Mr. Macala

Mr. Macala, 1976 Gage Park High School Yearbook.

When I think of influential people in my life, I don’t often think of teachers. Some teachers merely teach, but others offer valuable lessons that don’t sink in until much later in life. So when I think back to influential teachers like Sister Laverne at Holy Cross School and Enrico Mordini at Divine Heart Seminary, I also recall Robert Macala and would like to add him to my list of influential teachers. Whenever I recall him, it’s as Mr. Macala, as we were taught to address our teachers in high school.

I met Mr. Macala at Gage Park High School because he took my picture for the chess team and when I won a trophy at a chess tournament at the La Salle Hotel in downtown Chicago. I’m not sure how he found out that I had won the trophy, but he came looking for me with his camera and took a picture of me with the trophy. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that he called two girls walking in the hallway to come in and pose with me for another picture. I suppose to give me this aura of being a sexy chess player. I may just be imagining some of the details about the girls as I recall the incident. But it seems so real now as I imagine it. Forgive me if I have embellished the story. Lately, I’ve been recalling events that I have never experienced!

Anyway, Mr. Macala asked me to write a short description about myself and about the chess tournament and he would then publish the picture in the school newspaper. He asked me to write this with such great confidence that I would do it immediately. He just assumed that I was capable of such a simple assignment. But, alas, I never wrote the brief description and my picture never appeared in the school newspaper. He overestimated my capabilities, but I liked the fact that he truly believed I could do it.

I met Mr. Macala again in the summer of 1975 when I attended summer school at Kelly High School and he was my English teacher. I must admit that I had a very bad attitude that summer. I had just failed English in my senior year, so I didn’t graduate. I had to make up the English class during the summer. I truly believed my life was over. FML! That’s how I felt, long before the acronym was even invented.

I worked midnights at Derby Foods, the peanut butter factory, and then went immediately to English class in the morning. I had failed English because I worked and I didn’t sleep enough before my midnight shift. I often fell asleep during my classes. Plus, I didn’t do any of the reading or writing assignments. And, sometimes I didn’t show up to class. Was that any reason to fail me? Oh, yes, I also failed to write the required term paper!

So, I was greatly relieved in summer school when Mr. Macala announced on the first day of class that we wouldn’t have to write a term paper. The whole class breathed a collective sigh of relief! Perhaps the class wouldn’t be so bad after all. I don’t recall all the details about what was taught in class. But I do remember how Mr. Macala kept the class’s attention by straying from the lesson. He did teach us English, even though I don’t remember exactly what, and he also gave us writing assignments. I still have a book report and a couple of assignments that I wrote for Mr. Macala. I was so happy with the class that I actually saved some of the assignments instead of throwing them away as I did with all my other high school classes. Occasionally, he read student papers aloud and I was surprised he read mine. The assignment was to write a letter that you would like to receive. I tried to be funny and apparently he thought it was funny because he read it to the class. No one had ever read my writing to the class in high school before.

What I remember most are the lessons that were not part of the curriculum. He told us stories to entertain us. Some were works in progress, I’m sure, that he was perfecting for future use. He once told us a mystery story. “It was a hot summer day. We ate some apple pie, but there was still once slice left in the pan. We put the pie pan away. I took a nap and when I woke up–the last slice of pie was gone! I never did figure out what happened to it!” Perhaps this doesn’t sound like much of a mystery story to you, gentle reader, but Mr. Macala had a way of telling stories that kept you hanging on his every word.

The story that fascinated me the most was the one about how he started a backgammon club. He loved to play backgammon. Someone suggested that he start a backgammon club. So he put a flyer up at the local supermarkets asking backgammon players to send money to him to join a backgammon club. He was surprised when many people actually sent him money to join. He had to actually follow through with the club. Soon, he was holding backgammon tournaments with prize money. This proved to be a very profitable venture. I learned a very valuable lesson about capitalism, but I had never had the initiative to do anything comparable. I didn’t capitalize on this knowledge.

