A Place for Marta

Our Lady of Guadalupe Virgin Mary Blessed Mother Virgen de | Etsy

The autumn of nineteen fifty-eight was a particularly chilly one, even by Chicago standards. The lake wind made for a blustery canyon even in the western suburbs away from the lake like the former railroad junction of Franklin Park.  They didn’t call Chicago “the Windy City” for nothing.

I remember the great maple leaves of yellow and gold, orange and red being blown down like giant snowflakes with special force that year.  They came from the trees that lined the Sunday morning church parking lot and weekday playground of St.Gertrude’s School.  We could tell there was an early chill in the air when Sister Deanna Marie appeared to supervise playground activities with her black sweater over her black habit and black gloves covering her hands.

It was getting on toward Halloween, just as the last warm days of what Chicagoans called “Indian Summer” were waning, when the one and only Indian — indigenous person — suddenly appeared from nowhere in Sister Deanna Marie’s fifth grade class.  She stood tall above even the tallest boys — we suspected she was older than the rest of us.  She took her place in the back of the classroom of some fifty students in the one desk that was large enough to accommodate her. There she loomed like a great mountain, silently surveying the classroom scene.

Sister Deanna Marie always stood at the back of her great wooden desk at the beginning of class to lead the morning prayers or when she had important announcements to make.  Her desktop was usually clean except for two jars which stood at each corner.  One was marked “Rescue Pagan Babies” and the other “National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.”  We pupils were supposed to put in the pennies left over from the milk money our mothers gave us in the morning to support one of the nuns’ pet projects.  

Collecting money for construction of the National Shrine in Washington, DC was pretty straight forward.  But what was this about “rescuing pagan babies?”  O’Brien, the class clown, insisted that “pagan babies” came from Red China where they were being indoctrinated as Communists — or Confucianists, or Daoists or Buddhists.  He said some nuns in British-held Hong Kong would buy the pagan babies and smuggle them across the border to save them from the Reds.  But what became of them then?  Did they end up away from their parents in some big Catholic warehouse orphanage?  Who knows?  All we knew was that if you put your extra milk money in the “Rescue Pagan Babies” jar, you would get a pat on the head from a nun and maybe, if you were lucky, a gold star next to your name on the class chart.

Today began as usual with the class standing, on Sister’s command, to recite an Our Father, Hail Mary and the Pledge of Allegiance, with “Under God” getting special emphasis.  It also turned out to be one of those special occasions for an official announcement from Sister Deanna Marie — the arrival of a new, mid-year transfer into the class.

 “This is Martha,”  Sister began in the bird chirping voice she used when she wanted to sound cheery.  “Her parents and grandmother have taken jobs in our area so Martha will be with us for a while.”

“Marta, Sister,” a voice came from the back of the room as Marta stood. “My name is Marta,” she emphasized giving her name the Spanish pronunciation.  The students, like so many long-necked flamingos, turned their heads in unison and really looked at Marta for the first time.  They couldn’t swivel their chairs around because those were the days when desks and chairs were placed on wooden runners nailed to the floor in order, apparently, to jam even more students into the crowded baby boomer parochial school classrooms. 

Staring directly at Marta, the students could perceive that her skin tone was definitely brown not white — unlike everyone else in the classroom. Her hair was straight and black, pulled back over the sides of her head in two braids. Over her Catholic school uniform of white blouse and skirt, she wore a distinctive vest of black with sequins sewn on  by her grandmother in different indigenous designs. One design looked like it could have been the sun; another was possibly the image of a bird. Marta would proudly wear this vest of many sequins to school every day. The other noticeable object was her bright, shiny, multi-colored pencil box which sat squarely on her desk and indicated she was at school to work.  It was not an expensive box, but one easily found at the local Woolworth’s or any five-and-ten-cent store. But for Marta it was a statement and her treasure. Every morning she would take pencils from the box and go to the pencil sharpener attached to the wall to sharpen them. She would then place these pencils back neatly in a row in the multi-colored pencil box.  It became her daily class ritual.

