I was discussing Michelle Obama with a friend of mine last week. We were talking about what she said versus what she was alleged to have said. He was upset that she may have said what the pundits and loose cannons said she said.
I, personally, couldn't understand why this whole thing was such a big deal. I asked him if he knew what it was like growing up in America as a Black Female. Of course he didn't; he isn't Black and obviously not female. I then asked him if it would be so far fetched that a person of color may not be proud of the way her country has treated her. After thinking about what I said he answered "no."
Michelle Obama has been on my mind since then.
I am a Brown female who has grown up in America. I am betting Michelle Obama and I have much to share about growing up in an America that, despite our rich cultural history, still does not understand our differences. Differences in faith, language, food, rites of passage, family structure, choice of music, clothing....and color of skin.
I want to share some of my best stories with you.
I knew I was different when I was very young. My grandparents spoke Spanish in their home. So did my Dad and all of my Uncles and Aunts. I was not taught Spanish because my Dad didn't want me to be punished for it. He did not want me to be different. While attending public schools in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my Dad would be punished if he spoke Spanish. He wasn't punished by being placed in the corner of the room. He was struck. Not by lightening fast words mind you. He would be physically punished by his teacher. Even though my Dad's family has been in Albuquerque since 1608 the decendants of the original Conquistadores were not allowed to speak their native tongue at school. This was his reality which eventually became mine.
We travelled quite a bit when I was young. I left the U.S. when I was five and didn't return until my fifth grade year. We lived mostly in Southeast Asia which was a life altering experience for me. I loved living overseas. I could be myself there. Most of the schools I attended had grades one through six in one classroom. All of the American kids hung together. We didn't notice race because, well, we were all Americans.
Things changed when we came back to the States to live. For a short while we lived in Fairfax, Virginia. Instantly I became "different" again. The first day I attended my first ever American school my teacher announced my arrival to the class. She butchered my name. Even after I corrected her, she continued to call me something that sounded very French, not Spanish. I assimilated. What else can a fifth grader do when her teacher ignores her pleas to correctly pronounce her name? And, I was the only kid of color in the school. There weren't any Black kids and only one Jewish kid that I was aware of. Kids whispered behind my back in the lunch line. The giggles behind me would attack my central nervous system. Then came the questions.
"What kind of last name is that?"
"Are you Mexican?"
"Do you speak English?"
At the lunch table they would examine my lunch to see what I brought to eat. I was eating the same food they were. But, somehow, my food was so much different than theirs. They couldn't get over it.
For a family of six airfare was brutal for my parents. Family vacations were spent in our station wagon. We would drive home to Albuquerque to see our family each year. One drive home I will remember for the rest of my life. As we drove through the Texas panhandle we stopped to get some breakfast at a diner.
I ordered pancakes. After the pancakes arrived I lathered them up with butter and syrup and then cut into them for my first bite. Guess what I found? The line cook had put pickles in my pancakes. I was furious. How could someone be so stupid as to put pickles in pancakes? I showed them to my Dad. Instead of coming to my defense and getting me some new pancakes Dad left money on the table and we got out of Dodge.
He got it. He understood. We were not welcome in this diner. At the time I was angry with my Father for not making it right for his family. Today I understand completely what he did and why he did it.
It is one thing being a colorful kid in America, it is another being a colorful working woman in America.
After graduating from college my first big job was in Phoenix, Arizona. I worked at a mortage bank. It was an entry level position; a grunt job that came without power or any type of recognition. I actually liked what I did and felt a great sense of personal pride in the work I was accomplishing.
Until that one day. Everything changed for me. Someone figured out what my maiden name was.
I was stopped on the stairs that led up to the building by a woman I worked with.
"I heard you are Mexican" she bluntly stated to me. WTF?
I responded "I am not Mexican. I am from New Mexico." At that time I didn't call myself a "Hispanic." I didn't call myself anything. But "they" did. I was a woman from New Mexico who had some incredible history behind me. But these folks weren't going to understand that. They were ignorant. I now had a label. I was something other than a colleague to them. I was a Mexican. It got worse.
After the news broke that I was a Mexican, their curiousity peaked. One woman actually took it upon herself to walk up to me, grab my arm and stroke it.
"What are you doing?" I asked her as I drew my arm back. She replied "I just wanted to see how a Mexican felt." To this day I wonder exactly why she touched me. What was she thinking? Did she think that my arm would be greasy? Why did she think she had the right to do this to me? Was her overall perception of Mexicans so low that she felt she had the right to violate my personal space; that I had no feelings whatsoever?
This happened twenty-two years ago and I still become enraged when I think about it today. I can still see her face with her coy little smile as she touched my arm.
Racism had its way of rearing its ugly head into my personal life as well. I had a mother-in-law who couldn't stand the thought of her son being married to a "Mexican." She was so incensed at the thought of me being part of her family that she refused to receive any pictures of our wedding. Even after her grandchildren were born she could not get past the color of my skin. I have two daughters, one lighter like her Father, and one dark, like me. My mother-in-law would only show affection to the lighter grandchild. She completely ignored my brown headed, brown eyed, darker skinned child.
I can honestly say there have been times in my life that I have been less proud of my America.
This doesn't mean that I hate my country or that I am less loyal to it. It just means that I recognize we have problems that need to be fixed. It just means that at times we are an ignorant people who let fear of others get the best of us.
Not only is another world possible, She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. ~Arundhati Roy
As this election progresses I will continue to think of Michelle Obama and what she has gone through to get to where she is. I am sure she has traversed some dangerous paths. But I see things changing. I am thrilled that we have a Black man and a Woman running for President. A new world is coming.
Yes, we can.
Si, se puede.
Thanks for reading this.