Monthly Archives: February 2016

Rough Cut: Prudenciana Elementary School

Rough Cut: {The True Story of “Prudenciana” Elementary School}

California history: Amesti history mural

A California History snapshot: Designed and painted by artist Guillermo Aranda, Mary Flodin, and Amesti GATE students in the late 1990’s, the mural above depicts the cultural and natural history of the land where the school was built, from the time of the native Ohlones through the Rancho period, to the present.

Prudenciana Elementary, where Aurora teaches, is a real school. It’s in the Pajaro River Valley, Watsonville, California, on the agricultural South end of Santa Cruz County. In the 90’s, it was surrounded by strawberry fields. Prudenciana is not the actual name of the school, of course. Can you guess what the school’s name really is?

The school is one of the oldest in the county. It was founded by Señora Prudenciana Amesti, wife of Señor Jose Amesti. Don Amesti owned of one of the magnificent grants of California land bestowed by the Mexican government in the 19th century. Amesti’s wife, Prudenciana, was a devout Catholic and a great supporter of education. After her husband’s death, she gifted some of her vast land holdings to the Church for the establishment of Our Lady of Help Church (“The Valley Church” – first Catholic church in the region) and for an orphanage overseen by the Catholic priests. She also gave land to the county for an elementary school named for her late husband.

The history of this school, site of one of the great Spanish Ranchos that define California history, is rich. So much backstory I want to share about the school, the church, and the orphanage has already been cut from my novel. Yet I feel that someone may be as interested in this history as I am. Am I the only one?

My editor says historical backstory slows down the movement of the novel. I believe her. She’s a pro. She knows today’s commercial fiction market. She wants me to rush readers to the end. They want page turners after all, right?

But isn’t that kind of like rushing through your life, skimming over the deep water, in a hurry to reach your death? Don’t we need to slow down and savor the details, the beauty, the mystery,  along the way? What do you think? Cut this?

Maybe I’ll post more of the fascinating history of Our Lady of Help Church, the orphanage and Prudenciana’s school here, in this blog. Would that be of interest to you?

students and teacher prepare to paint the mural

students and teacher prepare to paint the mural

Amesti History Mural

Mary Flodin and Amesti GATE students prepare to paint the Amesti History Mural, designed by Guillermo “Yermo” Aranda – Arts Council Santa Cruz County, Mary Flodin and their students.

Chapter 15. Monday, August 15, 1998.
Prudenciana Elementary

At Freedom Boulevard, Aurora exited Highway 1 and drove north toward Prudenciana Public Elementary School. She drank in the landscape of the Pajaro River Valley as if savoring the terroir of a good wine.

The little school nestled at the base of coastal foothills that had been thrust and twisted up from the sea geologic eons ago. An upraised scar on the face of the land, the foothills bore evidence of the epic clash of monumental tectonic plates. The Continental shelf forced the Pacific plate down, and the Pacific shoved back, pushed up from underneath, and caused the Continent’s skin to buckle and fold.

Through a deep gash in the scar, winter rains washed off the hills, down Corralitos Creek to Rio Pajaro. For centuries, Rainbow trout had been migrating downstream on spring rains, over the natural willow-lined bedrock of Corralitos to the Pajaro, pushing out through the rivermouth into Monterey Bay. And for centuries, adult Coho and Steelhead had been navigating back home by moon, stars, and scent from the vast Pacific Ocean, bringing the rich gift of nutrients from the sea to the people up stream.

Aurora parked and slid out of her Miata with only a little stiffness and pain. She stood for a moment in the parking lot, stretched, and rubbed the red, raised scar on her leg. The stitches had finally mostly dissolved.

Shreds of summer morning fog clung to the coastal hills. The bell tower of the original one room schoolhouse peaked  over the roofline of the new elementary school.

That first school had been built near the creek about 1880 on land donated by Señora Prudenciana and her daughters – but a small gift from Señora Prudenciana, whose rancho was one of the most extensive and beautiful of the Californio ranchos granted to favored elite by the new Mexican government after the closing of the missions.

