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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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Our Watershed as a Lifeboat, Our Whole Earth Watershed, “Planet Water”

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“The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.” Luna Leopold

This weekend, the University of California Santa Cruz Common Ground Center (“Education for a Just and Sustainable World”) sponsored a series of programs about restoring our watersheds. The keynote speaker was Brock Dolman of Occidental Arts & Ecology. He’s such an inspiring teacher! He coined the phrase “Planet Water” and talked about our watersheds as “basins of relations” and lifeboats.

We heard from community leaders who saved the San Lorenzo River Valley from becoming a 4 lane freeway and sewer canal in the 1970’s, and we took a walk along the San Lorenzo River with salmon expert Don Alley. Don talked about the loss of the Coho Salmon in the San Lorenzo as a consequence of city water diversion during droughts, and discussed the need new water use policies that leave water in the river for fish, including regulation of sand bar opening at the river mouth and regulation of the Branciforte Creek diversion channel. Our city Council needs to hear from us about these issues!

There are three major river systems that flow into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: the Salinas River (subject of much of John Steinbeck’s writing), the Pajaro River (where much of the action in Fruit of the Devil takes place), and the San Lorenzo (which flows from the Santa Cruz Mountains through the center of Santa Cruz City). Historically, they all supported wild salmon, a keystone species, and now an endangered species in those watersheds. The presence or absence of salmon is an indicator of the health of the watershed, the health of our lifeboat and “basin of all our relationships”.

The Coastal Watershed Council, one of the organizations participating in the weekend watershed  “teach-in”, has started a new coalition of local watershed organizations – the San Lorenzo River Alliance. Recently, they sponsored a community paddle on the San Lorenzo, which has been closed to boating through the city for decades. I got to go on that adventure, and discovered the great beauty of the wild river that flows through our city. The City Council may decide to lift the ban on boating the San Lorenzo. I hope so! And “I hope someday you’ll join us!”

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