Judith B. Edwards
Like a map and the many colorful divisions drawn to separate its many states and create distinct “fronteras”, the cities within which we live also create the distinctness between the multitudes of people who live within them. North Phoenix and South Phoenix, although within the same city and state and only a few minutes apart, were at one time many worlds away. Lifestyles, norms, customs, value systems, languages and many other things created barriers and separated these two worlds.
I was born in 1973 of Mexican parents who came to the United States for a better life. Life as I knew it was normal. I lived in South Phoenix, 20th Street and Southern to be exact. South Phoenix, according to outsiders was thought of as a not well kept up, poor area, filled with minorities and infested with gangs, crime and violence. This location was not a place where many wanted to venture, but only went to visit there solely on a “need to basis”.
The South Side was never known to be the best place to live or obtain a great education, however, this was to be my destiny. Growing up, I lived in and around familiar surroundings, the constant ring of gun shots, crime, Black people and Mexican people were all a norm to me. It wasn’t something different or to be frightened of, it was just the way of life in the neighborhood I lived in.
As a way to progress and provide a better life for us, my parents opened several businesses throughout the valley. One of my parents’ stores was situated in Sunnyslope, not far from Sunnyslope Elementary. The Sunnyslope area, during this time, was a nice place. Nice housing, clean streets, a seemingly quiet neighborhood, unlike the barrio in which I was growing up and had grown accustomed to. This is where I began my journey of finding out my differences and “cruzando las fronteras” within the cities.
Having no one ever at home to take care of me was one of the reasons why my parents enrolled me in Sunnyslope Elementary. But the primary reason, was so that I could obtain a better education; one that I would not receive at any institution down South. At times I wish to forget my memories of attending public school, but if forgotten I would not have had the strength to write about them in this personal ethnography.
Life as I knew it changed when I was sent to Sunnyslope Elementary, a predominantly white school. It was different from my barrio home surroundings, where people were different and dressed differently. There were only a handful of minorities in my new school; one could count us all on two hands. Our color, our lifestyles and our language made us distinct.
As a child, I was shy, quiet and insecure. This added to the already mounting pressures of being different, speaking a different language (Spanish was my first language) and being placed in different surroundings at such a young age. The change was very difficult for me. There was no real time in between to adjust. I was thrust into this new culture. To fit in, meant that I would need to learn the English language and would also have to become high maintenance with my attire.
My first grade experience as I remember it today was the worst. My first known language was Spanish. It was difficult for me in Mrs. Cronin’s class. She was an old wrinkled lady who smelled of sweet perfume, whose fragrance I can still vividly remember today. She was mean and had little patience with me and my language barrier. I hated Mrs. Cronin and the frustration that she would cause me. However, instead of giving in to the frustration and giving up, I applied myself even more, inspired by the desire to conquer what made me different.
By the sixth grade, I had learned the language and was proficient in English. I enjoyed school and the friends that I had made along the way were a melting pot of different faces, colors and ages. I saw no difference on the exterior or the interior of my friends, we were all the same.
Short and stocky, tall and slender, short and brown; Mike, Trevor and Kathy were my three friends in the sixth grade on the playground that eventful and life changing day. We were hanging out at recess having a good time and a good conversation, until a “white kid”, came along and we had an exchange of words that to this day I cannot recall. My only recollection was of him spitting at my feet and calling me a spic. What was a spic? I was too young and undoubtedly naïve to understand, but my friend Mike knew the meaning and was immediately infuriated and got into a fight with the “white boy”.
What made me so different, aside from my dark brown hair, eyes and skin? I spoke the same language, I acted the same, I even dressed the same. Being spit at and called a spic opened my eyes to the naivety I held in thinking that everyone was the same, that name, color or origin did not matter. Although the color of my skin was very apparent, I never fully understood what made me so different. Why was I different to many, but just “Judy” to others?
As I went on to Royal Palm Junior High School, things began to change. I began to dress and act as the other “white” kids. Money was never an issue growing up in my home, not once did I ever wear the same clothes twice or repeat clothing throughout the year; I wore name brands. I spoke the same language, I articulated myself well. I did not even have an accent and had lost my cultural identity. I spoke the same slang, “Like for sure…(valley girl talk)”. With the mere fact of wanting to fit in, I became an entirely different person.
