36 Years a Mexican-American

I believe that if there were a grand accounting of positive and negative experiences occasioned by race, complete with a +/- scoring system, the average for whites would be far and away the top score – perhaps even the only positive score in the bunch. Obviously, that is an impossibility. I could quote stats to justify this sense, but the truth is that I, like many minorities, have probably been convinced of this by experiences prior to having any knowledge of hard stats. So instead, what I will do is share my history with racism and suspected instants of racism. I do not know how typical my situation is, but I have met people whose racist experiences would need to be cataloged in a book, not a relatively short piece like this. Then again, of my 2 siblings and I, I have had the worst luck with racism – and this in an area that I regard as not having a large problem with racism. All in all, I feel fortunate that it wasn’t much worse and sad to presume that my experiences are not abnormal.

To provide context, my first memorable contacts with the broader community outside of my home started when I enrolled in a suburban Chicago school at the age of 5. I was one of only a few Latinos enrolled and the only one who was Spanish-speaking (the others were of Tejano descent). The school was inexperienced with a student like me. They, therefore, unnecessarily referred me to a psychologist, for which they were chided, and had me see a speech pathologist to rid me of my accent (known as Ricardo Montalban Syndrome in the world of speech disorders). Nevertheless, I don’t recall noticing any racial bias from fellow students or teachers.

At the age of 8, Larry the neighbor kid called me a “beaner” after a playtime disagreement. He said it out of anger, and all was forgiven soon after. However, Larry’s dad was always very gruff with my brother and I. He seemed generally irritable, but I always detected extra aggression toward us. He would yell at us for getting within feet of his grass while walking on our own driveway or on the sidewalk. Once while playing hoops on our driveway, someone kicked Larry’s dad’s basketball in frustration. He saw it and screamed, “What is wrong with YOU PEOPLE! This isn’t soccer!”. I got the impression that “you people” was replaced with “beaners” or other racial epithets behind closed doors. I could be wrong. Maybe he was just a cranky man that was over-protective of his grass and prize basketball (Larry did always make a point to mention he had his dad’s ball and insisted we use it over the others).

At the age of 11 I saw my dad’s friend get thumped by police. He was a nice man, although he tended to drink too much. He was a pleasant drunk though. The incident happened while we were at a cookout. The police took him away for a reason I do not recall. What I do recall is that they put him in the back of a squad car and parked behind some trees at the edge of a clearing. Through the trees I saw them throw him down, still handcuffed, and rain down a fury of blows and kicks. Shortly after, they dropped him off bleeding heavily from his face and head. The women were hysterical for a while. The men commented on the injustice of it all. No charges were filed. No one spoke of getting a lawyer. The futility of it all, while it might have been news to me, seemed common knowledge to everyone else.

At age 12 I started going to a middle school that mixed kids from my working class neighborhood and those from more affluent areas. One of my first interactions with this new cohort was with a kid who told me the following joke, “I have a new cap gun that shoots cans. Wanna know which kind?” I didn’t care which kind but the punchline came all the same, “MexiCANS and Puerto RiCANS!” (I think he was hedging his bets to be honest). I was no PC warrior. My white friends occasionally joked about my race, and I gave it right back. This, however, coming from someone I knew only as a seat filler in one of my classes, seemed mean-spirited. I responded with a verbal threat which quieted the cackle of him and his friends. The next time he made a racially charged comment, I pinned his head forcefully against a locker while I explained to him tersely that I preferred to be left alone. Once it became obvious that I wasn’t one of those John Hughes please-don’t-shove-me-into-a-locker sort of nerds, I didn’t hear any more racisty comments from classmates. I should mention that other than the Larry situation, I never felt like any of the other kids from my neighborhood, which had a large Latino minority by the time I reached middle school but was still majority white, said or did anything racist toward me. In comparison, I once looked at the yearbook of a friend that moved to a slightly more affluent suburb nearby and found a few openly racist comments and many more that seemed to have racist undertones. He was mild-mannered and less pugnacious than me and on top of that was close to being the lone Latino in his school. My yearbook might have looked similar without the threat of a response to such slights.