 Sister Deanna Marie was not used to being contradicted, especially by a fifth grader. The cheerful bird chirping was gone from her voice when she next spoke.  “Martha, this is the United States of America, not Mexico.” Sister Deanna Marie went on in a voice of stubborn conviction. “So in this classroom we speak English, not Spanish. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sister. But my name is still Marta,” replied the girl who stood as straight and firmly as before.

There was a hushed murmur from the girls in the class.  No one had ever contradicted Sister Deana Marie so completely.

“Very, well, Martha.”  said the annoyed nun as her eyebrows began to twitch. “After class, during recess, you will stay in the classroom, take out a piece of paper and write ‘my name is Martha’ fifty times. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sister,” said Marta, sitting back down.

A murmur of approval went up from the girls.  

“Quiet, class,”  said Sister Deanna Marie smugly. “Now it’s time for our history lesson.  We just celebrated Columbus Day. We will now learn and memorize this rhyme about the Discoverer of the New World: 

 “In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  He had three ships and left from Spain, He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain…” 

“Now, Mr. O’Brien, what do you know about Christopher Columbus?” asked Sister as she walked down the aisle with a long, wooden pointer in hand.  

“Oh, that he was a pizza pie maker like all the EYE-talians,” said O’Brien with a smirk that re-enforced his status as class clown.

Smack! Came the sound of Sister Deanna Marie’s pointer as it landed squarely on the desk in front of O’Brien. Everyone knew that was her warning shot. The next blow of the pointer would land squarely on O’Brien’s knuckles.

“None of your foolishness, O’Brien!” said the irked nun as she cocked her head. “Now tell us something truthful about the Great Explorer!”

“He was sent by the Spanish king and queen to find a New World,” said a suddenly sheepish O’Brien.

“Very good, my boy!” said Sister Deanna Marie as her pointer suddenly lifted off O’Brien’s desk like a fighter plane retreating across the sky.  “Anyone else?”  she asked.

Teacher’s pet Suzie Williams raised her hand.

“Yes” said a beaming Sister.

“Columbus’s three ships were named the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria!” said an effusive Suzie.

“That’s worthy of a gold star next to your name on the class chart!”  exclaimed Sister Deanna Marie.  I suddenly thought that when Suzie gets to eighth grade she will be sure to have Sister Deanna Marie get the other nuns to pick her for the girl to do the May Crowning of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  That was the Catholic parochial school equivalent back then of winning the Miss America pageant — and Suzie has the requisite blue eyes and blonde hair.

I didn’t learn, though, what Marta thought about Christopher Columbus, her being the one person whose ancestors were most directly affected by his landing.  No one bothered to ask her as she sat stoically in the back of the room.

It was now time for the lunch break.  There were no school cafeterias in parochial schools in the nineteen fifties.  You brought a brown bag or lunch box from home and ate its contents at your desk.  The one luxury involved the milk cartons brought in in crates for sale at lunch time.  Your mother would give you two quarters for milk money in the morning with which you would buy “white” milk or, if your mother was a bit decadent, chocolate-flavored milk. Any leftover change usually went, under the watchful eye of the nun, in the “Rescue Pagan Babies” jar.  Milk money also served as an economic distinction.  Poor kids like Marta couldn’t afford the milk cartons — they would bring something to drink from home in a thermos.

The fifth grade class in St. Gertrude’s School in 1958, of course, was not exactly a model of diversity.  It was made up of the baby boomer children of GIs who had returned from World War II and their sweethearts who had waited.  Being Catholic, the student body included large families of Irish and Germans,  Italians and Poles. The closest to diversity we had gotten before Marta in the fifth grade was the boy with the mother who was a Czech refugee from communism.  She spoke with an accent which was the subject of hilarity among the bully boys like O’Brien in the class.  They would listen and mimic her when she came to speak to Sister Deanna Marie.  But the Czech boy had an Irish last name as his father was a good old Chicago Irish GI who had brought his refugee bride home after the war. 

