This is the full version of the story that appears in the March 15, 2015 Bakersfield Californian about Sylvia Diaz, Herlinda Gonzalez and my experiences photographing McFarland cross country in the days following their deaths. The remembrances provided by their friends, relatives and teammates were so loving and heartfelt, I am including them, in their entirety, following the story. — John Harte
I never photographed or met Sylvia Diaz or Herlinda Gonzalez, but the memories of the pictures I took in the aftermath of their deaths in 1986 would impact me deeply, and remain with me through the remainder of my photojournalism career.
The Disney film “McFarland USA” shines a light on the now-legendary McFarland High boys cross country program and it’s selfless and caring coach, Jim White. It’s a feel-good movie and a real good one at that, and it has helped make tens of thousands of Americans aware of a little San Joaquin Valley farming town they likely never heard of.
The real McFarland story is much more deeply layered, and darker, than the film depicts. I know, because as a young Bakersfield Californian photographer during the 1980s, I was part of the team that covered it. It’s a story about a terrifying and unsolved cancer cluster affecting and killing the town’s children, their primarily immigrant parents living in unspeakable fear for their children’s health. It’s a story about a string of devastating accidents, including a Valentine’s Day car crash in 1987 that claimed the lives of four teens from McFarland and two from neighboring Delano, the death of the school’s football coach, and the accidental deaths of several popular McFarland High students. All in a town of about 6,500 at the time.
And it’s a story about Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez. Monday, October 27, 1986, was a beautiful autumn day for cross country practice. It was 85 degrees, sunny with a very slight breeze. Sylvia, 16, a McFarland High senior, and Herlinda, 14, a sophomore, were running that afternoon with teammates Alicia Herrera and Hollie Wykoff on Whisler Road, a long country road that dissects the area’s bountiful grape vineyards and almond orchards, when they were struck by a car following a slow-moving truck. The girls had moved to the side of the road to allow the truck to pass, but apparently unaware of the trailing car, veered into its path. Sylvia was pronounced dead at Delano Regional Medical Center, but in reality died at the scene. Herlinda died the following morning. Just like that, the town’s emerging bright light – a cross country program enjoying success even before 1987, the year depicted in the film – found itself immersed in the cruel and seemingly unrelenting tragedy that was 1980s McFarland.
I was assigned to cover two of McFarland’s races in the days following the accident. A palpable somberness and eerie quiet hung over Hart Park for the Kern Invitational the afternoon of November 1, 1986, just five days after the accident. The pain was cruelly etched on the faces of the McFarland runners and the empathy for the well-respected team was palpable among opposing runners, coaches and spectators. I remember the birds. The sprawling park nestled in the foothills of northeast Bakersfield offers a beautiful chorus of chirping and whistling from its assortment of bird species, and when the park is empty, it almost sounds as if you’re being treated to a free concert. But not when dozens of athletes gather for one of the season’s big cross country meets. The birds become a barely perceptible background chatter as teenagers do what teenagers do when they assemble in numbers. Not this afternoon. I only heard the birds. It was so quiet. I photographed Herlinda and Sylvia’s teammate, Tammy Carter, crossing the finish line, then collapsing in inconsolable grief into the arms of girls coach Gary Pierson. I photographed Thomas Valles, long before he would be made famous by the movie, just a kid, bringing his hands to his face in prayer before the start of the boys race and keeping them there for what seemed eternity.
Two weeks later, at the CIF Central Section South Area meet, both McFarland teams arrived by limousine, the girls clutching long-stemmed roses, a gesture by one of the parents to help them cope with their pain. And then an image, teammates Norma Torres and Hollie Wykoff, alone on a bench, clutching their red roses, the warm, amber afternoon back light we photographers love, this time heartbreakingly accenting a despair no child should endure. Hollie and Alicia Herrera had witnessed the accident. One team member, Tammy’s sister, Deborah Carter Stockett, told me she resented my being at those races and yelled at me to go away, but now she is glad that I was there.
There is little question the all-too-short lives of Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzales played a role in not only the boys’ first state championship the following year, but in the lives of their teammates – boys and girls – as they moved forward following their high school years. I was an outsider, an observer trained to record emotion without much feeling and then move on to the next assignment. That sounds so cold, so callous, but the McFarland shoots always stayed with me. When I opened those assignment envelopes and looked at those photos nearly 30 years later, they slapped me with an emotion that shortened my breath and caused my heart to skip a beat. I never forgot being at those races and what I witnessed, but this time I felt as if I was viewing the photos not as a photographer, but as a reader. From the image of those girls posing in front of the well-intentioned limousine and trying to look happy to the night one year later when Ernesto Bravo saw me photographing his 14-year-old son, Mario, in his casket, the town’s sixth cancer victim, and walked up to me and said, “Show the world what has happened to my son,” I have never forgotten what it was like covering 1980s McFarland.
I want to tell the story of Sylvia and Herlinda because, based on what I witnessed in 1986, a complete story of McFarland High’s inspiring cross country legacy cannot be told without including Sylvia Diaz, Herlinda Gonzalez and the girls team. By every account from their friends, relatives and teammates, these were two special and deeply-loved girls. Herlinda was always so happy, never stopped laughing and smiling, said her teammate Norma Lopez Takahashi. Sylvia was bound and determined to visit Hawaii. Somehow, some way, she was going to visit Hawaii, a seemingly impossible dream for a kid in 1980s McFarland. (Sylvia’s given name was Silvia Virginia Perez Diaz, but she chose to use Sylvia. Herlinda was called “Linda” by her family and “Herly” by her friends and teammates.)
“Sylvia was so sweet, kind, and naturally stunning,” says her friend and 1985 teammate Dolores Plata Rodriguez, now an assistant principal at Cesar E. Chavez High School in Delano. “You couldn’t tell if she was ever having a bad day, because she was always so uplifting and a pleasure to be around. At one of our races, Sylvia was trying to teach us this dance move. Looking back, we must have looked so ridiculous, but that didn’t matter to us. We were young and carefree. Fun was all that was on our minds. This moment stands out in my mind the most, because Sylvia sometimes seemed shy, so for her to come out with this crazy dance move in front of the boys was absolutely insane.”