He also inspired me academically. He told us he wasn’t a very good student in high school, but discovered he was intelligent once he started college. I would remember this fact years later when I contemplated going back to school. I never thought I was a good student either. Ever! I recalled his words when I went back to school. I told myself to do all the homework for all the classes and study for the exams. My goal was to try to get at least a C in every course. Once I applied myself, I discovered that I was a much better student that I had thought. Eventually, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Thanks in part to Mr. Macala’s story of his student days.

After high school, I lost track of him. Jim, Vito, and I often remembered Mr. Macala. We all agreed that he was a little wild and crazy. But that’s what appealed to me about him. He was intelligent and a little eccentric. One Saturday night, Jim, Vito, and I were on Rush Street for a night on the town. Picking up girls, the way we always did. That was our joke. Picking up girls the way we always did. Actually, we weren’t very good at picking up girls at all. On Saturday night, one of us would ask, “What do you want to do tonight?’ “I don’t know” “Why don’t we pick up girls!” “Yeah! Let’s pick up girls. Like we always do!” We never managed to pick up even one girl! If a girl fell unconscious in front us, we couldn’t pick her up. Not even if we all lifted at once.

Anyway, we were on Rush Street picking up girls as per usual. Suddenly, we see a man standing at the entrance of a night club, actually called a disco back then. This man was flirting with every woman who walked by. He made comments to every passerby. He started telling us something when we approached him. We all recognized him immediately. “Hi, Mr. Macala!’ We were surprised to see him there. Now that I think back, it makes perfect sense that he’d be there!

Well, of all the teachers who greatly influenced me, Mr. Macala is the only with whom I still communicate. In fact, we are friends on Facebook! He now lives in Florida and he asks me questions about Spanish all the time. The roles seem to have reversed.


Bilingual idiot

I bought this dictionary in 1979 at the PX in 29 Palms, California.

As a boy, I set the ambitious goal of learning ten foreign languages. I’m not sure how I came up with the number ten, but once I picked ten, I stuck to it. And I’m still sticking to it even if it’s an unrealistic goal. As of today, I am still many languages away from achieving fluency in ten. But I like ten because it’s a nice round number.

I have had several setbacks along the way. For example, people would tell me, “Learn to speak English first!” (Have you ever noticed that people who insist that foreigners learn English only speak English? I’d like to see them learn another language!) Of course, they were right because my first language was Spanish. I spoke English very poorly at first and later with a foreign accent.

In my quest for foreign language fluency, I have studied many languages over the years. At Divine Heart Seminary, I took French as an elective my sophomore year in addition to Spanish with Señor Mordini. When I went to Tilden Technical High School, I continued my French studies with disastrous results, about which I wrote a blog post. At Gage Park High School, I gave up on foreign languages altogether.

In the Marines, I tried learning Japanese from a roommate who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I learned only as much Japanese as he knew, which wasn’t very much. But I can still say, “Domo arigato” and “Sayonara“! During this time, I spent a lot of time reading. I many read books on English grammar. I would check out books on grammar and writing from the library and read them cover to cover. My Marine roommates thought I was crazy, but that helped because then they avoided started trouble with me. I also bought a Spanish/English dictionary, and I would browse through it to improve my Spanish vocabulary. I got this great idea from reading the biography of O. Henry who read a dictionary that he received as a gift for the first book he had ever read. Amazingly, I also improved my English vocabulary.

When I finally went to college, I studied Spanish in earnest for the very first time. The grammar I had learned from the English grammar books helped me immensely with the Spanish grammar that we studied in class. I also took Portuguese and did well in class, but I never did learn to speak Portuguese fluently because of a lack of time and contact with Portuguese speakers. I took Latin because I thought it would be fun and might prove helpful for the foreign language requirement if I went on for my Ph.D. Well, I didn’t learn to speak Latin either. Not that anyone speaks Latin anymore, but I did learn the difference between the relative pronouns who and whom.

So, I thought I would take a practical language that someone actually speaks worldwide.  I studied Russian for four semesters. There were very few cognates! It was only then that I realized that I had only studied Romance languages, other than English, and learning new vocabulary was easy because of all the cognates derived from Latin. Sadly, I did well in Russian class, but I can’t speak Russian either.

The next language I studied–actually, I’m still studying it–is Polish. There aren’t very many Latin cognates, but since I studied Russian, some of the grammar rules are similar. Polish pronunciation is much easier than Russian. The most amazing part about learning Polish is that the accent always, with very few rare exceptions, falls on the second to the last syllable (la sílaba penúltima, en español). After studying Russian, I feel more confident studying Polish. Perhaps I will learn another language after all!

But I’m not so sure I will. Even though I have attempted learning other languages and failed, I console myself that I’m fully fluent in Spanish and English. Perhaps I am destined to forever remain a bilingual idiot.




Sometime during the first week of every semester, my Spanish students always ask me if they have to learn the vosotros form for verb conjugations. No high school Spanish instructor seems to teach the vosotros form. Now that I think of it, Señor Mordini never made us learn the vosotros form at Divine Heart Seminary. And Señor Mordini was from Spain! I didn’t have to learn it in college either.

Now as a Spanish teacher myself, I find this truly amazing since there are more than forty million Spanish speakers who use the vosotros form. If you’ve ever watched Penelope Cruz movies, surely you’ve noticed that her character always calls her friends and acquaintances vosotros. So for the sake of Spanish cinema fans, I always teach the vosotros form even if the students won’t be tested on it. Every Spanish student should at least recognize the vosotros form when they hear or read it so they’re not totally lost. Like I was in the days of my youth.

When I was a boy, our family often went to mass in Spanish. Jesus, Jesucristo in Spanish, always spoke to his apostles using the vosotros form. I was puzzled by what he was saying when he did. For example, Jesus told his apostles, “No penséis que he venido para traer paz a la tierra” on one occasion, and on another, “Id por todo el mundo y predicad el evangelio a toda criatura,” which confused me. I asked my father what Jesus had told his apostles and my father explained to me that in Spain they used the vosotros form. I found it hard to believe that Jesus had ever been to Spain! But I didn’t dare question my father.

So what exactly does vosotros mean? It means “you” plural. When you translate “you” into Spanish, you choose from tú, vos, vosotros, vosotras, usted, or ustedes. In Spanish, you must also choose between the formal and the familiar. If you are speaking to someone you don’t know personally or they are in a position of authority over you, you must call him, her, or them usted or ustedes. Family members, friends, or acquaintances whom you know well you call . If there are more than one , you are supposed to use vosotros or vosotras. However, in the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, everyone uses ustedes instead of vosotros(as). So, if I’m speaking to my cousins or my friends, I call them ustedes instead of vosotros, as they would do in Spain.

So, ustedes could be used for both formal and familiar situations. Sometimes, this results in absurd situations. For example, people who own a cat will call it . If they own more than one cat, they call them ustedes when vosotros would be more appropriate in this situation. Someone from Spain will laugh if they hear you calling your pets ustedes!

Learning Spanish

Morton College, Cicero, Illinois

I don’t know why, but I always wanted to learn Spanish. Although Spanish was my first language, I wanted to study Spanish formally in school. I wanted to read and write in Spanish, too, in addition to English. Both my father and mother spoke Spanish, but they grew up in different regions of Mexico so they each spoke a dialect that was different enough from each other to sometimes confuse me. But I knew enough Spanish to communicate with just about anyone. When selecting my classes freshman year at Divine Heart Seminary, I picked Spanish I. The counselor looked at me suspiciously, which I didn’t understand why at the time. It never occurred to me that anyone would think I was trying to get an easy A. After the first Spanish class, Señor Mordini, the Spanish teacher, asked me why I was in Spanish I. I panicked, thinking that he wouldn’t let me take Spanish. I told him that I wanted to learn to read and write Spanish. He told me that I didn’t belong in that Spanish class. He was moving me ahead to Spanish II. I resisted. I told him that I wasn’t ready, but he insisted, and since I would still be in a Spanish class, I agreed. In my sophomore year, I enrolled for Spanish III and French I. No one understood why I wanted to study two foreign languages. I had always wanted to know many languages. I learned a lot of Spanish with Señor Mordini, more than enough to read and write in Spanish. Plus, I was learning French, too.