The main ethnic distinction in the town of Franklin Park at the time was between this community and the Anglo-Saxon Protestants — very few Jews lived in the town.  The division was quite stark with occasional confrontations between the “Publics” (Anglo-Saxons who went to public school) and the “Parochs”  (Catholic kids) while waiting at shared school bus stops for their different buses. The “Publics” had worked on their fake Italian accents to make fun of the Pope and taunt their rivals while waiting for their bus.  

This ethnic/religious rivalry would spill over into politics in just a few years — in 1960 when the “Prod” Nixon would run against the “Papist” Kennedy.  Almost every “Paroch” kid had a JFK sticker on their lunchbox while the “Publics” were almost entirely for Nixon. They would shout “No Pope here!” at the bus stops just to stir the pot.  But that was still in the future in 1958. 

 The girls in our fifth grade class had their own cliques– the “Northern” grouping of Irish and Germans hung out together while the “Mediteranean” Italians were more inclined to join the other more recent European immigrants like the Poles.  Still, all were in agreement that no one had any real place for a Mexican. 

 Marta arrived early at school each day — before we all trudged off to daily Mass, a necessary component before the start of parochial school in the fifties.  I guess Marta’s parents would drop her off before they went to work in the orchards to harvest the fall fruit.  In those days O’Hare Airport and the TriState Expressway were just being completed and a string of farmland and orchards still lay just beyond Franklin Park, which used migratory workers to harvest crops.

Marta would come in and head to her perch at the back of the room.  She would sit silently as other early arrivals coming in simply ignored her, making her invisibile. She would then go to the pencil sharpener for her morning ritual, sharpening her pencils before placing them neatly in a row in the multi-colored pencil box. 

As a ten year-old boy, it surprisingly began to bother me  — the way Marta was physically in the class but frozen out of the class.  So I made it a point to say “Good morning, Marta.  How are you?” every day.  She would respond by looking at me with her great, sad dark eyes and saying “Good morning.” 

 Then Sister Deanna Marie would appear to have us line up in double file — girls in front and the boys in the back — to trudge the  block over to the parish church for Mass.  The Sister patrolled the line like a prison guard. Woe to the boy! — it was inevitably a boy — who clowned around or showed the least inclination toward disrespect during the daily walk to Mass.  Sister was quite adept at dragging the malcontent out of the line and  boxing his ears before dealing with him in an even more terrifying manner once we were back behind the walls of the classroom. 

Sister carried a clicker in her hand while her attached rosary beads dangled from her habit as she walked to church.  The clicker was there so as not to disturb the slightly deaf older parishioners who came in to hear daily Mass. One click meant for the pupils to stop and two clicks meant genuflect.  Everyone knew you had better not get your signals crossed.

That, however, was not the worst time in the school schedule for Marta.  It was instead during recess on the playground after lunch.  With a strong wind blowing that early winter, everyone wanted to play running games that kept them warm.  The girls would play hopscotch and the boys dodgeball.  No one asked Marta to join in, though.  She stood at the side, in the shadow of the dark old brick school building and silently watched alone.

“Bully Boy” O’Brien eventually took note of the girl who towered over him standing silently in a corner of the yard during recess.  Making a play on the famous fruit slogan of the day, and using his sharp tongue to land a cutting blow, O’Brien suddenly roared out “Look! Chiquita Banana is here today.  She has something to say, She is all alone during recess.  No one wants her on their team!”

A group of girls playing in the vicinity picked up on O’Brien’s.words. Soon “Chiquita Banana” became Marta’s new moniker.  If Sister Deanna Marie was aware of this, and she was usually pretty savvy in such matters, she never let on that she knew. This was the age before “bullying” became a major social issue and the bullied victims in school were usually expected to suffer in silence and endure.  That is how Marta seemed to handle her derogatory nickname and intensified isolation.

As noted, autumn had turned toward icy winter early that year as the strength of the lake winds gained in intensity. November drifted into early December.  Trips to the church parking lot for recess became very few and brief.  I sensed that Marta was just as glad not to have to go outside and stand alone, increasing her sense of isolation.

As an essential part of Sister Deanna Marie’s class on religion, she would have a different pupil prepare a little background information on a Catholic saint on the occasion of that saint’s particular feast day.  This would cause a minor donnybrook in the school every March 17 as O’Brien and the other Irish bullies would get into fist fights as to who would be the one to make a presentation on Ireland’s patron Saint Patrick. Not exactly what Saint Patrick had in mind.