Lopez Takahashi, a mortgage loan processor in Porterville, was given a nickname by Sylvia and teammates Alicia and Delfina Herrera. “They kept giggling and giggling as they were coming up with them. I don’t remember anybody else’s but they nicknamed me “Twinkie.” I asked, ‘Why Twinkie?’ and Alicia and Sylvia both laughed and said, ‘Because you’re so cute and tiny like a little Twinkie.’ I kept the nickname and even used it as my blog handle when I was blogging on a couple of Bakersfield Californian websites.”
David Diaz, one of the three Diaz brothers featured in the film, says Sylvia was “a quiet, well respected young lady with a beautiful smile and disposition about herself. I can honestly say she was a decent student and I was fortunate to walk along side her to and from school on occasion since she lived just around the block on the next street. Even though we both have the same last name, we are not related and she made sure to tell me that on a few occasions.”
“Herlinda was one of the smartest, if not the smartest, students in our class. I would not have been surprised if she had ended up becoming a doctor or some top-notch lawyer,” says Plata Rodriguez. “God, she had such a great laugh. She never held back when it came to laughing, making people laugh, and just being downright silly. My most memorable moments with her were the bus rides to away races. She often brought along a music magazine that had all of the current top hits’ lyrics inside. It was gold to us, but complete torture for the guys and probably Coach White as well. We sang those songs at the top of our lungs. None of us could carry a tune even if or lives depended on it. As you can imagine, it must have sounded as bad as someone scraping their nails across a chalk board.”
David Diaz, now a vice principal at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, echoes Rodriguez’s remembrances of Herlinda. “(She) was something very special. She was brilliant and going to make it big without a doubt. She was nerdy, funny and wanting to please. I vividly remember telling her that very same day when that tragedy happened to not say ‘hi’ to me 20 times a day like she used to. Oh, how that stung me for a long time. Herlinda was bound for greatness and every year during cross country season, when the hot summers start to dissipate and the leaves start to change colors, I am reminded of how sensitive life really is. One can be here on earth one minute and gone the next. Ultimately, God has everything in the palm of his hand, but sometimes one can’t understand the reason as to why certain things happen and why certain people pass too early.”
Team member Carter Stockett knew she was living behind a “wall” in 1986, but didn’t really know what was happening to her. She was shy, was doing poorly in school and had to miss several meets because she was on probation. She masked it all with an “I don’t care” attitude. The “wall,” she now knows, was attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And it was Herlinda who helped her break through that wall. “Herlinda broke this wall as she was such an example of hard work, friendship, and love. She stayed after class during breaks to ask the teachers what more she can do to bring up her grades and to do extra work to explore the class subjects even more. It would bug me as she went to the teachers to ask what more she could do. She was a reminder to me of what I was not,” said Carter Stockett.
“In the beginning, I didn’t like that part of her. At practice, we would run eight miles only to have her come back to say ‘What else do you want us to do
Mr. White?’ I wouldn’t talk to her as she “sided with the enemy.” Every day though, whenever she saw me, she would smile her big, beautiful smile and give me the biggest ‘hello’ as she was excited to see me. She won me over. She had a heart so good. She was an angel. She treated everyone the same way. She loved everyone. Before her death, I considered her one of my close friends. I want to be just like her in her friendly, loving way. I want to work hard and love others as she helped me want to be a better person,” said Carter Stockett, now a financial legal administrative representative and college engineering student in the Washington, DC area.
“Sylvia was fun! She was always laughing and loving the life that she was given. She sometimes would have me and my sister over her house. She loved the pop culture of the time and was up to date on the hit music. She was always finding the humor in life. She and Herlinda were really the glue of the team. They loved everyone and treated everyone as their best friend. She would walk around at the meets taking everything in. I think of her, of how much she enjoyed the journey. I want to love life as she did. I want to see life as colorful as she did.”
Freshman runner Eva Renteria Ricci would enter her high school years having already experienced heartbreak. In 1980, her 10-year-old sister, Martha, died of cancer. (Eva does not know if Martha is counted among the victims of McFarland’s infamous childhood cancer cluster. Like many
migrant families working and living in the San Joaquin Valley’s massive, 250 mile long stretch of farmland before passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the Renterias moved frequently, living in McFarland, Mexico, Madera and then again in McFarland. The Renterias lived in McFarland for a time in the early 1970s and moved to Mexico when Martha was three. They were not living in McFarland two years later when she was diagnosed.) After Sylvia and Herlinda’s deaths, her parents, naturally terrified by the thought of possibly losing another daughter, decided she should quit the team. “After the accident, my parents didn’t want me to run, they were scared. I pleaded with them. My birthday is November 1. I said, ‘All I want for my birthday is to be able to honor my friends,'” said Renteria Ricci, now an advisor at a career resource center in Yuma, Arizona. Eva’s parents agreed and allowed their daughter to remain with the team.
Those runners did not move on to 1987 and forget about Sylvia and Herlinda. “The tragedy that happened to McFarland cross country that year (1986), I believe catapulted many of us to run with more heart in the following years. Sometimes a setback like that brings people and teams closer and more intimate with each other, and we found ourselves running for McFarland, Mr. White and most importantly, for each other,” David Diaz said. The boys team may be depicted in the film, but Lopez Takahashi emphatically states that “we were one team.” The teams ran their races separately, but were otherwise inseparable. Nothing shows that more than the precious gift from Sylvia’s personal album – her set of photos from the real “McFarland USA” beach scene, photographed primarily by her brother, Raul Diaz, and shared by Raul and her younger sister, Flora Diaz. A particularly poignant photograph shows Sylvia and Raul, Delfina Herrera and Herlinda holding up her index finger, showing off the “MHS #1” she has just scrawled in the sand at Cayucos. Nearly 30 years after her death, those photos are a beautiful, incredible gift Sylvia and her family are sharing with the world.
