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?
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.
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.
TK: The role of a teacher is socialized in a certain way. Did you notice anything different, being a teacher in Venezuela as compared with a teacher in South Texas? Was the status any different?
MR: No. They loved us. Everyone in the camp became a big family. To this day. As years have gone by the communication has dropped off.
TK: You mentioned the adult group and the child group. Had you ever attended a reunion before Ms. Miller contacted you for this reunion?
MR: I have heard about them since 1963 in Austin. They’ve been in Norman.
TK: Do they occur every year?
MR: Yes, every year. Sometimes in May, Memorial Day. In the beginning they would bring parents and guests. The company paid for everything. The friendships are still strong.
TK: This is more general. When you talk with people in the United States about Venezuela, what do you think are misperceptions about Venezuela?
MR: Poor people. Some cannot believe that the US isn’t the best at everything. People learn many languages in other countries. I came back from Venezuela, and I wasn’t going to teach anymore because the pay and pensions were so horrible (in the US). I came to San Antonio and one of my friends was a director of education in the poorest school district in San Antonio, and I was staying with her. There was a fifth-grade class that needed a teacher, but I didn’t want to teach. They took me the next day to the classroom, and there was no way I was going to teach there. They called three weeks later and said that there was a kindergarten class where the teacher was going to retire. I wasn’t certified for kindergarten, but they said they could send me to classes while I was teaching and get me certified. I said “ok”. I came, and I taught kindergarten. I stayed there two years. At that time the Southwest Education Company was developing and testing a bilingual kindergarten program. The program was 90% in Spanish at the beginning and worked to a 50% English/50% Spanish program. It was very successful. School districts from all over visited us, especially from California. I got a call from Austin, and it was two of the people who had developed the teaching program. They wanted me to come be a consultant for the program. We would like you and Virginia Garza (who also taught in Venezuela) to work for the company. By that time, we were certified to teach kindergarten and we had a master’s from UTSA. From then, I was a consultant for kindergarten through third grade, travelling all over the US. We had schools in Philadelphia, Lafayette, LA, Texas and California. I stayed with them for 35 years. They paid well. It was a good program. I even got shares in the company. A school district can’t offer you anything like that.
TK: Is it unusual seeing your former students at the reunion?
MR: That’s why I come!
TK: Does that seem odd after so much time?
MR: It’s wonderful. We still communicate at birthdays, all the time. We really became a huge family. I enjoy seeing how they’ve grown up and succeeded. Jimmy is a lawyer in Houston. He gave me his card and said turn it over. It was in Spanish. He was going to open his own firm. Doug Elliot owns his own company. It’s a big asset.
Right now, with the Chinese, that’s a new opportunity. But there’s so many dialects.
One student was a nurse. She could speak Spanish, but she felt bad for the patients when other nurses couldn’t speak Spanish to communicate with them.
It’s great to have that ability. I give the parents a lot of credit. They were risk takers. They were willing to move to another country, take their kids, learn the language… You have to stop and think. Unfortunately, the bolivar
We were somewhere. There’s a lady who wrote a book on the bolivar. Maybe she will be here.
TK: Was it Susan Berman? She’s writing a second book.
MR: Yes. It was her. Maybe she will be here.
TK: There’s a question, based on something I read in her book, when new people came down, it was a big change for them. As a teacher, was there anything you did to help them acclimate?
MR: No, because in kindergarten they were new. By the time they came to fourth grade, they knew what they were doing. There were never any discipline issues, because they knew they’d get in trouble. When I went into that fifth-grade class in the States, I thought they’d fire me because I don’t like disrespectful kids.
It was very interesting. I enjoyed every bit of it. If you got sick, the doctors were there. If you had to go to the hospital, they took you there. Everything was taken care of.
TK: Is this the first time you’ve given the keynote speech at one of these?
MR: No, in 1963 in Austin, I gave one. That’s why I have those questions. I used that to prepare for that speech. I was talking to Margaret, and I have so much stuff. I keep letters, birthday cards, Christmas cards…. They’d share their Christmas. We’d socialize with others there. There were many Italians and Basque.
TK: Was there anything about the food that you distinctly missed about the United States or?
MR: One thing that occurred to me, was even though I spoke Spanish, there are some differences with Central America. We first got there and were in Maracaibo and then they took us to the Tia Juana camp. Not all the American teachers were there yet; so we were introduced to the Venezuelan teachers. They gave us a tour of the camp. She asked if we’d “almorzado”, I said yes. But a bit later I asked her when we were going to have lunch? She said that I’d said we’d eaten, but that meant eaten breakfast to me! The words were different in Central American. There were words that were different. And sayings were different. Even though you can speak in one country, there are differences other places.
The holidays were different. We had more vacation. All of the saints had holidays plus Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
And the schedule was a little different. We had class in the morning, and then we went home for lunch and siesta, and then back to school for more class. There was recess in the afternoon block too. There was a group PE.
TK: You’ve given me what I wanted to hear about. Unless you have anything else in particular.
MR: Are you leaving on Saturday? There are different perspectives from each person. Also, the principals were very different. When I first got there, Graciella was the principal. He had been there for years. Then Mr. Martinez came from California, followed by Bozart and Treeton. I wasn’t going to go back, but then I decided to go back. We had no contract. We just went. I never saw a check. It was just direct deposit, even way back then. You could buy Exxon shares. I said “no”, but the principal said I should. It was so easy. They just paid for the shares out of our paycheck. It was great.
TK: You stayed for about ten years. Was that a typical stay?
MR: No. You could stay as long as you wanted to. The Venezuelan teachers, since they were doing so well, stayed there a long time. The American teachers, some stayed. Sally was there for six years. Some of the parents became teachers there. You might want to talk with them. Mrs. Gerry and Mrs. Cosowitz. A few of them met their husbands there. I don’t know when the oil camp schools started. I never asked when it started. I guess when the families started coming.
We didn’t have air-conditioning. We didn’t have a cafeteria because we went home for lunch. It was a very nice school. Interesting times. Fond memories of a Happy Place. That’s the theme of my speech.
Carnival and Halloween were big celebrations at the Club with costumes. On my computer I have a PowerPoint with the pictures for my speech.
I don’t understand how a rich country with such natural resources can be in this trouble. Venezuela has always had corruption. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
I’d like you to see the pictures. There was a beautiful bridge connecting to Maracaibo. There was an explosion last week, maybe on the bridge. People said it was because of faulty maintenance. They have everything: beaches, mountains, llano (prairie), beautiful rivers. We had the opportunity to see all of it. Drive up to the mountains. Go up the funicular to the top. There was a German community with chalets. It’s wonderful. Then La Mesa. Caracas is beautiful. Maracaibo. The Eastern part of the country is great too.
TK: I’m collecting stories this summer. I’ve been working on the project for a year. This semester I’ll be working with a new professor. My timing is indefinite.
MR: Maybe you can get in touch with Fermi. Through Facebook
or email. He would love to speak with you. He can tell you about the program for sure.