SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2014       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Liz Sayers

Thwarted Assumptions

I come from a blended family. My dad had two sons from a previous marriage and my mom had a son and daughter also from a previous marriage. My dad’s ex-wife, Patricia, is of Hispanic and Native American descent and my dad is Caucasian. My oldest brother Chris does not resemble his mother at all, but our brother Joey is a replica of her. My other two siblings are from Caucasian parents. My parents had been married seven years before I was born, making my brother Joey eleven years older. I do not get along with Joey, and growing up we fought nonstop.

            With five of us kids growing up, however my parents would split the chores and send two of us at a time to go grocery shopping. As usual Joey’s and my turn to go shopping came up and off we went to our local grocery store where we always shopped at. The grocery store was very busy that day. The aisles were so crowded my brother and I had to jockey for position. It was around 5:30pm, right as people are getting out of work and picking up groceries for dinner. The other shoppers seemed very impatient and eager to get done.  While shopping, we argued quite loudly, which was completely normal for us, but this time an older white woman marched right up to me, grabbed me by the arm and asked me if this man had “taken me”. The sudden silence that followed as the older white lady asked if my brother had ‘taken me’ was deafening. All the activity around the three of us stopped, and people gawked at us. It was almost cartoonish how some of the shopper’s jaws dropped in shock at her accusation. I remember feeling as if the people around me were frozen in space and I could zip through their still forms to finish our shopping. Then, an unseen play button seemed to have been pressed, and all the people quickly scurried away from the now uncomfortable situation.

I told the woman no, of course not and explained he happens to be my brother. She told me I didn’t have to lie for him, if he had taken me, which she assumed he had because she said, “He’s Mexican and you are white!”, she would call the police and have me returned to my parents. I kept telling her he was my brother but she would not believe a word either I or Joey said. Finally, the manager of the store came over and explained she knew our family and yes, this man was my brother and there is a large age gap between us and we have different mothers.

Up until that time I did not realize that my brother was different from me. His skin color never mattered because we share the same dad. I understood at eight years old that we had different mothers, but knowing he had a different ethnicity from me was not something I grasped. My parents and extended family as well as friends never said anything about race or how skin color mattered. I thought everyone had family members who had different shades of skin just because they are a new person.

When I got home I asked my parents what Mexican meant and why that lady would think Joey had stolen me. They explained that because I look so different from him and he’s clearly so much older than I am, the woman just assumed I couldn’t possibly be related to him. Some people only marry a person that is the same color as they are. At the time this made no sense to me because what I knew of love was about caring for an individual and based on whether we liked to play the same games and eat the same food. Frankly not much has changed for me. I do not understand why color matters, or how race can stop two people from being together. That older white woman is as much of a mystery to me now as she was then.

I imagine she got home and couldn’t wait to tell her husband what had happened.  “You will not believe what this world is coming to nowadays!” I exclaimed to my husband the second I got home from the grocery store. “I was walking through the produce section when I saw a large Mexican man, covered in tattoos, towering over a young white girl. The man was yelling at the little girl and grabbed her roughly by the arm. The girl snatched her arm away and tried to walk away when he grabbed her again.”

 My husband gaped at me and asked, “Did anyone do anything?”

Vigorously shaking my head I stated, “I did!! I marched right up to them and asked the little girl if this man had taken her and of course she said no. He was standing right there so what was she supposed to say?” I reached up to fix my updo, several gray strands having slipped free. “What on earth is a white girl doing with a Mexican man? Shady character too. Big, gang tattoos all over his arms, glaring at everyone.”

“So what happened?” my husband asked impatiently.

“I assured her I was going to call the police and have her returned back to her parents. She kept lying for him, saying he was her brother, which I’m sure he put her up to saying! By this time the manager of the store came over and wanted to know what was wrong. I demanded she called the police so we could return this poor little thing back to her family. She explained that it was true the two were related, and that the father had previously been married to a Mexican woman and the new wife was white. I still think it’s an odd situation!!”

“That’s what you get for interfering with young people these days,” my husband wryly noted.

The grocery store incident still sticks with me today because even now I do not understand people who wish to place race in the forefront of their minds. Everywhere around me there are Arizonans protesting immigrants coming to our beloved state. In 1999, the same year as my incident, a Douglas rancher held seven unarmed illegal immigrants at gunpoint and proudly proclaimed he was saving our border. Racial exclusion techniques of selling property were still occurring and the “Super Predator” myth about youths was being propagated. On top of that, 112 missing children reports were filed in Phoenix, the Columbine Massacre shocked the nation, and 39% of murders in Los Angeles were due to gang violence.

A part of me does see why that older white woman would assume my brother had kidnapped me. Pictures of gangbangers were splashed on the news every night and more grisly predictions were made of how American youth were experiencing serious moral decline. The woman who confronted us was old enough to have experienced ‘Operation Wetback’, the Civil Rights Act, the “Grape Boycott”, and the case of Loving vs Virginia. So many serious racial issues occurred during her lifetime, which shaped her beliefs about race. I don’t know her history or what she felt about ethnicity, all I know is that brief moment in time she pointed out my brother was different than me. A Mexican man had no business being with a young white girl, especially a tattooed up Mexican at that.

Her expression held such shock at hearing the store manager confirm our familial relations. She had lived through the verdict proclaiming prohibitions on interracial marriages banned, had seen many couples celebrate this decision, especially coming from Arizona where many Hispanics and Caucasians intermarried. Yet seeing the offspring of this coupling up close seemed to enrage her. I remember that she stormed off; muttering under her breath, red faced. Were her intentions good? Even to this day I believe she had good intentions and was simply concerned at seeing a much older man with a young girl. Seeing the reports of missing children on the news every night is sobering, and could cause suspicion in unusual events. I try to put myself in her shoes and think how she thought at the time. What if my situation had been different and Joey was my captor instead of my brother? Her actions could have saved my life that day. Some of this on my part is trying to rationalize her actions and the language she used. I will never understand why the color of skin determines in some people’s minds what the ideal is. Instead I have found that this woman changed my entire way of thinking. Now when meeting people I celebrate our differences because we are all pieces that make up a whole.

Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage