Confessing Prejudice

"No mexicans, please!"
Originally uploaded by mcsonix
Running long distances on a regular basis makes for a lot of creative ways to fill time. I listen to a ton of podcasts. Most recently, I was listening to a Bob Edwards Weekend Documentary titled “Hating Marcelo: America’s Growing Rage against Latinos.” It was the kind of listening that sucked me in and I soon lost track of how long I had been running. It was a reckoning for me. I had to face my own racist past growing up in Texas, saturated in Latino culture.

Marcelo Lucero, from Ecuador, was “hunted” and stabbed to death by a group of seven boys who were looking to fight Mexican immigrants, but apparently any Latino would do. If this sounds like a chapter out of the old lynching days in the racist South, it happened a little over a year ago… in New York.

My thoughts drifted back to childhood in Houston, Texas, to “wetback” and “beaner” jokes – “wetback” referring to Mexicans that swam the Rio Grande coming to America, and “Beaner” the name given to migrant bean-field workers, usually Mexican. Even the word Mexican was more a derogatory in my rhetoric, usually pronounced “Mes’can,” than it ever was a nationality sharing the same status with “British” or “German.” It wasn’t long until a regretful moment in 6th grade came to mind. My parents were on their way to divorce, family falling apart, and I blew up one day at Flora – the woman who had been as close as an Auntie to me, whose family I stayed with when my parents were off on vacation trying to save their marriage, who had introduced me to everything Latino in such a way that it remains a part of my identity years later. I think it was something to do with her cleaning my room – I didn’t want her to do it anymore because she rearranged things and I already had enough in my world that was being re-arranged. She didn’t understand and as things escalated I called her “just another wetback Mexican that could go back across the border.” (Probably not those exact words, but equally as awful)

When you yell words of hate they hurt you in ways that you never could see until they are out of your mouth; they carry their own barbs that stick in the heart of the accuser. Twenty-five years later, I can still feel the wrenching of my gut when I think of that moment. I not only crossed the line, I should never have danced on its edge in the first place. I know better now. It breaks my heart now. And somehow, in her graciousness, Flora saw past me and knew there was more going on than hating her. It didn’t excuse me, in my book, though.

In case you didn’t know, Texas was Mexico up until around 1836, and as far as Mexico is concerned they constitutionally still see Texas as a rebel province and nothing more. And Mexico is taking it back one river at a time. It is often said that the real border with Mexico starts at the Nueces, just outside the former mission town Hispanically called San Antonio. This hasn’t stopped the white population to generationally look down upon Mexicans (Or any Latino for that matter) as nothing more than a nuisance good for menial labor, lawn care, and house-keeping. Mexican jokes were as common around the dinner table growing up as talks about the weather. In High School, though many of our friends were Latino, that didn’t stop us from making jokes about them. I saw this played out years later when I was mountaineer guiding a group of guys from the same area – all white except the one Mexican – and for six days they never ceased to demean that one Mexican kid, and even after being confronted by us they still saw nothing wrong with it. But I knew why. It was in the air they breathed, it was all they knew. They only got a hint of its severity when we asked Marco how he felt and he talked about how little it made him inside, how it made him all the more unaccepted by them.

America has spent years dialoguing about our treacherous salve, Jim Crow, segregationist racism against Blacks. The election of our first black President was landmark enough to make some speculate that we may have come to terms with our racism. But how much have you heard about that same racism directed at Latinos? How often do you hear stories on the nightly news about the Swastikas burned on the lawns of Latino immigrant workers? Or, before this article, did you even know who Marcelo Lucero was; And that he wasn’t “some Mexican” but an Ecuadorian out on the town with his brother the night he was killed, because any ol “beaner” would do?

The surprising commonality in these hate crimes against Latinos is that it is youth, high school aged kids carrying out the sentencing. High school kids just like I once was – unaware of how my words were killing a part of “friends” whose parents spoke Spanish better than English; kids like those that I guided just a few years ago who mocked Marco and saw nothing wrong with it.

I don’t have some answer to conclude, some rally cry against the oppressors. At the end of the day, I have my self to face in the mirror. This, this is my confession. I thought I was far nobler, better than those Klan men of the Deep South lynching sons of Adam for the color of their skin. In the midst of a run, I was reminded of my own racist tendencies so many years ago. Tendencies that I may very well have been running from with as much energy as I was that day I heard Marcelo Lucero’s story.
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