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Maggie Rivas

Name: Maggie Rivas

Date: August 22, 2018

Circumstance: In-person interview; lobby of the Ft. Worth Hilton (Ft. Worth, Texas), home of the 2018 Creole Reunion.

Editor’s note: Maggie Rivas was one of the first people I sat down with when I came to Fort Worth for the 2018 Creole Reunion. The reunion director had told me that she too was coming a day early. What I didn’t know at the time was that Mrs. Rivas was all but a celebrity. As was proven to me again and again upon seeing her old students—now in their late sixties—fawn over her, Mrs. Rivas was beloved. (It surprised nobody that she was going to be giving the keynote speech at the end of the reunion.) Even putting all of this side, however, Mrs. Rivas was endlessly fascinating. Her life after teaching the camps, dedicating herself to bilingual education in the states captures even more her assiduousness.

Recording Link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/14wTo-2SiVoH7A2DVZoLDCT7r9poYRihR/view?usp=sharing

Trent Kannegieter (TK): My main research that I’m doing now is on how Venezuela modernized and how the oil industry became a defining fabric of Venezuela. A huge part of that was the residential oil camps, and the schools within them. Especially the changes in education curriculum in the early part of the twentieth century. It is not a very studied area. To the best of my knowledge there hasn’t been real work analyzing the educational forum and the experience within these schools.

Maggie Rivas (MR): I was there from 1963 to 1971. At the time, everything was going on smoothly. Both countries were getting along. The Ministry of Education required that the children of both countries (US and Venezuela) be educated in both English and Spanish. The Ministry of Education hired the Venezuelan teachers, and the oil companies hired the American teachers. We had everything that was needed to teach. The kids had to be prepared to come back to the States and perform well in US high schools. They finished at the oil camp schools in eighth grade. Some of the kids went to academies or some of the best boarding schools in the States.

It was very interesting because here in the States, bilingual education had never been that important (or common). It was amazing to see the American kids and Venezuelan kids developed.

It was something I never would have experienced in the States. The company flew us to Venezuela first class. I had been teaching in South Texas for eight years before I went. I was getting tired of not getting ahead, and the situation in the schools was not that good. So, the oil school positions were advertised in the newspaper in South Texas. I was teaching in Brownsville when I applied. They responded that they’d filled the positions for the upcoming year, but they would keep my application on file. At Easter time I got a call from a gentleman that said they had an opening for the upcoming year if I was interested in going. I said “well, probably,” but when August came around I still hadn’t made my decision. My parents said you have to make a decision now, because you have a contract with Brownsville in September. Well ok. Not knowing anyone, I went. I stayed for a year. I loved it.

In 1963 I was living in Austin, and they were holding a reunion in Austin, and they asked me to speak to them. They said they wanted me to know that they hadn’t forgotten their Spanish. They sent me a letter with questions of things they’d like to know. (I found the letter last year. The questions were interesting. I will share it with you because you might be interested.)

The questions were:

  • How did you get there?

  • How were you contacted?

  • What was your social life?

  • What were the resources that were at the school? It was amazing. The only unusual thing was that in order to have supplies by the beginning of school, we had to order them in April. It took a long time. They provided us with catalogues, and we picked out everything that we needed.

It was amazing. They provided everything. We had a housekeeper. I made lifelong friends. Tomorrow I hope you speak with Sherry, Margaret and Joyce. Joyce was there only two years. We were a group. We socialized and had parties. And the best thing was we got to travel all over South America. That was a big plus. We were able to travel to places that you’d never get to go to. One time, we were in Peru and we went to the hotel. Our travel agent said he’d booked us in a very nice hotel in Lima. When we arrived, they asked if we were with The Peace Corps. There were five of us. “No, we’re not with The Peace Corps.” We had a big room. A huge room with five beds. They went to put all their jewelry in the vault for the hotel. We went to get it after two days, but the manager had the key and wasn’t there.

It’s hard to think that we had it all. We had no problems with the kids. If we did, we just called the parents. We had birthday celebrations, Fourth of July, and local Venezuelan celebrations. The company provided everything: country club, golf course, movies, everything… The pay was the best. The company provided everything. When I got back to the States, I didn’t even make half of what I made in Venezuela after taxes, and I had to pay all of my expenses.

We had teachers from all over the States: Oklahoma, California, South Texas, Texas. They provided furnished housing. We had a siesta at lunch. Everything was provided. I bought a little car, but we could take taxis. The bakeries and restaurants were great. The club there had a very good restaurant and bar. There were dances there. We had everything that you could want. It was like a dream. It was unbelievable that something like that existed. They had camps in Eastern Venezuela as well.

One of the questions that Mark asked was “who decided where you were going?” (which oil camp). By the time we got to Maracaibo, there was a person at the airport waiting for us. It was kind of scary at the beginning because you didn’t know where you were going. How the place looked or anything. I spent the first night in Maracaibo, and the next day they took us in a bus to Lagunillas, Tia Juana, etc. They just dropped us off. The Venezuelan teachers had the same thing.

