SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2012 Personal Memory Ethnographies
You’re Not In North Dakota Anymore
I joined the Marine Corps when I was a month shy of turning 20 years old. Ten days after my birthday, I boarded my very first airline flight and flew to San Diego to attend Recruit training at MCRD San Diego. It was by far the furthest I had ever been away from home alone. I remember getting off the plane and almost immediately seeing palm trees. It was raining, but it was at least 70 degrees warmer than the -5* I had just left in Fargo ND. San Diego had a smell about it that was somewhere between cedar and creosote. It is a scent I will never forget.
After a bit of walking, I finally found where I was supposed to go and was put on a bus. I was told to find a seat and keep my head down. It wasn’t long before the bus was full and a Marine came aboard and started barking orders to shut up and put our heads down. I knew the recruit depot was adjacent to the airport, but the bus ride seemed to take forever. Finally there, multiple Marines came aboard the bus, and the madness began. Normally, recruits get off the bus and find themselves on the famous yellow footprints, which are painted on the ground in front of the intake building. These footprints align the often bewildered recruits into a military formation after they are sometimes literally thrown from the bus. Every Marine knows this is the sobering moment that you realize your life is about to drastically change. But because it was raining, I was unfortunately forced to bypass this ritual.
I arrived on a Monday morning and spent a week in “Receiving.” There, I met many of the people that I would be receiving training alongside. I am tall, and about as white as you can get, as was verified by the demographics of the group of men that I joined with in anticipation of training. The Marine Corps, from what I could tell, was approximately 60% Latino, 30% white and 10% black or other. This doesn’t represent actual figures, but simply a reflection of my experience. One of these recruits, John, was a shorter Hispanic man with thick Military glasses. At the time, he seemed like just another recruit. But within months, I would find a best friend in him.
I am from Amarillo, Texas. I was 25 when I went to boot camp. I had an Associate’s degree and had managed a small staff at a sporting goods store before I got myself into trouble, which led to my enlistment. My mother is a short Mexican lady and my father is a tall White guy. I take after my mother. I know many people that have enlisted, and they assure me that being Mexican will not be a problem in the Marine Corps. I anticipated boot camp to be a less traumatic experience for me than for the average recruit. My age gives me this advantage, and I was still in decent shape.
“Black Friday” is a term used in the Marine Corps to describe the day in which recruits leave receiving and are assigned to a senior drill instructor, who ordinarily has 3-4 assistant “Drill Instructors.” Friday is the first time the recruits meet their drill instructors, and they spend at least 2 hours acclimating us to having someone scream and spit in your face. My Senior Drill Instructor was a black man who had an accent suggesting he was from the south. The four drill instructors beneath him were all Hispanic, the senior-most being a “Tex-Mex” half-white named Kellogg. He was an evil looking man, and he looked at me with what seemed pure hate. The other drill instructors were Latino as well, none of whom seemed friendly.
I quickly learned there were two kinds of Mexicans, West Coast, and Texas. I was, of course, Tex-Mex. My last name was a dead giveaway that I was also at least half white. Also, I didn’t speak Spanish. The other Mexican recruits labeled me “chiconky,” which was a term that was humorous enough for me to embrace. Many of the Mexican drill instructors who frequently spoke in Spanish to the Mexican recruits would look at me in the same way they would look at the White, or Black recruits. But, because I looked Mexican, I didn’t fit in with those “races” either. Every now and then, a fight would break out, usually between two of different race. I believe my life experience played a part in my being able to deal with the racisms that I encountered at boot camp. I had heard much of it before.
Throughout boot camp I realized how white I was. Every once in a while my drill instructors would question recruits, who I had assumed were Anglo, about their Hispanic heritage. It was as if they had a sixth sense about it. Many times, the drill instructors would be disciplining one of the white recruits and would say something in Spanish slang. The Hispanic recruits would all bust out in laughter, but were quickly silenced by the Drill instructors. I was subjected to this treatment on more than one occasion.
I met John at during what is called “swim week,” in which recruits received their swimming qualifications. As the platoon’s scribe or secretary, I was given the task of recording recruit data and preparing it for the drill instructors. I breezed through swim qualifications and posted myself just outside the exit to gather the information. There was John; short, Hispanic and wearing the thick military framed glasses. He was holding his platoon’s guidon, which is a flag on a staff that the guide normally carries as he leads the platoon.
“You’re the guide?” I asked him, hardly believing it. He certainly didn’t look it.
“ You’re the scribe?” I asked back. How ironic I thought. Here’s me, short, dark and nerdy, and I’m the guide. Then, here is this tall, white, All-American looking guy and he is the scribe. We both joked about how they possibly switched us at “recruit-birth.”
Even though I was short and had the big glasses, the drill instructors posted me as guide. It definitely wasn’t easy, and I was fired on many occasions. But, I believe my maturity and perseverance was repeatedly noted by the drill instructors. As the end of boot camp approached, my position as guide was fulfilled and I received a promotion upon graduating. Although racial tensions existed, I don’t think they played a part in the workings of my platoon.
John was in another platoon, and after getting to know him, it was no mystery why they made him their guide. He was as tough as nails. But then, there were other times when some of the recruits would receive advantages through what I perceived to be attributed to their race. For instance, our Senior Drill instructor would continuously replace our “Guide,” or lead recruit, for consistently failing in his duties as guide. He was Hispanic. He was always reinstated by the Hispanic drill instructors. There was a Black recruit, Dunley, that seemed to rub against the grain any chance he got, yet my Black Senior Drill instructor afforded him special treatment such as relief from the turmoil of the platoon as well as phone calls throughout the length of training. He was also un-removable as a squad leader and was eventually granted a meritorious promotion for his “leadership.” He went AWOL within 10 days after graduation.
Boot camp was an experience for me that I will never forget. As the first time away from a place where racism seems like a distant phenomenon, possibly because the population in my part of North Dakota was overwhelmingly white, I was quickly educated in the tensions that exist between people of different cultures and races. It was a frustrating experience that only compounded an already very tense environment.
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