The old schoolhouse had served the children of Italian and Portuguese fishermen and farmers. And the children of Mexicans, many of them displaced from their almost royal status as patrons of vast rancheros to become landless peasants. Children of the nearly invisible indigenous people, and of the industrious and prosperous Japanese, so adept at farming and fishing, attended the one room schoolhouse. The Filipinos came to fish, and the Croatians turned apple blossoms into gold. The Chinese came, hoping for gold. But forbidden by law to mine the yellow metal, instead, they built the railroad that connected East to West across the continent, and they settled in camps around the Monterey Bay called China Beach, and China Town, to fish and sell, and raise children more American than Chinese. The English, the Dutch, and the Irish brought their food, their customs, their gods and myths, and their children. And the one-room school served the children of every immigrant group, from every continent, of every creed, color, and culture who washed onto the shore in wave upon wave, hoping for a better life.

Around the schoolhouse, these pioneers fished the rivers, the streams and the bay, and planted apple orchards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and artichokes, flowers, berries and salad greens in the fertile alluvial soil, the black gold, gifted by the river gods of the abundant and generous Pajaro, River of the Birds.

In 1947, the parcel of land where the historic one-room schoolhouse stood had been sold to a family who’d restored and preserved the building. On an adjoining parcel, also part of Prudenciana’s original gift, a modern elementary school was built. Heritage apple orchards surrounding the school were torn out to make way for lucrative strawberry fields. Otherwise, not much had changed in the hundred years since the schoolhouse first opened its doors to the children of the Valley.

Aurora loved teaching California history to fourth graders in this historic location. Thinking about the school and the land, she smiled to herself, hefted her book bag over her shoulder, and set her course across the parking lot for the school library, and the first faculty meeting of the year.

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Rough Cut: Introducing my Protagonist

Rough Cut: {The Heroine of my Story: Aurora Bourne}

Please tell me what you think of Aurora. I’d really appreciate your feedback!

Aurora surfs. A young friend of mine, a women’s champion surfer, vetted my surf scenes. They were fun to write. But my editor says they don’t do anything to “move the plot”. Most of the surfing scenes have been cut. It hurt.

It’s almost the Millennium – the Turn of the Century. Aurora Bourne is a surfer, artist, and organic gardener who lives alone in a Santa Cruz beach cottage on the West Side. She commutes to the agricultural South County to teach elementary school.

Below is the way I introduce Aurora at the beginning of my novel. Editor says to cut this. Too “touchy feelie” for the mass market? I don’t know. This is who she is. And I like her cat. What do you think?

Cover for Fruit of the Devil with Protagonist

Cover for Fruit of the Devil with Protagonist


Chapter 2. Saturday, July 23, 1998. 6:30 am
Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz Westside.
North Santa Cruz County, California.

Aurora grabbed her board out of her pickup and hurried down the wooden stairs to the tidepools. The tropical storm far out at sea was in the scent of the air, and in the quality of light casting hard shadows on the western side of the lighthouse. The rising sun had nearly burned away the fog. Opalescent water and wet sand reflected the sky turning pink and gold. She picked her way over slippery rocks. Iridescent seaweed and saltwater shimmered and surged. She dropped her board onto the surge and belly paddled away from the dangerous rocks. First one in the water, not counting the otter asleep in the kelp.

Stabs of cold water trickled into her wetsuit. Paddle, paddle, up and over the first wave. Paddle, paddle and – boom! A huge outsider was breaking on top of her.

Aurora barely had time to turn her board over, pull the board’s nose down into the avalanche of whitewater, hang on, and dive.

Salt in the eyes and up the nose. Ice down the back, cold water rushing in between her wetsuit and her skin. Roaring thunder in her ears, inside her skull. Tumbling . . . She held her breath and her chest filled with fire. Which way is up?

She burst through the tumult into the fresh air on the other side of the wave. A rooster tail filled with rainbows steamed and hissed off the backside of the wave. A mist of cold water sprayed her face. Breathe! Ah!

Paddle, paddle, sit up on the back of the board, frog kick to turn.

