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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

'Most determined case of suicide I've ever seen'

By Francis J. Connolly

Sick humor. That's what Paco loved, and he couldn't get enough of it. Gahan Wilson cartoons, Gary Gilmore jokes, National Lampoon raised to the nth degree--Paco took it all in and somehow managed to keep from gagging. His favorite, though, was a cartoon from Playboy or Penthouse or some other urbane excuse for a glossy fold-out with a staple in her navel. Wherever it was from, Paco didn't remember, he simply knew some friend had given it to him one night at a fund-raiser for the United Farm Workers which he attended because after all, his parents were grape pickers back in California. The friend said the cartoon was appropriate for Paco, so he had hung it on his wall next to the stark black eagle of UFW union seal. He used to chuckle at it every now and then without really knowing why.

The cartoon showed a restaurant kitchen, the type of fancy kitchen where they dressed up two rancid cuts of meat so it's almost worth the twelve-fifty the maitre d' with the phoney accent and the once-broken nose asks you to pay. In the middle of kitchen sits a meat grinder, a perfectly normal meat grinder with a lot of perfectly normal ground meat coming out of it. The only abnormal thing is that there's so damn much of it: at least 150 pounds or so, enough meat to build your own cow. Too much meat.

Then you look up and you see there's a man's arm sticking out of the end of the grinder, with the hand gripped sweatily around the handle turning away for dear life, or death. The hand is turning and the grinder is grinding and somewhere in between there's the owner of the hand, who is quickly turning himself into so much ground round. And over in the corner there's the suave detective, with a little moustache and a twenty-below-zero stare watching perfunctorily. Looking at the owner a weasily guy who is paying to attention to the grinder, the detective rattles in his just-the-facts-ma'am-I've-got-to-finish-my-report-before-dinner voice:

"Most determined case of suicide I've ever seen."

Real sick. But Paco loved it, and laughed every day when he glanced at it right up there next to the UFW eagle. Then he'd go out and put on his ascot and pick up his briefcase and go right back to turning the handle himself.

Paco didn't always wear an ascot and carry a briefcase of smoke thin cigarettes while huddles under the low ceiling at the Cafe Pamplona. Three years ago when Paco first blew into Cambridge from Southern California with its blistering fields and union speeches, he was all set to bring the workers' revolt to the Yard. Then he met his roommates--an obnoxious Jewish debater from the area who didn't know a thing about Cesar Chavez but knew Ralph Nader was gong to make Aermica safe for democracy, and a completely apolitical Indian chemistry major from Pennsylvania who liked to lift weights and root for the bad guyson the T.V. wrestling matches. The wind may not have gone all the way out of Paco's sails, but the tide was sure as hell running against him.

First he started arguing, the innocent bullshit-kind of argument everyone has when he or she is a freshman and wants to reform America's social conscience instead of reading for Gov 30. Paco played his role to the hilt, all Viva Zapata and Man of La Mancha and Impossible Dream--socialism, cliches and stereotypes and fiery speeches like he'd seen out in California. He picked his favorite target, the other Chicano on the floor--a rich kid from L.A. whose father owned a big factory that built tanks and had put him on the company's board of directors so he could deduct his flights back home. One time Paco heard the rich kid had gotten into a special seminar on the working class in America, which was more than a bit funny because Paco had always said the rich kid thought Manual Labor was one of his cousins from Baja California. So Paco asked him how he got in and the rich kid said he wore some ratty clothes he'd borrowed form his roommate, who was a working-class kid from Atlanta, and told the professor he was from the Spanish-speaking community. Paco bit his lip and then started swearing in Spanish about how he didn't know they had so many Chicanos in Beverly Hills except for the gardeners. The rich kid said no, the maid spoke Spanish too, and walked out. Paco laughed and swore a little more and realized he was beginning to learn a lot at Harvard.

