Looking for Carrascolendas

[ Latino/a Studies ]

Looking for Carrascolendas

From a Child's World to Award-Winning Television

By Aida Barrera

In this engagingly written memoir, creator-producer Aida Barrera describes how the mythical world of Carrascolendas grew out of her real-life experiences as a Mexican American child growing up in the Valley of South Texas.

2001

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 254 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70892-1

If your childhood friends were Agapito, the bombastic, bilingual lion; Campamocha, the fix-it man; Caracoles, the restaurant owner; Uncle Andy, the shoe seller; Berta and Dyana, the life-size dolls; and Señorita Barrera, then you grew up watching Carrascolendas. This award-winning show, which originally aired on PBS in the 1970s and was subsequently broadcasted throughout the country in the 1980s and 1990s, was the first Spanish and English children's educational television program broadcast to national audiences in the United States.

In this engagingly written memoir, creator-producer Aida Barrera describes how the mythical world of Carrascolendas grew out of her real-life experiences as a Mexican American child growing up in the Valley of South Texas. She recalls how she drew on those early experiences to create television programming that specifically addressed the needs of Hispanic children, even as it remained accessible and entertaining to children of other cultural backgrounds.

In addition to her personal story, Barrera recounts the long-term struggles for network acceptance and funding that made the production of Carrascolendas something of a miracle. This off-camera story adds an important chapter to the history of Anglo-Mexican cultural politics during the 1970s. Given the fact that Latino characters are still under- and stereotypically represented on network television, Carrascolendas remains an important reminder of what is possible and what has been lost in authentically multicultural television programming.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Spiders
  • 2. Angels
  • 3. The Other Side
  • 4. The Black Blobs
  • 5. The Bureaucratic Two-Step
  • 6. The Mythological Mosaic
  • 7. Carrascolendas
  • 8. Cookies and Tortillas
  • Bibliography

When I entered the classroom, the kindergartners were scraping the rows of small desks and chairs closer to the front. They stopped in mid-motion, their eyes widening as they looked at me in disbelief. No one said a word. I hurried to the front of the room and without pausing said, "Buenos días, niños." The familiar words interrupted the silence and the children's self-imposed composure. Responding with an array of smiles, they chorused back, "Buenos días, Señorita Barrera."

I had never been in this classroom, nor had the children ever seen me in person. Yet, the routine was familiar. Their pronunciation in Spanish was impeccable. No one hesitated to voice the greeting even though I knew from talking to school administrators the mix of students in the class included some children who spoke Spanish, others who knew a little, while the majority had never spoken the language.

The children were in San Antonio, Texas, close to my home base of Austin. They knew who I was. I was their teacher at a distance in the earliest experiment with bilingual television programming done on PBS.

If the faces of the kindergartners in front of me were unfamiliar, my visit and everything connected with it were part of a procedure I knew well. What had been a mild, drizzly morning outside had quickly turned into the near-noon slow bake common inside many Texas schools in September. The glare from the open windows made it seem hotter than it actually was, but the assembly of youngsters paid little attention to the weather. Their eyes were filled with the freshness that always seems in continual supply with young children.

The class, like the others I visited later that day, focused its concentration on the preparations for the special event. My visit had been scheduled a month in advance, and the elementary school teachers and students in San Antonio had worked hard for this moment. Last-minute arrangements were in progress when I arrived, and it was obvious from the half gestures the teacher made and the knowing responses from the students that everyone had practiced what to do.

As predictable as these visits were, I never tired of being the recipient of so much childhood attention. Art covered the wall space around the room. Taped across the chalkboard at the front were layers of butcher paper sheeting showing the artistic renditions of the members of the class. The uneven lettering of the word "Carrascolendas," a childlike imitation of the opening titles of the program the children saw as part of their morning educational broadcasts, ran the entire length at the top of the display.

The mythical television village of Carrascolendas, the namesake of the children's series I had created and was directing, appeared below. Broad strokes of primary reds, yellows, and blues filled the flat two-dimensional space. The vibrancy of the renditions reflected from the windows and crisscrossed in a rainbow of hues around the room. The drawings were a whimsical combination of what the students watched during their weekly fare of programs such as Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, which carried educational messages into homes and classrooms in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I had been a regular visitor to Central Texas classrooms since 1963 as part of the Spanish and English programs I produced for the San Antonio-Austin educational television station, so these excursions to meet with my audience of students were a vital follow-up of the production process. Eventually, I had used the local productions to attract substantial budgets leading to a national program. I had called that program Carrascolendas, the common usage of the original historical name of the town in South Texas where I was born. This new generation of kindergartners in the San Antonio classroom, like thousands of other elementary school-age children who would later join them throughout the country, had become Carrascolendas viewers.