I still keep in contact with my housekeeper, the poor thing. Things have been so difficult in Venezuela. She says that many of her nieces and nephews have gone to Barcelona and Madrid. Each year they send her a plane ticket to come visit for a few months. I asked her to sell her apartment and stay in Spain, but she says there’s no one to buy the apartment. Her pension can’t keep up with the expenses anywhere. She won’t leave there. It’s a very nice apartment, and she has to keep the government from knowing that it’s empty when she travels to Spain, or the government would take it. There’s no food. They use the black market. She has a niece who’s a doctor and a nephew that owns a hotel, they get things. It’s been a tough, tough situation. She says when Chavez was alive, it was bad, but with Maduro, it’s worse.

What kind of questions do you have?

TK: I just want to hear your story. You’re doing a great job of telling me. Details about your start in education, where you’re from originally...

MR: I’m from a small town in South Texas, near Mexico. I graduated from school there. When I graduated from college, I committed to go to Odessa because they were paying teachers much more there because of the oil. One day they called from the resources department, the superintendent from my local schools wanted me to come home and teach. At that time, the Hispanics weren’t being educated. I had committed to Odessa for the pay, but he said I wouldn’t have to pay rent if I was living at home. I started teaching the “D” group. A*B*C*D; the D group was the lowest group of students. It was absolutely horrible. The only thing I had was a map to teach with. I split my room with home economics. They had a big FFA, Future Farmers of America, program. When I asked who teaches “A”, they said that’s where all the Anglos went. Gradually I got up to the “B” group, but never the A group. I made sure my kids made it to the A group.

Most of the kids from Venezuela are professionals now. As far as the education, it was fantastic that the company provided the education. There were some kids whose parents paid for them to go to private school in Maracaibo. School was from kindergarten through eighth grade. Classes were very small. There were many festivals and big celebrations in the Club.

The kids who were born there have dual citizenship. She took a child to Texas to deliver him to his uncle. She told him if the plane was hijacked, show your Venezuelan passport.

Farmers would bring me corn or whatever they were growing. There were a few people who didn’t want to have anything to do with the oil schools.

When Joanie called to ask me to speak here, I found some slides, but I couldn’t find anyone to digitize them. I went online, we had to send them to Tempe, AZ. It takes weeks. I bought a scanner and did it myself.

We’re going to talk about the kids and their educations. It must have been a good education because they were accepted to academies and boarding schools. Mark Suchan went to MIT. We had some great, smart kids. They would do reports well. We had to be careful because their parents were well-educated. They were engineers and geologists. We had to make the kids as good at math as the parents. That’s when “new math” was coming to the States, one mother was worried that we wouldn’t have it. But they gave us the materials and we taught it. We taught geography, history, English, math.

I need you to ask me questions! *impatient with my lack of prompts*

TK: Which company hired you?

MR: Standard Oil. Exxon.

TK: How did you find out about the job openings in Venezuela?

MR: Because they put advertisements in the South Texas newspapers. It had to be nationwide newspapers. You had to have references and interview. When they interviewed me, they kept my application. I was interviewed in April. What if we offered to fly you to Austin, and we can put you and your parents in a hotel. He explained the job, and it required a complete physical and passport. They paid two-way first-class airfare. We flew to New Orleans to get our visas; there were three of us. If you wanted to come home in the summer, you would pay for that. Not everyone spent the first night in Caracas or Maracaibo, but we did.

TK: Did you live with other teachers?

MR: Yes, there was a section in the camp where teachers lived. Two three-bedroom houses. The housekeepers were local. The housekeepers preferred to work for the teachers because they didn’t have kids. When I returned, I went to human resources. They asked wouldn’t I like to go work at ARAMCO; they have schools there. No, I didn’t want to go to the Middle East. I told them I wanted to go back to the States to go back to school. When I came back, I started on my doctorate.

TK: When you left Venezuela, they asked you to go to Saudi Arabia?

MR: Yes!

TK: Was that common?

MR: Yes, many went there. But, I was tired. First of all, Venezuela was closer. One of my friends, Margaret, taught in the Philippines. Some of the parents went there. One couple moved over there, but they didn’t have kids. The Venezuelan teachers were very pleased because they got much more than just their payment for teaching. Some stayed and taught high school there. We knew that when we left the oil camp we could get a job teaching with the Ministerio (de Educacion), and those jobs had pensions. One became the principal of the school in Maracaibo. They also let us work at nights at the local high school. Many teachers still keep in touch. The Venezuelan teachers at the oil camp were great too. We traded our classes; we taught the Venezuelan students and they taught the American students for part of the day. By the time the kids finished eighth grade, the American students gave their final speech in Spanish, and the Venezuelan students gave their speeches in English.

TK: What did you mean when you said that the students “switched”? What was the schedule?

MR: It started with me as a bilingual teacher. I had kids who had just moved there, who didn’t speak any Spanish. Also, there were Venezuelan kids who were just joining the company and didn’t speak any English. There was half day instruction in English and half day in Spanish. That was how I taught for the first two years, and then I moved to the fourth grade. I had regular kids for that class; I taught them in English.

They learned each others’ language quickly because they played together. To this day, many are very good friends. Computers and Facebook have kept these relationships current.

What else?

TK: When you taught the fourth grade, were you teaching specific topics?

MR: The same curriculum that was being taught here (in US). Writing, spelling, math, science. We had the same textbooks. Music classes, the school had a music teacher.

TK: Do you know how they taught music?

MR: Same as US. The teacher was from the US. Same with Science, Margaret was the science teacher.