Overcoming prejudice

By Jilma Armijo –

Prejudice according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, is a judgment or opinion formed before the facts are known- a preconceived idea, favorable or, more usually, an unfavorable one marked as by suspicion, fear, or hatred.

Jilma Armijo

I was not aware of the existence of prejudice or racism during the first 14 years of my life, when I lived in Central America. As examples of prejudice, I offer the following personal anecdotes.

Although I was a very small child, I was aware of the differences between social classes. I noticed that my family and I had more money and dressed better than our maids did, and that they ate in the kitchen, by themselves. I remember hearing people talk about “gente de clase baja” (low class people) and about the “peones” (day laborers), with disdain. I also noticed that my parents always helped those people who were less fortunate that we were.

My maternal grandmother, I have been told, was a kind and very beautiful woman with light brown hair, blue eyes and skin that looked like porcelain. My grandfather and my six aunts and one uncle were also fair skinned.

My father, a young attorney and a politician with a brilliant future ahead of him, came to call on my mother. They say that at first, my grandmother didn’t like him because he was “moreno”, (dark complexioned). After she knew him better and found out the kind of person my father was, she said that my father was the only dark skinned person she would accept in the family. She admired him, respected him loved him; and he turned out to be her favorite son-in-law.

Nicaragua, 1945

My brother, who was a young attorney in Managua, was asked to suggest a nice young man to escort my cousin’s daughter to a dance. My brother mentioned one of his friends, who was also a lawyer, and the son of a very wealthy man, who owned the biggest mattress factory in Nicaragua. My cousin was indignant as she said, “How could you think that my daughter could go out with the son of a mattress maker?”

Los Angeles, California, 1946

Several students and I were sitting around a table at the high school library. Some of the students were reading, others were doing research and some of them were joking and talking loudly. The librarian walked directly to me and without investigating the situation, said, “You foreigners don’t know how to behave in a library.” She would not allow me to explain, and while some of the students sneered, she escorted me out of the library.

That evening at dinnertime, my brother-in-law asked me what kind of day I had, as he usually did. I mentioned the incident and he wrote a letter of complaint to the school or to the Board of Education. I don’t remember being singled out unjustly again, after that time.

New Orleans, Louisiana, 1949

This is where I saw real prejudice, racism and discrimination for the first time. The “colored” signs were offensive to me. I thought it was a terrible injustice to make black people sit at the rear of the bus, and worse yet, to make them stand even when there were empty seats in the front of the bus.

In retrospect, I remember that some of the black people sitting at the back of the bus had skin the same color as mine and some were lighter than I was.

How would I have felt if I had been asked to move to the back of the bus?

Restaurants, restrooms and water fountains were also segregated and there were not as many facilities available for black people as there were for white people. I also read many articles stating that there were major disparities between the white and black schools. I will never understand why white people feel that they have to keep other people down.

Houston, Texas, 1952

My husband was offered a good job in Houston, as an airline dispatcher. We thought about it very carefully because we had heard and read that there was strong prejudice against Mexicans in Texas and that in many places there were signs that said, “No Mexicans or dogs allowed.”

At that time I thought that I could be prevented from entering certain places or that I could be thrown out of a place because someone thought I was Mexican.

Would I have to wear a sign on my chest stating “I am a Nicaraguan, not a Mexican?” Would these people know the difference?

My husband did not accept the job offer. We decided that we did not want to bring up our children in an environment where there was such prejudice, so we moved to California instead. California’s gain, Texas’ loss!

Lake Havasu City, Arizona, 1976

My husband and I opened a real estate company, and to promote business, I sent a letter to all local real estate brokers, offering to pay a commission split higher than normal, to any company that sold our listings. I was told that when one of the brokers read my letter he became very upset and that he said, “She won’t last long. We will show her that foreigners can not just walk in here and take our business.”

My company remained in business about 10 years longer that his.

I consider myself a very fortunate person. As a child, I was loved and nurtured by my parents and I was taught that I should respect people and their beliefs, even when they did not agree with mine. The worth of a person should be measured by their behavior, their good deeds and what they do with their lives and not by the color of their skin. They cultivated my self-esteem, made me feel that I was worthy of love and respect, and naturally, I expected to be loved and respected and I was.

In the great scheme of life, my personal experiences with prejudice, racism and discrimination have been insignificant and hardly worth remembering. I have always been proud of my heritage, and I believe, as my parents did, that knowing more than one language is an asset and not a liability. My husband and I tried to instill the same pride in our children, and I think I we succeeded.

Furthermore, I am convinced that by marrying foreigners, my husband and I enriched not only our lives but also the lives of our children, and grandchildren by assimilating the best of both cultures.

Jilma Armijo was born in 1929 in Zacapa, Guatemala, while her Nicaraguan parents were in exile. Coming from a long line of storytellers, Jilma began writing these stories in her second language at the golden age of 70. As the youngest of six children, she was an avid listener. Jilma wrote this piece in October 2000 and she passed away on October 21, 2011.

Originally published at latina-voices.com on May 13, 2015.