SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2004        Personal Memory Ethnographies

J. Melodee Gentry

Peeping Gringo

     I know this. In 1980-something, when I was a child, an older child, we had new neighbors move in across the street from our house in Phoenix. Neighbor is a word I use casually here since they remained little more than strangers with a similar address. My new neighbors, the strangers, were Mexican. I knew this although I don’t remember being told. I watched from behind a closed curtain as they moved in, settled in, stayed in that house that was on the other side of the street just feet away from my own front yard, climbing tree, and mailbox. I was both fascinated by and wary of them. Only people just like my family had lived on our street before—people that were working class with too many kids to keep track of and stay at home moms, and dogs named Bingo—white people.

    We just moved in to the neighborhood. I thought this would be a good opportunity, an investment, something that could change the future of my family. It is amazing how foreign this neighborhood feels, how distant I feel from the bricks and trees and cars that represent the blank faces of those surrounding us. This is harder than I imagined, being isolated among so many…our every movement is simultaneously being ignored and tracked. We are here and not here, alive to ourselves, dead to the world.

    I see the curtains move from across the street, I hear children’s laughter, smell their family’s dinner, watch too as their minivan pulls in and out with daily consistency. I am angry at their distance—I look at my own children and see that they have no playmates on this street. I wonder why it must always be this way….

The drawn curtain was the only direct entrance I made into their lives. I would listen to their loud music reverberate the windows with a heavy Latin beat, lyrically foreign—I would then listen to my father and the neighbors like us complain about their loudness, their taste, their difference. This was my first understanding of a language and culture divide, and I experienced it from a type of border segregating 39th. Avenue. I had not personally known anyone who spoke another language, could not perceive them as part of our group because they could not communicate with us—I do not recall ever believing that we should be more active in learning their language so as to communicate with them.

Driving in after a long day at school, I would get out of the car to be welcomed by the tantalizing smell of corn tamales, spicy enchiladas, and sweet corn cakes; meanwhile our dinner was meat and potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs. My family never welcomed them to the neighborhood with a standard batch of cookies.

    I saw them do the things we did with each other, playing outside, greeting the rain. They remained inside their property lines. I cannot remember how many children they had or if they had any at all. I was a spy, investigating from a peephole in my curtain, hoping to see something that would explain why we were on one side of the street and why they were on the other…why we stayed that way.

These memories in me are broken and separated from the rest of my childhood memories. Reflection is unsettling because it brings into question my parent’s attitudes and prejudice, and I don’t know if I am ready to credit them with any of the racism in me. I look back now, and wonder where this family is, what I lost from not knowing them beyond our property lines, how they were affected by our silence. 

I have a good job now. I am determined to see my family succeed despite of our isolation. My frustration sometimes acts as a handicap, for every day of my children’s lives I feel more engulfed by the injustices of this land; my frustration also provokes me into being. My anger, my sadness, the emotions that exist as roommates in this home—I do not want to be like them, do not want my children to be like them. Can’t they see that? I tell my family to live proudly, to be Mexican. So we cook our tamales and dance indoors to the music of ourselves, to the rhythm of our history. But we are careful still, not to do so too loudly, lest we provoke the fear in them….

I remember, because it is time to remember. I owe it to the Mexican family who never authentically became our neighbors, I owe it to myself. Remembering always ushers in hindsight—an awareness of our flaws, those of the people we loved and followed. It lends us understanding of why we continue to flow in a cyclical pattern of thinking and believing, why we must fight as adults those patterns we absorbed in our youth.

    It is only now that I am able to attach meaning to the memories—not because I am brave enough to turn a critical eye inward, but because I am too afraid of how much more I could lose, how much more I can hurt…My sense of self was aligned with the rest of the neighborhood.  My perception is that we all felt and acted in much the same regard; the shirking of difference. I was also aligned with my family. As a young girl I fought for my sense of identity; I was not equipped, not in my family, not in my church, not in my private school, to address and fight for the identities of those around me, especially those who were assembled differently. My ignorance was secure, my world fairly isolated. For even when worlds collided, I had the luxury of choice to remain on my side of the street, only to look and see and feel on the terms I felt comfortable exploring. I could judge and have no one judge me in return. I was afraid then of their difference; I am more afraid now of not seeing it, not appreciating it.

    When I was a child, I thought like a child; I was told liberty and justice for all—I was also shown the discrepancy in the interpretation of liberty and justice. Those in my world attached terms and conditions to every deserving right…myself included. That is why I write, why I remember, because of my error.

Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage