El Raton y El Gato

The Melting Pot

When Zora Neale Hurston worked for the Works Progress Administration as a folklorist, she advocated for an expedition to collect folk songs in Florida. Having grown up in Eatonville, Florida, she knew the region well. In her expedition proposal, she wrote:

Recordings in Florida will be like backtracking a large part of the United States, Europe and Africa for these elements have been attracted here and brought a gift to Florida culture each in its own way. The drums throb: Africa by way of Cuba; Africa by way of the British West Indies; Africa by way of Haiti and Martinique; Africa by way of Central and South America. Old Spain speaks through many interpreters. Old England speaks through black, white and intermediate lips. Florida, the inner melting pot of the great melting pot — America.

Carita Doggett Corse, state director of the Federal Writers' Project, offered support for Hurston's proposal:

I believe that Zora can assist the expedition in getting excellent and original recordings in the State. If possible, she should accompany the expedition on its trip through Florida, as she has an intimate knowledge of folk song and folklore sources in the State.

Ask students to consider Hurston's description of Florida.

  • What does it mean for America, and Florida, to be a "melting pot?"
  • How does folk music relate to this characterization? Why is the "melting pot" characterization an argument for preserving music in this region?
  • Would you call your community a melting pot? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree with Corse's opinion that someone with "intimate knowledge" of a community would be valuable in its study? Why or why not?

Students' thinking on these questions may deepen as they explore some of the resulting folk-song collection, including El Raton y El Gato.

Folk Songs at School

In this 1940 recording from Key West, Dalia Soto teaches El Raton y El Gato to a group of students at the San Carlos Institute. The Institute was founded in 1871 and continues today. It was established by the Cuban exile community in Key West to preserve Cuban heritage. As part of this mission, it operated one of America's first bilingual, racially integrated schools. The field notes of the 1940 expedition describes one San Carlos teacher as, "employed by the Cuban government to teach, in Spanish, at the San Carlos Institute."

Sing and Play

The recording transcript provides an English translation, if necessary, to understand the main idea of the song. Based on the text, ask students to predict how children might move and play while singing this song.

Though the 1940 study does not describe the game, many other sources describe a chasing game involving a circle of children, a rat, and a cat. The children stand in a circle, holding hands. The rat stands inside the circle, while the cat prowls outside. During verses 3 and 4, the cat attempts to sneak through the circle's clasped hands to catch the rat. An alternate version describes the rat weaving in and out among the cirlced children, ducking underneath clasped hands, throughout the third and fourth verse. The cat must chase, following the rat's exact path, while attempting to overtake and catch the rat. In both versions, at the end of the song, the victorious cat or rat selects new children for the animals' roles in the next round.

  • Why would a teacher at the San Carlos Institute choose to teach this song to the students? What community values or social skills could a young child learn through play with El Raton y El Gato?
  • How does playing and singing change students' perspectives on the lives of students at the San Carlos Institute and the value Zora Neale Hurston saw in preserving Florida's musical melting pot?