She looked over her shoulder, laid back down on her belly, and stroke, stroke, faster now yes – push, WHOOSH! Down she dropped, weightless for an instant, then standing. She dug in with her back foot, twisted hard, turned right, and – she was in a magical tunnel without time.

In the tube – blue green celadon, translucent – a rushing sound like in a dream – eternal – nothing but white noise and heavenly luminosity, a singing of angels, an enveloping FORCE – then, zoom – shoot out, twist hard, up, over the top, kick out – YES! First wave of the day! Nirvana! Utter exhilaration! Complete mental and physical engagement. Focus, or drown.

She grabbed her board and dove as another heavy, salty tumult broke over her.


Aurora hosed off her wetsuit, hung it on the line, and rinsed off in the outdoor shower. Then she pulled her braid over her shoulder and squeezed out the water. The summer sun had bleached her hair to a deep gold, as usual. She needed to make an appointment to get the split ends trimmed before school started. Standing barefoot on the damp patio bricks, she shivered.

She greeted the fish and the spirit of the falling water in the half wine barrel goldfish pond, and adjusted the grapefruit-sized Big Sur jade rocks in the waterfall to improve the tone. Satisfied that the sound of the falling water would be conducive to an alpha brain wave state, she began the Qigong practice she’d learned from Master Chien.

            Inhale strength from the core of Mother Earth, drawing nurture through the roots. Experience springs gushing forth at the soles of the feet…we are water… breathe….

Aurora’s awareness returned to the sound of the waterfall and the cold bricks numbing her feet. Tiptoeing to the hot tub, she opened the cover and slid into the steaming water. She stretched out to her full five feet one inch and sank underwater in complete relaxation. When she came up for air, she wriggled like a fish, her spine loose and flexible, opened her legs wide, and stretched at the hips. Then she turned on the jets and let the bubbles massage her while she gazed through the arbor framing the entrance to her garden.

Everything was in full bloom. In the spring, she’d filled the flowerbeds with old-fashioned cottage garden seed mixes and had scattered native wild flower seeds everywhere. Now there was a fragrant, multicolored profusion of orange, blue, yellow, purple, and pink waking in the morning sun. The pear, persimmon, fig, plum, apple, and avocado trees were loaded with fruit. A jay scolded a mockingbird, who was helping himself to the ripe raspberries. Summer squash, pole beans, and leafy greens filled the little organic vegetable garden. And the tomatoes were finally almost red.

At the feeder, the usual little birds – house finches, sparrows and juncos – crowded and pushed. The hanging cylinder of wire mesh that held thistle seeds was covered with bright goldfinches. A migrant hummingbird, the Black-chinned, was feeding at the red flowers of the pineapple guava. An Anna’s, the only year-round resident hummingbird in the Monterey Bay, charged the Black-chinned with a “zzzzzzrl” of high-speed wings.

The migrant and the resident went at it fiercely, battling for territorial dominance. With a brilliant flash of their colors – sapphire violet, fiery red, and iridescent emerald, the small feathered warriors flew high into the air, and together spun and tumbled from the sky. Just before crashing to the ground, the ball of twisting, sparking fire veered with angry clicks and psstcheeeew’s into the kiwi thicket. Kiwis hung ripening on vines twining along the fence.

Aurora squinted to soften and blend colors and edges, composing her next painting in her mind. She looked forward to getting out her paints and easel later in the day.

She tried to ignore the loneliness scratching at her heart. Over thirty, and still alone. What’s wrong with me? Am I ever going to find true love? She turned off the Jacuzzi bubbles, held her breath and sank under the water.

When she came up for air, her big black cat was sitting on the small wrought iron table next to the hot tub waiting for her. He blinked his yellow eyes and meowed.

“Ready for breakfast, Blue?”

The cat shook himself so hard he nearly lost his balance. His ears flapped against his head with a sound like a little hand drum and the bell on his collar rang.

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Rough Cut: The Shipper/Packer/Cooler Industry and the Brown Berets

Rough Cuts: {Watsonville Brown Berets, a snippet from back in the day. This is a true story.}

Sunday morning, August 28, 1998.
Prudenciana Elementary School. Watsonville.

Aurora opened the door to the computer lab. Jose Santos, the new technology assistant, was down on his hands and knees under a shelf of colorful new iMacs, working with a tangle of cables. Aurora smiled at the slender young man with a black moustache. They made a good choice in hiring him. He’d been doing very well as a computer technician, even though he was inexperienced.

“Hey, Jose. Thanks for being willing to meet me here on a Sunday morning. How’s it going?”

“Good. We should have all the software installed, and the computers networked to the new printer by the time we go home today, but we’ll still need an adapter for the overhead projector, and we should have some of those rubber floor covers to put all these wires under, so they aren’t a tripping hazard.”

“Give me a list. I can pick that stuff up. Can I give you a hand with networking the printers?”

Aurora dove under the bank of computers, and Jose oriented her as to what he was doing. “You’ve really learned all this technology stuff fast,” she said.

“Yeah. I’m taking a full load of tech classes at the community college, going for the Cisco networking certification.”

“Brilliant move. I’ll bet networking will be huge in the future.”

Jose sat back on his heels. “That does it. Now, we should test them all.”

Jose and Aurora each took a chair in front of an iMac and turned on a computer.

Aurora navigated to Preferences, selected the new printer, restarted the computer, then opened the word processing app to test the printer connection.

“Where are you from originally, Jose?” Aurora asked while she waited for the app to open. “Did you grow up here in Watsonville?”

“I’m from Mexico. A small village outside of Guadalajara.”

“Your English is excellent. You must have been in the States for a long time.”

“No. I came to California about five years ago.”

“Have you been going to school since you got here?

“No. Working. When I first arrived, I got a job in a packinghouse, here in Watsonville. With Strawberry Bay Berry.”

“What was that like?”

“A nightmare, to tell you the truth.”

The printer came to life, rattling out the test page Jose had just sent. He turned off the computer and moved to the next one on the row against the wall.

“Nightmare? Why?” Aurora moved to the next computer in her row and pushed the on button, enjoying the ta-da sound the new iMac made when it powered up.

“I worked at a conveyor belt that moved fruit to the coolers. We were supposed to inspect for rotten and damaged fruits and pull them off, but the belt moved too fast. We also had to quickly slide a new box under the end of the belt where the fruit fell off, whenever a box was full, without letting any fruit fall on the cement floor. The shifts were ungodly long. No bathroom breaks. By the end of the day, my feet, hands, back, and head hurt, and I could hardly see straight. It was always way too hot or freezing cold. Standing all day on the cement floor just sucked the energy out of your body. You really had to pay attention, to do everything right. Somebody watched us all the time. The foreman came from my home village in Mexico. He knew my parents, and grandparents. My family had obligations to him, and I owed him for helping me get into the States and getting me my job. The man was merciless, kind of a Godfather type.”

“That does sound like a nightmare. But you got out. And now you’re at Cabrillo College and you have this job. Those are huge accomplishments.”

“Yeah. It’s because I started going to meetings of this group, the Brown Berets.” Jose said “Brown Berets” in a whisper, looking over his shoulder.

“Who are they?” asked Aurora.

“A Chicano activist group founded by a radical Episcopal priest in East LA in the late sixties, during the Black and Brown liberation movements, to help young Chicanos develop their political skills. The group decided to wear brown berets as a symbol of unity and resistance against oppression.”

Aurora moved to another computer. Ta-dah. “I’ve been teaching in Watsonville for years, and I’ve never heard of the Brown Berets.”

“The organization kind of died out after the sixties. But in ninety-four, a group of students from Watsonville decided to resurrect it. The gang-related murders of two young people had a lot to do with it. We were just a group of young Chicanos and Chicanas, tired of injustices in the community and the lack of political representation. So we decided to educate ourselves, and take the power of self-determination in our own hands.”

Jose hit the print button and the next test page spun out.

