The Withered Rainbow
My mom enrolled me in preschool to get an early start on my education, both socially and academically. I also think she wanted some time to herself to get things done and relax before being a full time mom again. I wonder if she knew then how much I was really going to learn. What I learned there was more than just counting colors and reciting numbers, it was deeper than that.
I arrived at the Methodist church in Phoenix, where the preschool was held on a warm sunny day in September when I was five years old. The year was 1981. I was pretty excited to go to school, even if it wasn’t kindergarten. All the other kids I played with on the street were going to kindergarten this year except for me. Mom said it had something to do with me being born in December after the cut off date for the school entrance age. I didn’t really understand and thought it was stupid, but hey here I was going to preschool so I was happy. Boy was I in for a surprise when I got out of my mom’s Honda. There were kids of every color and size there; running across the grass, swinging on the wooden swing set, climbing the metal monkey bars. It was like a rainbow of kids and I was fascinated. Sure I had seen people of a different race when mom would take me on errands with her, but I never really interacted or paid much attention to them. I was too busy playing with the toys I would bring with me. With all these other kids I was sure to learn something about them. Mom never really treated anyone different. She talked to the black lady sales clerk at Mervyns the same way she talked to her friend Christine. So to me people were just people, but I was still curious. Heck I was five, I was curious about everything.
I couldn’t wait to get out there and start playing. I didn’t care if the other kids looked different than me, as long as they wanted to play. Two of my first friends were Amber and Heather. The three of us were trouble, racing around the playground as fast as we could, teasing boys about how slow they were. We were on top of the world.
Amber had skin the color of coffee my mom would drink in the morning with cream and sugar. Her hair was always braided with colorful beads that followed her head with each turn. She was sassy and boisterous and loved playing tag on the grassy field of the playground. Her mom was not from here and I always had trouble figuring out what she was saying because her accent was so thick. But she was nice and she always smelled like coconut oil.
Heather was your typical All- American Girl, blonde hair like corn silk and big blue eyes that reminded you of a cloudless sky. Heather was a bit quieter than Amber and I and more reserved. Heather’s parents seemed nice enough, at least to me they were, but they didn’t act the same with Amber. I didn’t really understand why until I overheard them talking to Heather one day.
It was a sunny October day, the sky was filled with a few fluffy white clouds. The grass was still green and we had just come in from playing outside in the sandbox. We had worked together to build a sandcastle and pretended we were princesses who lived there with beautiful gowns and pretty jewels. Heather’s parents were the first to arrive and watched the three of us huddle close in the soft pillows of the reading loft looking at pictures from our favorite book. Next Amber’s mom came; they had to leave quickly because her mom had to pick someone up. We all said good bye with a quick hug. My mom arrived shortly after and we were leaving when I remember my macaroni picture I had made for her so rushed inside to get it. I noticed Heather and her parents had stayed to talk to the teacher and were now standing over by the colorful wooden blocks we often built forts with. They were some of the last people in the room and were talking quietly. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but my picture was on my desk close to them.
“Heather, we don’t want you playing with Amber. She is not like you.”
“But I like her, she is my friend. Why can’t I?”
“No, you mustn’t play with her. And because we told you so.”
From the look on Heather’s face I can imagine her inner thoughts were probably similar to this:
Why don’t they want me to play with Amber? She is so much fun and can run faster than any of the boys. Sure she looks different, but so does Dina. Why can I play with Dina and not Amber? Mommy and Daddy have black friends. Daddy’s boss came over for dinner one time with his wife, and they are black. So why can’t I have black friends? Why can’t they be like Dina and Amber’s mommies? They let them play with whomever they want. They even play with us when they have time. Amber’s mom is so funny always wearing those bright clothes like Disneyland. And Dina’s mom is always giving us hugs. Why can’t they be like them?
After I heard Heather’s parents I noticed Heather started to act differently. She would wait until her parents left before she would approach Amber and I. Then she would act as if everything was normal. We would play and hang out it the reading loft telling each other secrets. But when it was time our parents to start coming to pick us up she would go and sit by herself either in the reading loft or at a table and color. Amber and I went up to her a couple of times and asked what was wrong, she would just say she was tired.
I hated that I couldn’t play with Amber but if my parents didn’t know then I could play with her when they weren’t around. I would wait until they left, I would even watch them drive away before I would join my two friends. We would play all day long like nothing was wrong but as soon as I knew it was 1:55, we learned how to read clocks last week, I would go somewhere by myself. I knew my friends were worried about me they would ask me what was wrong. I would lie and say I was tired, and they should just go play without me. Then Mommy would come and pick me up not knowing I played with Amber all day.
I figured Heather just didn’t want her parents to know she was playing with Amber, but it made me start to wonder if they had a problem with her playing with me too. I look more white than Hispanic in my features, but my deeply tanned olive skin and dark brown hair weren’t exactly like Heather’s. What if other kids parents didn’t want their kids playing with me? It made me look at everyone in a different light. I never talked to Amber about it. She and her mother moved a few months later. Her mom had a job opportunity in California. If either of them knew that Heather’s parents didn’t want her playing with Amber they never let on. Of course Heather’s parents were always nice to their faces, but there was always something. Of course I knew what it was. It seemed my beautiful rainbow of people had begun to wither.
I never really never thought about this incident since that time, but this project made me think of it more intensely. Obviously Heather knew her parents were in the wrong because she was ashamed to tell Amber that she was not supposed to play with her anymore. She was a brave little girl for standing up to them in her own way, so she could continue to have a friendship with Amber. I don’t really wonder if people judge me for my skin anymore, but this is probably because I really never had a similar situation occur in my life. I was always accepted as just me. Like I mentioned earlier I look more white than Hispanic, much to my grandfather’s dismay. Of course he got over it and loves my brother and I even if we are only a “quarter beaner” as he likes to call us from time to time. My last name is a good English last name and I don’t have any problems with being categorized as a mutt. I see it as being my own rainbow. I have so many different ethnic backgrounds to draw upon that I am not limited to one. I just wish I didn’t have to see my rainbow wither before I was able to understand the “borderlands” within our culture. If this incident had happened when I was older I may have been better equipped to understand and deal with it. As it is though I am glad that it happened, not because I see it as a good thing but rather a learning experience from which to draw upon.
Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies