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Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, Part 2

This is an excerpt from a new book titled Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, California by local author Lawrence F. Lihosit. The author offers real-life stories by Maderans as well as maps and a chronology of important local events. It is available on-line at books and at these locations; MailDrop, G.B.S. and the Vineyard.

Sandra Nuval Obrero Carter, Madera resident since 1977

The child of Philippine immigrants who worked Central Valley fields, Sandra Nuval Obrero Carter was born in Sanger, Calif., on October 15, 1954. The eldest of two children, Mrs. Carter studied at California State University at Fresno and began work in Madera as a Madera County probation officer. After a few years, she returned to school, earned a teaching credential and began a thirty-six-year teaching career at Monroe Elementary School, retiring in 2017. She and her husband have raised two sons in Madera County.

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Both of my parents are from the northern part of the Philippines, Lal-Lo Cagayan (island of Luzon, 362 miles north of Manila). My father was an orphan. He and a cousin were adopted. As they got older, his uncle who had adopted them could not send them to college, so he said that he had heard that in the United States they could make some money. He gave them both money to immigrate to the United States. We call him uncle out of respect even though I do not believe that he was really an uncle. They were all field workers who harvested grapes.

When my dad was forty-two, he went back to the Philippines to thank his uncle and that’s when he met my mother. My mother’s family was rich and my mom was educated. She was a teacher already in the Philippines.

I asked my mom, “What happened?”

She answered, “Well, we fell in love.”

They were married in January of 1954. I was conceived there and born here. That’s why I can understand Ilocano but cannot speak it. Because my father served in the American military, he was a citizen. After a couple of months, my mom flew to the United States.

My mom went from never cooking, never cleaning, having maids all her life to a one-room house on a ranch, pregnant with me and picking grapes. The other pickers, manongs (older brothers), put grapes on her tray so that she could earn more.

They always had a cook at the camp, a part of their team. A cook never did much field work but he was just as important, and the other workers paid his salary. My dad told me that he snuck back to the camp each day to eat a bit because “All she (his wife) could do was boil chicken and make rice.”

My mom wanted a dog and the manager of the ranch told her that she could not have a dog so she went to Sanger and bought a house. I asked her, “How could you buy a house?”

My mom explained, “No one tells me what I can do.”

My mom went back to school even though my dad told her that no one would hire her because they were prejudiced. “It doesn’t matter,” she responded, “no one can take away my brain.”

She attended Fresno State (California State University at Fresno) and got her teaching credential and found a job in Orange Cove because there were a lot of Filipinos there. My mom spoke English, Ilocano and Spanish. In the Philippines during her generation, the upper class was taught Spanish. As she got older, Sanger sought her out to teach an evening adult education program because she spoke Spanish.

She taught English as a Second Language. Then she taught fourth grade until she retired. My mom sponsored her sister who immigrated and also got her teaching credential. They both taught in Orange Cove more than thirty years.

I went to school at Fresno State and earned a degree in criminology. I became a probation officer here in Madera. I was 21, looked 16 and wanted to save the world. I was lied to so many times that towards the end I got pretty cold-blooded. For some time, I had a small case load but it included hard core women maybe thirty-five years old.

The idea was that with a smaller case load, we could give them one-to-one service. I was required to visit them at their homes on a regular basis. I sent one woman back to jail and she came out and used her welfare money for drugs instead of buying her son’s seizure medication. I thought to myself, “I’m not doing anyone any good.” About this time, that school bus load of children was kidnapped in nearby Chowchilla (1976) and my mom and my aunt told me that this job was not safe. I got headaches trying to find foster homes. I decided to go back to school. I needed to get them younger.

I worked 10-hour days for Madera County on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I attended school for my teaching credential. It took a year and a half or two years. I wanted to teach at Monroe — a school with a lower income population and minorities because I come from a minority. There were no student teachers there. So, I had to go back to Fresno State and ask professors to sponsor me at Monroe. One professor volunteered. The Monroe principal agreed.

I was pregnant with my first child during student teaching. We finished in December and my son was born on December thirty-first. The principal at Monroe hired me to teach fourth grade which I did for a year. The next year he bumped me to sixth grade. After I suggested that he leave me in the fourth grade, he reminded me that he was the principal. I learned to keep my mouth shut and taught sixth grade for the rest of my career.

In the beginning, maybe 60 percent of our students were Hispanic. By the time I retired, about 85 percent of our students were Hispanic. The Mexican immigrants wanted to make sure their children did their school work. There seemed to be more parent involvement back then.

Many could not attend the conferences because they worked in the fields but they came to see me on rainy days when they were not working. We used to have a migrant program. District people, called migrant aides, went to their homes to work with the students, as well as give them extra supplies like crayons or paper. Other aides also came to our classroom, one per classroom.

They were compassionate, artistic and a wonderful help. We were able to divide into smaller groups. I tried to work with the children who needed the most help while the aide took the others. They helped me prepare and sometimes took stuff home. Most of the time it was team teaching. They were part-time and received benefits.

Gradually as aides retired, they did not fill their positions. Some principals did not believe that we needed them. Pretty soon, we didn’t have aides.

Years ago, we had more field trips. We sold candy to cover the cost of buses. It was always the buses. For many years, we went to San Francisco for the day. On one trip, as 100 sixth graders waited to board the boat for Alcatraz, a homeless woman in the parking lot explained how aliens had picked her up and exactly what they had done to her body. That was our last trip to Alcatraz.

We also went to the California Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park. Over time, we weren’t permitted to sell anything. Then, like the aides, the field trips got filtered out.

Ed Gwartney, another teacher born to field laborers, was a good friend at Monroe. He wanted the kids to have a hands-on experience. He was the dreamer, the architect and the construction engineer of the Monroe Museum. In the beginning, he put together a temporary set of structures on the playground like a town which he called Madera Diggins. The principal at that time supported Ed and even made donations so that he could buy materials. We fanned out and talked to people who made other donations. One rancher loaned us a corral. Another loaned us mules for rides. The kids went from station to station, learning how life used to be.

Ed used to spend the night on campus in his RV (recreational vehicle) so that no one would touch it. One day at a hamburger joint, I suggested, “Ed, why don’t we run our whole school through there?”

“How do we do that?” he asked.

“Easy.” I wrote out a schedule. The principal gave us whatever we needed and we started having a two-day museum affair. Once the student body went through, he tore it down. We started to think about something more lasting. I went to a board meeting and requested ten thousand dollars to relocate and rehab two portable classrooms that they called “the diseased ones” because everyone got sick inside.

One board member asked why they should give us the money and not the other schools. I said, “Because I’m standing here and the other schools aren’t.” I thought, if they wanted the money, they should have gotten their butts out there. Of course, I did not say this. They gave us the money, but only one classroom. This was the beginning of the Monroe Museum.

One year, Ed wanted to take grades four, five and six on a trip. The idea was to take them one day at a time. We bought the wooden wheels, hub and iron skein. Ed built the falling tongue, single and double trees, neck yoke and brake lever. He had the children help him to build the Yankee bed, side boards, ribs and bonnet. Ed started the wagon train.

We had a starting point on someone’s ranch in the county. We transported the children out to the initial starting point, dressed in historically correct costumes. We had one wagon and a team of mules there waiting. Our destination was Monroe.

I didn’t sleep for three days, thinking about children, mules and rattlesnakes. At night, I just wandered around praying, “Dear God….” Ed didn’t want a port-o-potty which is insane. There is no way you can have sixth grade girls without a restroom. So, I ordered one behind Ed’s back.

We picked it up and Ed looked at me. “It’s going to have to go at the end.”

“I don’t care where it is, as long as we have it.”

This must have been towards the end of the school year when it’s hot and Ed expected all the children to walk. Again, we had a disagreement. I told him that we needed an air-conditioned van just in case anyone got heat stroke. Luckily, we only had one child come in.

Ed teased me anyhow. “You just didn’t want to walk, Carter.”

“No, Ed. I just didn’t want to listen to you yelling my name all the time.”

We had meals bused up to us each day. One day we had fast food burgers and fries. There were activities and games. One morning as we brushed our teeth, cows meandered over to look at us. We slept outside without tents for two nights, walked for three days. I remember my hair was all sticky. There were no problems because the children were too tired.

They’ve always had testing. I think we need some testing but the preparation is terrible. We’re so busy testing kids that they don’t even remember. They’ll remember these projects we all worked on together — not just the museum or wagon train but even our studies of ancient Egypt. They researched gods and made masks and costumes. These are hands-on. All this pre-testing and testing and benchmarks with color coding that we had post on the wall — nonsense. Teachers are buried.

I miss teaching. Maybe I did not save the world but I helped some children.


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