My 7th grade AP science teacher was an old, fairly mild-mannered man that trembled incessantly. He looked as if he should have retired a while back, but he was still chugging along. Although it was an AP class with mostly well-behaved students, the teacher sometimes had problems reining in a group of kids that tended to goof off. They were the “cool” kids, and I was not “cool”, not even in an AP class. I was very shy and did not speak up unless called upon. One day in the middle of the school year, one of these kids made a joke that got much of the class laughing. The teacher became uncharacteristically irate. That quieted most of the students, but there were a few of us, myself included, who couldn’t put an abrupt stop to our laughter. After the fit of laughter had ended, the teacher singled me out and asked to talk to me in the hallway. Here my memory becomes fuzzy. I don’t recall if I tried to explain or profess my innocence. It just happened all of a sudden that this teacher had his hand around my throat. I don’t remember him saying a word. I just remember his eyes burning with rage and his whole body trembling as he tried to channel some strength into throttling me. My eyes watered up, and I briefly thought of punching him. But after the initial shock, I realized I wasn’t in any real danger. I also didn’t think it would be right to punch a decrepit old man. So, I grabbed a hold of his wrist and removed his hand from my throat. I walked into the nearest boys bathroom and wept in a stall for a short while. I was more hurt than anything. I handed in my homework on time, paid attention in class, and got good grades. I didn’t think that meant that he would like me, but I at least thought that he would respect me. Anyhow, the next day we were both in class as if nothing had happened. It is possible he had been under the impression that I had instigated the laughter, although as I said, I was not a part of the problematic clique. I think it more likely that he had a deep-seeded dislike of me because of what he thought I represented.

My first memorable interaction with the police occurred at the age of 13. I was walking down a street in my neighborhood when a police cruiser began to roll along side of me. The officer asked me where I was going. I asked him why he wanted to know. He then began to shout swears at me and got out of his car angrily. I was scared so I took off running. He ran after me. I then cut across someone’s property and jumped their fence to reach a different street. I ran down the street for a while before I realized he was no longer in pursuit. I slowed back down to a walk and kept an eye out for his squad car. Sure enough, I saw the front of his squad car coming to the intersection ahead of me and ducked behind a parked truck. He turned on to the street I was on and drove in my direction. I moved around the the truck to avoid being seen. Once he had turned off the street I hopped another residential fence to go back onto the street I had originally left. I should have learned to never question a police officer, at least until I was older with some sort of status that would confer credibility. As you’ll see later, I would regret not learning to treat police officers as potential threats.

My little town had a top-notch pizza joint, and it was while picking up some food from said joint that a friend and I were called “little spics” among many other awful things by an unabashedly racist biker. I was 14 years old and my friend was 13. We never responded with insults in kind. We simply stared at him angrily, trying to get the nerve to stand up to this massive brute. We did not stand up to him. He grabbed his order, shoved us aside, and added a few more insults on his way out to feed his hatred. The owner of the restaurant had witnessed this and felt so bad he issued a heartfelt apology and gave us our food for free. I thought I detected some regret for not stepping in, but I didn’t think any less of him. The biker didn’t seem like the sort you could reason with and likely would have directed his aggression toward the owner had he intervened. None of this stopped my friend and I from feeling enraged and humiliated. I obsessed over this incident in the way young men do when they feel like they have failed some challenge to their manhood. Silly as those feelings were, it was a mark of shame that I would not recount until well into my adult years.