The fanciful characters of Carrascolendas, the impossibly hard-to-pronounce name for English-speaking adults but whose syllables easily rolled off the tongues of young children, occupied a place of honor on the makeshift mural. The students' abilities in pronunciation did not necessarily translate into artistic dexterity, but they more than made up for it in the creative imagination which they had used in their sketches.

Agapito, the bombastic humanoid lion, occupied the lead position in the classroom poster, befitting his starring role in Carrascolendas. His overblown costume and the rubbery, real face he used to go from one language to another were rendered in comic detail bursting out of a giant television set. I could almost hear Agapito as he lumbered from one bilingual escapade to another, punctuating a broad range of emotions with lion-like roars needing no translation in any language.

On the other side of the television monitor stood the stick figure of my television teacher/host persona, Señorita Barrera, complete with familiar bangs across the forehead and upswept knot of black hair. As a young child had said in a previous classroom visit, the kindergartners had used the "magic lamp" to take me out of the television set and with the "magic" of their young minds had placed me on the wall in their very own classroom.

The other characters in the program followed in marquee fashion. The life-size dolls of Berta and Dyana, with their circles of red rouge, swooping lashes, ruffled bloomers, and pinafore dresses, were placed on top of giant alphabet blocks. The classroom of young viewers was oblivious to the consternation the dolls' costumes and makeup had caused to the feminist sensibilities of the non-Hispanic, college-age women who worked in our studio crew at the Communications Center of the University of Texas at Austin, where we spent six years, from 1970 to 1976, producing the six-million-dollar series of programs.

Children of different sizes, genders and ethnic and racial backgrounds surrounded Campamocha, the fix-it man; Caracoles, the restaurant owner; and the English-speaking Uncle Andy, the seller and repairer of shoes. At first, I thought the children in the mural represented the children who appeared on the television program, but then I realized the names labeling each of the children in the drawing corresponded to the names of the children in the classroom.

The youngsters had placed themselves in the midst of their artistic representation of the television program. In the curious way television interacts with us and alters our perception of how we look at the world, the children in the classroom were responding by inserting their own variety of linguistic and cultural viewpoints in the middle of the program. If indeed the program was affecting the way they saw language and the people who spoke that language, they, in turn, in their creative recreation were becoming active participants in the cultural and linguistic exchange.

Given the spatial limitations of television, I had envisioned the program as having certain inherent and insurmountable restrictions. The narrowness of the audience was one of these considerations, a fact pointed out by officials within PBS itself. But even in this beginning period, Carrascolendas went beyond the conceptualization of a program for only certain groups of children. Initially planned for young Mexican American viewers in the Central Texas area, Carrascolendas soon extended its reach from its first broadcast date in 1970, a few months after Sesame Street went on the air. It became the first network bilingual television program in the United States to address the needs of Hispanic children and one of the earliest programs to do so within a multicultural context.

At the height of its popularity in 1975, Carrascolendas was broadcast by some 200 out of 243, or 82 percent, of the public television stations in the country. The program received regional, national, and international awards, becoming the first American program to win the UNICEF prize in Japan, given for its contributions to cross-cultural understanding.

Such projections were not part of Carrascolendas during those early production years. The accolades and the impact the program would have on the children viewers as they grew to adulthood in the subsequent decades were not part of the scene I was witnessing in San Antonio. Uppermost in my mind that September morning were the children who were responding to the program I had produced. They, like me, had scant awareness of what the future would bring. Their thoughts were of the present. Mine co-mingled the present with the past, resulting at times in a cacophony of layers which pulled me in directions over which I had little control.

I was sure of some things. I identified with those children in San Antonio, not necessarily because I was producing a program they watched but because of events which had occurred nearly thirty years earlier. The program I was now doing had its genesis some six hundred miles directly south, in the towns dotting the Texas side of the Mexican border, across the Rio Grande River and beyond, to the two-hundred-mile stretch making up the northern part of the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon in Mexico.

In places with names like Mier, San Pedro, Monterrey, Rio Grande, Roma, Brownsville, and Edinburg, where border distinctions sometimes blurred, I was a young child, like the ones I was seeing before me. I, too, had taken my "magic lamp" and created a personal and cultural mythology from the things I saw and heard. And out of this complex imagery, I had eventually created a children's imaginary mosaic which I called Carrascolendas.

Although I had no idea that those early events would prove to be so critical to my later professional pursuits, the days I spent as an anxious, energetic child in South Texas schools left an indelible mark on me and the work I later did for young children. In a way, I carried Carrascolendas in my own imagination from the beginning.

It began with the Spiders story, but in a very different kind of classroom, at a time when I had no consciousness of what would come to pass in the future.

By Aida Barrera

An award-winning television producer with extensive experience in broadcasting, public policy, and education, Aida Barrera was the creator, executive producer, and project director of Carrascolendas. She lives in Austin, Texas.