by BOB DORAN
Among them is Lynn McCullough, known to her students as Señora McCullough. She doesn't have a drop of Hispanic blood -- as you might guess her heritage is Scotch-Irish and English -- but it was McCullough who started Ferndale's Cinco de Mayo Fiesta more than 10 years ago.
The annual event celebrates the culture of a growing community that is often near invisible. A quick look at the latest 2000 census figures shows that the Hispanic population in California is increasing by leaps and bounds. In the state as a whole whites are now a minority, slipping below 50 percent, while the growing Hispanic population makes up a third of the population.
Señora McCullough adjusts Ernesto
Humboldt County, of course, is still mostly white -- Hispanics account for only 6.5 percent of the total. But their numbers are growing, particularly in the Eel River Valley. Fortuna's Hispanic population grew by 140 percent in the last decade.
How did someone who grew up in Piedmont, a lily-white community in the hills above Oakland, end up organizing a Mexican-American fiesta?
In 1990 Lynn McCullough was hired as a bilingual tutor, a new position at Ferndale Elementary.
"English language development is what they call it now," she explained while sitting in her basement office at the school. "I helped the kids develop their speaking skills."
McCullough had studied Spanish in high school and at Humboldt State University but, she emphasized, for the most part her fluency in the language is the result of her education in the "university of life." She learned far more by spending time in Mexico than she did in any classroom.
She may have grown up in Piedmont, but she felt right at home in the small towns south of the border. She made her first trip when she was 18 and has returned almost every year since, often spending three or four months at a time living in remote Mexican villages.
"I connected with the simplicity in people's lives," she said. "Having grown up in a community where we had everything, I was impressed to find people who had very little who were incredibly happy. And they were willing to share everything they had with me."
When she began her job at Ferndale Elementary, she quickly realized that it involved a lot more than teaching the children of new immigrants how to speak English.
"I was also the only person at the school who spoke Spanish, so I acted as a support person. They really needed someone. There were almost 30 non-English or limited-English speaking kids at the school. There were a lot of kids arriving -- and not just kindergartners. If you arrive in 7th or 8th grade and speak no English, it's hard to participate.
"They also needed a liaison between parents and the school. They needed a way to talk to people on the phone" and to translate when teachers needed to communicate to the parents and vice versa. "I'd have to say I took to it like a fish to water. The first mother I met, I walked into her kitchen and I felt like I was in Mexico. I loved it.
Mariachi Mexicanisimo leads the parade, Los Ginantes follow.
"The families still had their traditions: Everyone made their tortillas by hand at home; they spoke Spanish in the house. I didn't have to go Mexico any more, Mexico is here."
A number of the Mexican families who settled in Ferndale originally came from the same small town or rancho -- El Zapote in Michoacán.
"It works the same way with a lot of immigration," said McCullough. "Someone comes and finds work, the place needs more workers and they tell their friends and family. A whole community has been created here -- and they have a strong sense of community."
Most of the men came to Ferndale to work in the dairy business; later some found work in lumber mills. A lot of the women went to work in the fish-processing plants in Fields Landing and Eureka. "Some of the families have moved out of Ferndale into Fortuna. Some are buying their own houses. Many have decided not to work in the dairies any more."
While we are talking, Ernesto, a first-grader, peeks his head in the door. "Not today," she tells him.
"They like to come to my class whenever they can," she explains after he darts away. "This is a sanctuary, a home away from home. Somehow I've become more than the teacher, I'm kind of like an aunt. It's because I've known them since they were little and I'm involved with their families. I don't just see them at school, I show up at everything, all sorts of gatherings."
It's clear that Señora McCullough has become part of the local Mexican-American community. The fact that she felt relaxed and at home made the parents feel at ease.
"I was able to bring the parents into the picture. I was able to communicate with them and have them understand what was going on and feel comfortable about their kids' involvement in school.
"The fiesta became a vehicle for that. We started it that first year in 1990. It was not a big thing, we just did it at the school, but it was a way for them to celebrate their culture and to be something more than these people who just disappeared into the background. And it was a way for other people of this community to recognize the culture.
Jeanette Morales swings at a piñata
"The first years it was all Hispanic kids who put it on, and their parents were involved right from the beginning. They would prepare the food and help with the costuming. We showed games that would be played at a fiesta. We had a piñata, a couple of kids sang songs, but we didn't do the folklorico (dancing) we do now. Then with the help of Francisca Rodriguez I taught the kids dances.