Flora Diaz, now a teacher at Pixley Middle School, was 11 years old when Sylvia died. She began going through her sister’s photo album as interest in McFarland increased in advance of the film’s release. “There are so many people out there who don’t have photo memories of those times. I didn’t want to be selfish with those pictures,” she said. “I wanted to share.”
“It is pure bliss to be able to honor both these girls through these means (photos) after so many years. I have cried welcome tears of joy and sorrow in the last few days,” Flora Diaz said last month as thousands of people began viewing the photos from Sylvia’s album and the release of the film brought national attention to McFarland. “Sylvia shared so many stories with me and I know she was very fond of all her friends and running family.”
Raul Diaz was also a senior in 1986 and on the boys team. His Kodak 35mm camera accompanied him, and his photos fill Sylvia’s album. “Sylvia and I were seniors because my parents placed us in the same grade when we were in fourth grade because they wanted me to walk with her to school. She was 16 and I was 18 on October 27, 1986. She was a smart young lady and she tutored me in math because I could not pass math. We did our homework every day. She had many dreams about college and getting an education beyond high school. She had wanted to join cross country because she wanted to lose weigh and be in shape,” Raul Diaz said.
“Sylvia and Herlinda became good friends during cross country, and they would often run together. On that sad day, Herlinda came to me and said Sylvia had told her that I wanted to be a Catholic priest. Herlinda said that was cool. Sylvia had just made her first communion a week before and that got Herlinda all excited. At about 3:30 pm during warm ups for practice, Herlinda asked if Sylvia and I would invite her to church that Sunday. She wanted us to go together. Little did I know that was our goodbye. Thirty minutes later, they were hit by a vehicle on Whisler Road.”
“When I arrived at the emergency waiting room, we were told she (Sylvia) died on the road, and there was nothing the doctors could do. I loved my sister very much, she was my number one fan. She talked to everybody at school how her big brother would someday be a Catholic priest. It had been a long time since I had said to her ‘I love you, sister’ and that night at the emergency room, that is the only thing I wanted to say, for the last time. But it was too late. I wept and wept, and did not go inside. It was simply overwhelming for me. I was an emotional wreck. But if there’s one thing her death left me, it is always to love people and to speak words of love to others, because there may not be a tomorrow, “ Raul said. “Ironically, her death gave me life and love. To say to others ‘I’m so proud of you’ and ‘I love you’ must be spoken, it must never be kept inside, it must come out in the open. Words have power over people, and saying ‘you’re such a blessing to me’ must be spoken. That is the lesson she left me when I heard the doctor say, ‘I’m so sorry, there was nothing we could do.’ I learned to love life.”
Raul would walk across the graduation stage in the spring without his sister, her hopes and dreams a memory beautifully preserved by his photographs. But his dream would be realized. Raul Diaz is now Father Raul Diaz, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Dinuba.
Just as the story of 1980s McFarland is nuanced and layered, so are the stories of the athletes who ran for Jim White and girls coach Gary Pierson. No doubt, those coaches had tremendous influence in the success many McFarland runners would have in their later lives, a point nicely made at the end of the film. The home lives of the athletes would, too. They vary among the runners, some describing structured but loving homes, others talking about unreasonably strict and oppressive home lives, with cross country being an escape that made their teen years bearable.
Plata Rodriguez is among those who admits she had a difficult childhood. “Both Sylvia and Herlinda were kind, caring, respectful, and sweet people to be around. They knew how to brighten our days. Even though they didn’t know my troubles, being around them erased my troubles for the moment. I looked forward to every trip and the camaraderie we all shared. The time I spent with my team was time I always cherished because I could forget about home for a little while. The memory of Sylvia and Herlinda has always held a place in my heart. The tragedy helped me realize how short life can be, how unfair it can be. From that time on, I feel I lived in the moment, and during trying times my mind always took me back to those memories.”
David Diaz says the memory of the accident that took Sylvia and Herlinda more than 28 years ago “feels like it happened last cross country season. We still run the same roads, along the same fields, just with different kids. Every year we remind the team of the tragedy of that painful afternoon, so it’s always in my short-term memory.”
For Lopez Takahashi, the memories of her teammates would also greatly influence the adult she would become. But the path was especially difficult. Her parents forced her to quit the team after the accident, and she struggled with a stifling guilt, a guilt she says remains with her today. Herlinda was Lopez Takahashi’s pacer, a running partner who helps make sure a teammate is not running too slowly or quickly. But Lopez Takahashi was absent from practice on the day of the accident. “We would have been running together that day. I’ve always felt like if I was there I would have been able to save her. I was the one always paranoid about cars so I would look (and) then look again before switching to the other side of the road. I would have grabbed her arm and lectured her about looking first before running from the shoulder to the road.”
“But, also, I just kept thinking, ‘why them and why not me?’ Back then, I was your typical teenage girl who couldn’t see past her teenage problems and was just trying to make it through life one day at a time. I had no future goals. No plans. When they passed away I felt like they were stripped from their life and dreams so abruptly and unfairly. Yet there I was with no goals and no dreams. So why was it them and not me? It really forced me to take a good look at my life and decide, ‘Are you in or are you out?’ I changed my attitude from ‘why not me?’ into ‘it wasn’t me so you’ll be doing them a disservice if you continue living like this. Don’t squander this gift. Take this opportunity and make something of it,’” Lopez Takahashi said.
Sylvia and Herlinda are two athletes sadly omitted in the recent media publicity generated by “McFarland USA,” but who have never been forgotten by their teammates or their home town. “Both girls were certainly part of the early fabric McFarland cross country was trying to stitch together when tragedy struck,” David Diaz says. “However, we have never forgot and most importantly, we will always remember Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez for their ultimate and personal willingness to endure this great sport we love here in McFarland and hopefully in the whole USA.”
