By Matthew Hendley
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"As they began to notice that my skills were higher, they moved me up," he says. "It was a language barrier, not a psychological barrier, but it creates a psychological barrier. I've since been able to let it go, but it's hard to let go."
These days, Monreal is a nutrition buff, a bit sheepish that he's been unable to control his weight as an adult. But he says meals were so scarce when he was a child that he still finds it psychologically difficult to leave food on his plate, even if he's not hungry.
After finishing high school, Monreal worked late nights at a grocery store on the Sonoran side of Nogales. One night after closing up the store, he wearily dragged himself to a local dance at 2 a.m. That's where he met his wife of 31 years, Aurelia Amaya, then a young first-grade teacher in Nogales.
"I thought he was very cute," recalls Aurelia, a slender, self-effacing woman with short, dark brown hair. "He was very timid then. He's much more outgoing now."
A thin, shy kid with a prematurely adult sense of discipline and responsibility, Monreal would get teased by his pals because he never smoked or cursed, and he ordered strawberry sodas while they were knocking back cervezas. But he was no shrinking violet when it came to Amaya, and after spotting her at a table with five of her teaching friends, he walked up and asked her to dance.
She declined, saying she was too tired, but her reticence only made Monreal more determined. He persuaded her to dance one song with him.
"Once we started dancing, I thought, 'He's so smooth on the dance floor,'" Aurelia gushes. The couple ended up dancing to five straight songs, and by the time he escorted her back to her table, she wanted to keep going. Both of them knew they had a special connection. For Monreal, an old-world traditionalist raised by his mother and grandmother to treat women with respect, Amaya perfectly matched his concept of what a lady should be.
"She comes from a very old-fashioned background," Monreal says. "It took a while for her to even let me hold her hand."
It also took three solid years before the devoted couple walked down the aisle together. By that point, Monreal knew what he wanted to do with his life. His own educational traumas had motivated him to be a teacher. Although his mother could not afford to send him to college, he was one of five high school students targeted to launch the federally funded Upward Bound program at Arizona State University.
"Upward Bound was one of the best things that could happen to me," he says. "I was concerned with putting food on the table for my mother. They convinced my mother that they would pay my room and board, and told her that I needed to go to the university."
After class, he supported himself by working at various restaurants and bars: washing dishes, waiting tables, bartending, and, in the case of Paradise Valley Country Club, even cooking. On the side, he learned enough magic tricks to get some gigs performing at kids' birthday parties.
After receiving his bachelor's degree at ASU, he taught at the Tempe Elementary School District, pursuing his master's degree as well. He also got involved with the Migrant Opportunity Program, and other efforts to keep minority students in school.
Over the years, Monreal worked as an administrator for South Mountain Community College, the Maricopa District and Paradise Valley Community College. He also developed his love of poetry, gradually moving from abstract, esoteric imagery to more accessible themes. Eventually, he began to share his poems with his students, often using them to relay a social message he was trying to get across in class.
He emphasized the same traditional virtues to his own children.
"He was a very strict father," says his 22-year-old son Orlando, the youngest of his three children. "He was all about education. It inspired all of us."
The lesson got through: All of Monreal's children (including Raul III, 30, and Clarissa, 24) got a college education.
Monreal feels much more confident writing in Spanish than in English, but one of his favorite poems, "Please Excuse Me From Learning," was written in English. It concerns the obstacles facing disabled students, but it could just as easily be about the overwhelmed 12-year-old Monreal relegated to a Nogales fourth-grade class:
"Please excuse me from learning/I'm rather a hopeless case/You see, schools are great for other kids/But for me they're quite a waste/Please excuse me from learning/Because of the pages I cannot read/But somehow you may discover that it's more than glasses I need . . . /Please excuse me from learning/Because my grades last year were kinda low/But, you see, I had a teacher who taught me I was slow."
Over the years, friends occasionally told Monreal that he should try setting his poems to music. But he says he had no interest in songwriting, until his students threw down the gauntlet in 1994. Hopelessly naive about the music business, Monreal knew too little to realize how impossible his project was.