"What I used to do leading up to the fiesta was go into the classes and do a multicultural presentation. Multicultural was a buzzword for a while. I would go into a class that had some of my students and share different things: food or clothing or customs. I'd bring in Spanish words and let my kids be the ones that could raise their hand and say, `It's a sombrero.' Now I teach Spanish in every class. That really came out of the fiesta thing."
There are side effects involved with getting everyone in the school speaking Spanish. "Everyone thinks it's cool -- the fiesta is cool, speaking Spanish is cool. Parents see that the younger kids can learn a language quickly. All these things break down racial barriers."
For the last few years Rocío Emry has been helping teach the dancers and organizing the mothers who cook for the fiesta. "She's my compañera," explains McCullough, "my right hand."
Emry was born and raised in Guadalajara. A few years ago she started working as a teacher's aide at Ferndale Elementary. "After Señora McCullough started doing the dances and the fiesta I volunteered," she said in a call from her home in Ferndale. "I love doing it, I love my culture and like to share it. Every year more kids look forward to participate.
"It's very important for young kids that they become aware of their culture. They get to share so much, not only the folkloric dances, but also other things from our culture -- the music, the food," said Emry.
"What has evolved is that these kids have something that they're proud of and the whole school is involved. We have 70 kids dancing this year. Now it's not just Spanish-speakers doing it. Lots of kids want to do it," said McCullough.
In 1999 Melody Yates, whose niece had been dancing every year since the beginning, convinced McCullough that the fiesta should expand from a school event to a community event. Several dance groups from around the county were invited to participate. An obvious choice was the addition of HSU's Ballet Folklórico de Humboldt. McCullough joined the group three years ago to expand her knowledge of traditional dances, learning from Jeff O'Connor and Liz Rivera.
Sally Hinojosa and Ryan Boynton from Ballet Folklorico de Humboldt
Since the fiesta expanded it has also involved high school dance troupes from Eureka and Fortuna, a project organized by GRIP, the Gang Risk Intervention Prevention.
"We work with `at risk' high school kids," said Pam Gosselin of GRIP. "We found that by offering alternative activities like cultural dance, it builds self-esteem and keeps kids out of trouble."
GRIP coordinator Simona Keat, recipient of last year's statewide Latino Woman of the Year award, has been instrumental in the process. She brought in two teachers, Julie Orth and Frank Garcia, a Spanish teacher from McKinleyville High, to teach the teens folkloric dance, and on her trips south she has gathered authentic costumes from Mexico.
"The folkloric dance and the fiesta show cultural pride for the Hispanic community," said Gosselin. "Now it's OK to get out there and say, `My relatives are from Mexico and I'm proud to do the dances from their culture,' whereas before it was almost an embarrassment."
This year's fiesta is supported in part by Tapestry (Teen Adult Partnership Enhancing Strategies Toward Responsible Youth), a program funded by the California Department of Health Services and the Humboldt County Department of Education to reduce teen pregnancy and help teens make positive choices.
Dancers Maira Rodriguez, Robert Rodriguez, Gaby Rodriguez and Danny Herrera are all counsins from El Zapote.
"Tapestry is part of a statewide media campaign; the state has given us some special funding to support local events honoring our work with youth and families," explained Beth Chatin, Tapestry's program coordinator.
"Lynn does an incredible job in Ferndale and I wanted to support her efforts," said Chatin. "This all fits together in that we're all working together to create a safer environment for kids. We want to fund programs that are doing that.
"The theme behind the funding is `My Future Is Up to Me.' What that is means is that each of us has the ability to determine our own future by looking at who we are and where we're going. And part of that is paying close attention to our cultural and family values."
CINCO DE MAYO FIESTA IN FERNDALE
Begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 5, with a street parade led by Mariachis Mexicanísimo with dancers from Ferndale Elementary, Eureka High School, Fortuna High School and HSU's Ballet Folklórico de Humboldt.
Mexican folkloric dance exhibitions from noon-3 p.m. at Portuguese Hall, Ocean and Main sts., along with authentic Mexican suisine prepared by community members. For more information call the school at 786-5300.
OTHER CINCO DE MAYO EVENTS
Mateel Community Center in Redway presents a Cinco de Mayo Celebration
with Los Mocosos Latin-style funk-rock/ska band from San
Francisco's Mission District; Paco Martin opens. Mexican dinner
available at 7 p.m. 923-3368.
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