The photos I made of the teams in the aftermath of the accident were the first I would shoot of McFarland’s string of tragedies in the 1980s. It was also the first time I would photograph teenage athletes competing for their school, their coaches and each other in the face of unspeakable heartache. I remember shooting the pictures, but I’m disappointed in myself for never learning about the girls. Like so many of us who were around back then, I always remembered that two girls were killed in a practice accident in McFarland, but we never learned who those girls really were. I don’t know if anybody outside McFarland ever asked. I missed out – we all missed out – because I would have loved knowing these past 28 years what I’ve learned about them these last three months.
Lord willing, I hope to have another 28 years, and no doubt the memories of covering McFarland will always be with me. But now, when I remember those stories, it’s not going to include “two girls killed one day in practice.” That memory has now been replaced by one of two beautiful, smiling angels, eternally 16 and 14-years old, forever running like the wind in heaven’s boundless skies. Two girls I wish I had photographed. Two girls I wish I had known. Two names I will always remember. Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez.
I left The Bakersfield Californian in March, 2009 after 28 years as a staff photographer and I am now a journalism instructor at Bakersfield College. I teach photojournalism, multimedia reporting and mass communication.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Remembrances, in their entirety, of Sylvia, Herlinda and McFarland cross country from the teammates, friends and relatives who knew them best
DOLORES PLATA RODRIGUEZ:
Sylvia and Herlinda are two of the most genuinely beautiful people I have been blessed to know during my life. I really got to know Sylvia during cross country and track. Sylvia was so sweet, kind, and naturally stunning. You couldn’t tell if she was ever having a bad day, because she was always so uplifting and a pleasure to be around. My most memorable moments with her were in the fall of 1985 while on the cross country team. I was a freshman and believe she was a sophomore. At one of our races, Sylvia was trying to teach us this dance move. Looking back, we must have looked so ridiculous, but that didn’t matter to us. We were young and carefree. Fun was all that was on our minds. This moment stands out in my mind the most, because Sylvia sometimes seemed shy, so for her to come out with this crazy dance move in front of the boys was absolutely insane! I loved it.
Herlinda and I were in the same grade. She was one of the smartest (if not THE smartest) students in our class. I would not have been surprised if she had ended up becoming a doctor or some top-notch lawyer. God, she had such a great laugh. She never held back when it came to laughing, making people laugh, and just being downright silly. My most memorable moment with her were the bus rides to away races. She often brought along a music magazine that had all of the current, top hits’ lyrics inside. It was gold to us but complete torture for the guys and probably Coach White as well. We sang those songs at the top of our lungs…none of us could carry a tune even if or lives depended on it. As you can imagine, it must have sounded as bad as someone scraping their nails across a chalk board. Those were the days.
Both Sylvia and Herlinda were kind, caring, respectful, and sweet people to be around. They knew how to brighten our days. Even though they didn’t know my troubles, being around them erased my troubles for the moment. I looked forward to every trip and the camaraderie we all shared. The time I spent with my team, was time I always cherished because I could forget about home for a little while.
I remember the day of the tragic accident. I was at cheer practice. The squad was making posters for an upcoming game…maybe homecoming. It was late in the afternoon when we heard the sirens speeding by the school. I remember standing up and thinking to myself, “I hope no one is hurt.” We continued to make posters and carried on with our day.
I lived out on Famoso and Woollomes, a farm labor camp just north of Richgrove (it has been demolished since then), so it was about seven miles away from McFarland. That night, Connie Rosales – the lady who paid for my cheer uniform because I couldn’t afford it, drove all the way out there to see me. That was odd. No one ever visited me at my home. I didn’t even know anyone knew where I lived. She gave me the horrific news. She informed me that Sylvia and Herlinda were hit by a car during practice earlier that day. Mrs. Rosales said that Sylvia was killed instantly and that Herlinda was on life support. I felt my heart drop to the pit of my stomach. I had no words…what does a 14 year-old say or do after news like that?
By that morning, the news had spread that Herlinda had also died. I experienced a mess of emotions. I was confused. How does that happen to people like Herlinda and Sylvia? They didn’t deserve that. I felt so sorry for them, for their parents. I was so sad that I didn’t get to tell them good bye.
I don’t think anyone was the same, but even the buildings, the classrooms, the hallways…it was all so oddly different. I tried to go to first period, but Herlinda’s chair was empty. I recall all of us just sitting there quietly and staring at her empty chair. Our teacher informed us that the gym was open for anyone who felt like they needed to be with other students and that counselors would be available. I walked out of class and headed straight for the gym to find my best friends, Norma Lopez and Gabby Perez. By then, I was now feeling so angry that God took them away from us. We left the school (it was open campus at that time) and walked across town to Alicia Herrera’s house. She was one of the runners who saw the girls get hit by the car. She recalled the screams they made…the sounds she heard when they hit the ground. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for her.
Then came the guilt. The guilt was not so easy to overcome. I felt guilty that I wasn’t there…that it was them and not me. I felt so guilty and thought that if I had been there, maybe it would have been different.
Throughout my life, moments would trigger my memory and remind me of both Sylvia and Herlinda. I miss their contagious laughter and smiles.
For me, the cross country team was my safe haven…my home away from a living nightmare. I loved being with all of them. We were all silly together. The innocent crushes, passing love notes around the bus or in class…such innocence…the dares and triple dares. It was good, old fashioned fun. Back in ’85 we all crammed into that old Chevy. Coach White would drive us out to the orange groves near Student Baker Hill. He would have us run hills until our legs could run no more but we didn’t mind it. We would have ran a marathon if he asked us to. Call me crazy, but it was FUN. Sometimes he would divide us into teams and would have us play tag in the almond orchards. There’s nothing like a bunch of boys and girls chasing each other around in the orchards! Hahahaha
The time we spent with our cross country family was absolutely the best days of our school lives. Herlinda and Sylvia were a breath of fresh air. They always knew how to cheer us up. Their smiles, their bright eyes. Without saying a word, we knew they cared and never judged us. After Sylvia passed away, my mom and I spent the night at her house. Her mom had me sleep in Sylvia’s room. In all honesty, I was afraid because I didn’t understand why…but looking back now that I’m older, I’m glad that I did. Because I felt like she was with me. I’m grateful for that night. I remember going through her albums and it wasn’t until Flora shared them with me that I remembered that night. I’m crying, sad and happy all at the same time. I still have so many unresolved issues about my childhood but at least now as an adult I have learned to appreciate how those crippling moments made me into the person I am today. I remember how little Flora (Sylvia’s younger sister) was and can’t imagine how she felt. I hope that all of this…what John is doing…the movie….I hope it brings her much happiness and pride. Thank you Flora. I can’t say it enough.
