I can’t be sure of the first time I realized I was different. I take that back, I always knew I wasn’t like everyone else mostly because I’ve always spoken my mind. I think it started when I was a kid and cried hysterically for my grandma for any and every reason and my family nicknamed me “ambulanciaaaaa.” What can I say? I wasn’t afraid to voice my displeasure–not much has changed. Anyways what I mean is, I can’t pinpoint when I realized I was a different race. I guess I didn’t know race was a “thing” until I started school. Don’t get me wrong growing up I knew there were kids that didn’t speak Spanish and that they were White or Black or Indian or Arab or whatever but I never knew that being non-white wasn’t the same as being white or how and why being non-white was some how worse.
I don’t think I realized race was this thing people treated like a scarlet letter even when I was sitting in the waiting area of my parent’s shop and one of their customers asked me in Spanish if I was afraid of the black customers that had just left. I remember looking at her very confused and I saying “no?…why would I be.” “No?! How could you not be?” “I don’t know…” then I continued to color in my coloring book, I was probably 4. I ignored her until she left then ran over to my mom and asked her why that woman had asked me that. I really didn’t understand why I should be afraid of anyone at that point in my life. My mom just responded “ay mija, gente estupida.” It probably wasn’t the time or the place for my mom to explain to 4 year old me what race is, how it works and how shockingly someone of your own race can be prejudiced towards other minorities. I was so confused that day because in my family we have a rainbow of skin tones and eye colors. My mom is blonde with green eyes, one of my aunt’s features are so dark brown her nickname is “Caribe,” and I grew up calling Tommy Salah–a Muslim, Arabic kid, my cousin. I knew he wasn’t Mexican but he spoke Spanish as fluently as anyone in my family. So imagine my 4 year old confusion, because I knew you could be Mexican and your skin tone could be anywhere on the spectrum and I thought that fact applied to pretty much all people. So you could be white but have brown skin and speak Spanish, etc. I know it sounds stupid but I was 4! Either way I didn’t realize the difference because in my family everyone was different and that was ok, that was my normal.
I knew I was different than my classmates when I started school in Indiana but again I didn’t necessarily see it as negative. I vividly remember sharing our weekend stories on Mondays and I would talk about how I saw the majority of my extended family for a birthday party and my classmates would talk about how they saw their three cousins at Thanksgiving. Honestly that made me feel bad for my classmates. Every Sunday was a party for me growing up and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Still, I didn’t think I was THAT different I just felt like I was luckier than them to have such a big, close-knit family. Imagine that I felt bad for my new, white friends because their families weren’t as big as mine.
I think the first time I realized that being Mexican wasn’t seen as wonderful by other people as it was by me when once I went out to eat with my parents and brother and the owner refused to serve us. There wasn’t a “People of Color Aren’t Welcomed Here” sign, it was more of a “we are going to make you wait an hour and half for your food” refusal. I still remember that day like it was yesterday. It was a Thursday (my parent’s forever day off) and we had recently moved to Indiana. Normally on Thursdays after my brother and I got home my parents would either treat us to going out to eat or we would order pizza at home. Talking this over with my mom, brother and dad I was reminded that it was actually my dad’s birthday–fact checking is important! So, my dad decided he wanted to try this restaurant called The Patio. We got to the restaurant which was empty because they had just opened and were told that it would take a minute because they were just gearing up for dinner. My dad said that was fine and he understood and we waited to be seated. We waited for a while and eventually the restaurant was up and running and we were seated. The server came around and within a few minutes we had all ordered. Then we waited. We waited about 20 minutes and nothing had been brought out except bread. My dad flagged the server and she came back out 10 minutes later with our drinks. At this point the restaurant was pretty full with the dinner rush. We were still waiting. We waited more and my dad flagged down the server again and asked her if our appetizer was close to being ready, the server said it was on its way out. 10 minutes later my parents started to let us eat our second or third piece of bread because I was getting hangry and so was my brother. People at the tables next to us were eating their soups, salads and appetizers. My dad thought because he ordered his steak extra well done, as per usual, that this was why service was taking so long, so we just sat there longer. My brother and I both started to get fidgety and my mom said we could drink our sodas instead of waiting for our food. Waiting, waiting, rationing my sprite because there was no way my mom was letting me drink two sodas before my meal, and I noticed everyone around us was eating. People who had sat down about 15 minutes after us and ordered after us were now well into their meals. My dad for lack of a better phrase lost his shit in the most cool, calm and collected way possible.
Now coming from the perspective of an 8 year old I was starving and probably making it very well known that I was wasting away as the seconds went on, so I’m sure that didn’t help my dad’s obvious frustration. When he asked the server for what felt like the 10th time where our food was I started to realize something wasn’t right. First of all, I had been allowed to drink all of my soda before any of the food arrived and I didn’t get yelled at. My mom let me put my head in her lap because I was so weak with hunger, and my dad didn’t tell me to sit up. And now people around us were eating and my dad was obviously fuming. About 15 minutes later my dad asked the server for the final time where our food was, and the rattled server ran to the kitchen and brought our food out. My brother and dad had both ordered steaks, extra well done, and when the plates arrived the steaks were red, cool to the touch and there was blood all over the plates. I remember this because I added insult to injury and said “Ew dad why does it have blood?!” “Ew Oso your’s too?!”
