SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2002        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Pedro Ayala

My Brown Skin and
My Journey with the National Organization

In order to get to the San Fernando Valley from the Hollywood Freeway you need to climb a steep hill, not as steep as the one on the 405 Freeway but steep. At the top of the climb is the exit to Universal Studio, and for about 5 second you have a view of the entire San Fernando Valley. I recall from my first trip, saying to myself that I had never been this far, that I hadn’t realized how big the City of Los Angeles was. Those five seconds changed my sense of whom I was and where I belonged.

For a teenage a boy growing up in the barrio neighborhoods of East Los Angeles and more specifically Boyle Heights, the San Fernando Valley is a distant and foreign place. It is the place that gave birth to a new dialect of English, where the pretty white girls live and everyone had a big beautiful house or so I had heard and seen on television. It’s the place where men and women from my neighborhood took long bus trips every day, to toil and sweat in order to nourish and sustain their families. It is also the place that in my head I see as the portal to a new world, new opportunities and a life path of compromise.

In the fall of 1979 I started high school; I went to Theodore Roosevelt High home of the Rough Riders. The schools’ student body was comprised of 85% Hispanics or Mexicans with the remaining 15% being split up among African -Americans and Asians. For most of my life up to this point I was somewhat oblivious to the issues of class and race. Growing up where I did, most everyone was Black or Mexican. Your family was on welfare or not and you either spoke Spanish or not. This was the reality of my teenage life, I did not worry about being compared to a white person or gaining opportunity because of the color on my skin.But that was soon to change.

My life was changed the day I joined the National Organization Youth Club at school. Opportunities that I could never have imagined to be mine became all available to me. Doing things that were new to me, traveling to places I had only seen on television or postcards, were all made possible because of the National Organization. Of course there was a price to be paid for these opportunities and at the time I wasn’t sure what that meant for me in the long term. Fortunately there was my friend Virginia Chavez that helped me get started on my journey.

I remember meeting Pedro in the fall of 1979. He was a very nice young man and very interested in the National Organization programs that I was coordinating at Roosevelt High School. I am Virginia Chavez, National Organization Youth Club sponsor and long time personal friend of Pedro’s.

We at the National Organization were looking at how we could increase our number of minority youth in our programs. We were concentrating on schools with high numbers of minority students. Our intent of course was to give these students some new opportunities at the same time gain minority volunteer numbers.I know that for Pedro being a member of the National Organization Club was a life changing experience. 

Our trip to the San Fernando Valley was more than just a trip to a new community, for Pedro it was an opportunity to venture out of his familiar territory. This was an opportunity to interact and develop personal friendships with people outside of his culture. I don’t believe that Pedro at that moment realized the many opportunities that the National Organization would offer him nor do I think he realized what he did for the National Organization. During our drive to San Fernando, Pedro had lots of question about how he could do more for people through the National Organization.His desire to be of service was an opportunity for the National Organization.At the same time, I also can see how Pedro over the years has felt that he has been used by the National Organization for his minority status.

My particular incident has been an ongoing journey. When I first began the journey my issues were simple; would I like the new people I met? Would I enjoy the various trainings and activities? Would the work be fun? These were my basic concerns at the time. Race and racism quite frankly was not a concern, although I certainly did not want to appear to be dumb or an un-cool Mexican.

I remember the 1980’s as the "Minority Decade". If your skin tone was brown or black or shades thereof, you were “In”. Groups wanted you, colleges enticed you with scholarships, and opportunities for minorities were plentiful. Of courses when you’re seventeen years old you may be oblivious to the reasons why, as I was. It was the en-vogue thing to do, minorities like me were critical to every institution Study after study during the 1980's prophesized how the Hispanic/ Latino community was going to explode and that in order to stay head of the curve institutions needed to act. Corporations, schools, and organizations needed to recruit us and bring us into the fold, not doing so would have a devastating impact on the bottom line. 

For the National Organization it was no different and even to this date we are trying to distance ourselves from our image as a predominately White organization. In the early years of my affiliation the recognition and opportunities that were available to me astounded me. It seemed that over night I became a spokesperson for the National Organization in Los Angeles on every Spanish language station. I was everywhere; at award banquets, special events at Dodgers Stadium, anywhere and every that a brown face was needed by the National Organization, I was there. Now again, at the time it was cool. I kept saying to myself, how many teens my age get these opportunities. I am grateful for every single one of those opportunities. I only wish that I had realized what it all meant, that to a certain degree, I had a bit of power and a lot of voice. I was the resident Mexican teen that held the key to Mexican thought and culture. My opinion within the organization mattered and had an impact on what programs were pursued or not.

Today, I take that responsibility much more seriously and to heart. I understand my role and accept it. I have chosen and remain in this profession because it brings much satisfaction and I still have lots to say.

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