Col. Raigoza’s Calculus Class

The internet contains a lot of information that is difficult to search for. One’s memory for how to spell a name fails with age and even if you find a piece of information that is important to you, if you don’t record it, it is possible for it to sink like one of those unverified island sightings during the age of discovery, and leave you tacking back and forth over the same waters muttering, “I know I saw that link here somewhere.”

Such was the case for me, with regard to the obituary notice of my high school calculus teacher, Juan Raigoza. Due to global pioneering’s recent whining about calculus, I have looked again, and found again, and now can write the post describing him and his class. Where was the link hiding? That I cannot answer, but the sadness I again feel at reading of his death suggests that perhaps my typing fingers held the telescope to a blind eye.

Juan Raigoza was born in 1918 and joined the US Army in 1941, just before the US entered the long war. He stayed in the Army after the war and served also in Korea. He was wounded in both conflicts. In 1961, with 20 years service, he retired with the rank of colonel, and we knew him as “Colonel Raigoza.”

As a way of spacing out lectures, Col. Raigoza would explain how it was that he came to teach calculus. At the time we believed his story, but with time, I’m not so sure that was true. I suspect instead that it was intended to encourage his students to strive harder. In addition, 30 years have gone by and it’s not at all unlikely that my memory has embellished his stories.

He claimed after he got out of the military he considered simply being retired, but he found that his mind kept working on military problems. When he looked at the Sandia (Spanish for “watermelon” ) Mountains, he saw them as a great place to station artillery observers. He was advised to take up something to study. Since mathematics was his worst subject, he decided to study mathematics.

He taught Mathematics and Spanish literature for 17 years at that high school and was a big favorite among the students. At a time when misbehavior in high school had reached peaks that today’s youth can only dream about, his classes had an almost military sense of discipline. We sat in alphabetical order and we did not speak out of turn. We also did not fail to do our homework.

And he was entertaining. It is not easy to keep the attention of 17-18 year-olds but in this he never had the slightest difficulty. If he sensed we were drifting off, he would interrupt the lecture with a brief recounting of one horrible thing he experienced during the wars (or caused the enemy to experience) or another. Or he would use his vast command of history and literature to inform us of one interesting thing or another.

He told us that the weird clothes we wore and strange hair didn’t bother him at all, despite all his years in the military. The reason was that he was a Chicano and before he joined the military, he wore a “zoot suit”. If you’re too young or otherwise unfashionable to know what a zoot suit is, you might consider listening to the album by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies released in 1997. This was a big hit, and never failed to make me think of Col. Raigoza.

I sat in front of a young man whose name I recall as Dwight C’DeBaca. While the rest of us were scheduled to go to one college or another, Dwight was special. That year he received a congressional appointment to attend West Point, the US Army’s college. These are not easy to come by. The internet and old men’s memories are strange things, and as it turns out, my memory of his name was correct even after all these year. With an internet search, I find that Dwight did graduate from West Point, served 8 years with the US Army, and recently made a good living owning two used car lots.

So one day, when we were probably beginning to look a little glassy eyed, Col. Raigoza asked Dwight if he knew what the “C’deBaca” in his name stood for. As I recall, Dwight said “no” and Col. Raigoza explained that the full name is Cabeza de Vaca, and that those that go by names like “de Baca”, or even just “Baca” in New Mexico are descdendants of the conquistador Alvar Nuñez Cabeça de Vaca, now spelled “Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca”.

The name “Cabeza de Vaca” literally means “cow head” and dates to the 13th century when an ancestor helped a Christian army against the Moors by marking a secret pass with a cow head.

And how did a conquistador end up in New Mexico? Cabeza de Vaca was the treasurer for a band of 300 Spanish soldiers who landed in Tampa Bay, Florida in 1528. They eventually were forced to melt down their iron armor to make tools to build ships to sail back into the Gulf of Mexico, but ran into a hurricane and ended up near Galveston Texas. They eventually walked into New Mexico and possibly Arizona, and finally were picked up by a Spanish slaving expedition and taken back to Mexico. For those of you who don’t know US geography, the trip would have covered about 2/3 the east-west length of the US and is likely several times larger than your whole country. It was well populated at the time with Indians who had not yet died off from the various Old World diseases the Spanish brought and crossing this territory was a military adventure. After nine years in the “wilderness” there were 5 survivors. Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, and later went on to more quiescent adventures in South America.

Now the question as to whether or not Col. Raigoza was right, and the Cabeza de Bacas of New Meixco have a relationship to the conquistador will probably always be debated by genealogists and I will refrain from commenting on it here. As us kibbitzers say at the chess club, I have no skin in it.

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4 Comments

Filed under Aging, History

4 responses to “Col. Raigoza’s Calculus Class

  1. Pingback: History of Mathematics Blog » Blog Archive » Col. Raigoza’s Calculus Class

  2. Nice story. Teachers make all the difference.

  3. Pingback: Col. Raigoza’s Calculus Class

  4. carlbrannen

    Iowahawk has written a nice introduction to the California car culture of the Chicanos. I’m sure the Colonel would remember those rides.

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