SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2009 Personal Memory Ethnographies
El Frijolero Y Yo
It was a blistering hot that day in early May in Barstow California.The other students and I returned to class sweaty after a rambunctious hour of lunch and recess. I remember that day very well, we were all red-faced from the heat, dripping of sweat, and covered in dust from the playground. That day in May of 1986 changed me as an innocent child into someone I did not know I could become.
I was an ordinary child in the sixth grade still trying to learn from whatever life could throw at a sheltered 12 year old boy (needless to say I was pretty naive). It was time for one of my favorite classes, English taught by Ms. Johnson. Ms. Johnson's classroom was set up much differently than an average sixth grade class. Our desks were connected side-by-side, eight desks wide in four long rows. My seat was smack dab in the middle of the second row. This seat was great for viewing the dusty green chalkboards during Ms. Johnson's lectures but it was difficult to get in and out of (imagine sitting in the middle of the row in the middle of a section at a baseball game).
One day in class, I can remember one of the popular jocks, Jose Gonzales, was sitting next to me in English class. It was only a few minutes into class when the teasing began. Jose decided to show off to the other classmates at my expense by not passing down the day's assignment. I was never a part of the popular crowd, the jocks or even the skaters; my clique was deemed the nerds (I think chess club sealed the deal on that). Jose was much bigger than I was and he had an ominous tone in his voice as he egged me on. Come on dweeb, whatcha gonna do about it, huh? Are you gonna cry to your mommy? Oh no, you are falling behind in class!!! After about five minutes of dealing and pleading with Jose to pass down the assignment, I was becoming very embarrassed and frustrated with the situation but I was not about to label myself a snitch by ratting him out to Ms. Johnson; I was determined to handle the conflict myself. I remember the mocking faces of the classmates as Jose kept teasing me. I could feel the heat and the blood rush to my face and ears as the fury was building inside me. That is when it happened!
My name is Jose Gonzales, and looking back on the sixth grade an incident occurred in class that reminded me of the disdain some white people have toward Hispanics. Leading up to this awful day in my history, the United States government and people were in turmoil with Hispanic refugees from Cuba, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Racial tensions were high at the time, especially against the Hispanic population. A few weeks earlier, we learned in history class that President Reagan just signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which legalized 3,000,000 illegal immigrants and expanded the guest worker program. My parents worked hard to assimilate themselves into the "American culture"; they owned a small house and they had sacrificed themselves financially to send my two sisters and me to private school.
The image of their sacrifices was all I could think of as I sat in the principle's office awaiting my sentence for my actions. I had no excuse, it was like a bomb of fury that exploded inside of me and all I could do was resort to physical violence. I think that the principle was just befuddled over a racial conflict occurring at his private Catholic school, and instead of punishing Joseph or I, he let me go with a strong verbal warning. I never spoke a word of this to my parents, as it would have broken their hearts and their dreams.
As I stated earlier, I was a sheltered and naive boy who may have been slightly affected by social policy and sentiment. I had never had any resentment towards Hispanics; in fact, many of my good friends then and now were of Hispanic ethnicity. As Jose taunted me, I felt buried under the wavy asbestos roof tiles and the rows of old flickering fluorescent lights that cast an eerie glow upon the classroom. It was my time to take a stand! I remember leaning over to him and telling Jose, "you're just a beaner, spic, and worst of all a lazy wetback". As soon as those words came out of my mouth Jose stood up, threw back his chair and was reeling back to completely pummel me in my seat. Ms. Johnson, unbeknownst to either of us, had been quietly following our dispute and immediately stopped the melee before a punch could be thrown. Jose was immediately sent to the principle's office while absolutely nothing (at least for the moment) happened to me.
I was completely baffled by what had happened. I had heard these words used in derogatory statements but at the time I did not understand why, or what made Jose react so aggressively. It would be years before I fully understood the true backgrounds and meanings of those three words I hurled at Jose that day, and most of all what it means to be Mexican or Hispanic in United States. That was the first time, and the last time in my life, that I had attacked a person for his/her ethnicity. Was that all I had in my arsenal to protect myself with? Instead of using a sharp verbal quip to attack my assailant, I used hateful speech. This hateful speech came from a darker place than society's fears or mood, it came from within me. I did not know this place existed within me, and I have not been back since. Life at school was a little tense but it went on. If I have made amends for the verbal attack that I waged on Jose that day, it is by making sure that my actions since then have been with respect for my fellow humankind.
A part of my innocent childhood left me that day, according to JK I was no better off than some day laborer hoping that I would not be deported. This memory still haunts me to this day as I wonder if every Caucasian I come across thinks the same thing. I do not know what ever happened to JK. We never spoke for the rest of grade school; I never apologized to him and he never apologized to me.
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