Both sides of my family have been in south Texas since it was part of Mexico and a colony of Spain, hundreds of years.
My mother grew up as a migrant worker in the 30s and 40s, traveling from south Texas to Michigan to Colorado to Ohio and any farm in between where there was work. She had a 6th grade education, but went back to school in her 50s to get a GED. She was a racist. She hated white people, black people, and any Hispanic person who was not American, unless you were South American for some reason. It was okay if a Hispanic person was from somewhere else but did have the fair skin, fair hair and eyes of the European Spanish. If you were a dark Spaniard that was okay, as long as you were actually from Spain. If push came to shove, regardless of where you were from, if you were Hispanic you were okay.
She never forgave me for marrying a white man. She would not call my husband by name, and I had to finally put my foot down. She said my daughter looked like any other white girl to her, although my daughter is a head-turning beauty (and incredibly smart, always testing in the 1 percentile, but intelligence never really mattered to her either).
My dad, however, was a completely different story.
More beneath the red-rimmed clouds of a silver sunset sky from the American Southwest.
I was born in 1954. Some say that was the year Rock and Roll was born. I don’t know, but I lived through the evolution of it. I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on television. I saw the moon landing, I grew up through the Viet Nam War, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and John and Bobby Kennedy. I cried through the funerals. I watched my father and his brothers and sisters watching television intently during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with a fear on their faces I had never seen, and I never saw again after Kruschev blinked.
And, yes, I watched intently, alongside my father, as Lyndon Johnson strong-armed Congress into passing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, speaking of the Great Society he wanted America to create. “This is not a Black Problem, this is not a Southern Problem, this is not a Northern Problem, this is an American Problem.”
My father was a mailman most of his life, a union man, who was active in organizing. He had three close buddies while I was growing up, a white man, a black man, and a Hispanic man. They spent much of their time together, fishing, hunting, talking and drinking. They would come over to our farm and sometimes bring their kids, and we would all play together outside. None of them except my father’s Hispanic friend and his family were allowed inside the house, because of my mother.
My father talked to us about the prejudice he lived through as a child, like being a star athlete but never being given any equipment to use for baseball, football and track, and he could never ride in the bus with the white kids to go to games or track meets. There are other stories of murder and intimidation. The white people in the town were very adamant about Mexican-Americans and black people staying in their place. There was a joke going around at the time:
A black man goes to vote and pays his poll tax, and the white people say he has to pass a literacy test before he can vote, so he says okay. They ask him who wrote The Tempest, he says, that’s easy, William Shakespeare. So they give him an algebraic problem to solve and he solves it. So they hand him a newpaper that’s in Chinese and ask him if he knows what it says. He says, yes, I know what it says. The white people look at each other incredulously and ask him what it says. He says, it says this n***r’s not going to be able to vote.
My father’s family always discussed politics and current events while I was growing up. Some of them went on to college because learning and education were very important to them. For this my mother said they wanted to be white. My father and his brothers and sisters were all about standing their ground as Americans and wanting the same rights as all Americans. They paid the poll taxes to vote before the Voting Rights Act was enacted. They organized the Mexican-Americans in town to vote.
My dad talked to us about what great men Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson were. He admired Lyndon Johnson very much because King would never have been able to achieve the change he wanted without the political strength of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson will forever be remembered for the fiasco that was Viet Nam, which is unfortunate, because he really accomplished some of the most important legislation in the history of non-white Americans.
Even as I was growing up, walking alone while Mexican-American made a target for rocks thrown, slurs shouted, lazy Mexican, dirty Mexican, wet-back, spick, and probably other names I didn’t understand as a child. We were segregated for the most part, with four elementary schools, one for Mexicans, one for blacks, one for whites, and one that was integrated by farmers, ranchers, blacks and Mexican-Americans. In the 70s the schools were finally integrated after a fire in the black school. The kids tried to escape the top floors of the 4 story building and the fire escape collapsed because it had never been maintained, killing some of the children.
I was at a friend’s house one day and we had been playing with the black kids that lived behind her. When we went inside, my friend said we had to wash our hands. I asked why and she said because we had been touching the black kids. At the age of 9, I knew that was wrong and my heart ached because of it, and I refused. She just shook her head at me like I was crazy.
My father’s stories and his love of his friends impressed me for the rest of my life. His involvement in the union and his actions for equality helped make me who I am today. He was far from a perfect man, but this part of him I will always love.
My children are half Hispanic and half white. They look exotic, with pale skin, dark hair and golden eyes but the features of native Americans somewhere in there. They only consider themselves American, not white, not Hispanic. Which one is more important? Neither.
My daughter was in the Peace Corps in an Eastern Carribean nation and had a class one day that was on Martin Luther King Day. She asked the kids if they knew who he was. They very excitedly said yes, he was a great man who worked for freedom and equality, but the white people killed him. She told them, no, the white people didn’t kill him, it was one white man who acted alone. She then went on to tell them about the abolitionists, Lincoln, the Congressmen who passed the Civil Rights Act and others who helped. It was a lesson for all of them.
I have very dear friends who worry for their African American sons every day, because of stories like Trayvon Martin’s. My heart aches for them too.
My heart aches for all the stories of ignorance and prejudice that still abound.
I cannot offer my grief and sorrow to Trayvon’s family on behalf of all Hispanic people. I can only offer my own. I am very sorry for what happened to your son. We are not all like that.