*side note: As an adult I know NOW that extra well done steaks are egregious but stay with me here…* Sorry Dad!
At this point my dad had that look on his face where we all knew he was pissed and he said, “Get up we’re leaving.” Now 8 year old me is like, “Dad, settle down. I’m starved let’s send these back, hang out, drink another soda (wink wink), let them fix the food and let’s eat. Look at me I’m wasting away here!” (I said that all in my head though, in reality I shot up like a missile and marched my happy ass to the door). He then turns to the server and in my favorite sound, his heavy Mexican accent says, “We’ve been sitting here for an hour, I have two kids with me and we’ve waited for over an hour and this is what you give me?” The server was apologetic but couldn’t formulate the reason why we had waited so long and our food was cooked wrong. The manager and owner came out and started talking to my dad and I remember my dad telling them, “Do you think I can’t afford to eat here? Do you think that we aren’t good enough to sit here and have these steaks? This is bullshit my friends we are leaving.”
At this point it’s a scene because my dad isn’t being quiet we are getting up in a huff and the waiter is fumbling all over herself. The manager and owner were trying to tell my dad to calm down–spoiler alert: telling him to calm down did not get him to calm down–my dad gives the guy his card for our food and says “I can afford to eat here even though I’m Mexican.” The owner immediately says, “box up their food,” and my dad responds something to the effect of, I don’t want your food, my friend. I just want you to know that I know and everyone here knows that you didn’t serve us because we are Mexican you obviously didn’t want us here but just know that even though I’m brown skinned with this heavy Mexican accent, I can afford to pay for this meal even if we aren’t going to eat it. He paid for the meal and we walked out.
There was no, “Wait sir I’m so sorry,” or “It was a mistake in our kitchen,” or (insert your favorite excuse here). There was no response from the rest of the patrons in the restaurant who should have been horrified that we had been siting there when they got there and somehow they were served first and they knew exactly why. It was my very first experience (but not my last) of silent compliance. I was 8.
The next thing I remember from that day is that it was the first time I realized I was different and that people didn’t always think that was as cool and unique as me. We got in the car and little-million-questions-Melody asked “Daddy why wouldn’t they give us our food I’m SO hungry?” My mom shot me the death glare that every kid knows, you know the one that makes you stop talking mid-word. But, that’s the first time my dad explained to me that racism exists, that sometimes simply because you are Mexican some people won’t like you and will do mean things like make you wait extra long to give you food to try to get you to leave to show you aren’t welcomed there. “Actions, Mija, actions always speak louder than words.”
I remember being shocked sitting in the backseat, like in actual 8 year old disbelief that this was a thing that was happening and that I had lived through because my only information about racism lead me to believe that it was over because the Civil Rights movement, duh. My dad then had to explain to me that even though laws get passed it doesn’t necessarily mean that people change their opinions or beliefs. He told me that we, a people of Mexican origin, were different and sometimes that fact alone will make people treat us differently and more poorly even when they don’t know anything about who we are.
I think we ended up eating at a Wendy’s that day and my dad went on to tell us stories about how he and my mom had been treated like this in the past when they first dated and even after they were married. My mom is very light skinned, like I said, and is often mistaken for white and my dad’s skin tone is like a perfect cup of coffee with a hint of milk, year round. He told us how people would get up from tables if they were seated next to them, how people would say “Oh my God” when they walked into stores together, how they would get dirty looks on the regular if they were holding hands in public or how cops would stare at my mom as if to say “are you ok?” when they saw her with my dad. All because of how they looked. “Unfortunately,” he said “this is going to be something you guys are going to have to deal with too, like what just happened.”
I remember feeling like man we were alone at that restaurant, no one took our side. Shit I remember questioning myself years later– was it really racism or just my dad’s temper? I remember thinking if that was about racism someone would have said something, someone would have stood up for us because racism is wrong, right? But have you seen what happened on United this past week? They literally pulled a guy off a plane, leaving him bloody and distraught and all anyone did was gasp, take some cellphone videos then sit down in their seats and prepare for take off. Silent compliance is a real thing and luckily it didn’t take me long to realize that, it was my very first real-life example of how people’s true colors come out when they’re placed in uncomfortable situations. I was 8.
So, I guess that was my first time, at 8 years old. The first time I realized I was Mexican and how not everyone always thought that was good. The first time I understood what covert racism was. The first time I realized that laws don’t change minds and beliefs. The first time I acknowledged that racism didn’t always mean racial slurs and insults. The first time I realized that even when something ridiculous and insulting is happening at a table next to you (or in the airplane seat next to you) the majority of people will choose silent compliance and their own comfort over a person of color’s fair treatment. I was 8.