Paco always knew it was the stereotypes that matter--like the fiery Chicano stereotype that had taken out of the migrant's school outside of San Francisco and had put him in the gringo school outside of Beacon Hill. But gradually that year he understood it was that other stereotype, that Harvard-Fly-Club-air-of-casual-scholarship phantom that was going to take him even further in the gringo world as soon as he could climb out of the long black robe on Commencement. Hell, he figured, there's Ropes and Gray and Rose Guthrie and Alexander and ll those other big law firms, and anyone of them must be dying for an affirmative action special--a bright Chicano who doesn't talk like a Chicano, who in fact talks like Skiddy von Stade with a high-school Spanish accent. Hell, he figured, we're talking money and pride and no more having to work in the fields, no more of his parents having to work in the fields, no more dust and sweat and callouses for a couple of bukcs a day. By the time he was a sophomore, Paco knew he was gong to get a lot out of Harvard.

Paco knew how to get it, too, and it wasn't by hanging around his room trying to convert his roommates to The Cause. Especially when there wasn't much of a cause left for Paco except Paco. So he stopped arguing with the rich kid so much, in fact he got pretty close to him--close enough to smell the money, close enough to see what it's like to be able to go to school and not have to worry about anything except how well the stocks Dad gave you for Christmas are doing. Close enough to meet the people he knew he was going to have to know later on, when Harvard would give way to the real world of Cronkite and Brinkley and when the rich kid would go back, to L.A. and he'd be on his own.

At first he didn't like the people he met. The rich kid's friends weren't like the rich kid except that they were rich and had gone to prep school. But they had all gone to Audover and Deerfield and Exeter, while the rich kid had at least gone to a Catholic prep school where you had to take religion and the priests frowned on playing squash. So Paco and the rich kid had at least one bond between them, which was that neither of them knew how to play squash but could recite a mean Hail Mary, and the other people were just the other way around. Paco couldn't hack it, because he knew all along that the only reason these other people tolerated the rich kid was that his father built tanks. Paco's father didn't build tanks, and Paco wasn't sure he liked the idea of staking his future at Ropes and Gray on anything as shaky as his tenuous link to the military-industrial complex.

He was almost ready to chalk the entire idea by Thanksgiving of his sophomore year, right after he Ken Nortoned some walking Walabbee from Milton in the jaw for snickering when he asked Paco to pass the Fritos at a party. Right then he realized he was a leech, like the guy in the Popeye cartoon who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today, and who everybody knew was never even going to have enough money to pay for the relish. But still he was learning, he was watching these people, watching how they dressed and how they talked and how they managed to hide the grimace when they swallowed Scotch on the rocks, which was what they all drank but none of them liked. It was too late to walk out then, when he was learning so much, and when he had come to Harvard to learn about the world.

Besides, by the time he went back to California for the holidays, Paco had learned something else. He learned that there were an awful lot of pretty young ladies who had gone to prep schools along with all the squash players, and that the young ladies found fiery Chicano revolutionaries interesting. Interesting as long as they weren't really revolutionaries, of course, but only looked fiery enough to be. Interesting enough to take skiing during reading period and into Boston for the theater and drinks on the weekend. Interesting enough to argue over with their friends who had gone to prep school, and even with their old boyfriends, who all found Paco interesting for various reasons, now. Interesting enough to make Paco decide he could learn to like these people, after all.

So Paco gave in all the way, then. He started to develop a taste for good liquor when before he had never drunk anything except tequila, and he bought an ascot and stopped putting tabasco sauce on everything he ate for dinner. He took down all pictures of Chavez and the Boycott Gallo posters from his wall, but he left up the big black eagle because it impressed all the rich preppie women he started bringing back to his room. He kept telling hemself he didn't have to worry about selling out the movement, because the people he did the town with never stooped so low as to drink Gallo, anyway.

So when Paco's friend gave him the cartoon from the slick girlie mag, he thought it was funny and hung it up next to the eagle and laughed at it al the while never understanding the message. His roommates understood, even the sadistic chem major. They called Paco "Super-Mex" and offered to make him an honorary gringo, and they even bought him the black leather briefcase for his birthday.

When Paco went home to California, everyone could see he had learned a lot. But they wouldn't have laughed about the meat grinder

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