The cerveza companies probably deserve the most credit, but Cinco de Mayo has become a sort of Mexican version of St. Patrick’s Day in the United States.

Lots of folks gather to sip a Corona or, my favorite, Modelo Especial, or a margarita, eat spicy Mexican food, and generally celebrate all things Mexican.

It’s not typically a day for deep thoughts, and its feel-good qualities don’t necessarily carry over to debates about immigration law or fair treatment of Mexican workers in this country.

I’d like to mark the occasion, though, with a tribute to a Mexican-American, who was very important to my youth: Pedro “Pete” Gallegos.

Senor Gallegos taught Spanish classes I took during my sophomore, junior and senior years of high school. He was born in southern Utah and had been an excellent guard on his high school basketball team before going on to university. He was not far removed from college when he taught me. But he was especially talented in relating to students.

None of us would have dreamed of seeking out a guidance counselor for a serious conversation about our lives or challenges in those days. But students frequently sought out Senor Gallegos to talk about whatever issues were bothering them.

In class, he was a steady task master, who started each day with a short vocabulary test. He was also funny and engaging. You could not sit through one of his classes without being actively involved.

He opened up a new culture and a wider world for most of us. While he wanted to convey a certain body of knowledge to students, he also actively encouraged us in wider pursuits, especially anything that expanded our creativity. Knowing that I wanted to be some kind of a writer in the future, he decided early on to require me to bring a limerick to him every day. The limericks could be my own or from some other source, but he was encouraging me to be disciplined about reading and writing. He also introduced me to translations of Spanish language literature.

In class, as we moved further along, he forced us to speak only in Spanish. With our limited vocabularies, that could be difficult. But Senor Gallegos cut us a little slack. If we couldn’t say what we wanted to say in Spanish, we could act it out. All of us became pretty adept at pantomime.

In later years, I’ve found those pantomime skills pretty useful as I’ve traveled in many countries where I can’t speak the language.

Senor Gallegos was a role model. He was smart, caring and empathetic. He was alive to the joys of learning about diverse cultures. He pushed us to challenge ourselves. He believed creativity should be fostered throughout life. For him, all those elements were requirements for personal fulfillment.

I’m grateful that he chose to teach in public schools. I’m grateful that I had the chance to get to know him.

So on this Cinco de Mayo, I’ll drink a toast to a great Mexican-American and a great teacher. Senor Gallegos, wherever you are, this Modelo Especial (pictured above) is for you. Salud!

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Keith Graham

Keith Graham

Keith Graham was among the recipients of the prestigious Stella Artois prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival. Named for a blind piano player, he is also well known for always giving money to street accordion players. A quotation that he considers meaningful comes from the Irish writer Roddy Doyle: "The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height." In addition to contributing to Like the Dew, Keith frequently posts quotations and links and occasionally longer articles at http://tartantambourine.com/