I began crying in front of my fellow preschoolers. The teacher's red face ballooned up as she pointed to the corner.
What was she saying? Why was she yelling at me?
The translator dashed toward us. They started talking amongst each other in English. The other children remained silent, intently staring at the spectacle.
"Joel, since you couldn't sit still during the movie you will be getting a time out." The translator said in Spanish. It was difficult for me to find a comfortable sitting position on the ground without one of my body parts falling asleep.
Did she really need to yell at me?
I couldn't stop sobbing I cried for my mom. This was all too foreign for me I didn't feel wanted. The translator finally drove me home. My mother ran out and asked why I was distraught. I told her the story. My mother became visibly upset with my treatment and let me drop out of Pre-K.
The first year of Kindergarten was such an alienating experience. I had an English as a Second Language aide who would teach me the basics of English. Our sessions would be scheduled around playtime or any other social activities for the class. I'd sit in the tiny chair listening to the aide pronounce the alphabet in English. I'd mechanically repeat her sounds, occasionally looking back over to the class as they all finger-painted.
Why didn't they have to do this? Why was I different? These abstract thoughts gnawed at me as feelings of loneliness.
My aide continued to tutor me in English during my first few years in elementary school. She became the closest thing I had to a friend, a tiny frail bespectacled Hispanic woman. Recess was spent playing by myself or with insects. Interactions I had with other kids were constrained. I didn't really know my classmates well. How could I? I didn't speak English fluently and social time was used for extra learning. I was also terribly shy. I grew up in a rural area near the camps where my only interactions with people were laborers.
My grades improved dramatically as the years progressed. I picked up reading like a drug addiction and my lack of social prowess focused my energies on schoolwork. I made a few friends thanks to video games and TV shows. By this point my English was fluent enough people only noticed a slight accent.
This was both a blessing and a curse. As the only English speaker in my household I became the translator for my parents translating everything from bills, taxes, and public encounters with gringos. A cultural and linguistic Sherpa that helped our family unit survive within the socio-economic institutions of this country.
Finally, I was able to understand my classmates, but this was around the time I realized my brownness and the stigma it came with.
We had a "Reading with Parents" day in our third grade class. I coaxed my father into coming to read to the class. As I sat and waited, I'd watch parents read back and forth with their children, and then they would share why they liked the book. I brought four books with me just in case.
Finally, it was my turn. I saw Dad walk in with his working attire: mud-stained boots, baseball cap, and a vest. I sat on his lap and I began to read to the class. Pointing to the words when it was my father's turn slowly pronouncing it just like the aide taught me so he could participate. I heard sniggering. I looked up, brushed it off and continued. After the reading I showed everyone the four books I brought and told everyone why I liked them. A kid raised his hand.
"How did you get so many books?" He asked.
"I bought them at the thrift store! They have a whole section where you can get books for a quarter!" I said with a big smile.
"Oh, you mean the poor people's store." He cockily replied as the kids around him burst into laughter.
My face fell.
I looked over to my father who was ignorantly smiling. He didn't understand we were just openly insulted. I looked over at the other parents who were wearing clean pressed clothes on their fair skin. My face looked back down at my used t-shirt and oversized pants. Then back to my father.
I held in my tears and sat back down in quiet resignation.
These public school experiences helped mold my self-perception and worldview. I'd be a liar to say the story ended here for there are more tales to tell. Life worsened as I struggled to retain my sanity and self-esteem amidst institutionalized racism. Only recently have I started to heal the internalized racism and homophobia present in my body.
As I look around the meeting room and lecture halls I realized I was often one of the few Latinos around.
Where have they all gone? Why was I one of the "lucky" ones?