My Road, My America

With racism, people who will never walk my road deny my road even exists.

I was born in Los Angeles, my mom in Texas and my dad in Mexico. They met in Juarez, Mexico, and eventually moved to Los Angeles where they opened a successful restaurant. My dad didn’t get past the eighth grade, but he taught himself to read and write in English.

My husband and two children moved with me to Frederick County, Maryland ten years ago, and I have to admit, I was worried about what it would be like. Mount Airy did not have high numbers of minorities, but the people I did meet were friendly and open. Best decision we ever made. The schools are fantastic, the area is beautiful, and not once in nine years did I experience overt racism.

I volunteered at the kids’ school and consider myself blessed to call Frederick home. Five years ago my family and I lost our home to a fire. We lost everything. But I can’t think of that tragedy without feeling immensely grateful and fortunate because my community supported me - no, buoyed me -  and I am eternally grateful. Strangers and friends shared tears with me, looked for my lost dog and kept me in their thoughts for months. Frederick has my heart, and I truly believe I wouldn’t have received such an outpouring from any other place.

So, it’s been painful to see the changes I see to my town, the town I associate with so much good. Since Donald Trump began his campaign with saying that most Mexican immigrants are rapists, I have been cursed at for wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, verbally jeered at, endured patrons at restaurants loudly berating Mexicans, and have had my kid be told she’d be deported. My third generation, American-born kid. 

It just seems to me when people define the American experience, they completely leave out my America.

I am angry at the open racism that seems to now be acceptable. I am a proud woman of color, and I wonder how people can be so ignorant. But truthfully, more than mad, I’m broken hearted. I look at my history and see the picture of assimilation. And yet, I, and my child that looks like me, are still thought of as “other.”

The elementary school I attended had predominantly Mexican students. Spanish was commonly spoken, and we did the Sombrero dance at celebrations. My grade school class was all Latino, save for one white guy, one Chinese guy and two black guys. The people in my community were mostly Latino as well, and plenty of them didn’t speak much English. Mariachi music was played at all celebrations and salsa verde was served with our Thanksgiving turkey.

In ninth grade, I went to high school at an all girls’ Catholic school run by liberal nuns in the middle of Hollywood. It was my first experience with a large mix of different races, primarily white, my first time as a minority.

I vividly remember a student explaining she didn’t like the word “Chicana” or “Mexican American,” because she preferred “American Mexican.” American first. It really spoke to me, but as I got older, I realized I was “Mexican American” because that is what people see. And the more I hear the insults against fellow Mexican Americans, the more I embrace Mexican. 

People can wholeheartedly believe that they are flattering me, and not realize the way their words reflect their stereotyping of me. “Compliments” I’ve received from people not of color include:

1) “Are you sure you’re Mexican?  You must have something else in you. You’re so pretty.”

2) “I knew you were Mexican as soon as I saw you. I love your people. (My maid, my landscapers, etc.) are so (kind, honest, good at cooking). I just love people like you.”

People can wholeheartedly believe that they are flattering me, and not realize the way their words reflect their stereotyping of me.

Folks have no problem comparing me to new immigrant maids and menial workers. I think the work is noble - but were your last name O’Brian, can you imagine someone telling you they “know” you because they were served beer by a recent Irish immigrant?  I’m a 50-year-old woman, a college grad, a professional (my last job was as human resources director for over 400 employees at  ITT , who manufactured radar) yet I’m loved because I’m just like their help.

And that’s when people are trying to be nice. A few years back, a young boy sang the national anthem in a mariachi suit. He did a fabulous job, and yet he received thousands of comments telling him to go back to Mexico. The boy’s performance was American; it represented my experience in Los Angeles, a city full of Mexican history. But millions of Americans don’t see it that way. Remember the guy at the Republican National Convention in 2016 ranting about having to listen to “their music”? That’s probably our music he’s talking about. And it’s played all over California which I’d love dear Middle America to acknowledge. Instead, my American life is constantly called foreign. 

I’m told that there is no “white” privilege. I had dinner with a dear friend and on the way in, I was harassed because of my ethnicity. After we settled down, she told me she had thought I had always made too much of race, but now she understood. And that’s the thing: how do you know there is no racism if you have never been the victim of it? 

The denial that my experience is different is rooted in a blissful ignorance. I never turn on the television, go to the movies, or look at any group in power and expect to see anyone that looks like me. When a news story is reported about any sort of crime, no matter how petty, I cringe, say a prayer and cross my fingers as I look for the name of the person who committed the crime. “Please don’t let them have a Latin name,” I recite over and over again.

I was with a Turkish friend after the Boston bombing and she let me know that she and her friends wanted Americans to know they were so sorry for his behavior. It’s a thing we “ethnic” people do: worry about crazy strangers we never met and how their actions affect the way people see us.

I was thrilled the first time I went to an American Girl store in Los Angeles, because there were actually girl dolls that looked like me and mine. Then I saw their Hall of Fame on the second floor, and not one doll that looked like me. Not even one minority. I could go on and on with ways my American life is different because of the color of my skin.

I’m told that there is no ‘white privilege.’ How do you know there is no racism if you have never been the victim of it?

Even my very liberal friends, whom I love, say things that doubt my experience. “I don’t think it’s racist;” “It’s not that bad;” “Are you sure it’s racist?;” and, “Maybe they meant it nice”, etc. You get the picture. I get they don’t want to know someone was intentionally ugly to me. I wish with every fiber of my being for the same thing. Or, they try to tell me how to handle it. I’ve been told to ignore and get over it because it’s just an ignorant person. Sure, but it still hurts to be dehumanized and I’m the only one in my group being subject to that behavior. Or better, the advice is for me to retaliate in some way with a witty remark or an insult of my own.

Nothing in me is ready for a witty retort when I’m in a situation where I’m being racially targeted. And as most people question racism, I also question it. I hope I’m wrong, even though my gut knows I’m spot on. When I get home, I think of all the things I should have said but I was busy justifying my feelings in my head and holding myself together.

When someone has extensively traveled a road you’ve never seen, you usually will trust they know the markers on the road better than you. But with racism, people who will never walk my road deny my road even exists.  Ignorance isn’t a bad thing, but willful ignorance in this case is based on denying what I, and all people of color, know to be true. I’m still waiting for a person not of color to not see the racism I see and say, “I don’t see it, but you would know better. Can you explain it to me so I can understand?” 

I don’t think the world is full of racists. I know it isn’t. The majority of people are kind. I truly believe that. It just seems to me when people define the American experience, they completely leave out my America. I’m second generation born, and yet people still ask where I’m from. When does my childhood America get stitched into the quilt of Americana?

Originally published in The Frederick Extra