The Day A Texas School Held A Funeral For The Spanish Language

Oct 20, 2017
Originally published on October 20, 2017 8:36 am

Maggie Marquez and Jessi Silva grew up in the desert town of Marfa, Texas, in the 1950s, when schools were segregated. Latino children were sent to Blackwell Elementary School, and for many of them, Spanish was their first language.

Maggie, 73, and Jessi, 69, were students there, and at StoryCorps, they remember the day their school banned students from speaking Spanish — in a ceremony called the "burial of Mr. Spanish."

"I walked into the room and the teacher, she said for us to get a piece of paper and write down, 'I will not speak Spanish in school.' So I wrote down on a piece of paper, fold it up, and gave it to her," Maggie says. "All the teachers, they had a little cigar box, and put the kids' little papers in there. And we all marched out to where the flagpole was."

The whole school was there, Jessi says, and a hole had been dug. The box went in the hole and was covered up with dirt.

"We had gone to family funerals before, so we understood that there was a funeral going on, but we didn't know why, and everybody was very quiet when they buried Mr. Spanish," Jessi says.

After the box was buried, the students went back to class, Maggie says, and were told they were not supposed to speak Spanish.

"So I told my friends, 'Nadie me va a parar que yo no hable el español. Nobody's gonna stop me from speaking Spanish.' And I didn't know the teacher was right behind me. And the teacher took me to the principal," Maggie says.

The principal hit her with the paddle. "I got three licks," she says. "It was my first time, and I was hurting, so I ran home. I didn't go to school for three days. I had big bruises. My dad, he wasn't happy 'cause they were not supposed to have hit me, but he told me I needed to go back to school and I needed to follow the instructions."

"Our parents always supported the teachers," Jessi says. "And I remember my dad said, 'If you're in school, you just be obedient. Don't stir the waters.' "

Not being able to speak Spanish in school felt like a loss, Jessi says, like something was being ripped away from her. "I was only 6, yet I understood that something's wrong here," she says.

Maggie says even though she had questions she wanted to ask, she just kept quiet. "But now as I have grown older, if I see something that is not right, I'm gonna speak," she says.

"It was part of the past," Jessi says, "but you learn things through the past."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And it's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. Maggie Marquez and Jessi Silva grew up in the town of Marfa, Texas in the 1950s. And we have their story.

In the 50s, Marfa's schools were segregated. Latino children were sent to Blackwell Elementary. And for many, Spanish was their first language. Maggie and Jessi were among the students at that school. And they came to StoryCorps to recall the day their school banned students from speaking Spanish in a ceremony called the burial of Mr. Spanish.

MAGGIE MARQUEZ: I walked into the room. And the teacher - she said for us to get a piece of paper and write down, I will not speak Spanish in school. So I wrote down on a piece of paper, fold it up and gave it to her. All the teachers - they had a little cigar box and put the kids' little papers in there. And we all marched out to where the flag pole was.

JESSI SILVA: The whole school was there. And they already had this hole dug.

MARQUEZ: Yes. And then they put the box in there and covered it up.

SILVA: We had gone to family funerals before, so we understood that there was a funeral going on. But we didn't know why. And everybody was very quiet. When they buried Mr. Spanish...

MARQUEZ: ...They told us to go back to the classes, and we were not supposed to speak Spanish at all. So I told my friends (speaking Spanish) - nobody's going to stop me from speaking Spanish. And I didn't know the teacher was right behind me. And the teacher took me to the principal.

SILVA: And what happened there?

MARQUEZ: He swung that paddle. And I got three licks.

SILVA: Wow.

MARQUEZ: It was my first time. And I was hurting so I ran home. I didn't go to school for three days. I had big bruises. My dad - he wasn't happy because they were not supposed to have hit me. But he told me I needed to go back to school, and I needed to follow the instructions.

SILVA: Our parents always supported the teachers.

MARQUEZ: Yes.

SILVA: And I remember my dad said if you're in school, you just be obedient. Don't stir the waters. But I felt a loss. I felt like something was being ripped away from me. And I was only 6, yet I understood that something's wrong here.

MARQUEZ: I wanted to ask questions, but I just kept quiet. But now as I have grown older, if I see something that is not right, I'm going to speak.

SILVA: It was part of the past, but you learn things through the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "STEP IN STEP OUT")

INSKEEP: Maggie Marquez and Jessi Silva at StoryCorps in Marfa, Texas. So they had the burial of Mr. Spanish. Well, 10 years ago, a group of Blackwell alumni including Maggie and Jessi returned to the school grounds where they held a symbolic ceremony to unearth Mr. Spanish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.