“We couldn’t have done it without our mentors, a high school counselor named Alba and this Ohlone Catholic priest we call El Gecko. It’s a real spiritual group. El Gecko helps us get in touch with our indigenous power, and teaches us the Old Ways.”

Aurora’s heart skipped at the mention of the priest. She started the next computer. Ta dah. She was not surprised to learn that Father Francis was involved in such work.

“So the Brown Berets is a peace keeping group?” Aurora asked as the printer rattled out the next test page.

“A peace building and educational organization. We recognize that Mother Earth has no borders and belongs to all of earth’s creatures. With all our diversity, we’re still all family. We should respect, not exploit and oppress one another. At our meetings, Norteños and Sureños actually meet together, cross the line, and find their brotherhood. There’s no hating. We figure out how to work together for the betterment of our community. To address gang violence, we organized an annual march that passes through all the different barrios in Watsonville, to bring the message of Peace and Unity. We’re even working with the police, to build a positive relationship between police and minority youth.”

“So, what happened to you? How did the Brown Berets help you with your job at the packing plant?”

“Well, like I said, the Brown Berets educate. Through our Education Popular, I learned about the history of the farmworkers struggle in Watsonville. I learned that those packer-shipper-cooler corporations are at the top of the ladder. Strawberry Bay Berry is actually owned, through a venture capital front corporation, by BioGenesis Agrochemical Corporation. Heard of them?”

“Oh, my God, yes,” said Aurora. “I’ve heard that their people go into the rainforest, get indigenous people to show them their traditional medicinal plants, take the plants back to the US and patent them, then tell the native people they can’t use their own plants anymore unless they pay BioGen. And the U.S. government is backing up the corporate theft. And I’ve heard they’re developing genetically modified seeds that have pesticides in their DNA, and they’re suing small family farmers all over the world who save their organic seeds in the traditional way, bankrupting them with legal fees and then seizing their farms.”

“It’s all true.” Jose started up the next computer. “And here, in the Pajaro Valley, the big shipper-cooler companies, with BioGen pulling their strings, tell the growers what to grow, when and how much. They have a huge amount of power. But guess what? I found out I have power, too. I learned that in the USA, workers have rights.”

“Yes, we do. So what happened?”

“One day, a friend of mine was operating a fork lift in a cold storage warehouse. I was there in the warehouse when he was fork lifting some heavy crates onto a high shelf. One of the crates got stuck on the lift. The foreman ordered my friend to climb up and move the crate by hand, so my friend climbed up there and pushed the crate. But when it came unstuck, it released the forklift, which bounced up and knocked him off the shelf. He fell more than fifteen feet down to the cement floor. Landed on his back. Blood pouring out of his nose, and ears. I thought he might be dead. But he opened his eyes, and ­– you know what? – the foreman told him to go home. Told him, if he went to a doctor or told anyone what happened, he might as well not come back to work.”

“That’s horrible. Inhumane. And it’s against the law.”

“Right. But keep in mind that most of these workers have no clue about American labor law. After seeing that, something just snapped inside me. The foreman sent me back to my conveyor belt. When the box filled up, I just watched the fruit fall on the floor. My foreman started yelling at me, but I didn’t care. I just stood there, watching the fruit pile up and roll all over the place. Finally, someone shut off the conveyor belt. I walked away, and never looked back. I went to the Brown Berets. Señor Alba and El Gecko helped me get into Cabrillo Community College and helped me get this job. To me, both those men are like saints. I know a lot of people they’ve helped, besides me.”

“Were there repercussions, when you walked off the job?”

“Oh, yeah. I never got my last paycheck. Some of my family in Mexico is still ticked off at me. And I definitely burned my bridges with that foreman. I’ll never work in the packing industry again. Not that I ever want to go back there anyway. I’m just lucky no one came after me. You know – to beat me up, or kill me.”


“Yeah. As a matter of fact, I – ah, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this. I’ve heard that you teachers are asking questions about the pesticides. Be careful, okay? I mean it. The people behind the strawberry industry in this town don’t like to be messed with. There’s history here, going back to before Cesar Chavez. They’re dangerous. Seriously, Aurora. Watch your back.”

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