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Cultural class more than just about food, and folk dancing
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“If you remember me, you know that I live in San Ramon and each Wednesday, I would drive the opposite direction to pick up my mother’s first cousin in the Hayward Hills to come along with me to your class in Manteca. Not one of us regretted the time it took just to get there. Rather, we thank you and, I for one, will remember you for many, many years and the excitement you gave to me about the Portuguese way. Obrigada, Mary.”

— Penny Polyzos’ letter e-mailed to Mary Del Pino, instructor of Portuguese Cultural Class in Manteca.
I was at the Manteca Senior Center for two reasons: take photos of Jessie Marinas’ award-winning mural, “The Harvest Continues,” and Mary Del Pino’s Portuguese Cultural Class.

The first picture was for my story on the Manteca Quilters’ 30th Anniversary Show, the latter for my story on the Portuguese class.

As luck would have it, Marinas’ mural was in the same room where Del Pino was meeting with her students. That really played out to my advantage. Not because I didn’t have to run here and there to accomplish what I needed to do. Of course, now this is all in retrospect.

But as went about my business taking pictures - as unobtrusively and inconspicuously as possible to minimize any disruption to the class - I was also listening to the discussion taking place about conversational Portuguese and learning a little bit. I learned that the same word in Portuguese is used for grandmother and grandfather - AVO. The difference is in the pronunciation of the second syllable. For grandmother, it’s shorter with the syllable sounding like the “do” in do-re-mi. It’s a longer sound for grandfather, as in “moo.” At least, that’s how I differentiated the pronunciation.

But it was the funny vignettes that Del Pino interspersed during the interactive informal discussion that got me as entertained as the fully engaged and attentive three-dozen or more people in the class. I found myself chuckling along with everybody, even as my finger went clicking with my face pressed against the back of my camera, as Del Pino and some of the students shared stories about comical situations that often happen when people are talking about you or someone else in a language or dialect that they think no one around them would understand. I chuckled to myself because, as a multilingual person myself, I really identified with some of those situations and actually have several first-person comedic stories myself when it comes to those experiences.

Del Pino does not disappoint

As a lecturer, facilitator, moderator and class instructor all rolled into one, Del Pino does not disappoint. Her students who sent me e-mails or talked to me on the phone are the ones who can attest to that since they were the ones who went through all the fun-filled and highly informative nine weekly sessions held on Wednesdays at the Manteca Senior Center. In particular were the sessions on Portuguese cuisine - they actually had a taste-test afternoon in the form of a potluck! - and the Portuguese folk dance called the “chamarita” when everyone had the enjoyment of learning the dance steps from Del Pino. In the potluck, Del Pino brought the Portuguese main dish for everyone to experience the real deal in Portuguese culinary arts. The students were asked to share any Portuguese recipe they have, or just simply bring any dish.

While the class was full of fun, I think the significance of Del Pino’s class delved deeper than that. It’s like discovering the many layers about a particular subject - in this case, the Portuguese culture, history, traditions and the whole plethora of the Portuguese experience but it could be about any group of people in the world - that we often are not aware of for various reasons, from lack of opportunity and disinterest to simply not having the time to do any kind of research such as attending Del Pino’s class, for starters. And sometimes it’s that lack of knowledge - I wouldn’t go as far as calling that ignorance - that often results in lack of appreciation of any given culture in this great melting pot of a country called the United States. And that holds true even for the many second-generation or third-generation people who have lost touch or have become detached from their family ancestry.

‘Knowing where I come from’

For some of Del Pino’s students such as Penny Polyzos who religiously reverse-commuted to attend the class in Manteca, that “knowing where I came from” was all about self-pride.

“I grew up hearing more negative remarks about being a ‘portagee’ or part ‘portagee’ than anything positive, leaving me with little interest in being proud of my Portuguese heritage. Not only did you explain the history and culture of Portugal and the Azores, but you continuously and sincerely exuded pride and love of your Portuguese ancestry and culture,” she wrote in an e-mail to Del Pino.

“You gave me the chance of being proud, of hearing worthwhile accomplishments, of talented and earnest peoples with a strong faith that helped them overcome what might have seemed to be insurmountable events in their lives. They were people who knew how to pray and how to praise, and how to give to those in need and how to rejoice in the Lord through the Holy Spirit. I am now a proud ‘portagee’ who had just made reservations for a trip to my grandparents’ homeland. I want to walk where they walked and see the ocean and the land that they knew.”

Husband and wife Rhonda Avilla-Franke and Gary Franke shared Polyzos’ emotions and thoughts.

“Having lived in this area for over 50 years and being of Portuguese heritage, I thought (the class) would be a refresher course,” wrote Rhonda in an e-mail to me.

“However, I was pleasantly surprised in the wealth of information about history, culture, and immigration gathered and presented by Mary. Her enthusiastic and often humorous presentation of a culture often forgotten or taken for granted, brought back a sense of pride and respect for a people who contributed so much to the world. We tasted the food, danced the “chamarita,” and sat nearly spellbound for the entire nine weeks.”

Some come back for second session

Some of those who were in the initial nine-week class wanted more cultural immersion that they immediately signed up for more. This time, there are two sessions available - one in the afternoon which is hour-long, and a two-hour class in the evening for those who don’t have time during the day to go to the first one. The one-hour class is offered through the Senior Center for a fee of $25 per person; the one in the evening is sponsored by the Parks and Recreation Department where the fee is $50 per participant. Both classes are held in the Senior Center on Cherry Lane off Center Street just behind the Police Station at the Civic Center. The first day of classes was last week; however, late registrants are always welcome by simply reporting to either one of the classes.