By Joe Livernois
One of the traditions I recall as a child was a poem Grandma Sue liked to read every year around the Christmas season.
Grandma Sue was a collector of nominally racist folk literature. One of my favorites was a “letter of complaint” to a coffee company, purportedly sent by a German immigrant angry about the presence of “rat schidt in der coffee grounds.” The guy apparently wanted the coffee company to send the coffee in one bag and the rat schidt in another bag, and to cease the practice of sending both in the same bag. I’m not here to disclaim my late, great Grandma Sue for the venial sin of not understanding the difference between low comedy and blatant racism. This was fifty years ago, after all, and most people her age, first- or second-generation immigrants themselves, were trying to find their places in the world.
It’s that attitude that sustained me through her readings of the Christmas poem.
Twas the night before Creesmas and all through the casa
Not a creature was stirring. ¡Caramba! ¡Que Pasa!
It was like Dr. Seuss for the un-woke.
The fractured take on “The Night Before Christmas” was sorta clever. Or so we thought at the time, back when we were impressionable and know-nothing 7-year-olds. The poem still exists in the digital spaces of the universe, if you care to Google-ize the entire thing, though it looks as though modern wits have, in the newer versions, Cheeched-and-Chonged the names of the reindeer.
The poem Grandma Sue shared with us was written by someone named “Prof. Toro,” and I do believe it was the original. At the time, Prof. Toro seemed like a credible alias. It seemed credible to a kid like me, a kid who was mesmerized by Sunday-afternoon broadcasts of Mexico City’s bullfights on XHBC-TV. At the time, XHBC was the only TV station we could get through the antenna of our rural farm hovel about 12 miles this side of the Mexican border. XHBC broadcast from Mexicali and even then I admired the poetry of its call letters: Eh-kees Ah-chay Bay Say. XHBC.
Like everything else in that era, the bullfights were broadcast in black-and-white, and the toros created a trail of dark shadow when they were dragged out of the arena.
Prof. Toro and the bullfights were two separate and distinct things, but together they constituted a conspiracy of dark mystery in my young and febrile mind. The professor was a smart guy, obviously, from some faraway place. A teacher of some sort. A Mexican teacher. Maybe he specialized in the culture of Las Plazas de Toros. Or perhaps he was an expert in the anatomy of bulls. He certainly had a way with words. A playful way with words.
In any case, Prof. Toro’s version of the traditional poem was my introduction to the world of satire and silly fun. It was something I “got.” With Prof. Toro and his poem, I learned it was possible to turn phrases against themselves. Clever people could have pun and games. I even went through — eeks! — a Mad Magazine phase.
I landed on the Central Coast many years later and was excited to learn that Prof. Toro, the man of mystery, was a local gentleman. He was a pseudonym, of course, an alias for the writer(s) of an occasional column in the Monterey County Herald. The column allowed reporters to dump funny or odd stories they had heard on their beats but that didn’t deserve their own headlined stories. (You’ve seen The Squid in the Monterey County Weekly? Same sort of thing.)
And every Christmas Eve, the Herald published the poem in the Prof. Toro column. It had become a local tradition, a ritual that continued long after the original Prof. Toro was dead and gone.
The poem ran for several years after I got hired at the Herald and after I learned the secret identity of the original Prof. Toro. It turned out he had been just another ink-stained wretch. A reporter. Prof. Toro had been named for the mountain peak to the southeast of Monterey, and not after some legendary bull in a Mexico City arena.
I also learned that one of my newsroom colleagues at the time, an assistant city editor, absolutely hated the poem. Fred Hernandez was the only Latino in the newsroom, but he had been around the block a time or two at big-city newspapers before he landed at the Herald. And he was personally offended to be working at a newspaper that would publish insensitive drivel. The poem was an affront, he complained, and it reflected poorly on the Herald.
“It was racist, on top of everything else,” says Hernandez, who is now retired from the Herald and living in Pacific Grove. “But at the time, no one gave a thought that it might be racist. Everyone just thought it was one of those clean white-folk American things.”
Hernandez was raised in San Francisco and he can still recall his first encounter with the racial divide, at the sensitive age of six. A neighbor kid had invited him over but the neighbor’s mother wouldn’t let the “dirty Mexican” inside the house. When little Fred returned home in tears, his mother stormed over to the neighbor’s house to let the mother know that the entire family bathed every day.
Fred has never been known to back away from a fight, so the Prof. Toro column became a crusade. Turned out, he didn’t have to fight that hard. This was at a time — the late 1980s — when media managers started to wake up to the notion that their newspapers excluded a great number of potential readers who weren’t Anglo-Saxons, who weren’t men and who weren’t somehow affiliated with civic-club institutions. Print newsrooms had been a nerd’s clubhouse of tweed and pipe tobacco, reflective of suburbs and the right side of the tracks, and now guys like Fred Hernandez insinuated their way into newsrooms to challenge their narrow perspectives.
The late Joe Graziano was responsible for the Prof. Toro column at the time. Hernandez says he voiced his concerned with Graziano, who readily agreed it was time to shelve the poem. “I told Joe it had a nice long run in the Herald,” Hernandez says. “He agreed.”
Prof. Toro doesn’t exist anymore, though I do believe the Herald is still being printed.
Somewhere in a plastic bin in the basement of my house is a folder with Grandma Sue’s silly stuff. The poem might be down there. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I found it.
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