn't yield until they had finished their song—quite a long one. We gave them a big “hand” and they graciously withdrew. No doubt they knew that the way we were signing we'd soon split our throats. At the time, however, and for more than half an hour afterwards, we were tops in the amusement line.
At that high point in our triumph I realized that I was getting more satisfaction out of this performance than anybody concerned. Perhaps the director always does, for the success is his imaginative hope carried over into reality. A dream come true has the added glory of surprise for most dreams do not. As often as I had heard the children sing I had wished that others could share my pleasure. Now we had ventured out of isolation; we were in the thick of things and people were listening to my kids as I had dreamed might happen. It was a fortuitous audience: Easterners, Westerners, highbrows, common folks—all stopped for a moment in genuine enjoyment. The little cowpunchers, possibly excepting Mary and Edward, were taking their success too casually. Children accept miracles. They believe in fairies, angels, Santa Claus, and the wheel of fortune. People liked to hear them sing! Why not? I alone realized the rare chance we had encountered.
A portly, well-dressed official wearing a purple badge came and told me to have one of the little ones pass a hat. I couldn't do that. He did. He shoved his sombrero into Marcela's hands, took her by the shoulders, and, telling us to sing “Las Gaviotas” again, went through the crowd. Marcela looked sweet. Her little jeans and blue shirt fit her thin frame perfectly. She has tiny hands and feet, delicate features, pale olive skin, and medium brown hair cut in a long bob. She wore a rose-colored silk mascada (neckerchief) and a black hat from the dime store. Her sponsor ushered her around until she had a double handful of coins; he poured the money from his hat into hers, and backed into the crowd.
Mr. Hopkins came down from the mezzanine floor. He said his wife—“Ma Hopkins” to rodeo contestants—editor of Hoofs and Horns, the official rodeo periodical published here in Tucson—told him to go see if the singers were the “Little Cowpunchers” she knew by correspondence. Other friends, some from distant parts of the state, came to speak to me. These amenities had the disadvantage of diverting my attention from the job. The excited children would forget what came next and depend on me for direction. It was necessary for me to come out promptly with the first line of each stanza. During the congratulations I couldn't tend to business and the children sang the same verse twice or the last verse in the middle, confusing themselves if not the listeners.
I was perched with Víctor on the arm of a settee close beside Mary and Ysidra, the leading sopranos. Seated on the bench at my elbow was a lady who became a voice-in-my-ear. She talked and talked. She was a songwriter and offered to send me some songs to teach my youngsters. She wrote her name and address on the back of one of her songs and gave it to me. In the chaos of the evening I never got home with it. While my kids were repeating themselves, she sang close to my ear an original song about musical animals and said I could teach it if I could remember it. With the best will in the world I couldn't.
Soon I began to fear an anti-climax. Our parents, in a natural urge to see their offspring perform, had trailed us down. First they remained on the sidewalk just outside. As excitement increased they passed through
Prieto, swaggering from town refreshments, stood opposite me across the cleared space. He was dressed just as he left his horse that afternoon. To keep the unaccustomed glare from his eyes, his encrusted, old hat was pulled down just above the end of his thin prominent nose from which fell away the stiff black hairs of his mustache. His blue jeans had seen a lot of riding. His boots had recently been bogged down in fresh corral dust. He showed no sign of being conscious of his appearance. He was at ease and frankly overjoyed, boasting to those who could understand Spanish about “¡qué maestra tan buena tenemos!” Before this teacher, he said, several of his children did not know Tucson. “Y ahora, ¡mire no más!” While he was bragging that half the singers were his own chamacos, Marcela and her sponsor reached the group.
Worried about the tribal reinforcements, I gave the signal for our closing song—“Red River Valley”—our best, thanks to Pancho, Ramón, Arturo, and Edward, and I hustled my cowpunchers out of the side door, a strategy to be alone with our gang and our hatful of money.
My innocents had been too timid to pick up the money at first, but having got their hands on it they had to be forced to give it up. The older ones had remained in the background doing most of the work. Ysidra had secured only a dime that rolled against her foot and a quarter that landed on top of her head when pitched from the mezzanine floor.
Evading the relatives by telling them we'd meet them at Pascual's daughter's house in a little while, I took my singers to an all-night drug store for a drink. On the way we passed a shooting gallery. Rashly the oldest boys shot away their dimes—big sports! And Víctor loudly exercised his right of protest. At Martin's Drug we took nearly all the long counter seats at the fountain and ordered strawberry ice cream sodas to cool our throats. Edward and Ramón sat with me in a booth to count the money. When we had subtracted for the shooting and the refreshments, we divided the reminder, saving a portion for each little cowpuncher who had been unable to attend. The Badillas had been left out because they were staying with an aunt three miles out of town. The little Emery kids and Ester Bedoy were to arrive in town next morning.
As we hurried through the cold windswept streets to where patient Pascual awaited with his car and mine, out hearts were light. We were united in the pleasant bonds of a shared success. We joked about not getting our wagon decorated, a circumstance that had been completely depressing a few hours earlier. In the warmth of public acclaim, fortified by money in the pocket, we could joke about disappointment and inconvenience. With light heart I realized that at last I could expect full confidence and cooperation in my school projects.
Back at school the first stories written for the February issue of Little Cowpuncher were about the singing in the Santa Rita. Edward made an unsolicited illustration, and Socorro conceived the headline.‘‘ AN EXCITING REWARD OF $14.85 TO THE LITTLE COWPUNCHERS
The night we went to town to fix the wagon Mrs. Bourne thought out a bright idea to take us to the Santa Rita to sing. Mr. Hall, the manager, gave her permission. None of us had sung in hotels until last Thursday night. We dressed as cowboys and sang our ranch songs. When we got there the little kids were afraid to go in the revolving door. We pushed them in.
Lots of people gathered around when we sang. They started to throw money at us. Lots of coins were falling from different parts while we were singing. After we finished and got together in a drug store for refreshments Ramón and Edward and Mrs. E. B. counted the money and imagine! we got $14.85 just in change—meaning five cents, ten cents, pennies, quarters, two half-dollars and one dollar. With all that money each one had the pleasure to have 75¢ and everybody was happy. —S. A.’’ ‘‘ HOW I FELT
I felt excited when we first went in. I didn't think the people would like us. I had a cold and I couldn't sing well. I tried hard to sing loud the best I could. My throat felt dry and ached. When the kids made mistakes I sang loud so that the people wouldn't notice. I had a terrible time making my voice sound clear. Anyway I was proud and glad that we made a hit with all those guests and Tucson people! —M. H.’’
I was not nervous neither afraid of the people because I knew all the songs we were singing and our teacher was with us. At first Frank was afraid of the people but we were in front of him and he could not see them very well. He was the only one sitting down because he played the guitar. —Arturo Aros’’ ‘‘ FROM THE SECOND GRADE
They like it and they threw money to us. I was afraid to pick it up
because I thought somebody lost his money. I got 75 cents. And all the ones who
sang. And the ones who did not go to sing.
On the ranch there is no money to spend and nothing to spend it on. We eat beans and tortillas and go to bed at dark. It was amusing to ask the children to give accounts of how they spent their gratuities. Some gave their share entirely to their mothers for the family fund. Some saved at least a part. But the majority tossed it away for pleasure.‘‘
|10¢||for bottle soda|
|10¢||for throwing to the bottles|
|40¢||for silk scarf|
|5¢||shine for shoes|
|10¢||taking Pancho to show|
|5¢||for friend of mine|
|5¢||for another gum|
|30¢||for cracker jack and the other for two times riding in the horses (Merry-go-round.)|