SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2007 Personal Memory Ethnographies
WIDE EYEDThe alarm goes off and I awake with the sudden feeling of sickly nerves. My stomach feels like it is full of an angry swarm of butterflies. I roll out of bed, and turn on the radio to start the morning. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is the song playing, and it seems a perfect combination for the way I am feeling. This is a day that will remain enshrined in my mind as a rite of passage, a threshold into the abyss of manhood. This is the first day of the ninth grade. It’s early September, in the year 1986. I finish dressing and stand in front of the mirror to admire my new school clothes. The bright blue of my short sleeve shirt, emblazoned with a picture of a surfboard, reflects warmly back to me. I can’t help but admire my summer tan and the way it makes my white skin look like I’ve spent the majority of the summer at the lake. Standing there enjoying the feel of my new Reebok Velcro strapped high-tops, I revel in the feeling of excitement, in the feeling of the unexpected. I have no way of knowing that something is definitely going to happen later that day, something that will tear down my perceptions of social difference.
Powell Jr. High is located in the heart of Mesa, Arizona. It sits on the cross streets of Extension and 8th Avenue. This particular part of town also has a high dense population of Mexican-Americans. Because of the school’s location, it isn’t uncommon for the majority of the student body to be Mexican-American. Neighboring students attend from a geographical area that includes a small population of “white” students. Tension seemed to be running high through these opposite neighborhoods with the recent passing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Passed in 1986, its main objective was to stop illegal immigration from Mexico. In our country, and especially in a “border state” such as Arizona, there was heightened attention towards Mexican-Americans. This affected the parents of these students in this community. Members of these families were still living in Mexico and would cross the border illegally. The Immigration Reform and Control Act also made it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers. These Mexican-American students felt injustice that their parents and older siblings could not work in a country that had deemed them “illegal.” Many “white” students from middle class families did not have a sense of this conflict. They were removed from the ramifications of such national policy in their neighborhoods. The only time they were confronted with it was when tension from these two groups unfortunately collided.
I decide to ride my Rob Roscopp skateboard to school, and I’m very careful that I don’t get too hot and break out in a sweat. Hair gel is meticulously combed into my styled hair and the slightest bit of moisture could dampen the cleverly cropped spikes. I reach the school grounds and the smell of the fresh, cut grass from the football field fills me with energy. I casually work my way over to the locker cages. The sight of the metal Junior High locker cages first appears ominous. It looms as an iron structure in the middle of a welcoming school. I approach with trepidation, swallow to moisten my dry throat and enter to find my locker.
The muffled roar of chatting students feels like a wave that could swallow me. There are so many people side by side, I’m not sure how they all fit in here. I immediately realize that the chatting students are speaking in a language I do not understand. I keep listening and realize they are speaking Spanish. Looking around, I see many Mexican-American students. The sound of the Spanish is like rapid music. It seems too quick to be anything communicative. It isn’t like anything I have heard before. There are so many people speaking Spanish and it is so fast! There is a lyrical quality to it, which is why it sounds like music. It has a sort of beat to its pattern and I can’t help but stare at the Spanish speaking students. One of them turns to see me watching, and motioning to his friends, moves closer to see who it is that is staring so intently.
The difference in colors of skin suddenly becomes alarming to me, the only white student in the locker cages. I had never sensed it was such a difference until I suddenly find myself surrounded by darker skinned students. The Mexican-American students begin to ask me questions in Spanish and unable to respond, I can only look from face to face struggling to understand. One of the Mexican-American students seems to say something particularly amusing, because after he says it, they all burst out laughing. This is repeated several times until it seems everyone in the locker cage is laughing. From my peripheral vision, I see another Mexican-American student approaching. The other students begin to disperse and I finally let out a sigh of relief as I continue to search my mind for meaning. The Mexican-American student I saw from my periphery steps into view again and he waves a friendly hello.
“Hi. My name is Freddie Gonzalez. Don’t mind those guys, they were just messing with you.” Freddie reaches out his hand and I shake it wearily. “My name is Steve and I’m glad to hear you say that. I wasn’t sure what they were saying.” I reach into my backpack and begin to hurriedly shove books into my locker. Freddie then says, “They were asking if you had ever seen an illegal alien before because you were staring at them.” I slowly drop my eyes to the ground, and am unable to respond or say anything for a couple of seconds. “I guess I was staring. I just hadn’t heard so much Spanish and I was wondering what they were saying.” John lets out a slight laugh, “Yeah. I guess I understand. I moved here from Mexico when I was 6, and I didn’t understand English when I first went to school.” I looked quickly back up, “Really?” “Yeah, really!” says Freddie. He continues, “Those guys don’t mean you any harm, maybe I can help you learn some Spanish so you can begin to understand it.” “That is so cool! You would really do that?” I ask, “Of course,” replies Freddie. We both remain talking by the locker until we hear the sound of the first hour bell. It pierces the now quiet air in the locker cage and we hurry off to find our first hour class.
I may not have had a full understanding of current national events, but this interaction in the locker cages taught me something. All the discussion of illegal aliens had never had much of an impact until I felt like the “alien.” I was a part of something defining, something memorable. The incident in 9th grade was broader than just several Mexican-American students giving a white student a hard time. It was a foundational experience of language and cultural awareness. It was a personal encounter with people from a different ethnic background. It was an encounter in a social setting that forced interaction in a completely new way. This first day of 9th grade was indeed a rite of passage, a day of crossing the threshold into manhood. But, carefully combed hair and high topped shoes suddenly gave way to more important things. It was my beginning of social awareness in a society of cultural diversity.
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