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May 21, 2022

Pajaro students get history lesson of a ‘lifetime’

Foundation sends middle school students to ‘hamilton’ in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO—The Orpheum Theater in San Francisco was abuzz with excitement Wednesday afternoon as 1,500 eighth-graders from North Monterey County settled in to experience “Hamilton: An American Musical.”

Among them was the eighth-grade class from Pajaro Middle School.

“I’m really excited,” said Darlene Valenzuela, who made the trek to the city with her classmates on a large Discovery Charters bus. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

The trip was possible thanks to the Dan and Lillian King Foundation, which this year is paying for every eighth-grader in Monterey County, along with teachers and chaperones, to attend the Tony Award-winning musical about American founding father Alexander Hamilton. 

Three student groups saw the production earlier this year, and one more is scheduled to attend in February.

“By every eighth-grader, we mean every,” said foundation Executive Director Steve Collins. “Whether at a public school, private or charter… if they attend school in Monterey County, they’re going to see ‘Hamilton.’”

Dan and Lillian King were the heirs of King Ranch in Texas who moved to the Monterey Peninsula in the 1980s. When the widowed Lillian King died in 2011 at the age of 103, she left her estate to businessman Nader Agha. He established the foundation, which aims to advance the learning of the U.S. Constitution.

Board member Mark Del Piero came up with the idea for the “Hamilton” trips after the foundation sold the Kings’ $4 million house in Pacific Grove. They needed a way to spend a certain percent of the money to remain a nonprofit organization.

“Suddenly we had enough to do more than just hand out copies of the Constitution,” Collins said.

Del Piero, an alum of Pajaro Middle and Watsonville High Schools, said he wanted to do something “visionary” with the money.

“As far as I know… no one has ever done this before,” Del Piero said.

Eighth-graders from Pajaro Middle School wait for the production to begin Wednesday afternoon in the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. —Johanna Miller/The Pajaronian

Working closely with the Monterey County Office of Education, they created a curriculum surrounding “Hamilton.” Students learn about the Constitution and American history before and after the trip.

“This isn’t just a field trip, it’s an educational endeavor,” Del Piero said. “And it’s life-changing. Some kids haven’t been to a city bigger than Salinas… they haven’t seen a play, or been on a charter bus. It’s a big deal.”

Student Yvette Muñoz said she was extremely thankful to the foundation for including her school.

“Pajaro is really small,” she said. “It means so much that they considered us.”

“Hamilton” made its Off-Broadway debut in 2015. The hip-hop musical was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was inspired by the 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow.

Miranda and his father, Luis Miranda, have been in contact with the Dan and Lillian King Foundation. Del Piero said they were “instrumental” in making the trips happen.

“Luis said that when he first heard what we were trying to do, he thought it was nuts,” Del Piero said. “And yeah, logistics were overwhelming. How do you get 9,000 permission slips? How do you accommodate nutritional needs? There were so many little things.”

The endeavor cost the Dan and Lillian King Foundation about $2 million. Group discounts were applied for the tickets, and the board worked closely with Discovery Charters president Rich Dora to arrange transportation.

“Without question, it’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done,” Del Piero said. “Given the kids’ reactions… they can’t believe people would give them a gift like this. But they’ve earned it. It’s a privilege and honor to do this for them.”

In their words

Following the production, Pajaro Middle School Principal Christopher Harris held a discussion with Valenzuela, Muñoz and other students who were eager to share their thoughts.

“How the sound and light came together… the timing was amazing,” said Valenzuela. “I couldn’t believe how they sang and danced in those costumes all at the same time.”

Valenzuela’s classmate, Joey Sanchez, was impressed with the sets and choreography.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Sanchez said. “They’d run on and off the stage… it was like an illusion.”

The students praised “Hamilton” for its ability to make history exciting and relatable, and thanked the Dan and Lillian King Foundation for the experience.

“It hit me by surprise,” said Natalie Ortega-Hernandez. “A big foundation donating money to us? To Pajaro?”

Sanchez agreed.

“Honestly, what are the odds?” he said. “I want to thank them for giving us the chance to see this musical. It means a lot.”

For Muñoz, the trip held a special personal significance.

“I’ve always wanted to go to a theater because someday, I want to do that,” she said. “I want to sing like that. I want to be on that stage.”

At one point, Harris asked the group what they learned about Hamilton himself.

Student Eddie Omelas-Zepeda was quick to respond.

“Hamilton was an orphan… an immigrant,” Omelas-Zepeda said. “He came from nothing but he became something.”

Johanna Miller
Reporter Johanna Miller grew up in Watsonville, attending local public schools and Cabrillo College before transferring to Pacific University Oregon to study Literature. She covers arts and culture, business and agriculture.

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