Just a few months after Herlinda and Sylvia died, we experienced yet another tragedy when six teens died in a car accident that February. That was a trying year for our small community.
You asked how our careers progressed. There’s no short version to explain how I arrived to today, but I will do my best.
It was that same year that I attempted to commit suicide at school in May of 1987. I was told that I flat-lined that day. This is an entire different chapter of my life and for whatever reason, God gave me a second chance. I would spend the next several years questioning God and wondering WHY he didn’t just take me.
I could write a lifetime movie or give Dr. Phil a month’s worth of topics to discuss on his show with the next decade of my life. Because I got married while a junior in high school, had my three children by the time I was 21 and then divorced at the same age, I had to put my dreams on hold until I was 29.
It wasn’t until I met my current husband that I was finally able to go back to school and work towards my degree to become a teacher. I yearned to be a teacher and coach like the ones that served as an inspiration to me. By the grace of God and the support of my family and friends, I worked full time as a principal’s secretary at Delano High School and took on a full schedule in college. I was determined set a good example for my children and provide them with a better life than I had.
John, my road was a long and brutal one, but mostly due to my poor choices and circumstances. I do not blame anyone for my past shortcomings. If Coach White taught me anything, it was to believe in myself, make no excuses, always take responsibility for my own actions, and to learn from my mistakes. He is the kind of coach and teacher I always wanted to become.
Thank you, John, for writing this story about Herlinda and Sylvia. It was such a defining moment for our team, our school, and our community. I know that you will honor them for the amazing people that they were during their short lives. I imagine they are smiling down on us right now. I hope we’ve all made them proud.
I could go on and on, John. Didn’t I say that you opened the flood gates? There is plenty more where this came from.
I just wanted to thank you for your genuine interest in the McFarland story. Too often, the voices and sentiments of a “true story” are embedded with other factors. So I appreciate your take on things and what you’re trying to do.
What I can remember from both Sylvia and Herlinda are ever so present in my long term memory and makes it seem like what happened some 25 years ago appear like if it happened last cross country season. You know John, we still run the same roads, along the same fields with just different kids. Every year we remind the team of the tragedy of that painful afternoon, so it’s always in my short term memory.
As far as Sylvia goes, she was a quiet, well respected young lady with a beautiful smile and disposition about herself. She was a little introverted with most and personal and outgoing with few. I can honestly say she was a decent student and I was fortunate to walk along side her to and from school on occasion since she lived just around the block on the next street. Even though we both have the same last name, we are not related and she made sure to tell me that on a few occasions.
The tragedy that happened to McFarland cross country that year, I believe catapulted many of us to run with more heart in the following years. Sometimes a setback like that brings people / teams closer and more intimate with each other and we found ourselves running for McFarland, Mr. White and most importantly for each other.
Herlinda was an underclassman and something very special. She was brilliant and going to make it big without a doubt. She was nerdy, funny and wanting to please. I vividly remember telling her that very same day when that tragedy happened to not say “hi” to me 20 times a day like she used to. (Oh, how that stung me for a long time.) Herlinda was bound for greatness and every year during XC season when the hot summers start to dissipate and the leaves start to change colors, I am reminded of how sensitive life really is. One can be here on earth one minute and gone the next. Ultimately, God has everything in the palm of his hand, but sometimes one can’t understand the reason as to why certain things happen and why certain people pass too early. Both girls were certainly part of the early fabric McFarland cross country was trying to stitch together when tragedy struck. However, we have never forgot and most importantly we will always remember Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez for their ultimate and personal willingness to endure this great sport we love here in McFarland and hopefully in the whole USA.
CYNTHIA GONZALEZ GARCIA:
My name is Cynthia Garcia (Cynthia Gonzalez is my maiden name). My husband and I are both related to Sylvia and Herlinda. My husband, Manuel Garcia, is Sylvia’s brother and I am Herlinda’s cousin. We both had absolutely no idea our families were tied together in so many ways. Now we are each related to both of them! I thought I’d share our story. I was only a year old when the accident happened, so I didn’t know my cousin or Sylvia. I do know that the house I live in now was the house Sylvia asked her parents to buy for her.
She already had her room picked out, and the day of the accident was the day it became officially theirs. It was also her father’s birthday. Herlinda’s mom, Linda Gonzalez, passed away a little over two years ago. She had been living in Texas for many years and became very ill and wanted to come and see Herlinda’s grave before she became too ill to travel. Unfortunately she only made it to Bakersfield. She passed away the day of her arrival and didn’t make it to her daughter’s grave. I know that at one point my aunt Linda and and uncle Guadalupe (Herlinda’s dad) wanted to move Herlinda to a cemetery in Texas but decided to leave her with her eternal friend Sylvia so they could be together. We named one of our twin daughters after Sylvia. Her name is Emma Sylvia Garcia.
