SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2015       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Jovita Trujillo

Everything Isn't Always Black and White

The changing conditions of infrastructure, landscaping and even levels of litter as you travel from the streets in the East to the avenues in the West clearly illustrate some kind of separation within the city. West Phoenix is home to a multitude of Hispanics; even some of my closest friends come from Mexican, Cuban, and Salvadorian backgrounds. Here, brown faces crowd shopping plazas and parks and Mexican restaurants such as the Filiberto’s chains can be found on almost every block. Growing up in the West Valley, I find myself lacking a sense of personal identity because I am living in the midst of a culture that I may look a part of, but that I am not able to fully grasp. I come from multiple ethnic backgrounds; Native American on my mother’s side and Spanish/Mexican on my father’s.  My mother has been a single parent since I was 3 years old, and even before then my father was rarely around. Because of this, as I grow older I feel as if I was robbed of the opportunity to learn about this other heritage that silently flows through my blood.

Some of the very first encounters I have had with the concept of “difference” actually happened quite frequently as a child. Growing up here on the West side of the valley and going to school, I have always felt a bit different than my peers. I knew I had plenty in common with my friends and those in my community; however, there was much dissimilarity that I began to notice. One of the things I had to deal with growing up was the burden of not knowing how to speak Spanish. Although at times I felt isolated when my friends or even family would speak the language around me and I could not partake, nobody intentionally made me feel alienated for not sharing this part of the culture until one day in the 5th or 6th grade.

Looking back at the scene now, the tetherball courts themselves created a sense of segregation within the school that day. As I looked out to the field to select a court to approach, I noticed that there was only one that I felt I could play at comfortably. One court was dominantly male and the other was occupied by two foreign exchange students from the Sudan whom I recognized from my math class. The only logical way for me to go was towards the court with one girl there, so off I raced to snag the next game. As I approach the courts, I was confronted by a girl, who was upset that I had beaten her to the court and was stepping up to play. She began speaking to me in Spanish, so I let her know that I only spoke English. The girl continues to confront me in Spanish and I hear her mumble words, including the phrase “pinche india” while her friend snickered in the background. Although I didn’t speak the language, I knew enough to know that she was not giving me a compliment.

I noticed a girl storming in from the opposite side of the playground and she cut in front of me just as I approached the court. Already annoyed by the unequal dismissal process in the lunch room, I asked her what her problem was. At first, she remained silent and I was furious that someone would blatantly ignore me in this situation. A few moments later, she replies in English that she did not understand. I became enraged because this girl was clearly Mexican, she shared my skin and hair color, and we even wore the same style clothes. She obviously knows how to speak Spanish, so she has to be messing with me. Once I realized she was not like me after she persisted in denying her language abilities, I pointed out to my friend that she had to be Indian. I was never comfortable interacting with people who didn’t speak Spanish because everyone I was close to uses the language. I was raised to believe that those “gringos” who did not understand this part of our culture, were all out to get us.

I remember feeling confused and even ashamed about what she had said. This was the first time I experienced ridicule for being different. Many times before I’d seen kids who were made fun of for not being able to speak English, but somehow this time tables were turned.

At the time of the incident, I was not over 10 years old, young-minded, and almost oblivious to the fact that I was living during a period of significant social change.  Even immediately after the incident, I did not understand the significance of this small schoolyard quarrel in relation to the way society as a whole was evolving. It wasn’t until I grew older that I began to understand the shift society was undergoing from a more distinct “black and white” to diversified and colorful. In recent years minority populations, in particular Hispanics, have begun to be recognized as major parts of society. The way the U.S. census has developed throughout the years is a key indicator of this particular shift in the social order. In 1970, the census was updated for the first time to include a category for those of “Hispanic origin” whom were previously counted as white only. This small change on paper signified the drastic changes in population as more Mexican immigrants came to the United States both legally and illegally. After the Immigration Act, legal immigrants increased annually from 500,000-700,000. Because of this substantial rise in numbers, one outcome of the act was the strengthening of the U.S. border patrol to keep numbers from rising.  However, later, the census was yet again revised to mirror the rise of the Hispanic population as well as other mixes of race throughout the nation. A multiple race option was added to the census in 2002 which gave a person the opportunity to identify with 2 or more of the primary racial categories. Multiracial and ethnic people are no longer constrained to identify with just one of their backgrounds, now they are given the opportunity to express themselves more honestly and confidently.

This was an extraordinary signifier that the U.S. is aware and becoming somewhat more accepting of non-white, non-English speaking peoples becoming a part of the broader culture. Shortly after the census was revised, Latinos were pronounced the nation’s largest minority group when figures revealed that the Latino population was at 37.1 million in 2003. With massive numbers like this, it is evident that Latinos have established a significant role in the U.S. that cannot be ignored. Prior to the incident on the playground, I never felt isolated because I didn’t share the same cultural practices as my peers. However, certain events in history occurring within this timeframe help to understand why the girl acted the way she did. The period this incident fell into was one of significant social change and Mexicans in my community were beginning to understand their great contributions to the U.S., therefore giving Latinos in general confidence in their status here. Considering this idea now, the incident was a reflection of the swing of society from one that was once dominated by white only, to one that is becoming increasingly influenced by those of color. Now, those people and practices that were previously the norm are being shifted towards being the unfamiliar.

It is no longer a surprise when I see jalapeño-flavored everything when I go to the grocery store, or when I see a Filiberto’s on every street corner. Although it was a shock when I heard Mexican music playing in my local Walgreens earlier this year, I have learned to accept the Hispanic culture that I am somewhat a part of not only because it is in my blood, but because I am inevitably exposed to it in some way because it has become so deeply rooted within the streets and avenues of the place that I call home, Phoenix, Arizona.

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