English Only Señor: The Burial and Disinterment of “Mr. Spanish”

     I recently watched “The Children of Giant”, a documentary on the making of the 1958 Hollywood blockbuster, “Giant”, directed by George Stevens starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, in the last film before his tragic death. The story was based on the controversial novel (1952) by Edna Farber, about unscrupulous Texas cattle barons, and the racial divide between Whites and Mexicans in the early 20th century. The documentary, directed by Hector Galvan, tells of how the tiny town of Marfa, Texas, chosen for most of the on-location filming, with its large population of Mexicans, many of whom served as extras, was affected.

Funny, but what stood out to me in the documentary is one bizarre, darkly-humorous story epitomizing the phobia of racial discrimination against anything Spanish or Mexican, especially its language. Talk about English-only!

In the local Blackwell School, a six-room adobe structure built in 1889, the racial division between Whites and Mexicans was made abundantly clear by the school’s policy prohibiting Mexican football players from using the same showers as the White players. The local cemetery was also clearly divided into a “White” and “Mexican” section. In her essay “The Politics of Tears: Marfa, Texas”, Mary Walling Blackburn, tells a story about a little-known “burial” that took place in 1954 at the school (also referenced in the documentary). Students (presumably Mexicans) were gathered at the school’s flagpole (quite appropriate) and instructed to write Spanish words on little pieces of paper. The papers were then placed in a make-believe coffin, and buried, in a symbolic ceremony that became known as “The Burial of Mr. Spanish.”

Blackburn further recounts that years later:

During the Blackwell Reunion of 2007, two hundred people assembled for the exhumation of Mr. Spanish. This disinterment was intended to symbolically reverse the previous suppression of Spanish by school authorities. However, when ceremony began, the original grave could not be located, so they orchestrated a performance, where the contents of the grave suddenly included an actual figure. This allowed for Mr. Spanish to be exhumed yet remain buried. Both dead and live, ‘he’ is nowhere and everywhere and language, as absence and presence, grids the ground. For myself and a few other outsiders, there was the misguided notion that something resembling the body of a man was to be pulled from the dirt schoolyard, something more like an effigy than a human. But what was disinterred from a shallow grave, dug expressly for the reunion, was a newly made child-size coffin with a book inside of it. In unremitting sunlight, Maggie Marquez, a local librarian and Ralph Melendez, the temporary gravedigger, both former Blackwell School students, held the new coffin aloft. Next, they lifted their fists to the air. Then Maggie raised the book to the sky – a small Spanish-English dictionary – and the plastic orange and red cover hovered for what seemed a while against the blue sky. The crowd, dressed in their old school colours, cheered.

I was so moved by Galvan’s film that I immediately ordered the movie “Giant” from Netflix and watched it (again). More humor: in one scene, as Jordon “Bick” Benedict, Jr. (Rock Hudson), the tall, handsome Texas baron whose ranch “Reata” sprawls across some 500,000 acres, introduces his naïve, east-coast bride , “Leslie”, (Elizabeth Taylor,) to life in the “country of Texas,” a barbecue is held in her honor. Bick explains that it was Mexicans who actually invented the “barbecue” and that the word comes from the Spanish word “Barbacoa.” But as Leslie watches the Mexican cooks pull a burlap-wrapped bundle from a smoking pit in the ground, she asks Bick what it is. It turns out to be a cow’s head (Cabeza, a Mexican delicacy), but when a giant scoop of steaming cow brains is placed in Leslie’s plate, Leslie she faints and has to be carried into the house! OMG, I would have fainted too!

Oh, and as for my analysis of having watched, “Giant”, again, I fell asleep about two-thirds of the way in! Perdonenme.

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  • Blog Author

    Richard Rios

    Richard Rios is a retired English and Chicano Studies teacher after 33 years at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. Born in Modesto in 1939, the son of Mexican immigrants, he graduated from Modesto High School in 1957. He went on to study art at ... Read Full
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