A note from the Canon for Hispanic Ministries about racism today
In an article written by Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, she explores how appropriate attention to everyday violent behavior can protect potential victims and save potential perpetrators as well. As a Holy Week discipline I decided to write a few stories of the lives of people for whom “appropriate attention to everyday violent behavior” has not been a reality.
My mother came to America from Mexico. She came here without documentation and worked for a family as a maid. Her American boss raped her while she worked in their house and she became pregnant. One day the department of immigration came to the neighborhood where she and other young women like her worked as maids. Most of them escaped and were taken to a ranch in a small town in Texas. It was during that time that I was born in an old woman’s house on a ranch in Texas.
When we lived in Harlem my father were driving home from another part of New York and he stopped at a convenience store to buy milk and bread. It was what I call a “white neighborhood.” The man behind the counter said to my father that he did not sell to people like us. My Dad got very upset and I did not know what had happened. The man asked us to leave and would not sell us the milk and the bread. When I asked my father “why” he said it was because we were black. I still wonder “why do things like this happen?”
I was really looking forward to going Trick or Treating. What nine year old boy wouldn’t? My mother said I could not go and I couldn’t understand why? What had I done wrong? I remember my mother telling me that there were some men patrolling the neighborhood; she said they were vigilantes who had announced that they would be looking for any Mexican along the Texas/Mexico border. We lived in La Joya, Texas which is about 10 miles from the Mexican Border. My skin is kind of brown but I am an American, but I was afraid the vigilantes might think I do not belong in the United States.
I came to America from Thailand on the promise of a job. I was very happy to come because this way I could support my children that I had left behind in my country. I was brought to California to work in a garment factory. I lived with fifty-two other Thai women in an abandoned motel that was fenced in with barbed wire on top of the fence. We worked about 20 hours each day and were paid $100.00 per month. From that salary we had to pay for the one meal a day that we received as well as soap, toilet paper, and the mat we slept on each night. We made garments for stores like Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bloomingdale, J.C. Penny and others. I would send what ever money I had left to my family in Thailand. I did not know that in America there was still a system of slaves until I came here.
When my home country was celebrating a time of reconciliation for the first time in decades of war, we all went to the church to have a time of prayer and celebration. My friend and I drove to the church and parked our car in front of the church. We had arrived early and were sitting in the car waiting for others to arrive. The police stopped and asked us what we were doing there. We told them we were waiting for the church to open and they did not believe us. They made us get out of the car and searched us and then searched our car. We asked them why and they told us to shut up or we would be sorry. We were arrested and taken to jail. I was reminded of the way some of the soldiers treated us when we were still in the Sudan. I had hoped when I came to America that this would never happen to us again.
I was a senior in high school and we went on a trip at the end of school that year. We all went to a state park and when I wanted to rent a bicycle so I go riding with my friends, the white woman who worked there told me that they did not rent bicycles to dirty Mexicans. My best friend, who is white, rented the bicycle and when we were far enough away from where the lady could not see us, my friend gave me the bike and we rode away. When it was time to return the bike I brought it in and the lady cursed me out for disrespecting her.
I bought some land in Arizona, hired an architect, and helped design the house of my dreams. My new home would have over 5000 square feet of space. One Sunday after church I stopped by the construction site and found that someone had vandalized it. The writing on the wall said – “No N------ allowed.” There was this kind of anti-black racist slurs written all over the walls, even in the closets. I called the police, who assured me this would get investigated, after five years nothing has happened. Perhaps my most painful experience was watching the tears roll down my husband’s face.
I was six years old and in the first grade when Mrs. Lawrence heard me speaking Spanish at recess time. She grabbed me by my arm and pulled me into the classroom. I did not know what I had done to make her so angry. She opened her desk drawer and took out a wooden ruler and asked me to put out my hand with the palm up. She began to hit my hand and continued until the ruler broke. For many years as a child I did not understand why this had happened to me.
I did not know I was Native American until my mother told me that we were going to the reservation and I told her I did not want to go because there were too many “Indians” there. It was after this experience that my mother got me involved in learning about my heritage and traditional dances. All I knew about Native Americans came out of textbooks and that was not me. They were savages wearing loin cloths and feathers. Because of what had been taught to me in school I was ashamed to be an Indian. It was from my uncle that I learned as a young adult that I am not a professional Indian who speaks for all Indians but rather “I am Indian” and can be proud of that.
I was the first black person to serve as a church camp counselor in Mississippi. I was very proud and excited. During the week we were told that the counselors always got an evening off as a break from the kids. We were to go to a restaurant and the parents would come and stay with the campers. We were to meet at the edge of the lake, get on a boat and leave from there. I was told we would leave at 8:00 PM. I did not want to miss this great opportunity, so I went down to the lake at 7:30. When I got there I saw that the boat was half way down the lake. They had gone without me. I kept asking myself “why?” To keep myself from crying I began to pray and sing until I decided it was late enough for me to return to my cabin. I convinced myself that they had not done this to me intentionally.
I came to this country from Jamaica as a child and I spoke with an accent. I still remember the ridicule I experienced because of this. I was a black child who spoke like an English child. There was a kid who told me that he would be my friend even though I was black and spoke funny, but I would have to pay him everyday. I paid him from my lunch money and this continued everyday I lived in New York until we moved to Los Angeles.
I hired a contractor, who happened to be white, to build my house in Arizona. He in turn hired sub-contractors, who happened to be Mexicans, to do the work. When the sub-contractors finished their work, he refused to pay them and threatened them with turning them into the department of immigration so they could be deported. I overheard the conversation, and although I am an African American man I speak Spanish enough to understand what this white contractor was doing to these men. In no uncertain terms I made it clear to the contractor that if he did not pay the sub-contractors I would not only fire him, I would also refuse to pay him and I would call the police to let them know what he was doing. I had to stand up for these men who could not stand up for themselves.
I am a fourth generation American from a Mexican ethnic background. My skin is brown and my hair is black. I had a Bachelor’s degree and two Master’s degrees when I arrived at Seminary. The first professor I met on registration day advised me to sign up for tutoring because it was very embarrassing when they had to ask people of color to leave because they always had problems understanding graduate level classes.
Is it because I am black?
Is it because I am brown?
Is it because I am a refugee?
Is it because I am Asian?
Is it because I am Native American?
Is it because I am an immigrant?
Is it because I am a woman?
Or is it because I live in an environment where abusers know I can be oppressed and they can get away with it? What is it that leads people to be abusive and disrespectful of others? Who gives them permission to speak and behave with such arrogant disrespect?