At Thanksgiving break, my mother finally agreed to let me leave the seminary; I never wanted to attend the seminary in the first place. However, she didn’t let me enroll in a private Catholic high school as I had expected. I attended a Chicago public school in the Canaryville neighborhood called Tilden Technical High School. Since I transferred in the middle of the academic year and from a private school to a public one, the counselors had problems scheduling classes for me. I insisted that I wanted to take Spanish. The counselor told me, “But you know Spanish!” I said, “But I can’t read and write Spanish.” I persisted and the counselor finally put me in Spanish IV. I was very disappointed the first day of Spanish class because the Spanish teacher taught verb conjugations that most high school students learn in the first year. This class was really behind. After the first Spanish class, the Spanish teacher took me down to the counselor’s office and said that I knew too much Spanish to be in her class. She was afraid I would intimidate the rest of the students. I insisted that I wanted to take Spanish. I even offered to go into a higher level class if necessary, but that was the highest level Spanish class, even though they were so far behind. I really wanted to learn to read and write Spanish I told them. They insisted I already knew Spanish. “No, I don’t,” I said. “Why do I have to take English?” I asked. “I already know English.” “You don’t know English!” the counselor told me. “That’s the same reason I want to take Spanish. I don’t know Spanish,” I said. Well, I lost that argument, but the counselor couldn’t figure out how to fill the void left by the Spanish IV that I wasn’t allowed to take. I said I wanted to take French. “But why?” the counselor asked in disbelief. “You don’t have to take a foreign language. This school doesn’t have a foreign language requirement!” “I want to take French,” I insisted. “I took French I this term at my last school.” Finally, the counselor looks for a French class. “You’ll have to take French III,” she said. “It’s the only French class that fits in your schedule.”

I was glad to at least have a chance to learn a foreign language. At first, I was afraid to say I wasn’t ready for French III, but then I remembered how far behind the Spanish IV class was. However, I wasn’t ready for what I was about to experience. The first day of class, I walk in and greet my classmates, “Bon jour!” My classmates stared at me with their mouths hanging open. It was as if I were speaking a foreign language to them. I soon discovered why. Our French teacher Mr. Hansen never actually spoke French in class. Ever! He didn’t actually teach anything, either. He was a rotund, middle-aged man with gray, balding hair who never had very much energy. He showed up to class on time wearing a suit and tie and sat at his desk at the front of the class while the class discussed everything going on their personal lives. If Mr. Hansen found the conversation interesting, he would occasionally join in. The students didn’t mind since he wasn’t a very demanding teacher. I started at Tilden near the end of November and in December, the students were worried about their French III grade because the marking period was rapidly approaching. Mr. Hansen reassured us that we were all passing. Then, he made the big announcement. After Christmas vacation, the teachers were going on strike, so we wouldn’t have classes for about a month or two. After the strike, Mr. Hansen planned to have his annual heart attack and he wouldn’t return to school until after spring break. And he kept his word, too. The succession of substitute teachers taught us French just as competently as Mr. Hansen even though none of them had ever studied French! When Mr. Hansen returned to school in April, he said he would have to test us in order to give us our final French grade. The class panicked. No one wanted to study. Then Mr. Hansen announced that in order to get an A, you had to bring in your French-English dictionary to class. I just happened to have mine with me–I always brought it with me just in case we actually studied French in class by some unexpected miracle–and all the class glared at me in disgust. Well, I had my instant A, but the rest of the class was worried. This was French III and no one had ever bought a French-English dictionary! Silly me! I bought mine immediately after the first day of French I!

Then, my mother bought a house near Marquette Park and I had to transfer to Gage Park High School the next year. When scheduling my classes, I knew better than to ask to study a foreign language. So I didn’t enroll for one. Some time during the end of the year, the Spanish teacher, Señor Martinez from Ecuador, came to one of my classes and asked me to step into the hallway. He was recruiting Spanish-speaking students for a special Spanish class that he himself would teach the next year. I told him about what had happened to me at Tilden and he reassured me that this class would be different. So, against my better judgment, I enroll in his class. The next year, I was actually excited to go my Spanish class because I would finally learn to read and write Spanish fluently. On the first day of class, I see a lot of my friends who are native Spanish speakers. The classroom is filled with Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Ecuadorians, Filipinos, and others. Then, Miss Brewer walks into the classroom and announces that she is our teacher! What? She wasn’t a native speaker of Spanish. The entire class was disappointed. What happened to Señor Martinez? Miss Brewer repeated that she was our Spanish teacher and that was the end of the discussion. That would have been fine except for the fact that most of the class spoke better Spanish than her. But she insisted that she knew Spanish because she had spent a month in Puerto Rico the previous summer. Spanish was our worst class for most of us that year. Apparently, no one in the class knew Spanish, according to Miss Brewer. Hardly anyone got an A for the class and a few native Spanish speakers actually failed!

When I finally arrived at UIC, I was hesitant to take Spanish, but I told myself, “It’s now or never!” I took a Spanish placement test, which is multiple choice. I scored very poorly because I would choose the answer according to what I remembered hearing in Spanish. Apparently, much of what I had heard was improper usage. Then, I had to take another placement exam in the Spanish department. I was told to write in Spanish about why I wanted to study Spanish. It had been years since I had written anything in Spanish. I surprised myself when I wrote. Some things came back to me instinctively. I was placed in the first semester in a class for bilingual speakers. Finally, I would learn to read and write Spanish!

¡Yo quiero aprender español!


The story of Chicago, Illinois

When I was growing up I never heard the word “Chicano.” No one in my family used it and I never heard it in the neighborhood even though there was a sizable Mexican population in Back of the Yards. I’m reminded of this because I was just reading Ethnic Chicago edited by Melvin G. Holli and Peter d’A. Jones, Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1984. What reminded me of never having heard the word “Chicano” was Chapter VIII written by Louise Año Nuevo Kerr titled, “Mexican Chicago: Chicano Assimilation Aborted.” She uses “Chicano” throughout the chapter to refer to Mexicans who came from Mexico illegally, who were part of the bracero U.S.-Mexican agreement during WWII, were from Texas and therefore were American citizens, or had ancestors from Mexico.

So I’m thinking back to the very first time when I heard “Chicano” and I remember I first heard it at Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana, when I was a freshman. There were only three Mexican students out of 130 at DHS: Fred Casillas from Gary, Indiana, Tony Hernandez from Los Angeles, and me. There was also Hiram De Jesus, a Puerto Rican from Cleveland, Ohio. I remember Ken Jones, an African-American who was from Detroit, telling me when we had our first family visits that he wanted me to meet his mother. He insisted that I meet her for the whole week leading up to our first family weekend visit. Well, when I finally met her, I was surprised that she was Mexican. That explained why Ken wanted me to meet her so badly. Hiram also wanted me to meet his mother, whom I did. I was surprised that she was so young. She was only twenty-nine even though Hiram was fifteen. Fred and Tony were sophomores and Hiram and I were freshmen. Tony was my big brother when I visited DHS in eighth grade. Hiram and I were in Enrico Mordini’s Spanish II class with other sophomores.