EVA RENTERIA RICCI:
My name Eva Renteria Ricci . I was in cross country in 1986. Herlinda was my, Thomas Valles and Corina Rodriguez’s neighbor. In junior high, I was Herlinda’s campaign manager when she was in the eighth grade. I was in seventh grade. Herlinda was the one who recruited me and talked to my parents about letting me join cross country. To this day, I choke talking about the day of the accident. I vividly remember where I was and when we fist heard about runners getting hit. I was maybe the only girl runner who was not out there when it happened. I had gone to tutoring after school. Herlinda and I walked to school and home together every day, so after I was done, I walked over to where coach was waiting for the runners to return. I’m not sure if it was Coach White or Coach Pierson waiting. Suddenly, football players from our school drove really fast and I thought they were going to hit us. They looked shocked they said “Coach you have to come with us. Two runners got hit by a car.” Coach told me to go home. I walked across the football field and I remember thinking something happened to Herlinda. I walked home alone and when I got to the front of my house, I saw Herlinda’s parents rushing to their car. I knew she was one of them.
Herlinda was a ray of sunshine, the one to start the chanting in the locker room. I loved passing her in the hallways because she always gave me a high five and her winning smile. Sylvia was older than me but she was nice. She encouraged me by telling me we all felt the same. “You’re gonna make it,” she would say.
Our last race with Herlinda and Sylvia was at Mt. SAC. On our way up there we laughed about nothing and everything, we sang and put make up on Herlinda and on all of us, but she couldn’t stop laughing when she saw herself. I remember when I found out it was Herlinda. That evening, my brother said let’s walk over so you could see if she’s OK. We knocked on the door and before we could say anything her dad shook his head, saying “no.” He said the doctor said if she survives she will be a vegetable. He started to break down but held himself and told us to pray, “because my daughter doesn’t deserve that.” It would be selfish of us to ask for her to live like that. I drove my face into my brother’s chest and walked back home. My family was hoping to hear better news. My parents knew too well the pain of losing a child. My sister had passed from cancer in 1980 after a long battle. After the accident, my parents didn’t want me to run, they were scared. I pleaded with them. My birthday is November 1. I said all I want for my birthday is to be able to honor my friends. Sorry, John, as you can see that day has not been forgotten. I miss my walking partner and refer to it as the day I lost my best friend Herlinda. I have good memories. These are just the ones that my mind plays over as the years pass.
NORMA LOPEZ TAKAHASHI:
Herlinda and I became close through cross country, but she was my sister Rocio’s best friend since elementary school. She really had a great outlook on life and had huge goals for herself and never let anything or anybody distract from that. I’m sure she had her doubts and insecurities like the rest of us teenagers, but you’d never know it. There was always two things you could count on Herlinda for: a HUGE smile and encouragement. She was a beautiful person.
She had a very close relationship with her family, especially her older brother Eaustaquio. She was constantly trying to impress him and make him proud. He was a senior our freshman year and played football with my brother. So every time we ran around the football field, she would speed up. She was my pacer so I had to stay with her and so the first time she did that I asked her, “Hey! Slow down. Why are we running so fast?” And she said, “Because my brother is right there and I want him to see how fast I’m running.” She was trying to impress him, as always. She really looked up to him.
One thing I remember about Herlinda that has helped shape the person I am today is that when people would tease her about whatever and they’d sometimes go overboard I would get insulted for her and tell her that she should be upset about it and she always refused. She’d always say, “Ah, they didn’t mean it.” And she’d shake it off. Back then I took everything so serious. Now, I’ve learned to incorporate her way of thinking into my life. In fact I’m constantly giving that advice myself, “Don’t ever get insulted. Your friends didn’t mean it and your enemies don’t deserve a reaction out of you.” It seems like such a small thing but you’d be surprised how much her attitude in life has really helped shape who I am today.
Sylvia and I became friends through cross country also. She and Alicia Herrera and Delfina Herrera could always be counted on for a laugh. They were always joking around and teasing the boys. One day they decided we should all have cross country nicknames and they kept giggling and giggling as they were coming up with them. I don’t remember anybody else’s but they nicknamed me :Twinkie.” I asked, “Why Twinkie???” And Alicia and Sylvia both laughed and said, “Because you’re so cute and tiny like a little Twinkie.” I kept the nickname and even used it as my blog handle when I was blogging on a couple of Bakersfield Californian blog websites, bakotopia.com and MAS.com.
The one thing that stands out about Sylvia is that she had two goals for herself after graduation. She was going to lose weight. And she was going to go to Hawaii. And so she spent the better part of that year working towards both goals. She was doing great, too. We loved hearing about all the things she was going to do in Hawaii, and even past that. She dreamed of moving far away and traveling the world.
At that time (of the accident) it affected me a lot. I was angry at myself for not being there that day. Like I said before, Herlinda was my pacer so we would have been running together that day. I’ve always felt like if I was there I would have been able to save her. I was the one always paranoid about cars so I would look (and) then look again before switching to the other side of the road. I would have grabbed her arm and lectured her about looking first before running from the shoulder to the road.
But also, I just kept thinking why them and why not ME? Back then I was your typical teenage girl who couldn’t see past her teenage problems and was just trying to make it through life one day at a time. I had no future goals. No plans. When they passed away I felt like they were stripped from their life and dreams so abruptly and unfairly. Yet there I was with no goals and no dreams. So why was it them and not me?
It really forced me really take a good look at my life and decide, “Are you in or are you out?” I changed my attitude from “Why not me?” into “It wasn’t me so you’ll be doing them a disservice if you continue living like this. Don’t squander this gift. Take this opportunity and make something of it.”
Most of us came from migrant families whose parents’ attitudes were very much like in the movie. Working the fields was a priority for them and school is something they “let us do” as long as it didn’t interfere with work. Most of us didn’t have a Brady Bunch family. We had the typical Mexican migrant worker household family. Cross country was an outlet away from all that. Most of us could relate to the same parental and life issues and we used each other for support.
We also supported each other during the races, cheering each other on and yelling out supportive words to get us through to the finish line. Your chest burns. Your knees hurt. Your legs are jelly. You can’t breathe. You doubt yourself. Then there they are! The boys are all lined up throwing out phrases like, “Don’t give up. You can do this.” Or helpful advice, “move those arms.” “Lift those legs.” “Pace yourself.” “Pass that group!” or “She’s right behind you, don’t let her pass you.” Just like in the movie. And we did the same for them.
