350 | Burrito and Other Spanish Words

September 28, 2014
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
Letter #350: Burrito and Other Spanish Words


Dear Family,

Two great Christian guys just left our pod—packed up everything in their cell, put it on a couple of carts, and walked out through our front door, to move to the other compound at the prison. No one was sad to see them go, either. Let me explain.

When they’d initially transferred into my pod (our pods have sixty cells housing 120 men) I’d asked one of them what he was doing to prepare for his eventual release from prison. (Yes, I’m passionately nosey like that. It bothers me that most guys do nothing, often because they don’t think they CAN do something that can help prepare for a life after prison.)

He told me about his life in Mexico as an entrepreneur and how he’ll be deported once released. Now, he told me, he was in American Basic Education 1, the school equivalent to first and second grade.

When I found out that he and his cellie both have a healthy length of time left to serve, I suggested that they apply to be placed in the Mexican Consulate’s GED-equivalent program, called INEA, which stands for four Spanish words that start with I,N,E, and A and have something to do with educating Mexican nationals residing in other countries. After all, I reasoned with him, struggling for years to achieve an English grade-school education would not be nearly as useful to his future goals in Mexico as would a Mexican high school diploma, to which he agreed.

I filled out the appropriate request forms for the two guys, then spoke directly to the head of the INEA program on their behalf. Mr. DelOreo (I do not know how to spell his name, but it sounds distinctly like the famous cookie, disguised with a Spanish flair) knows me from the many INEA graduations I’ve performed at, including a couple with the Community Choir. He told me that he had no current openings, but the guys would be placed on a waiting list, if they were willing to transfer within the prison to be closer to where the INEA program is held each day. I told him they were willing to move, then reminded him of the fact each week when I’d seen him.

One week, he told me he needed me to play piano for another graduation, and he’d asked our talented music volunteer, Sister Peggy, to be there as well.

With just a couple of weeks’ notice, Sister Peggy and I refreshed all of our Spanish songs, this time without the choir, including folk songs, religious songs, and the “Hymno Nacional” (or some such misspelled version of The National Anthem), both for the United States and Mexico. I’d strained my voice a couple of weeks prior, so I wasn’t much help vocally, but we prepared the best we could.

The graduation went extremely well, as usual. The Mexican Consulate representative from Tucson showed up to present a word of congratulations to the graduates, present them with a diploma, and take a picture with each one.

Everyone had massive burritos from a local restaurant and cake, which I spilled, frosting-side down, on my shirt just after getting a picture with the Mexican Consulate.

Everyone loved the enthusiastic Filipino, Sister Peggy, whose Spanish singing is near-perfect, and the Consulate told me that what I do to “bring the arts to prisoners” is as important as academics. I wanted to tell him that if he kept feeding me burritos and cake, I’d keep bringing the arts wherever he wanted.

Just days after the INEA graduation, the guys in my pod got a visit from Mr. Oreo himself, letting them know they’d been accepted into the INEA program. Both guys thanked me profusely for helping them take the next step in their educational journey towards rehabilitation. Well, they can’t speak English so great, so they just said, “Thank you,” and I added a bit extra, glad to be of service.