My nadir with racism happened at the age of 15 at a fair. My friends and I were too young to set foot in the 21 and over area, so we were relegated to the area with lame carnie games. I was talking to a group of friends when I noticed that my best friend had disappeared. I asked the people who had been near him where he had gotten off to. They pointed out an officer and told me that he had kicked my friend out of the park. They couldn’t tell me much else. I walked over to the officer and asked him politely why he had kicked my friend out of the park. He told me that I was banned too for questioning his authority. I was more than fine with leaving the fair, so I didn’t argue his decision at all. I simply started making my way out of the park. I didn’t realize it, but “Ofc. Authority” and 2 other officers were following me. Once I was about 50 ft outside of the fairgrounds where it was pitch black, I felt someone try to trip me from behind. I turned instinctively and before I knew it, Ofc. Authority had punched me in the throat and threw all 135 lbs of me to the ground belly first. He then sat on my back and put his forearm across my jaw and neck, driving my face into the dirt. Another officer stood on my calves, his heavy boots purposely grinding and bruising the flesh underneath. The third officer, a man who looked like he was fresh out of the academy, simply stood off to the side and observed the finer points of police work. Ofc. Authority, “Shouted what gang are you with?”. I tried to tell him that I wasn’t in a gang, but I was still regaining my voice after being hit in the throat. He didn’t like the delay, so he raised his forearm and slammed it down across my face and neck a few times. He also called me a “spic” and perhaps used other racial slurs, but his exact words are a bit hazy. As soon as my voice was back I told him that I was not in a gang. That didn’t seem to satisfy him. He went into my wallet and checked the address on my learner’s permit. He then accused me of being in the gang from my neighborhood. I was, in fact, intimidated by those guys and avoided contact with them at all costs. In his book, I guess I was guilty by virtue of living in that area. He finally let me get up, but not before issuing a few more forearm shivers and a punch to the ribs. To add insult to injury, he stole $6 from wallet, all the money I had at the time. The “infraction” that precipitated this whole chain of events was my friend wearing his hat backwards. Ofc. Authority told him to flip it forwards, and he did. For those wondering, there was no such gang in the area or anywhere that I ever heard of that signified membership by wearing their hats backward. Simply put, there was absolutely no reason to police that activity. In any case, the officer then accused my friend of giving him the old “stink eye” (also not illegal in case you are not up on the law). That was enough to get my friend ousted and gave these officers an opportunity to practice the routine they would eventually use on me. My friend stumbled but was able to get away. After I told my mom of what had happened, we went to the police station to try to file a complaint. They would not help us because we did not have a badge number. They also would not inform us which officers had been working the fair or let me look at pictures of the officers on staff. I once had my garage broken into while living in a nice area of Pasadena. Being the handyman that I am, the would-be thieves moved on without taking a single thing. I was only out a padlock and didn’t even bother to report it. Despite that, one of the officers investigating the spree of garage break-ins insisted on doing a full and very thorough report of this non-theft. The contrast made me think back to this incident.

Another racially tinged event occurred while I was 15. After playing a round of mini-golf with friends, we did the very moronic and teenage thing of running to claim dibs on the front passenger seat. As we reached the parking lot, a slew of police officers in tactical gear swarmed us. They had lazer-sighted guns on all of us. We were all splayed against the sides or on the hoods of the minivan and sedan that were our transports. I was slammed on the hood of the minivan. Up until this point, I don’t really take issue with our treatment. It turns out that someone had reported that one of us had been playing with a revolver. In fact, a friend who had been sitting in the passenger seat of the minivan had been annoying the people behind him by shooting staples with a chrome staple gun he found on the floor. I don’t think a staple gun resembles a revolver much, but I understand that the police had to take such a claim seriously. What seemed unnecessary and degrading was the fact that they made us stay in our splayed out states for over 90 minutes while they ran everyone’s name through the system. There was no need for that after they had frisked all of us, including the lone girl. She was frisked by a male officer who took his time with her and checked her breasts more than once. You never know with those tank tops I suppose. Her boyfriend raised his head to object when he saw this, but he was slammed back down hard next to me. If all that wasn’t enough, they never took their lazer-sighted guns off of us. I could see the red dots on the foreheads of my friends, and I could only nervously hope that whoever had his gun trained on me didn’t get an itchy trigger finger. They could have let us go after searching the vehicles or at the very least let us relax, but they kept us in those terrorizing and humiliating positions the entire time. I remember the patrons of the mini-golf establishment wondering aloud what horrible thing we had done. They finally let us go after everyone’s name came up clean. No apology, just a brief justification and a warning to keep out of trouble in their neck of the woods. The police department in this town had a bad reputation, and if they resorted to these sorts of methods in a high-traffic, public area, I could only imagine what they might have done if we had been in a secluded region.