Sylvia…”Nena,” sister…it’s been so unbelievably long since you left us, yet the memory of your existence remains fresh in our hearts. You were the balance and center of our family. You brought equilibrium to our otherwise hectic upbringing. In the often and regular absence of our parents, you made everything fall into place, you made everything…all right.
I have prominent memories of you, the pondering look on your face as you concentrated on homework, the twirling of your thumb as you watched TV. Your stories, your crushes, your likes and dislikes, your dreams that were a “when” and not an “if” in our conversations.
Every time I hear “careless whisper,” I think of you…little things…the smell of Taco Bell…even dusting reminds me of the time we were cleaning and you scolded me for taking my sweet time…lol.
That unforgettable, somber, fall afternoon reigns as the worst Monday of our lives, for it was the day you never returned from school; you never came back, to do your homework, to help with dinner, to help us get ready for the next day of school. Instead, everything was replaced by the emptiness of your absence in our lives.
The morning after your accident, I woke with a throbbing pain in my forehead from crying. I was awakend by the knocking of your friends, Cecilia Anguiano and Veronica who came to show their condolences, through the bright and barely bearable light of day. I was reminded, sadly, that it was not just a dream. You had, indeed, left us. That morning, I missed school. The nearly deflated bouquet of balloons from a crush of yours, one reading “I only have eyes for you,” dismally floated in your room, the lingering scent of your favorite perfume, Gloria Vanderbilt, still permeated your wardrobe.
I often wonder how different our lives would have been had you remained with us. More often than that, I regularly entertain the certainty that you would have been, not only my sister, but my best friend through life’s ups and downs. And just as you did when we were young, you would have made every thing all right. Your departure left a tremendous void in our family. Above all, what’s missed is the unexplainable way you had of bringing order, comfort, and ease in our lives. And making everything all right, simply by existing.
DEBORAH CARTER STOCKETT:
I didn’t know that the boys and girls cross country teams were separate until the movie came out. We were already a small school, almost all of us coming from the middle school less than a mile away. My school graduating class was about 75, so it is safe to say we knew everyone. When it came to our team, our circle only became smaller. Much smaller. We spent a considerable bit of time together, sometimes in very small quarters like the back of Mr. White’s pickup truck as we would try to untie everyone’s shoes or whatever else we thought of doing at the time. We would laugh as the truck would go over bumps as we were apprehensive at the hills that Mr. White was going to bring us to. He was pretty good at finding the hills that seemed to go straight up. The girls would run as the boys team spoke encouraging words as they would effortlessly pass us by. They would tell us to lean into the hill when we felt like giving up. Before Herly’s and Sylvia’s death, we didn’t get much support from the school. It was up to us, as we were the boys team’s cheerleaders and they were ours. There was a respect that we had for each other as we saw each other push through our side aches and even shin splints. We were always, in my mind, one team.
Herlinda and Sylvia’s death still affects me to this day. I do not know if I truly was able to grieve for them when it happened as life just seemed to go on without me when all I just wanted was for things to stop. Watching the previews for the “McFarland USA” movie surprised me as I acutely felt the pain that I ignored for years like it was yesterday. Old hurt that I had forgotten about has risen inside of me. I still want their lives honored and not forgotten. It hurt to see that they were not even mentioned in the movie; they were just as much a part of the team. My mind went right back to the time when all of us girls on the team all congregated at one of our teammate’s homes after the accident (I believe it was Alicia’s and Delfina’s home) and we were just trying to wrap our brains about the whole traumatic event and yet not talk at all as we didn’t want to even acknowledge that this was real. We sat on the bed as our hearts went out to Alicia and Delfina as they had to witness the whole thing. We were afraid to ask details as somehow not knowing took away some of Sylvia’s and Herlinda’s pain that they must have felt during the accident. It was all so very confusing.
Going to school in McFarland and being on this team has shaped my life in such a deep way. I am always grateful to this culture that I experienced growing up. Because my parents worked, I would have to wait for a long time at the school to be picked up. Several families in the community took me in and allowed me to stay with them after school. This Hispanic community showed such generosity and kindness to me, that I try to live my life in this same open way, to show kindness to all who I am around. I try to love as they showed me love. They would open their homes and hearts and now I try to keep my home and heart open. We also had mothers of the team that would feed us burritos before the race and make sure we were doing okay. They started enchilada fundraisers so that we could do the things that we wanted to do. These wonderful ladies have shaped me as a mother as I try to be involved in my children’s lives and show the kindness just as others showed me the same kindness.
I had a hard time growing up as I was extremely shy. Because my dad was a math teacher in McFarland, everyone assumed that my grades were good and I had this reputation that I was smart. Many didn’t know that I was struggling in school at the time. A few times I couldn’t go to meets because I was on probation. Embarrassed, I acted like I didn’t care, which was all a lie. Knowing what I do now, I see that I had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and still struggle with it as Adult ADD. This would exhibit itself through daydreaming as I had a hard time paying attention in class. Ironically, the very words that were used to encourage me to do better and work hard caused more pain as I was told that I needed to just apply myself. I didn’t want to admit that I felt like a failure. I actually did alright on my tests for not listening, but I never remembered assignments. This affected my grades drastically. I finally gave up as I couldn’t stay organized or on top of my classes. I built a wall of an attitude around me because I didn’t want to feel like a failure. Our teachers were fabulous. They went out of their way to help anyone who reached out to them for help. It was me who pushed the teachers away, refusing their help. I had my wall, yet Herlinda was a key in breaking this wall for me.
