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Back You are here: Home Columns Columns Allyn Hunt Concha Rosales, 16, dropped school after math, reading disasters; her parents saw her life at a developmental stand still

Concha Rosales, 16, dropped school after math, reading disasters; her parents saw her life at a developmental stand still

Sixteen-year-old Concha Rosales was riding her sorrel gelding and reading a book.  She frowned as a light breeze rippled the pages of Mariano Azuela’s “Los de Abajo” (The Underdogs). 

The novel, about Mexico’s 1910 Revolution, in which Concha’s bisabuelo, grandfather fought, was written in 1915, while  Azuelo, born in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, was in wise and careful self-exile in El Paso, Texas.  Azuelo had been an early supporter of Francisco I. Madero, who launched the movement that overthrew the 35-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  Azuela, who became a Guadalajara-educated doctor, spent time traveling the countryside around Lagos, talking at his family’s ranch with ranch hands and campesinos and their families.  He used what he learned of their lives when be began writing.  At Lagos, he became a local political leader and participated in toppling Diaz.  Madero, having won the presidency in a rare honest election, appointed Azuela Director of Education for Jalisco.  When Madero, his brothers, and others were assassinated by General Victoriano Huerta, Azuela headed for El Paso.          

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{access !public}The theoretical 16th year of Concha Rosales’s life seemed to stretch on forever.  She didn’t see it as long, only crowded and onerous.  Oddly her sixteenth was the first one she recognized as fitting what a year could be.  At least she saw its beginning as important and its packed clusters of events that indelibly marked it as movement forward.  Puberty presented confusion physically and psychologically.  A major bump, but for the moment its early drama had passed without the disasters that crushed the life hopes of many teen-age females.  Also Concha became increasingly swift with her household duties.  For she wanted to get quickly to those chores offered by the corral and barn, ranch animals and the surrounding open range and mountains.  Besides these tasks, her skills in carpentry, horse shoeing, saddle-bridle repair grew.  But it was her roping skills that made people stop and watch.  Most cowmen like to whip their loops down on their targets, making a sure, unshakeable catch.  Concha preferred a light, carefully guided catch rope that often curved unexpectedly in mid-flight.  And, at 16, she almost alway got her critter.  Thus, she was able to expand her world without book learning.  A nimble talent, but not one encompassing enough to help her, to protect her in the greater world.  

But her schooling was a disaster that so shamed her that she no longer attended class.  Lately, it was mathematics.  Before that, it had been reading and writing. The books l gave her didn’t provide the help she needed.    Her foster parents viewed that year as endless, standing still developmentally.  Neither of them had schooling beyond third grade – her mother – and fifth grade – her father.  But no matter what they and others told her, Concha refused to return to the ramshackle school, grade one to four or six, depending on the ages and abilities of students of the pueblo and nearby campo.    Her parents, knowing that I wrote, expected me to help to substantially solve her problems.   So far I’d failed.     

Now, uphill, on the rock and thorn-crowded side of El Tlacuache mountain, I was replacing a post knocked loose by horses scratching themselves against it, the base wasted by rainy-season runoff, termites an other wood-boring insects.  Hearing my whistle, Concha put Azuela in her shirt and kicked the balky bay she was riding uphill.  She frowned as she approached.  “Some words in that book you gave me don’t make any sense.”

That was our new semi-secret plan:  To resume reading, then math, the two subjects that drove her to angry tears.  “Let’s talk about Azuela some more.  We’ll get to the words back at the ranch.”  Inside a tilted half-used out building, I’d plastered the abode bricks of one wall with a cloud of cement, covered it with a coating of cal (lime).  Using pastels (I was painting and drawing for local clients l between sending short stories to New York and London), we drew words new to Concha on the wall:  Different colors for nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, etc.  Slowly circling, then defining them, and what a simple direct sentence was: subject-verb-adjective.  The wall, blank when we began reading “Los Abajos,” became crowded with words whose meanings escaped Concha, combinations whose use was troubling.  We went at this gradually, thoroughly. 

And I learned a great deal about the many branches of the Rosales family.  I asked Chema and Lupe, and others, about their older relatives.  I wanted to tie the lives of Concha’s family to the words and acts depicted by Azuela.  We traced the way he chose words, sentences, paragraphs to reveal the meaning of each scene, the intent of each chapter.  That edition of his novel about campesino revolutionaries had been chosen because it was illustrated by Jalisco’s great muralist, Jose Clemente Orozco.  This helped fire Concha’s interest.  And made going back to its beginning, time to time, easy to see how those early words animated his characters, foreshadowed what direction they were carrying us, and made Concha grin in wonder.   That and how her family’s history was often connected to “our” words, drawn and defined on the wall, showed how that personal history meshed with the history and with the direction each grammatical cluster was taking us.

In re-reading there were opportunities to see how the paragraphs, with beckoning grammatical expertise charted Mexico’s complex past.  And why the author was doing certain things to accomplish what he was trying to explain and to show us. 

She soon was spending more time before the scribbles on the wall than she was with horses and cattle.  Luck was functioning.  I was able to elaborate on what we read from the history I had read.  From books I had brought with me to Mexico, some of them old college texts, some purchased in Mexico City book stores.

She yelped at unexpected discoveries she found in “Los de Abajo,” a book once deemed “unpatriotic.”  She became delighted in tracing how Azuela’s revelations grabbed and directed our attention, our wishes for various characters.  I was – I hoped – addicting Concha to reading, to literature and to truthful Mexican history (a rarity then).  For Azuela, decades earlier than most Mexicans, understood that the Revolution he had early joined and fought for, was a failure, which most of his countryfolk did not understand even when “The Underdogs” appeared serially in the El Paso del Norte newspaper in 1915. 

But Concha was angrily dismayed that the book hadn’t received general recognition until 1924, when suddenly it became “the novel of the Revolution.”  I knew Concha was pretty well hooked when she snapped, “Nine years! That isn’t fair!  That’s the best book I ever read.”  I didn’t mention that “Los de Abajo” was the first book she had ever really read.  Though there still were parts we had to go over again.   And I was too surprised to mention the sudden swift accuracy of her mathematical declaration.  That wasn’t only some newly revealed brain work, but an important new, bright and shining educational hook.  No need to mention any of that in the face of so much ground-gaining.

As I finished securely planting the new post, nailing barbed wire to it, piling a half-meter-high base of volcanic rock against it, then circling that with a spiny wall of huisache boughs, Concha closed her book and recited, eyes closed, the spelling of ten new words she had learned yesterday from “Abajo.” 

Mountain-side schooling combined with words drawn on an adobe wall was making headway.

On the way back to the ranch, I mentioned Sor Juana de la Cruz (Juana Ramirez de Asbaje), Mexico’s great poetess, born in San Miguel Nepantla, at the foot of Popocatepetl, and baptized December 2, 1648, as a “daughter of the Church,” meaning she was illegitimate.  As a 17-year-old poet, she asked questions of the Church and the Spanish viceroyal government that male leaders of both found uncomfortable and difficult to answer.  Juana took the veil of the sisters of San Jeronimo February 4, 1669. She was not yet 21.{access !public}

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