Relating with my parents was now different as well; getting them to see things from my vantage point was difficult. Coming back home to the South Side was also different. I shunned the kids in my neighborhood. I acted as if I was better than they and had better things than they did. I was now different even in my own surroundings.
At the end of my eighth grade, my biggest nightmare began. I was told that I would have to attend a different high school than my life long friends. Somehow, the school system found out that I did not live within the school district. Due to this fact, my parents were advised that they would need to pay “X” amount for me to be able to attend Sunnyslope High School. Was this a way to filter out the minorities from their schooling system? Was it that possibly “my people” were invading white public schools and the district feared giving “us” the same opportunities to excel as they had? To this day, I am not certain as to how the school system got wind of the fact that I did not live in the area.
Having to leave the world I had embraced, even though it was not my own, I began to feel like a stranger in a new and different world. I was once again uprooted and made to feel different, but now in surroundings which should have already been familiar to me. I recall feeling upset that I would have to leave my friends behind and have to pick up at another school where I knew no one. In part, I also recall feeling fear of the high school I would be attending. Even though the surroundings and cultures would be very familiar to me, I was scared because I had been exposed and adapted to another culture that was not my own.
In my “homeland” I was never called a spic. But I was still treated differently upon my return from my lengthy journey and stay in North Phoenix for the better part of my earlier years. Sitting on the stairwell by the Science building at South Mountain High School during lunch, I found myself alone and scared. Dressed in the name brands that I had worn previously, I obviously did not fit in with the kids who dressed humbly with what their parents could afford. It was never my parents’ intent to make me feel different, but to have a better life than they did and to obtain a better education and better possibilities for a successful future than that of the barrio kids. What had made me different up north and able adapt, now contributed to making me different down south. The color of my skin did not match the clothes I wore, the articulation of my English and the lifestyle I led. Even in my own surroundings, everything I knew as a child, the neighborhood in which I lived, now that I was entering adulthood, seemed so different.
Reflecting on the many years that have passed since these events in my childhood, I do not think that I would have changed a thing. I believe that my experiences in both cultures, both worlds, were sobering and humbling experiences. I believe that the reason why these incidents still stay with me today is because they have assisted in shaping me into who I am; content with the person that I am, not the person that I think others want me to be. It has also assisted me in making many choices in life and helped me to be sensitive to all people regardless of race or origin; to treat everyone with dignity and respect; to get to know people for who they are and not the color of their skin; to experience new cultures, new foods, new customs, etc.
I am thankful to Mike and Trevor, who played an integral part in my life and left an imprint on it forever. The way that they stood up for Kathy and I, is something that I will never forget. They could have easily just ignored the boy’s comment and let it go, but instead, they stood by their friends and fought for what they knew was right. Their ability to see no color, have no boundaries and show no difference between us and stand up to their own people in defense of two others of a completely different race was admirable and courageous. We all knew, even at an early age, that although we were “different”, we still deserved as much respect as any other person of any other color.
As I sit and write my ethnography, I think to myself, had the outcomes of my differences been any different, my life could have been impacted in a negative way. I might have grown up to be a bitter and hateful person towards all other races. I am happy to say that this wasn’t the case, or else I would not have married my Asian American husband and we would not end up having a “melting pot” family of our own. I know that when the time comes, my children too will endure many differences. But “that which does not kill them will only make them stronger,” and they will prevail in life as I have.
Today, as I drove through the city and into the borderlands I traveled once before, the city in which I grew up and learned valuable lessons of being different has come full circle. Sunnyslope, the place of supposed riches, nice housing and highly populated with White families has now become a place into which I could now culturally fit. It is now a community where I would no longer be different, but might well turn the tables on the white boy who spit at my feet. Hispanics here now roam the streets carelessly and there are a multitude of Hispanic businesses that pop up left and right with signs in Spanish and English. The North Phoenix of “then” has now become the South Phoenix of always, just as many feared; the drug infested streets, the gangs and violence now overrule the city. Who would now be the stranger in this “ciudad de la zona fronteriza”, this borderland city?
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