Herlinda broke my wall as she was such an example of hard work, friendship, and love. She stayed after class during breaks to ask the teachers what more she could do to bring up her grades and to do extra work to explore the class subjects even more. It would “bug” me that she went to the teachers to ask what more she could do. She was a reminder to me of what I was not. In the beginning, I didn’t like that part of her. At practice, we would run eight miles only to have her come back to say, “What else do you want us to do Mr. White?” (or Mr. Adams, whoever was there that day.) I wouldn’t talk to her as she “sided with the enemy.” Every day though, whenever she saw me, she would smile her big beautiful smile and give me the biggest “hello” as she was excited to see me. She won me over as she had a heart so good. She was an angel. I often use her example whenever someone says that someone doesn’t like them. I do not know if Herlinda knew that at first I had a hard time around her. She treated everyone the same way. She loved everyone. Before her death, I considered her one of my close friends. I want to be just like her in her friendly loving way. I want to work hard and love others as she helped me want to be a better person.
I admire Sylvia the same way. Sylvia was fun! She was always laughing and loving the life that she was given. She sometimes would have me and my sister over her house. She loved the pop culture of the time and was up to date on the hit music. She was always finding the humor in life. She and Herlinda were really the glue of the team. They loved everyone and treated everyone as their best friend. Yes, she would be outspoken and tell you how she felt, but she still was a friend. She would walk around at the meets taking everything in. I think of her of how much she enjoyed the journey. I want to love life as she does. I want to see life as colorful as she did.
The loss of these two girls broke my heart. My world stopped. Somehow, I had it in my mind that it should have been me who died. I was the one who would run in the middle of the road and they both would get after me in their own way, Herlinda shaking her head at the things I would do and Sylvia in her outspoken self. It was okay with me when they would get after me. I knew they were my friends. I often thought that it would have been better if it had been me who died as Herlinda and Sylvia worked hard and they were focused on their goals. I wasn’t at practice that day of the accident because I had detention. I remember that I started the run later and my sister, Tammy, came to get me as she had work that day. We both missed practice because of it. I had a hard time running after that. When running, it’s hard to quiet the thoughts in your head. I went to Hart Park at the area meet, yet I couldn’t bring myself to ride in the limousine they brought to drive people around the park. To me, I just didn’t want to be there at all. During the race, I just sat down. I really wanted life to stop and yet, it just kept going.
For me, the deaths actually distanced me from the other runners. We all used to joke and talk about everything and anything as we had so much fun on our adventures. Since the deaths, things were different for me. My season was over. I did join the next year, but the levity of the team had disappeared somewhat. Things weren’t the same nor could it ever be the same for me. I still love my team. I am excited for all those who were recognized through the movie. Mr. White to me is so very deserving, and the whole community is deserving of the recognition. Those teachers sacrificed for those children, staying hours after school and doing all they could to help them make a better life for themselves. There were many in the community who were involved and helped out when there was a need. These runners are deserving of the attention as they worked hard to reach and meet their goals.
MARIBEL GONZALEZ LUBEN:
My name is Maribel Gonzalez Luben, and I am Herlinda’s cousin. I grew up in McFarland with Herlinda, and we were in the same grade. Herlinda’s nickname was “Linda”, that is what everyone in the family called her. In Spanish it means “Beautiful.” Linda and I were very close and I loved her very much. I wanted to share our conversation we had that day of the accident. I was in the gym waiting for volleyball practice to start when Linda came in and said, “I’ve been looking for you. I want to see if you want to volunteer with me to decorate the float for our class for homecoming.” I said “Yes, I would, it sounds fun.” Linda said “It’s going to be a competition and we are going to win. And in order for that to happen we have to help. I’m going to ask more people. It’s going to be a great float.” She smiled and then started telling me how much she liked her team. She said, “Everyone tries so hard, everyone is really good. I really like it.” Linda then said, “Okay, Mari, I’ve got to go. I don’t want to be late for practice, and I will find out for us when and where we will work on the float, okay?” She smiled and ran out. I always remember her smile and how happy she was that day. She was so excited to go to practice, to go and run with her friends. Everyone at our school including the teachers loved Herlinda and Sylvia and I want to thank everyone for keeping them in your memory, THANK YOU so much everyone and thank you John.
SWORN TO SECRECY:
Our coaches were so hot. Imagine what it is like being a teenage girl, with raging hormones, and having coaches who look like that. One day, I came up with a plan. I was going to “faint” in front of coach Adams so that he would give me mouth-to-mouth. So I did it. He carried me into the office, put a paper bag over my face and said “breathe into this.” That didn’t work out the way I hoped it would.
Herlinda was our neighbor growing up. Ironically I’d end up marrying into her family later in life. But she and her family hold a special place in my heart regardless of relation. I remember us running back and forth between her house and ours. My older sister, Corinne, “Linda” and I would play for hours. My most vivid memories are of spending time in her room, listening to music, and making up dance routines. It was truly an innocent time. I was a couple of years younger than her. I believe she was a sophomore at the time of the accident and I was in 7th grade. At 12, you don’t fully understand death, but I do remember the days surrounding the accident. I remember because Sylvia and Corinne were good friends. I remember because I no longer could run over to her house and play. Shortly after that, her family moved away.
HOLLIE WYKOFF FREGOSO:
bounce around…… I don’t exactly know where to go with this. Well we were running….hadn’t turned back yet….and this car came and hit them.. Hit them so hard they flew to the opposite side of the road. The car kept going, didn’t stop. We ran over to them. It was the most horrific thing I have ever seen to this day. I remember it all. I’m actually crying here while I type this. Then the car came back. It was a lady driving. Come to find out I think she was a nurse from Delano. She put us in the car with her and we took off. We didn’t get too far, a school bus was coming from the opposite direction, so we went back, stopped the bus and the bus driver called for help. Minutes later the cops came and all. A police officer put us in the car and took Alicia and me home. After that there was just like a darkness around McFarland High School. Sadness. I remember the funeral. It was the largest turnout I’d ever seen. We (the team) kept running, so for that fact I believe my mom decided to get us the limo that day (of the section South Area meet.) We had done so well. I am so glad to have been on the cross country team with all these girls. I would follow Alicia around. I looked up to her. Never told her that… wish I did.
THE MEMORIAL PAGES:
The memorial pages from the 1986-87 McFarland High School yearbook.
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