They came in colorful garb, full of energy and engaged in lively and loud conversations in their native language. During recess they played their rhythmic music with the salsa beat occasionally swirling their hips and did the cha cha cha. They clung to their own, sensing the disdain that the “owners” of this great institution had for them. They were the unwelcomed intruders; they reeked of happiness and gleefully shared their joy with each other. They were the Cubans who came to America by the boatloads and were perceived as different from the earlier arrivals who had “fit in” better and were more like the owners of their new homeland meaning they were more “white”, wealthy, at least educated and of the professional and middle class. These earlier forbearers were more likely to fit into the existing order.
The second major migration of Cubans to the U S started in 1965. This migration was the result of an agreement between Cuba and the U S that Cubans with relatives in the US would be transported from Cuba. This latter group appeared to be less educated and less wealthy. Some were even dark skinned. Many Americans at the time accused Castro of opening his prisons and ridding Cuba of its poor and sending them to America. The MHS faculty and staff’s glances, looks of awe and utterances of disdain for this new group of invaders reminded me of their feelings and expressions regarding Black Americans.
It was the year 1966 and I had been recruited to go to work in the Miami-Dade County school system to help integrate schools. I was assigned to Miami Senior High School (MSH) to teach Sociology to college bound high school seniors. A school of about 2,000 students and a faculty and staff of more than 200, had only 12 Black students even though one of them was elected student Council President and a measly three (3) Black faculty: a business teacher, a guidance counselor and me the Sociology teacher. However, the other Black teachers were longtime residents and tightly ensconced in the community and we never saw each other during the school day. I was the only outsider having come from a small Ocala, FL community and even smaller all Black High School.
I had gone to an interview before the end of the last school year and prior to going to Europe for a six week study tour of European history and culture. There in most of Europe’s capitals and historic outposts, I had grasped the magnitude of huge cities and their diverse offerings as well as the small suburban and even more rural enclaves that were entrenched with history. So Miami-Dade’s large size, urban sprawl, diverse populations and cosmopolitan mix was not startling. It was the internal working of the separate institutions within this mega conglomeration of cities and particularly the school system and its mega sized schools that concerned me.
Faculty met in their departmental meeting rooms chaired by the department head with the exception of a few all faculty meetings led by the principal. New faculty members interacted frequently with the department chairs and were overseen by the Assistant Principal (AP) for curriculum.
The AP at MSH had been a WAC officer and even though she had about 30 new teachers under her charge, she thought it necessary to visit my classroom daily and to make disparaging remarks regarding my style of teaching. I often gave students practical experiences and assignments that were based on community observations. On one of her last visits, the students questioned her motives and expressed their concern that she was being unfair to me. I also went to the principal to report what I thought was an unfair practice. I asked both her and the principal; “Don’t the other new teachers need your assistance? And, what makes you think I need you?” This ended her visits.
The overt discrimination could be more easily dealt with. However, the less conspicuous and covert glances; whispered utterances, facial expressions and sometimes ignoring me were the fabric of their discrimination. But more often, it was them talking around me about the new Cuban refugees as if they were Black and trying to prompt me to join in as if I didn’t know what they were doing. My statement one day in the department’s lounge office was, “Y’all say the same thing about Blacks. Are you now mixing the two or mistaking them for me?” There was dead silence.
From that day forward, when I walked into the office, things got quiet and some would appear to be in a rush to go somewhere else. As time slowly passed, there appeared to be a more relaxed and comfortable air. Real conversations began to occur. But the pressure to be perfect was disheartening. I was thankful that I was leaving to get married and move to North Carolina. By the time I actually left, staff held a party, brought really nice gifts to celebrate my marriage and expressed notions of regret that I was leaving. Some even noted that they had learned some lessons about themselves and attributed those lessons to me.
I sensed that they felt that they had lost their footing, their familiarity, but now were willing to continue the journey that they knew was in front of them. Their school was no longer all White with many upper and middle class students and families.
They had charted unknown territory and carved a path on which they could regain a semblance of stability but one with continuous changes. This was a new beginning for them and for me!
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