In early December, Sister Deanna Marie made the exciting announcement that she would use the opportunity of having a genuine Mexican in the class to have a presentation on Mexico’s patron, Our Lady of Guadalupe, on her feast day of December 12. In those days before widespread Mexican immigration, Guadalupe was a largely unknown figure in the Catholic parishes of the  United States.  Marta would make the presentation to fill in that gap.

O’Brien reflected the widespread ignorance on the matter by shouting out, “Guada -who-ee?  That sounds loopy!” This time Sister Deana Marie’s pointer found its mark squarely on the knuckles of the class clown, who let out a yelp. Making fun of the Madonna, even in her Mexican version, was simply not to be tolerated.

The date of December 12 arrived. Marta was finally standing at the front of the classroom with her white blouse newly pressed under her black vest, her hair pulled back straight and her script in her hand, written out with one of her sharpened pencils.  For once, all eyes in the class were on Marta.

Sister Deanna Marie’s voice was at its bird chirping finest as she introduced Marta “who will tell us all how the Virgin Mary appeared to a poor Indian in Mexico. Now, Martha.”

Marta stared forward at the classroom filled with those who were still strangers after two months.  She began to read slowly.  She told the story of the poor, indigenous Juan Diego, who had a vision of the Virgin Mary on a hill outside Mexico City.  Mary appeared as an indigeous person and spoke the language of the ancient Aztecs. When Juan Diego told the Spanish archbishop in Mexico City of his vision, the archbishop at first did not believe him.  A miraculous sign was requested and an image of Guadalupe then appeared inside Juan Diego’s cloak.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe is not just Mexico’s patron saint.” explained Marta.  “She is Mexico’s Mother.”

Sister Deanna Marie then passed around holy cards depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe. The image of a Virgin Mary with a complexion darker than the statues of blonde, blue-eyed European Madonnas seen in most Catholic churches in the United States at the time was a bit of a shock for some St. Gertrude students. They had never contemplated a Mexican Madonna. Even the Virgin Mary did not include much diversity then.

“Well done, Martha!”  Sister Deanna Marie said with an approving cluck, the first time Marta had ever earned such acclaim.  

“Good job!”  I whispered as Marta headed back to her lonely seat at the back.  For once, Marta had been recognized.

The last time I saw Marta was on a hectic day just before Christmas vacation.  St. Getrude’s was in a tizzy because we were in the midst of preparations for the first ever fire drill in a number of years..  Even though the nuns conducted school in a creaky, sixty year-old building which was a potential fire trap, they had never been much for security or drills.  That had all changed on December 1, 1958 when a fire at another decades-old parochial school, Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago, left ninety-two pupils and three nuns dead.  

The main escape route, to be used in the drill, consisted of an exterior fire escape of black wrought iron.  We pupils had passed this creepy, old eyesore for years and kidded — in those days before Star Wars and Darth Vader –that it looked more like the steps to the gallows than an escape route.  The final series of steps did not even touch the ground unless weighted down with bricks and stones.  Everyone, not just the girls, was nervous about descending on this contraption because no one had apparently used it in years.

The day for the drill was set for the final day before the break.  The nuns lined up the students in twos and, apparently thinking of the Titanic, had the shortest go first.  For our fifth grade class that meant that Marta and some taller boys like O’Brien would go last. Slowly, tenuously, we made our way down the creaking old staircase outside in the cold until we at long last reached the safety of Mother Earth.  As Marta made her way slowly down, O’Brien and some of his gang, half joking and half to conceal their nervousness, kept growling “Chiquita Banana, hurry it up.”  

Marta  turned and glared at them.  “I am not a banana!”  She said.  O’Brien gave her a shove.  Marta stumbled but thankfully caught herself on the railing.  Sister Deanna Marie, who was supposedly supervising the evacuation of her class, heard a noise and came running up to the bottom of the staircase..

“What’s the problem?”  she asked.

“O’Brien pushed Marta and she almost fell off the fire escape,”  I said.

“No horse play on the fire escape!”  yelled up Sister Deanna Marie.

They finally all made it down to the ground safely.  Sister Deanna Marie didn’t give O”Brien a rap on the knuckles for pushing Marta on the fire escape as I had suspected she would. I guess Marta just wasn’t worth it.  

“A Blessed Christmas vacation!  See you in the New Year!”  Sister called out as we headed for our school buses in the early twilight of a winter’s day.

“Feliz Navidad!”  Marta whispered to me as she hurried away to her father waiting for her in their old beat-up jeep.

When I next returned to the classroom one morning after New Year’s there was no one standing at the pencil sharpener preparing her pencils for the new class day.  I looked to the back to what appeared to be a great gaping hole where Marta had so recently sat. No one was there.  No Marta. No black vest with the sequins. No shining multi-colored pencil box. They had all vanished just as suddenly as they had once appeared. As I looked at the darkened corner, I imagined the shining pencil box rising like a rocket and exploding in multiple colors over the classroom announcing their departure.  But it was just my imagination for there was only silence..

No one even took much notice that day that Marta was gone.  Why should they? A silent spectre hanging at the back of the classroom for a mere two months. Not even one of Sister Deanna Marie’s official announcements came. Nothing.

The long day with its bleak winter scenes outside the classroom window finally drew to a close. I went into the cloakroom where, back in the classrooms of old, one stored one’s hat, coat and gloves. I lingered as I heard the rest of the pupils trudging out headed for the ice and snow. Then I sprang into action. This couldn’t take long. I had a school bus to catch.

Sister Deanna Marie was alone, sitting at her large desk and grading papers.

“Sister,” I said. “I have a question. What happened to Marta?”

Sister Deanna Marie looked up and sighed. “You mean Martha, don’t you?” She asked, still fighting that long, past battle. “Well, we knew she wouldn’t stay long. Her people are itinerant. The crops were picked here so they followed the winter crops to Florida or California or somewhere. Maybe even back to Mexico. But it was our Christian duty to help her. So we did what we could.”

I surprised myself by speaking back to the Sister in a way I could not readily have imagined. “But we could have done more!”

Sister blinked at me.

“Like what?”  said Sister Deanna Marie, her eyebrows suddenly twitching.

“Well, today, Sister, in religion class we studied the Flight into Egypt. The Egyptians welcomed Baby Jesus and his family when King Herod wanted to kill them. We could have been more welcoming like that.”

“What? But we were. We weren’t like King Herod at all!” Sister hissed as she slammed her papers down on her desk.

“Yes, Sister. But what about ‘Chiquita Banana?’ What about being left alone on the playground? What about being pushed on the fire escape?”

Sister Deanna Marie looked at me for a long moment. Her eyes seemed to penetrate into me like two bright flashlights. “Well, little man, I never realized your potential for Christian advocacy. I never thought of it but you could have a future in the Church.” The nuns were always doing recruiting work for what was called religious vocations.

At those words I pulled back. “Gotta catch my school bus, Sister. See you tomorrow.”  With that I tossed a few coins in the “Rescue Pagan Babies” jar and unceremoniously walked out.   

Winter would move on to a rainy green spring and then early summer.  I would walk out of that fifth grade classroom for the last time and move on.  The year didn’t change things all that much — except for my encounter with Marta. 

It has been six long decades now since I spent those memorable two months with Marta. I think of her occasionally, especially when the autumn winds blow and the multicolored leaves are scattered on the pavement. She taught me many things. She was my first real encounter with diversity. She showed me that side of American culture — exclusion of the other — which does not get written down in textbooks. She showed me you can be poor and disadvantaged but still strong and proud. I wish I had done more to befriend her but that is not what ten year-old boys usually did in 1958. So I stayed in front and Marta sat in the back, largely alone.

I also wonder, on those rare occasions, of what has become of Marta in these past sixty years. I trust that she found some success and happiness in her life despite its migratory nature. I wish that she kept her sequined vest. And, in the end, I hope there was a place for Marta.

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