SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2012       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Martin Camacho

The Little Savage

When I was about eight or nine years old, I lived in San Jose, CA. My neighborhood was filled with old houses, and the streets were filled with old cars. The reason we lived there was because my parents didn’t make so much money, and neither one of them was educated so they both worked long hours. My mother was an illegal immigrant and was awaiting the amnesty of 1994 where she and my father would become residents. Despite becoming a legal my resident of the United States, finding jobs outside of agriculture was still difficult for my mother. The neighborhood where I lived was full of Hispanic, white, Asian, and black families. Many of them traveled to work together on a bus. For me it was great being a kid; playing with so many different types of children, and learning so many different things from the kids. But the parents had other things to worry about like police harassment, and the anti-immigration laws in the 1980’s, which were greatly affecting communities that had high minority rates.

I look back to that time and remember the beautiful green grass at my friend Christian’s house; it was amazing, especially when it was freshly cut. This green grass at my friend’s house was especially beautiful to me at the time, because of its contrast to the dirt that surrounded the trailer I lived in. My home, which was a trailer, looked old and was crowded compared to that of some of my peers. Having a beautiful lawn, with grass became a childhood goal, and even perhaps a dream for me to someday have a house with beautiful grass.

The spacious homes on the west side of San Jose were beautiful, especially when they were clean, and organized like my friend’s home. We lived amongst the homes, but stayed in a little space where people could park their trailers. The spacious homes signified comfort for me back then, and that is what created my ideas of what it meant to live more comfortably. Today those houses still mean the same thing, although what seemed to be spacious at that time is now significantly smaller.

I began to visit some of my friend’s homes, and started to realize the difference in social status, and luxury and the relationship it had with white people. I compared my friend Christian’s house to those of all my other friends from my closer neighborhood. I quickly assumed that being white meant you can have all of the luxuries that Christian’s family had. Many years later I learned that one study showed that the wealth gap between white people and black people was eight times, meaning that white people reported to be eight times wealthier than black people.

Although the differences in the customs and traditions of people, even between families of the same race, were so amazing, none of them seemed to be like Christian’s family. One day my neighbor Kiki invited me over to his house to eat, so I went over to his house and we played Nintendo while we waited. I saw his father go to the back of the house with a huge butcher’s knife, and the next thing I knew I was being chased by a chicken with no head. I wasn’t used to seeing my food being killed, so I went home with some questions for my mother. I told my mother what had happened, and she wasn’t surprised, she told me “son, some people kill their own food, instead of buying it at the supermarket”. So I accepted her insight and continued my day. A few days later I visited my friend Christian’s house and brought up the beheaded chicken while his mom was cooking chicken for dinner. I asked if they also killed their own chickens. I could tell that I may have offended her when she turned around and muttered to her husband, only savages do that these days. I thought about it for a while. Might I be a savage, I asked myself. I was there when they cut the head off of the chicken does that make me a savage also? But eventually, I forgot about it and started playing with my buddy. It wasn’t until later that I realized they were upset about what I had said, so I went home to ask my mother about what “savages” meant.

When I arrived at my dirty little trailer I asked my mother what “savages” means and by the look in her eyes I could already tell that was a question maybe I shouldn’t have asked. My mother asked me “why? Where did you hear that word?” I replied “at my friend Christian’s house. I told his mom about the chicken I had seen running around headless at my friend Kiki’s house, and she said “Only savages kill their own food these days, there is no longer a need to slaughter animals for food, since shoppers can go to the supermarket, and buy all the poultry or beef they need”. So my mother explained to me about white people, and their dislikes about other people and their cultural practices. I had a very short attention span, so I decided I didn’t care about white people’s likes. All I knew was that my friends were fun to hang out with, and that is all I needed to know.

Eventually I gained some curiosity for the word ‘savages’, I didn’t only want to know the textbook definition of it I wanted to know what it meant to my mother, and what it meant to my friend Christian’s mother. As I started to compare social classes, grass, chickens, friends, sizes of homes, I began to realize that my family was very different from Christian’s family, and that my mother and father did not fit in at all because they were still illegal immigrants, and were seen as such by the nearby communities. My mother knew that, and “savage” was a reminder of one label that was assigned to her.
In 1985 minorities lead a nationwide union campaign, which showed that minorities were awake, and starting to fight for recognition of their presence. Although I was only four years old, and would not learn the meaning of the word “savage” for another few years more, this would affect my opportunities in the future.

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