I suppose my early experiences with police made me act meek in their presence for a while. Once I turned 16 and started to drive, I would constantly get pulled over for “not coming to a complete stop” or some other likely fabricated excuse. They would inevitably search my vehicle for drugs, even though there was no smoke or other cause for suspicion. I would comply and offer no resistance. The next time that I would deign to try to reason with them occurred while a friend and I were driving back from a mall in northern Illinois in late fall/early winter. We were pulled over because apparently we fit the description of two perpetrators who had robbed a store. Something seemed off from the start. This officer supposedly matched whatever descriptions he was hunting for to two boys in a moving vehicle close to dusk. Nevertheless, he rather jovially asked us to get out of the vehicle and we cooperated. My friend and I took turns answering several questions, all the while shivering in our prep school type attire. After a while, I asked if I could get my coat from inside the vehicle. The officer said that he just needed one more thing from us. He needed us to take off our shirts to check our bodies for tattoos. When I asked why, he smirked and said that the two perpetrators had been shirtless when they robbed the store. I became visibly agitated and challenged his story, “Do you expect us to believe that two Latinos robbed a store shirtless in freezing weather!”. He continued to demand we take our shirts off or he would have to haul us in to jail. I tried to call him on his bullshit once more and asked what the tattoos were of. He said that was for him to know, not for us. My friend called him a racist. He assured us that he wasn’t racist, even claiming that his wife was Latina. “So you respect and treat her as an equal?”, I asked. He just continued to smirk and again insisted we take our shirts off. My friend went into a tirade about our unalienable rights. I caved. I raised the layers covering my torso to neck height and turned for the officer so that he could see both my chest and back. With his demeanor that of a satisfied prankster, he let me back inside my car. My friend continued to argue for a few minutes, but he then too caved. He got back into the car furious with me for having capitulated. I understood why he was angry with me, but from my experience, our rights were very alienable and there was not much we could do about it.

That perspective remained unchanged into my last year of high school, but I guess I developed a comfort level with such treatment that allowed me to begin to joke with police officers. Once I was driving down a street, and an old friend Hector waved me over. He had joined a gang maybe a year back, and I had completely cut myself off from him so as not to inherit his problems. Hector asked if I could drop him off a couple of blocks away. Seeing as how it was a short drive that didn’t cross rival gang territory, I didn’t see a problem with doing him this quick favor. After I dropped him off, I was pulled over by plain-clothed police officers. They asked me about a recent shooting that Hector’s gang had supposedly been involved in. I hadn’t even heard any rumors about such a shooting and let them know that. Their spidey senses must have still been tingling, because I was removed from my car for some enhanced interrogation. I was slammed on the hood of my car with my arm twisted behind my back. It was like a “bad cop” routine straight out of the movies. That led to me to say, “Hey, you can’t do this! This isn’t NYPD Blue!”. That earned me a punch to the ribs. They continued to badger me with questions. After they admitted following me from the moment I picked up Hector, I asked if they really thought he confessed about some shooting in a 2 minute car ride. One of the officers said something about us being tight. Deducing correctly that they were part of some gang task force who had likely been keeping tabs on Hector’s gang for a while, I asked rhetorically if any of them knew my name or if they had ever seen me hanging out with anyone in that crew. One of the officers found my wallet and license in my car and mentioned that they would make sure to note me as an affiliate. I answered, “What do I care? I leave for college in a couple of months. Maybe I should just stay and join the police force. I’ll probably be your boss in less than a year. Maybe I can even teach you guys to apply some common sense.” That earned me a kidney shot that hurt like hell and a torquing of my arm that had me apologizing as quickly and best I could. They let me go after. I shouldn’t have attempted to make those officers feel dumb, but it was also the first time in one of those negative police interactions that I felt like I left with my head held high. It was also opportunistic of me. I sized them up as officers who used physical intimidation as a replacement tool for good police work. I was fully aware that there were other officers for whom aggression was a manifestation of deep tribal or personal sentiments. I likely would have taken a different tone with them.

