“A Ballet Comes to the Grape Fields” by Linda Locke
In the spring of 1967 while picking up farm labor notices at 6A.M. in a bar, I noticed a poster in Spanish that informed me that the “Ballet Folklorico de Mexico” was going to appear in Bakersfield auditorium. Tickets were $15 a person and children were $5.
“George, can I take that poster with me? I think I might be able to afford to take some of the children to see the Ballet.
“Linda, them kids ain’t got no culture. They’s going to pick crops till they drop dead or go back to Mexico and be someone’s husband or wife and have a billion kids. They don’t need no fancy culture!”
“George, didn’t you ever have something so wonderful happen to you as a child that you never forgot it. These kids live in farm labor camps, move from school to school, pick crops with the parents and never see something so wonderful that they will cherish it for their entire lives. Here I have five dollars. I will toss the dice cup with you for another five. If I hit my fives, I win another five from you and that would be two kid’s tickets. Agree?”
“George grumbled a bit, but put a five dollar bill on the counter. I picked up the dice cups, shook them and a group of six fives tumbled on the counter of the bar. That’s five dollars, George.”
“Here’s your money for them kids but this is a dumb idea.”
“Anyone else like to contribute to this? I want to take a bunch of kids to a ballet in Bakersfield. I want them to see something they will never forget.”
From ragged pants of farm laborers’ pockets emerged crumpled bills, and by the time I left the bar with the farm labor job listings, I had $50.00 toward getting the Farm Labor Children to Bakersfield. After distributing the jobs from non-struck farms, I returned to the Delano Welfare Office.
“Hey, I just got struck by lightning. I want to take kids from the farm labor camps to Ballet Folklorico in Bakersfield.” I said.
Leo Hagiwara my supervisor had just come in with a pile of new cases from Bakersfield. He was riveted for a moment. “Linda, just how are you going to get them there?”
“We could do a car caravan with some of the parents for supervision.” I offered.
“I don’t think most of these wrecks they drive could go as far as Bakersfield. Could we borrow a Contractista bus for a day? They sit around all day after they deliver their riders to the fields.” commented Leo
“I have a better idea,” offered Carl Rand. “Let me go to Greyhound and see if they would donate a bus for a day for this project. They could use some good publicity.”
“How many children could we seat on a bus.?” I asked
“I would guess, on a big bus, maybe seventy-five kids. How are you going to get the money, and then, how are you going to persuade the parents to let them go?”
“In my spare time I am going to beg from every social worker in Bakersfield to sponsor a child. I am going to Father Garcia at the Mc Farland Catholic Church and beg. I will also go to the Farm Labor Union and ask them. It’s for their kids and I don’t think it would be a hard sell.”
That evening I left the office with a Gray Hound bus to be loaned free for the children. The word was sweeping around the Farm Labor camps that the children might be having a very big adventure. I approached the Cesar Chavez, and the Farm Labor Union staff gave me $100 for the children. Three staffers volunteered to ride as chaperones and pay their own ways.
After I drove home that evening I called the theater in Bakersfield and made my plea for a little help from them. The theater manager had no extra money, but said he would give us ten comps for the adults who were being chaperones. He would talk to the Ballet Folklorico Dance Company and see if they would help in some way.
As the money from the camps and the social work staff came in for the children, I knew this was going to happen. But how do we screen for the children? I needed children who would not be working or not be in school. The schools were loath to release any farm labor child for a day, as they had special funding for educating them.
Father Garcia and I talked the elementary school to releasing the farm labor children for a day. We would have seventy- five children, seven adults, and a Spanish speaking bus driver. Greyhound waived the fee, as they were going to take pictures of the children.
Saturday morning arrived, and I met the bus and driver at the local truck stop. “We have twenty-five children from Delano and fifty to pick up in Mc Farland.”
“Senora, how are that many children going to sit still for this program? They will all have to go to the bathroom and you will be shuttling them into and out of the theater,” asked our driver, Jose.
I am having the chaperones take them to the bathroom before we enter the theater. I have seen these children when a story is told. They hardly move.
The long expected day arrived as did the bus. The children were lined up at both locations. The parents dressed them in their Holy Communion clothes. Hair was brushed and the girls had shiny bows. The boys had older children’s suits and ties. They looked neat and bright, just as a child should look for such an event.
There was a bit of hesitation. One or two little girls were afraid of getting on the bus, but the kids teased them into coming aboard and sharing seats.
We drove to Bakersfield, about fifty miles away. The driver, Jose, turned on the air conditioning. The children loved it, but they were keyed up and antsy. “Are we there yet?” they said often in Spanish.
I rolled out a string of red twine. I had a knot for every mile to Bakersfield. We cut off a knot for every mile traveled. Problem solved.
We arrived at the auditorium. There was a special parking spot designated for the children. The manager and ushers helped me get the children in, use the bathrooms, and go to their seats. They were seated in the front rows of the theater.
“Inside voices” were used. The children were in awe both because they were so far from home and the size of the theater was a really big place…bigger than they had ever seen.
The show started with an announcement, “The seventy-five special guests of the Ballet Folklorico were being seated in the front rows “The children will be the Ballet Company’s guests for a small party after the performance.”
The performance started as the lights went down. The costumes were beautiful, with many shades of feathers and metallic’s. The performance included ten signature dances from various parts of Mexico. The dancers were superb.
During the two hour performance there was almost no movement from the children. They had to be coached a bit that they were should clap for the dancers. At the end of each dance the children would clap and cheer almost as if they were at a bullfight.
The lights came on after the performance was done and we were taken downstairs to treats for the children. Dancers had secured Mexican Pastries for the entire group and horchata. (A Mexican beverage.) The children touched and talked to the dancers in Spanish. One dancer taught several girls a few steps. As the time to leave arrived, we all carried very tired children back to the bus.
The drive back home was a very quiet one. Most of the children slept. One sleepy child said, “Senora Linda, were those people real people?”
I assured her they were.
As they left the bus, and were hugged by waiting parents, I heard one child say,” I didn’t know there was anything so beautiful in Mexico.”
“The other children told the older children that they had seen magic peoples on the stage and they flew all over.”
One parent looked at me very dubiously, “Esta verdad”
“Si. Esta verdad.” I guess the wonderful costumed dancers looked like magic flying people to children who had never seen such a thing. For many months I would see children in the camps twirling, lifting their partners, and trying to dance on toes. No one teased or laughed.
For some of the children, it was the trip of a lifetime. “Gracias Senora Linda.” I heard often in the weeks following. A local dance teacher began offering folk dance lessons free to the boys and girls who wanted to learn after what they had seen.
Many of the children have become teachers and social workers themselves. California colleges have reached out and assisted many of the children of migrant Bracero workers to enter colleges and graduate. Many of the graduates have included folk dance components in their educational instruction.
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Antioch, Ca 94509
Note an A.A.U.W. member and Past President