SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2008        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Bernadette Laborin

Fear of Hate

One day, when I was about 10 years old my mom and I took a quick trip to the new Wal-Mart store that just opened up on Bell Road.  It was summertime and my mom’s car didn’t have air conditioning, but we both wanted to get out of the house.  So she suggested we take a trip to Wal-Mart up the street, and since it was so close, we wouldn’t be in the car long.   For the most part, our shopping trip was pretty uneventful, I do remember that the store was very busy and there were a lot of people shopping and looking around inside the new store.  Everything inside the store was bright and clean and all the clerk and customers had smiling faces.

Several years ago I worked for a Wal-Mart store in North Glendale; I transferred to this particular location because I was tired of all the Mexicans who couldn’t speak English when I worked at the Maryvale location.  Mexicans would always come shopping at Wal-Mart with their food stamps and 100 kids, looking to buy more diapers and pinto beans.  The Glendale Wal-Mart became a more convenient location for me too, since I just moved into a new trailer with my boyfriend.

At some point during our shopping, my mother decided to buy some fabric.  There was only one customer service clerk in the department and she was pretty busy so I didn’t give it a second thought when she didn’t greet us, but she was greeting others.  As my mother selected her fabric I observed that the clerk was smiling and making small talk as she was measuring and cutting fabric for the other customers.

It had been a pleasant day at work, just helping little old white ladies with their purchases.  Most customers were Sun City residents and American and spoke English, so my job was very easy; just cut and tag fabric all day.  Life was good I made just enough money to supply my boyfriend and I with plenty of Budweiser and Hot Pockets.  But one day at work my day quickly turned to crap when I saw that wetback and her little beaner come in.  I hoped that the wetback and her kid would just pass my department and leave me alone, but they were already shopping for fabric.  I saw the little beaner look at me, but I just pretended that she wasn’t there.  As a clerk, I knew I would have to help the mama wetback if she needed it, but I don’t speak wetback, so her little beaner will need to translate.  Well, sure enough those beaners were in my line, standing stupid with smiles on their faces.  Maybe mama wetback just got paid from the houses she cleaned and they were on a shopping spree.

As we waited our turn, the clerk again made small talk with the customer in front of us about how busy the store had been since its opening and where did everyone go before Wal-Mart opened.  As we approached the cutting table my mother and I both noticed that the clerks face immediately turned to stone when it was our turn.  My mother, who is a very social person, gave her a friendly hello and told her how much fabric to cut.  The clerk made no eye contact with my mom, didn’t say a word to her, just cut the fabric as asked and slid it across the table to her.  To add insult to injury, my mother watched her as we left and the moment we walked away the clerk was her happy go lucky self again.

So there the two wetbacks stood in front of me, mama wetback said what she needed, miraculously in English. I didn’t bother to care much, I just cut what was needed and handed it back.  Mama wetback was staring at me and I could tell she was mad.  The little beaner looked scared. Oh well, good ridden wetbacks, go back to Mexico is what I was thinking.  I should have told those wetbacks that Wal-Mart doesn’t take pesos at the register. 

To this day I don’t have words for how I felt….. Shocked, embarrassed maybe, but for being so young, I knew exactly what it was.  I’m not sure how because I never encountered prejudice before, but I knew exactly why she didn’t like us.  My mother was furious.  I remember her being just livid and wanting to go to the customer service counter and talk to the manager to let him/her know that they hired a racist.  I know my mom can get really loud and I didn’t want her to cause a scene, so I made excuses for the store clerk. I begged and begged her not to tell anyone about what happened, I just wanted to leave!  It was the kind of wanting to leave that sat at the bottom of my stomach and made me sick.  I didn’t feel better again until we were safe in our car driving home.  I remember not wanting to go back to Wal-Mart to shop for a long time and I remember avoiding going near the fabric department.

That event changed me.  To this day just thinking about it makes me feel intimidated and as if I may never fully be accepted in society because of the color of my skin.  I spent a large majority of my life living in blissful ignorance of acceptance within my own community of family, friends and school.  My parents are first generation Mexican-Americans and speak very good English (as a second language), and they provided a lifestyle in what I consider middle class; my siblings and I attended private schools, we moved out of the barrio when I was very young and lived in a big house with a pool.  So, according to my cousins, we were rich.  The point of all that is that we were around white people a lot in the neighborhood we lived in but never fully associated with people in our new neighborhood.

This incident truly smacked me in the face with the reality that someone hated me specifically because I’m brown.  It was my first encounter with racism and I’ll never forget how frightening this experience was.  Racism can be very powerful and very difficult to dismiss when it happens to you, especially as a young child.  This incident changed the way I think about other people.  I question other people’s attitudes. Are they just having a bad day?  Is it me they don’t like?   I spend more time than necessary analyzing a stranger’s attitude towards me, sometimes looking to justify how they interact with me because a large part of me still doesn’t want to acknowledge people’s prejudices.  Looking back and remembering the incident, I wish I would not have stopped my mom from confronting the store clerk, or at least complaining to the store manager.  The store manager had a right to know what happened.  I think of all the opportunities that store clerk was given to treat people badly.
I know this incident sticks out for me because my family was fairly new to the neighborhood and although we had established ourselves at home, my family didn’t venture out much into the neighborhood.  We were comfortable within our own walls and with each other; home was a safe place but there was a whole outside world that we didn’t associate with.  What I mean is that my family and I still only interacted with the same people and patronized the same stores that we shopped at when we lived in the barrio.  For instance, our home was only one mile from the closest grocery store, but we would trek 10 plus miles to our old neighborhood to shop.  Our old grocery store was familiar and my mom would see her friends shopping too.  But now I think that that it was more than just the familiarity of the barrio or our favorite grocery store because they were also safe places.  Moving to a new neighborhood is one thing.  But moving to a new neighborhood and being the only Mexicans in that neighborhood is something different.  It was different for us because our old neighborhood was all Mexicans.  All the kids were brown and all our parents knew each other and spoke both Spanish and English.  I was safe because we were familiar and we saw ourselves in the people we associated with.

So with all of that history about how my childhood was lived I was use to relating to people and other kids that looked like me.  That kind of childhood doesn’t prepare you for what the real world is all about.  Reality came full circle for me that day.  When my mother and I walked into Wal-Mart we didn’t feel intimidated or unwelcome but coming face to face with such hatred the way we did from that store clerk was a reality check.  I think I learned that day that this is a world that I had to make a life for myself in and at that time it was a very scary future to contemplate.

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