Felix Diaz was born 13 years before Donald Trump and millions of dollars and thousands of miles away, but in his story is the reason Trump will never be president of the United States.
Felix Diaz grew up on the wrong side of the Union Pacific railroad tracks in the town of Victorville, California. Victorville is in the Mojave Desert, 100 miles or so from Los Angeles. His father—Porfirio—worked in the cement plant and Carmen, his mother, sewed the family’s clothes. Felix was the youngest of four brothers, and the smallest, the last in line. The shirts he wore to school were hand-me-downs made of cement sacks.
The parents were in the U.S. illegally and every move they made, most of their adult lives, was weighed against the chance of being discovered and deported. The school was called Eva Dell Elementary and Felix’s third-grade teacher—Miss Appleberry—was 40 or so, but new to teaching, unsure of herself around kids, unsure of herself around Mexicans, and maybe because of that, or partly because of that, she yelled a lot. Maybe she was just a natural yeller. Here is how Felix remembers it:
“You Mexicans don’t try.”
“I’m sick of you Mexicans…”
“What’s wrong with you Mexicans?”
At work then, as now, is the prevalent idea that anyone who doesn’t speak fluent American is at least a little slow. This idea was part of Miss Appleberry’s thinking, even though most of the students in her class were growing up in homes where little English was spoken. Miss Appleberry, in turn, spoke no Spanish. Felix Diaz—who turns 82 this July—remembers this like last week.
There was one white pupil in the entire student body at Eva Dell—a sixth-grader named Sylvia whose father owned the junkyard. It’s a cliché, of course, to be born on the wrong side of the tracks but it happens. And in Victorville—as in most places in America—the citizens did not mingle.
Not to make excuses, because there are none for this, but teaching kids who do not speak English requires patience—rope—and Miss Appleberry came to the end of hers early. Not far into the school year she brought out a paddle, and announced a spelling test. “I’m sick of you Mexicans not spelling properly,” she said.
There were 35 students in her class that year—a combination of third grade and fourth—and the spelling test was 10 words. If you misspelled one word, you got smacked with the paddle once. If you missed seven words, like Felix’s friend Raul, you got hit seven times.
Now Felix, it ought to be mentioned, was an angry, tough little kid. He would fight anybody—fourth-graders, fifth-graders, girls. This in spite of his size. He had spent 10 months of the previous year—his seventh—in a county hospital with tuberculosis, a disease he’d contracted from a neighborhood man named Mr. Riles, who, like Felix’s father, worked at the cement plant.
Like everybody else, Mr. Riles walked to work. He smoked two cigarettes on the way there, every afternoon. The first one he lighted as he left his house. He walked halfway to the plant, lit his second cigarette off the first one, and dropped the butt on the ground. Felix collected Mr. Riles’ butts and made cigarettes of his own. And it was from those cigarettes he got tuberculosis.
The Mexicans—and the much smaller number of blacks in town—shared a single ward for TB patients. Felix Diaz remembers that just hours before a tubercular patient died the nurses would say, “He’s hemorrhaging,” and put up a screen to hide the spray of blood coming up out of the dying man’s mouth. That was the way Mr. Riles died and the way Felix expected to die, too. No one ever took the few minutes to explain to him what was going on, and when a doctor and a nurse came in one morning and told him they were all set to take out his tonsils that afternoon, Felix, who didn’t know what tonsils were, thought the operating room was where they took you to die.
The long stay in bed due to tuberculosis and a later diagnosis of polio stunted the boy’s growth. An average-sized kid at 7, he would eventually stop growing at about 5-feet-6 and 110 pounds. Smaller than his brothers and his friends, but also harder.
And so the morning we were talking about he sat at his desk as Miss Appleberry announced each student’s scores, and took them one at a time into the hallway, closed the door and hit them with her paddle. Boys and girls alike. Felix remembers the flooring in the hallway was all wood and the sounds of the paddle, followed by the sounds of the 7- or 8-year-olds crying out, echoed clearly in the room. Thirty-five kids, sitting in terror or pain.
And then came Felix. He had missed three words and Miss Appleberry said it was his turn in the hallway. “You come take your punishment, Felix,” she said to him, holding the paddle at her hip.
Felix shook his head no. Everyone else had gone with the teacher—and it is worth mentioning here that to this day teachers are held in higher regard in Latin cultures than they are in others. They are often called maestro or maestra—revered almost like priests.
Still, Felix said no.
Miss Appleberry began to scream, and in seconds whatever sweet authoritarian revenge she was enjoying in the hallway disappeared. She grabbed him, trying to jerk him out of his desk. But the desks in those days were attached to the chairs, and the chairs were bolted to the floor, and Felix and his desk did not move. Miss Appleberry shook him, still screaming, her hard, narrow face balled up like a fist, but he would not let go. She had long fingernails and she scratched his arms and they bled. But he clung to the chair.
And unlike the parking lot at a Trump rally, in the end there was a compromise. She let go of the paddle, he let go of the desk, and Miss Appleberry dragged him down the hall to the school principal, Mr. Mullen. Eva Dell Elementary did not have much money and the principal had to teach a class of his own, too. Miss Appleberry brought Felix into his classroom and announced he’d refused to take his punishment.
Felix sat in that classroom—older kids—for the rest of the day, the object of curiosity, but probably not pity. Sixth grade is not the place for pity, but maybe miracles. Overworked, Mr. Mullen seemed to forget, and at the end of the school day Felix left Eva Dell with everybody else.
It was not over, though. His arm was scabbing where it had bled and he knew his father would want to know what happened. He took his friend Leo along, knowing that his father would never take his word against a teacher’s. As mentioned, teachers were almost like priests.
Porfirio listened to his son’s story and did not want to believe it. A confrontation at the school could lead to confrontation with other authorities; city cops, which inevitably lead to immigration cops. Which—the daily fear—could lead to deportation. But Felix had brought Leo.
Porfirio took Leo aside, and Leo swore Felix was telling the truth. Felix remembers what his father said then: “If you are lying to me, you will never be welcome in this house again.”
And after that there was no more talking. Down to the school, Porfirio Diaz walked.
What he found at the front office was something like a mob scene. Parents crowded into the office, yelling, many more of them outside. These were not protesters in search of a cause. Most of them had just finished a long shift at the cement plant, or something else just as hard. None of them spoke English.
The principal recognized Felix’s father—maybe from the arrangements they’d made while Felix was in the hospital—and begged him to intercede with the crowd. To explain for him that he understood what happened and promised they would never see Miss Appleberry again. And good to his word, in the morning she was gone, and nobody at Eva Dell Elementary ever saw her again. Even Felix Diaz does not know what happened to her afterward.
That was Southern California, 1942, and this is the repeating lesson of American history. Which is this: Dismissing people wholesale might give you free reign to bring out the paddle, but it doesn’t mean that some of those people won’t cling to the chair.