Three decades ago, I fell in love with a powerful idea – and the poet who served it up. It was in the mid-1980s, while attending Sanger High School, that I first heard Bruce Springsteen. Almost instantly, I was hooked.
One of my favorite Springsteen songs still runs on a continuous loop in my brain, and haunts me to this day. “My Hometown” is about the special relationship we have with the places that birth us, raise us, knock us around, chase us off and welcome us back.
Sometimes, the welcoming comes in the form of a winning high school football team that brings unity and inspiration to a community that is starved for both. More on that in a minute.
A native of working-class Freehold, N.J., Springsteen sang about being introduced to his hometown by his father:
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“I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
“He’d tousle my hair and say, ‘Son, take a good look around this is your hometown…’ ”
As a teenager, I took a good look at my hometown of Sanger. And frankly, I didn’t like what I saw.
In 1949, the city – which originally was referred to as Sanger Junction after Joseph Sanger Jr., secretary-treasurer of the Southern Pacific Railroad Yardmasters Association, and which saw its early growth fueled by the lumber industry – was named “The Nation’s Christmas Tree City” by the U.S. Postal Service.
After the 1920s, agriculture became king. For the rest of the century, packinghouses hummed and Sanger sent its precious cargo – peaches, plums, nectarines, oranges and grapes – across the country and around the world.
By the 1980s, it was about 60 percent Latino. And yet, inexplicably, at the time, the top officials in city government and the school district were all white.
The one high school in town – Sanger High – counts among its thousands of graduates every member of my immediate family and many of my aunts, uncles and cousins.
In the late 1950s, when my parents attended, “career day” consisted of two buses that would take students into town to explore jobs. One bus, loaded with white kids, visited the banks, pharmacies and stores. The other, filled with Mexican-Americans, toured the canneries, factories and packinghouses.
Some hometowns are good at giving people a sense of place; others, like mine, are good at putting folks in their place.
Sadly, in the 1970s, there were racial brawls at the high school between Latinos and whites, and ethnic strife on the city council fueled by petty small-town politics.
At 18, I didn’t know much. But I knew this much: I had to get out. My escape plan was to go to college on the East Coast. I managed to find a nice little school on the banks of the Charles River, about as far as you could get away from Sanger without wetting your feet in the Atlantic.
Many of my friends were restless, too. Some joined the Marines. Others went to college near Los Angeles or San Francisco. We would see each other at Christmas, or during summer vacation. We also would see old classmates, including some who hadn’t gotten out but were now looking for an exit.
In later years, I couldn’t wait to get back. I missed the place terribly, along with the people who still lived there.
But when I made it back to Sanger during the late 1980s, what I found there resembled what Springsteen had witnessed in his hometown of Freehold a decade or so earlier:
“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores. Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more.”
Gone was the quaint downtown of my childhood, with three banks, doctor and dental offices, clothing and jewelry stores, a bakery and restaurants, and four drugstores – including one with a soda fountain.
“They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks. Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back. To your hometown.”
Eventually, some of the packinghouses also would shut down, and workers who had loyally given 30 years to these companies were given pink slips and forced to find employment elsewhere.
After college, I tried to go back and live in my hometown – on three different occasions. It didn’t take. Eventually, it would start to feel claustrophobic and stifling.
I was struggling to launch a writing career – with an emphasis on “struggling.” I’d go into town, and I’d always bump into someone I knew. They would ask how I was doing, and they didn’t always take a quick “fine” for an answer. I thought people were just being nosy, because they had nothing else to do. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that this is what people do when they care and want to see you be successful and happy.
I ran away again. Through my 20s, I bounced back and forth to Los Angeles, where I lived three different times before my 30th birthday.
Twenty years ago, I packed up my car and left home for good to take my first newspaper job in Arizona. Since then, I’ve lived in four cities: Phoenix, Cambridge, Dallas, San Diego.
As years passed, I’ve made mistakes, given up jobs, suffered pain, buried loved ones, endured setbacks, lost my way and found it again.
Today, I have a new perspective. I envy those childhood friends who still live in our hometown, many of whom I saw a couple of years ago at our 30th Sanger High reunion. They have honest lives, a sense of place, firm roots, peace of mind, and the warmth and security that comes from being surrounded by family and friends who genuinely care about them.
Now they have something else: a football championship. The Sanger Apaches finished the 2016 season as Central Section Division II champs and won a regional bowl game before losing their final playoff game and ending the season an impressive 13-1.
That’s not half bad for a school – now about 80 percent Latino – where many players are under 5 feet 10 inches tall and weigh less than 200 pounds. What these kids lack in size, they make up for in heart. Like the town they live in, they can get hit hard and still bounce back.
Coach Chuck Shidan, himself a 1975 graduate of Sanger High, and his players electrified the whole town which is now home to about 25,000 people. Nicknamed the “Sanger Bangers,” the team earned a reputation for playing hard and not giving up.
As word spread of just how well the Apaches were playing, Sanger High School alumni from around the country began following the games online and expressing support on social media. Sanger pride was running rampant; our spouses must have found us insufferable. And the championship season even gave birth to its own slogan: “One Town. One Team. One Tribe.”
A tribe that, unfortunately, is now losing its chief. Shidan recently announced that he is retiring from coaching after 27 years. Townspeople wonder how the team will do without him.
Meanwhile, I wonder if my own kids, who are growing up in a well-heeled suburb where most people came from somewhere else, will feel as intensely about their hometown as I do mine. I hope so. But, somehow, I doubt it.
Sanger was a wonderful place to grow up. It’s impossible to replicate. For such a small town, the ethnic mix was unreal – Mexican, Armenian, German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Swedish, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino. Most people getting along. Along with many of my classmates, I feel lucky and privileged to have been able to experience such an upbringing.
Springsteen ends his song with this:
“I’m thirty-five, we got a boy of our own now. Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said, ‘Son take a good look around. This is your hometown.’ ”
Having made peace with his hometown, the father wants to make sure that his son lays claim to it. For better or worse, we can’t change our hometowns any more than we can change our DNA.
Not that we don’t try. Studies show that, these days, Americans will move an average of 10 to 12 times in their lives.
But no matter where we go, our hometowns go with us. More than our college years, our circles of friends, or the careers we pursue, they shape the way we see the world. They also help us see how far we’ve gone, and where we’re going, by not letting us forget where we started.
Well done, Sanger. Hold your head up high. And thanks.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a Sanger native. He is also a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a columnist for the Daily Beast, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, and author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.”