Once upon a time, I taught at Vista de las Cruces, the school near the junction of highways 1 and 101 in Gaviota. It was nestled by mountains and oaks in a place that was once a miniature community with its own inn, garage, and a little store sustained by farmers, ranchers, and travelers to the Gaviota wharf and Santa Ynez Valley.
All of this had long ago vanished by the time the school was built in the 1980s as part of a controversial settlement with Chevron oil company. The old Vista del Mar School on the coast had been vacated to make way for a refinery, and many mourned its passing. But the new school had a spirit of its own, and it was palpable to me immediately. I was an idealistic teacher, brimming with enthusiasm, and when I rounded the bend on my way to work each morning, I could see the school in a slant of sunlight, shining.
Never was the magic more apparent than during the holiday season. A significant number of our students were from Mexican families who lived and worked on the surrounding ranches, and our music teacher, Victoria Ostwald, decided to tap into a tradition of that culture and organize an annual Las Posadas procession. Never mind its religious themes in a public school; it was as holy or as secular as you wanted it to be, and its enchantment and good-natured sense of theater was unfailing. With Victoria at the helm, we had not just any old school band but a string orchestra, mostly violins, whose notes unfurled at the hands of fledgling musicians in a manner less smooth than earnest but always touching. There would be a musical performance in the auditorium, followed by the procession outdoors into the courtyard of the school.
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And what a procession it was! A little Mary sat astride an actual donkey, and she and Joseph went from door to door, the classrooms as inns, each time being turned away. All the rest of us — students, teachers, neighbors, and families — followed and sang. In my memory, we are holding candles, which may or may not be factual, but I do know we sang in Spanish, refusing to give shelter to the strangers, until at last they reached the manger, and the words and tempo shifted to joy as the holy pilgrims were welcomed: Entren, Santos Peregrinos, reciban este rincón, que aunque es pobre la morada, os la doy de corazón.
Then began the party. We returned to the auditorium for potluck treats and a piñata that was suspended from the rafters. Happy pandemonium ensued when the walloping of the piñata began! The very first time I witnessed this event, someone overzealously yanked at the piñata to raise it higher, and it got caught up in the beams of the ceiling, far beyond reach of the kids. A disappointed gasp rippled through the crowd. Then a dapper cowboy named Billy Johnson dashed out to his pickup truck and returned with rope in hand. He removed his hat and buckskin leather jacket, carefully eyeballed the situation, threw a perfect loop, and lassoed the piñata down from the rafters. Everyone cheered, and the fun resumed.
It was my fourth month living and working in Gaviota, and I began to suspect that I’d stumbled into a dreamland. Nearly 20 years later and that suspicion has never been disproved.