November 24, 2013
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
Letter #305: La Bamba
Prison life offers a scant few opportunities to celebrate or party. This reality does not surprise me, nor am I bothered by it, having become settled in to the mundane-as-normal landscape. Not much can honestly be celebrated, anyway, when most of your friends aren’t known for playing well with others. (Or, should I say, most of my friends are known for NOT playing well with others.) In any case, low behavior standards and poor character don’t exactly make for a winning combination fit for celebratory-worthiness.
Even major holidays and birthdays routinely get overlooked. One guy told me today that he doesn’t celebrate his birthday, and he doesn’t even wish anyone a “Merry Christmas,” because to him, every day in prison seems the same, so there’s no point in even trying to set one apart for any reason. Kinda sad and pathetic, if you ask me. I wished him a very Merry Christmas.
Me? I love celebrations. For any reason, at any time. And when food is involved? Even better. Am I right?
This is why I’m grateful to be asked to perform with the La Palma Community Choir for prison graduations. This latest graduation took place this past week, and it was awesome!
Similar to our nationally-recognized high school general education diploma (GED), the Mexican government has set up a high school equivalency program that educates its out-of-country citizens so that they’ll be productive citizens when they return to their Mexican society someday. The prison uses this curriculum with Mexican nationals, under the sponsorship of the Mexican consulate.
At the graduation, the Mexican ambassador and staff participate, handing out the diplomas and taking pictures with each inmate afterward. Nearly forty guys graduated grade school, the equivalent of our 8th grade education, while another twenty made it through high school. So this celebration was basically their prom.
Sister Peggy, our enthusiastic music program volunteer, really out-did herself with this performance. She got the music for the Mexican National Anthem, and we learned it. In Spanish, of course. We also sang a few other songs in Spanish, such as “The Prayer” and “You Raise Me Up.” But the highlight of the day (besides the fat burritos and cake) was our choir’s rendition of the well-loved “La Bamba.” (Spanish for “The Bamba.”)
I drafted an ex-cellie of mine who plays drums to play along with us on another keyboard’s drum kit setting and put together a fairly decent rendition of the song with Sister Peggy singing lead and the rest of us doing backup vocal harmonies. It sounded really slick, so I knew the guys would get into it … I just had no idea how well it would actually go. Then, Sister Peggy surprised all of us.
As she walked behind each of us to get to her spot at the microphone, she placed a straw sombrero (Spanish for “ridiculously silly hat”) on each of our heads. The crowd loved it. Us, the choir, not so much. But, oh, wow! the guys really got into the song, clapping and singing along with us.
One guy, still in cap and gown, jetted out from his seat and danced to the front, doing an odd combo of breakdancing mixed with someone giving birth. Even the warden was impressed. The song was the highlight of the graduation, he told us later, and his favorite we’ve sung. Heads of the prison corporation’s programs department were there, too, and now want to expand our music program. Olé!