Anyway, one day, Fred calls me a Chicano, but I had no idea what he was talking about because I had never heard the word before. He then explained it to me. None of this made any sense to me at first. I attended a Lithuanian Catholic school with mostly Lithuanian and Mexican students in a neighborhood that was home to Lithuanians, Mexicans, Germans, Italians, Poles, and other ethnic groups that in general maintained their ethnic customs, but got along well with everyone else. This Chicano movement that Fred described to me was something that was entirely new to me given where I had grown up.

One day after Fred returned to DHS from a weekend visit home, he wore a brown beret with a patch that said “Chicano Power” and a picture of brown clenched fist with an iron manacle with a dangling chain that had a broken link on the end. He also wore a white T-shirt with the same exact message and image. Fred made me feel like I was some sort of traitor for not having the same feelings as him about the Chicano movement.

Well, when I went home one weekend soon after, I had my father take me to Old Town to Bizarre Bazaar where I bought the same beret, “Chicano Power” patch, and T-shirt that Fred had. My father didn’t understand why I wanted these items, but he bought them for me anyway. He asked me to explain what they meant, but he didn’t seem to understand and didn’t give them too much importance. When my mother saw me wearing the beret with the patch and the T-shirt, she thought I had joined a gang. None of my friends understood why I would wear “Chicano Power” even after I explained it to them. All their parents thought that I had joined a gang, just as my mother did. Everyone misunderstood me. Luckily, I was only home for the weekend.

When I returned to DHS, Fred was so proud of me. Tony didn’t think much of my commitment to the Chicano movement. Since Hiram was Puerto Rican, it really didn’t affect him in any way. Surprisingly, none of the priests or brothers acknowledged my new apparel, much less reproach me for it. In general, unless you violated the seminary rules or you committed a sin, everyone pretty much left you alone. The only one who was really excited about all this was Fred. I was disappointed that I went through all this trouble to buy these items and no one, other than Fred, really cared. After a while, I stopped wearing the beret and the T-shirt. When I returned home for the summer, they stayed in my dresser drawer. I never again heard anyone in Chicago mention the word “Chicano.” Everyone I knew in Chicago was American.

Again I traduce

On the southwest side of Chicago

I was curious as to who is actually reading my Blog. So I did some snooping around, I mean some investigating. For some unknown reason, I keep getting hits from Russia. I can’t quite figure it out. My most viewed Blog entry is the one about Enrico Mordini, my Spanish teacher at Divine Heart Seminary. I guess I should go back and actually finish writing it and edit it since so many people are reading it. Now I feel embarrassed that I didn’t fix it up sooner. Another thing that really surprised me was the fact that people in Spanish-speaking countries are also finding my blog. I was wondering how they would read it since I mostly write in English. I went to the referring page and found that an automated translator could actually translate my blog into Spanish with a link on the search engine page. Wow! I mean, ¡Ay, ay, ay! The webpage is automatically translated into Spanish, but very poorly-written Spanish at that. Upon reading the translation, I realized that people in Spanish-speaking countries will think that I don’t know Spanish!

Let me give you a sample of some of these translations. Well, it actually starts out quite well. The title at the top of my blog is David Diego Rodriguez, Ph.D. without an accent mark on the “i” of Rodriguez because otherwise all these strange characters appear and distort my last name thanks to the mysteries of computers and the Internet. However, the translator actually put the accent mark where it belongs! The rest of the translations are rather sad. For example, under my name I write, “¡Hola! ¡Yo hablo español e inglés!” For some strange reason that phrase is translated as, “¡Yo hablo español electrónico español!”, which somehow fails to convey my original message. I suppose if someone really wants to read my blog, they will gladly plod their way through this computer-generated translation.

When my Spanish students write compositions, I ask them to do the best they can. I ask them to write the composition in Spanish right from the start. I know that the student will make plenty of mistakes, but that’s part of the learning process. Sometimes the original text is upstaged by all my corrections in red ink. That’s fine by me as long as they make a valiant effort to write in Spanish. However, I do not want a student to write the composition in English and then translate it into Spanish. That’s double the work! And of course, I can always tell when they write it in English and then use an internet or computer translator. Well, the output hardly resembles Spanish. In fact, in many cases, I cannot even decode what the student wanted to say in the first place. All the words are in Spanish, but the composition is incomprehensible! I always ask the student to rewrite such a composition, “but in Spanish this time.” About the only word that doesn’t lose anything in translation is the English word “no” that also happens to translate to “no” in Spanish. Even an automated translator gets this translation right!

Enrico Mordini


Enrico Mordini with Jerry Rodríguez at Divine Heart Seminary

Years ago, I attended Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana. I recently went to a DHS reunion where my classmates and I remembered our Spanish teacher Enrico Mordini. Señor Mordini was the Spanish teacher who taught me a lot about being Mexican even though he was an Italian born in Italy and raised in Spain. He taught me that there is more than one way to speak Spanish. I never realized there were so many dialects. I was originally in his Spanish I class, but he moved me up to Spanish II because I knew some Spanish. I had always wanted to learn Spanish formally so that I could read and write it. As an aside, when I attended Holy Cross Grade School, since the Lithuanian school didn’t offer Spanish classes, I asked if I could go to Saturday morning classes to study Lithuanian. I was told, “First, you have to learn English.”

Once I started classes with Señor Mordini, I questioned whether I even knew Spanish. He said some words so differently from my mother that it took me some time to recognize them. For example, “to drink” to my mother and me was “tomar” and to Señor Mordini it was “beber.” I had never even heard the word “beber” before! When my mother said “good” in Spanish, she would not say it the same way as Señor Mordini’s “bueno,” but rather, she would say, “güeno” instead. The Spanish word for needle was “aúja” to my mother and me, but to Señor Mordini, it was “aguja.” Our word wasn’t even in the dictionary without the letter g. When I informed my mother of these differences, she said that’s because Señor Mordini spoke “castellano” and not “español.” When I told Señor Mordini what my mother had said, he said that “castellano” and “español” were synonyms for the Spanish language. My mother never really believed him! After all, he wasn’t Mexican. In fact, he wasn’t even Spanish either. He was Italian!

Once while discussing Mexican culture in class, I said that I knew all Mexicans were a mixture of Spanish and Aztec blood. I was shocked when he said that was only partially true because not everyone, in fact, not many people were purely of Spanish and Aztec ancestry. I insisted that I was right. Even my father had told me so. Even after several convincing arguments by Señor Mordini that there were people in Mexico of pure, unmixed Spanish blood , I still didn’t believe him. When I reported this to my mother, she said that not all Mexicans were only of Spanish and Aztec ancestry. In fact, her grandfather had been Irish! “What?” I was so shocked. “Why didn’t you tell me before?” I asked my mother. She just nonchalantly said, “I didn’t think it was important.” Suddenly, I was sixteen and learning for the first time that I had more than just Spanish and Aztec blood coursing through my veins. In fact, I might not even have Spanish or Aztec blood coursing through my veins. I was in shock! It took me years to adjust to this new discovery about my ancestry. Was this a possible explanation for why my best friend in the Catholic Lithuanian grade school was Patrick McDonald from Ireland? But the fact remained that Señor Mordini was right again!

Years later, when I applied to teach Spanish at a community college, I was hoping against hope to get the position because I saw in the school catalogue that Señor Mordini was on the faculty! But such was not my luck. Señor Mordini died that year and I didn’t get the position! I suffered two severe blows at once. But I was lucky enough to have met Señor Mordini when I did. He certainly made more aware of myself and made me a much better person.

La clase del señor Mordini

Above: This was the Spanish classroom at Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana, in the 1970s. This is one of the many schools where Señor Enrico Mordini taught. As an aside, Señor Mordini had a good sense of humor and got along well with the students. Once my classmates talked me into hiding in the fire escape, which was a giant slide in a huge metal tube on the right in the picture but out of view, and Señor Mordini humored us by looking for me wherever my classmates suggested: under his desk, under the student desks, behind the bulletin board, etc. 🙂