SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2009       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Suzanne De Lay

Heart v Mind

I grew up in Oceanside, California and attended an elementary school and junior high school where whites were the minority. I grew up with gangs, but never felt afraid of violence against me. The schools I attended started to teach the white kids Spanish in pre-school because there were so few of us that they believed it would be easier to teach us Spanish to communicate with the other kids then to teach the non- English speaking kids English because there were so many. I learned at a very young age how to prepare Mexican food dishes from my friends’ parents and grew up believing that it wasn’t a party if it didn’t have a pinata. I remember all of my friends being Hispanic, Black, or Indian; in fact I had very few white friends. I was invited into their culture and accepted no matter what my skin color was or how much money my mother made.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories were of going to my friends homes while they had parties and all of the food and people that were there. The guests were neighbors and family members and the parties were inside, outside, and continued down the block. I honestly felt like I was part of their family, accepted. I remember becoming jealous because I knew I would never be able to have a Quinceaneras because I was not Mexican. Oh how I wanted to be able to have a coming of age party and dress up so pretty with all of the attention focused on me! Of course this is coming from the mind of a child. I was never judged by the fact that I was poor or lived in a mobile home and that my mother was on welfare. My friends and their families judged me by my heart and my kindness. I was raised in an environment of acceptance even though I was the poor white girl. Never in a million years did I think that my life would change, but it did when I was fourteen and we moved from California to Glendale, Arizona.

My mother and I inherited my grandmother’s home in Glendale and moved there when I was fourteen, right when I was going to be a freshman in high school. We moved out of our mobile home into a white middle class neighborhood. Our economic status did not change, only the type of home and neighborhood we lived in did. I will never forget my first day at a predominately white upper class high school. My first eye opening experience was during lunch time. The laughter and loud chatter of multiple conversations filtered out the doorway as I entered the cafeteria on my first day of school for lunch. It made me wonder how many different people could keep up their end of a conversation when one of equal volume was going on right next to them. I smiled at the thought as I realized how the different cliques were sitting together and how it appeared that no outsiders were welcome to enter their domain. The football players, dressed in their jerseys, sat together at a table in the center of the room near a small stage. The size of these soon to be men allowed me to really take in the fact that I was no longer in California where everyone seemed to be so short in comparison. No one noticed me as I gazed around the room to find out what kind of food I might be able to buy for a dollar, no one approached me and asked if I wanted to sit with them. I was very self conscious of the fact that I didn’t have on new clothes for the first day of school and that my shoes were tattered and my skirt no longer in style. Trying not to dwell on this I made my way to the pretzel station and bought my low budget lunch and looked around for somewhere to sit.

My gaze focused in on some Mexican kids at a table so I walked over and sat down. They looked at me like “what am I doing?” and told me that I was not invited to sit there. I bluntly asked them why and they said because I belong with the rest of them, motioning out to the rest of the white kids. In my heart I did not belong “there”; I was raised “here”, but not wanting to have any conflict on my first day of school I got up and ate alone.

Today at lunch I noticed that no one invited her to come eat with them so she sat with the Mexican girls. That was a scene. I don’t know what they said to her, but she didn’t last long at their table and ended up eating alone. I sure as heck wasn’t going to invite her to eat with me and my friends. She was wearing a white mini skirt and a blue top with these odd looking shoes, I didn’t want to be seen with her. I heard that she doesn’t have a dad and her mom doesn’t work. I bet they’re on welfare. That would explain the hand-me-down look she wears. Well, I’m not going to help her fit in, she is on her own.

During much of the remaining day I was asked what kind of car I drove and when I told them I didn’t own a car the other kids looked down their noses at me and walked away.

I soon realized that the majority of the kids at the school had already judged me because I was a poor white girl. This was the new type of gang that I encountered and I wasn’t afraid but rather disheartened that people could be so shallow and mean. I would never fit into their world. Their loaded gun was their mommy and daddy’s credit card and the extent of their ”hood” was how many people they could fit into their shinny new cars. I may have looked like them but I was not one of them and those that I didn’t look like didn’t want me because I looked just like the others. In the course of a summer I had lost my culture, community, and identity. My identity is my heart and honesty, something that it takes others to get to know me to find out about and accept. Since no one was willing to get to know me, now what?

Prior to my moving to Arizona I was aware that I was white, but I was more aware and okay with my absolute daily involvement with people from other ethnic backgrounds. However, upon moving to Arizona I had to assimilate myself, like a Borg from Star Trek, into the whiteness that was the only thing around me in my new state. In so doing I began to lose my sight of the “other”. It wasn’t that I lost my acceptance of them, but now as an adult when I go home to California I am the one that feels different, an interloper of sorts invading a diverse landscape that I use to call mine. It is no longer mine because I allowed myself to become transformed into the privilaged other, the white person that only my skin revealed I was but my heart did not; now my brain has started to act the part.

What does that mean to me now and why did the transitional move from one state to another have such an impact on me? The answer is actually very simple, I was uprooted from a life that I had grown up in, my native social environment that I did not have to conform to. Suddenly I had only two options placed before me: conform and become white around all the white people so I could have friends, or not conform and have no friends with everyone talking about me behind my back and the way I dress. For a teenager the answer was more of an action path that I made happen not just over night but through a series of steps that took on their own shapes and sizes as my high school career went forward.

I began to make friends with kids that seemed to accept me for me and many were very patriotic and talking about joining the military once they were out of high school. Most of my friends were older than me, which ultimately meant I spent my senior year of high school with only a couple of friends. My patriotic friends stood out because I had grown up on Marine Base Camp Pendleton, California and it meant a lot to me to see these guys serve. Also, in 1991 the United States entered into the Gulf War so I had the privilage to see a few of my friends go off to boot camp with the dream of being a hero.

One time when I was in high school I went on a trip to Nogales Mexico with my boyfriend (I am telling this story, because until this very day I had forgotten the significance of it) and while we were crossing the border I had to use the restroom. While I was in the restroom I began to brush my blonde hair and suddenly a Mexican girl and woman took the brush from me and began to brush my hair for me. I used to speak fluent Spanish, but when a person goes years without speaking it the fluency becomes mere drops of knowledge, so I just let them brush my hair. I felt no fear, I understood that because of my hair color and extra long length they found beauty in it and simply wanted to brush it. When they were done they told me it was beautiful and said thank you and went on their way. When I lived in California, I would have never thought twice about something like that happening, but having moved to Arizona and being out of the culture for so long it took it happening again for me to remember. I look back and realize that through my transformation it made me into the person I am today. I understand what it means to be white and how we are different, but I had never felt this difference before moving to Arizona.

Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture is it is a web of significance. A web that draws you in and through interpellation and ideology a person often times doesn’t even realize that they are changing to the new culture they are now living in. This is what happened to me. The web drew me in, I am stuck in body and now part of mind, but never my heart. My heart still knows the person I was and the person I am. I will never forget where I came from.


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