After high school, I experienced less racism. Part of the reason could be that other factors that come into play when one is profiled changed. For one, I naturally began to look like more of an adult. I also stopped dressing in hip-hop influenced attire at around the age of 16. As for where I resided, I spent a couple of years abroad and a couple more in an area where many of the local police were Latino. In addition, I spent more time alone and my group of friends became more diverse. People sometimes have a hard time pinpointing my race, and I think they may have guessed I was Latino because of the company I kept. Being in situations where I was alone or among a more racially mixed group of friends, it would have likely been more difficult to pin me as a Latino to begin with. This, however, may have exposed me to racist remarks that I may not have heard otherwise. On several occasions I overheard pedestrians making derogatory remarks about Mexicans as a 25 year old taking night classes on the UCLA campus for instance. Maybe they thought I was out of earshot. Maybe they mistook me for having a different ethnic background.

However, I did have one more very negative run-in with the cops at the age of 31. I was driving late at night during the holidays when I started nodding off. I did the responsible thing and parked in an empty lot to get some sleep. I was woken up by two officers, one rapping his flashlight on my window. After asking me all the whys and wheres in their heads, they finally asked me to take a breathalyzer test. I had nothing to worry about so I agreed. I blew a 0.0. They said I needed to exhale harder. That yielded the same results. They accused me of holding my breath, of exhaling through my nose, and on and on. I lost count of how many times I blew into their machine. The last time I blew into it I told them it would be the last time and that if they asked me again I would call my lawyer. Mind you, I didn’t have a lawyer, but that seemed to give them pause (I did know an environmental lawyer who happened to be at a function, probably in no condition to speak on my behalf). Afterward, they shoved a phone in my hand and told me to call the number on screen for a cab company. I told them that I had gotten a few hours of sleep and would be okay to drive home. They insisted that I was in no condition to drive and that they would arrest me if I tried. When I asked, “For what? For being too sober?”, they just became more forceful in their insistence. Finally, I agreed to call the cab company that I preferred to use. They demanded that I use the company they had pulled up, but backed off that position when I asked if they were in on some scheme with that cab service. After they drove away, I canceled the cab service. I saw that they were hiding with their lights off a couple hundred yards from me. I decided to wait 5 minutes and then drive away regardless of whether they were still there. Luckily for me, they soon left, and I was able to drive home without being hassled again.

Naturally, this isn’t an exhaustive list of my negative experiences due to my racial appearance. After 9-11, I’ve been profiled a few times for looking vaguely Middle Eastern. There were also situations where I am not sure if someone acted or said something with racist intent. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. They could be having a bad day. They may do or say things out of cultural ignorance or curiosity. Nevertheless, there is enough obvious racism in my past to come to the conclusion that if even a small percentage of my experiences are shared, our country is in desperate need of reforms to increase accountability and fairness across racial and socioeconomic lines. Anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that the percentage of minorities with similar experiences is not small, and none of the data I have seen seems to dispute that in any way. In this country where neighborhoods tend to be racially homogeneous more often than not, what perhaps is more unique about my upbringing is that I always had white peers who accepted me and treated me fairly. Absent those positive experiences to counterbalance my negative ones, I don’t know what sort of bitterness or animosity may have taken root.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *