I grew up in a racist family and didn’t know it.
It was that hushed racism that so often occurs in white America, where they don’t go to KKK rallies or shave their head or compile weapons for the upcoming revolution. No, instead they only associated with white people, and when the doors closed and only family was around, they told racial jokes and used the “N” word, which I was not allowed to use myself.
As I got older and chose friends of color, from every imaginable ethnic background, my parents’ jokes weren’t quite so easy to swallow anymore, and their comments about my friends were unsettling. They’d complain if I came home from someone’s house and smelled like their food, or they’d comment on the dwindling number of white kids in my class photos. It was Chicago, and I thought the diversity was cool, but my parents could not find a German enough neighborhood anymore, and it bothered them.
By the time I was in high school, we were living in the suburbs, a white-washed area of people just like them. It wasn’t long before Hispanic kids started showing up in my high school, and I gravitated toward them. My parents referred to them all as “Mexicans”, though my closest friend’s parents were from El Salvador, another from Puerto Rico and more from other countries south of our border. They were all the same to my parents: Mexicans.
We had fights. Oh, did we have fights! Mostly because they denied being racists and claimed to have friends who were black or Hispanic, but when I challenged them to name one who had been to our house, there were no answers.
When I was in my late 20s, my mom, dad, and I were all working for the same company in various capacities, and the owner hired a helper for my dad, who was running the warehouse. That assistant was Angel, a very hard-working, young Hispanic man, who had a wife and children, went to church, and treated my dad like his mentor, both personally and professionally, not because he was white, but because he had more life experience. Angel was my dad’s favorite, the only person who worked as hard as him, was as devoted and respectful, and could be counted on to work despite all health issues and never take a vacation. Dad and Angel would be on the phone frequently in the evenings, laughing and talking about things, my dad doling out advice like a father. Angel would put his kids on the phone so they would know my dad, and my dad was great with his kids. They loved each other as grown men do. There was nothing my dad wouldn’t do for Angel and his family.
This whole situation changed things for my parents. Mom still thought Hispanics were below her, interpreted my dad’s relationship with Angel as charity and revered Dad for his patience. Dad and I had a few fights when he’d say something derogative about Mexicans and I’d immediately throw in his face that Angel is Mexican, and how would he feel if Angel heard him saying these things. Eventually his closeness with Angel defeated his racist attitude toward Latinos, which was a small miracle. My mom, on the other hand, was hopeless.
In 2004, when my dad died, he and Angel hadn’t been working together in a couple years, though they did stay in touch. Angel had a breakdown when he found out about my dad dying, kept calling our house crying, completely unable to deal with the grief. At the memorial service he showed up barely able to keep it together, trembling from holding back the pain, his face puffy, eyes red, chin quivering. I took one look at him and told everyone around to keep him away from my mom, that the two of them would exacerbate the other’s hysterics and I couldn’t deal with both of them out of control together. Mutual friends would walk him outside every time he started to break down, and soon he couldn’t keep it together enough to go back into the funeral home at all, so he was abandoned in the parking lot. At one point, a cousin came in to say the nice Mexican man was outside, had thrown himself on the hood of my dad’s signature Cadillac, and was sobbing uncontrollably. I was a rock that day, the dutiful daughter, greeting guests, shaking hands, hugging, thanking everyone for coming, not a tear in sight. Not until I got out to the parking lot and had to pry Angel from the car, and beg him to go home.
I never saw Angel again, though he called my mom for about a year, always checking on her, wanting to take care of her in honor of my dad. Mom didn’t see him as a blessing, an conscientious man, someone to redeem his entire culture. She saw him as a meal-ticket. Like she saw everyone after my dad died. What could she get out of them? My dad’s friends were taking her out to eat, handing her a few hundred dollars at a casino and telling her to have fun, bringing her gifts, essentially filling the role of my dad so she wasn’t sad and lonely. She milked it. Her social schedule was full and she was always getting dressed up to go places with my dad’s friends. It lasted about 6 months and then they slowly dropped off, feeling used. Angel kept calling, kept checking on her, kept trying. Eventually it stopped and I was too afraid to ask her why, what had she done to chase away even Angel, the most devoted and noble man she would ever encounter other than my dad. The idea gives me chills.
Now that I’m Mom-free, there’s an odd relaxation about racial tensions. My brother is with a girl who is half-Mexican, and they were together two years when my mom was dying and begging to meet her, but Chris wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t put his girlfriend through that. I can’t blame him. Even on her deathbed, being cared for by Asian and Hispanic women, Mom was demanding they cook her American food, not disgusting Filipino food, which they weren’t, but she assumed anything she didn’t like was an ethnic food. (One day I challenged her to point out anything not American on her menu and she went over the entire month’s meals and pointed to steamed vegetables, saying Americans don’t steam vegetables, they boil them!)
I live in a town that is a majority Hispanic, the poverty rate high, and I hate myself for never learning Spanish. These are my people, now. My neighbors, my peers. We help one another, we watch out for one another, and we care about one another. Sometimes I chuckle when I think about how much this would disgust my parents 30 years ago, but I find it poetic.
It’s come to my attention that between Common Core and a superintendent who is not remotely interested in the Hispanic population, Spanish-speaking children coming into the school district aren’t being taught literacy well. Many come from homes where their parents speak Spanish but are not literate, and they’re being submerged in English classes, where they eventually pick up the language but have missed that crucial literacy instruction, and now we have 3rd and 4th graders who cannot read, not in Spanish, and not in English. It breaks my heart how some bad administrative decisions can set a generation of kids back 50, if not 100 years by denying them reading and writing education. All Hispanics. My heart breaks with this knowledge.
As a librarian, and as someone who has money at my disposal for programming for the community, I’ve spent 9 months pleading my case to various bosses and people in charge, would they please let me start a Spanish literacy program here. There’s been much resistance, some maybes, some head shakes, and some warnings that we’d be stepping on toes, some political toes, and it could be bad news for the library. Twofold, there is a non-profit in town with a literacy grant, but they’re not helping the right people in the right way; and there are community leaders who will make a gigantic fuss about using library funds to teach literacy in Spanish to Spanish-speakers. (The first argument would be that we shouldn’t be spending tax money on teaching Spanish reading and writing in an English country, and the second argument would be that they should already know reading and writing in English before they move here. And there would be a handful of accusations about most being illegal, and surely we weren’t going to help them in any way.) The Adminisphere has repeatedly listened to my pleas, nodded in understanding and then cringed, putting me on the back burner.
This week, the local non-profit lost their grant for Spanish literacy and the program came to an abrupt halt.
I hadn’t realized what this meant to me and my crusade until our PR person at work came to me and said, “I heard you wanted to start a Spanish literacy program. Did you hear? We could be the only game in town. Now is the time to run with this!” I told her I have connections in the schools, and I have a certified teacher who wholeheartedly wants to teach it, but we just need an OK and some money. She promised to lean hard, because it really needs to happen.
Here I am, 42 years old, putting all my heart into trying to help a culture that my parents spoke about with whispered disdain. It’s interesting how parents try to shape their children, impart their beliefs and morals, and steer in the same direction they themselves were steered into; but life has a way of educating beyond the parents. Right and wrong, when inappropriately taught in the home, are still achievable in the real world.
Every day I’m grateful for the life lessons I got outside my home, and the stark and considerable contrast between the right-and-wrong I was taught by my family, and the right-and-wrong I hold onto today.
And I’m grateful to Angel for changing my father in ways that I could not.