SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2005        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Tommy Aguila

That Mexican Kid

The elementary school that I attended from the second grade through the sixth was a private, religion based institution. The school was relatively small; there was only one class for each grade (K-8), with approximately 25 students in each class. Third grade was a crucial year because I began to learn to write in cursive, school books started to have more pages with fewer pictures, and we started to study history. It was also the year in which I realized that a difference existed between me and other students in the class.

Curtis was the person who started the introductions that evening. “My name is Curtis Juneau, my mom’s name is Kelly, and my dad’s is David; we attend this Lutheran Church.” After Curtis was done speaking, the class clapped and the teacher welcomed their family. Then the next child introduced her parents. One by one, the rest of the kids made their introductions in a similar manner as Curtis, introducing their mother and father and their affiliation with the church.
Each year, the school would have an open house where the children would show what they had accomplished so far in school. It was also an opportunity where the parents could meet the other parents, and be able to discuss any questions they had with the teacher. But that year, the school tried a “new and improved” way to run the open house. Each of the classes would meet with their parents sitting alongside their child at their assigned desk, and the student would introduce their parents to the whole class.

My desk was a significant object to me. It was my spot, a fixed setting during the sometimes chaotic school days. The desk somewhat represented a safe area. In my desk, I was able to store my personal items that couldn’t be taken away and used by just anyone. And the desk represented a place reserved for me in that classroom.

Man I’m tired; I work here all day and now I have to wait and listen to everyone go through their introductions. I just want to see Kyle; just get this over with. And, there’s that Mexican kid in the class.
My turn occurred halfway through all the introductions, and I remember saying, “My name is Tommy Aguila and this is my grandma, her name is Anna.”

It figures his parents wouldn’t show up. I’ve never heard Kyle talk about him; I don’t remember him registering as a new member of the church, either. Though I did hear about him being a year and half behind the rest of the class and having difficulty with his homework. Well, kids who grow up without both parents in the household do have less of a chance of being successful. I’m really surprised he speaks without a Spanish accent.

After my introduction, there was a long pause, and then the next student went on with their parents’ introduction and their affiliation with the church.

Okay son, here’s your chance make me proud. “My name is Kyle Boer. This is my mom Lisa and my dad, Perry. My dad is also a teacher here at the school.” That’s my boy; a great student and athlete.

The time when open house occurred was significant to me. This was one of the few times students would be at school in the evening, and I always wondered what school was like after the students left. The timing of open house was important because this setting allowed for us to meet our classmates’ parents.

Through this new method of conducting open house, I realized there was a difference between myself and my fellow students; I was the only student to have my grandmother with me rather than having both my mother and father like everyone else. In addition to not having my parents attend the open house with me, I was not a member of the church.

The personalities of my classmates/friends changed when they were in the presence of their parents. Their behavior went from that of a playful kid to a parent’s obedient child. They forfeited their individuality to now behave as to what was expected of them under the scrutiny of their parents.

When this particular incident first occurred, I became aware that there was some kind of difference between me and the other kids. That night I was excited to see what school was like at night, but what I experienced was that I was different from my classmates and friends in more than one way. Not only was I a child of a single-parent, that was not a member of the church, but I was also the only child of color not only in my class but in the whole school; which resulted in a sort of culture shock.

Growing up, I liked to feel as though I was a part of the group; accepted. I was never a person who exhibited any stereotypical behaviors of my Hispanic ethnicity or that of a broken home situation. But at school, there were those students and faculty members who would not accept me because of my skin color or family situation based on their prejudiced beliefs. This still occurs to this day. White individuals often assume that I speak Spanish, while Hispanics are not accepting because I can’t speak Spanish and don’t act in similar manners as they do. So I am not fully accepted by either group. The school incident made me aware of how people will treat those who do not fit into their perception of the norm. It wasn’t until taking this college course that I could make sense of what I experienced at school. Also, I have now been also made aware that others experience similar and even more extreme prejudices everyday.

After reading the book, White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, edited by Paula S. Rothenberg (2005), I became aware that Hispanics are legally considered to be white. This racial classification was campaigned by a group of Mexican Americans, mostly urban and middle class, who founded their own organization in 1929 called the League of United Latin American Citizens, LULAC. LULAC’s main purpose is to develop and maintain correct racial understandings for Latin American U.S. citizens as whites.

Individuals with white privilege don’t seem to accept this perspective and even current Latino advocates align Hispanics as being other than white. Arizona has many debates about issues of immigration with Mexico. Having grown up in Arizona during a time when the state experienced intense immigration, it was ironic that I attended a school where I was the only student of color. Since we live in a state with a history of immigration, it is disturbing to realize that those individuals associated with my educational institution viewed me as a foreigner or “alien”, even though my family members and I are all American citizens.

LULAC’s efforts, originating back in 1929, were being refuted when I was an adolescent. These efforts continue to be denied or challenged as I am an adult. Just as it happened to me in grade school, there is still a division, a border that is established by individuals with white privilege who see me not as an individual, but rather as just “that Mexican kid.”

Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage