My friend appeared worried. “Have you ever experienced racism?”
I answered without thinking. “No.”
Even as a young child visiting the U.S., I felt accepted by those who were different from me. Several suppliers for my father’s auto part business were in Arizona; for this reason, my brother and I spent many days swimming in the pool of a Quality Inn, waiting for my father to come back from his business meetings. Our trips were mostly in the summer, when the temperatures would rise to 100 degrees.
My mother wanted to keep us in the air-conditioned room. She told us we would grow a tail from being in the water too long, but we didn’t care. We begged her to get in the pool and play with us. She refused. She would stay under an umbrella reading a book, occasionally looking up to make sure we hadn’t drowned. She was not a fan of the sun and hated having to watch my brother and me all day while my father worked. She also suffered from migraines, which heat often produced for her.
During our pool days, my brother and I managed to communicate with other kids, which meant we learned a few words in English. I was always curious to know more about the world of the other kids. It amuses me to think that I now live in it.
“Tu ya eres de allá,” my friends now tell me when I visit my parents in Mexico. Meaning, “You are from over there.” But to me it sounds like, “You don’t belong here anymore.”
I’m not going to lie; it hurts. We all want to belong somewhere.
When my husband and I were dating, we took a trip to Cabo. It was a short flight from Los Angeles, where we both lived. It seemed the perfect place to go away for the weekend. The guilt consumed me because I told my parents that we were going with a group, when in reality it was just the two of us. What twenty-nine-year-old feels bad about going to Cabo with her boyfriend? A Mexican girl does. My mother was appalled when I told her that for my thirtieth birthday, he had taken me to dinner in San Francisco. This is why I never told her about Cabo at twenty-nine. But that’s another story.
Paul and I went shopping. I was speaking Spanish and feeling at home in Mexico. I liked a necklace and I didn’t want to pay full price for it, so I started making conversation with the store owner. He asked if Paul was my husband.
“No, he’s my boyfriend,” I said, feeling exposed.
“I bet he brought you to Cabo to have sex with you,” he replied in a very creepy voice.
I was so surprised by his remark that, instead of leaving or ignoring him, I tried to convince him I was not having sex with Paul.
Why was it so important for me to prove him wrong? Because I wanted him to accept me as Mexican, and a respectable Mexican girl would never go to Cabo alone with her boyfriend.
“What did he say?” Paul asked when I grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the store.
“He was just being obnoxious. He kept saying you had brought me here to have sex.”
Paul knew to be quiet. He held my hand and we walked back to the hotel.
I can’t believe I let the man’s comment intimidate me. In the end it wasn’t about having sex, it was about him putting a label on me. A label that said, “This one is no longer ours.” But I was, I am. It doesn’t matter how long I live outside that environment. I will carry that part of my upbringing with me forever. My husband will always be married to a Mexican, no matter how long I have lived in this country.
“But when I hear you talk and when I look at you, I don’t see you as Mexican,” said my friend, as if trying to make me feel better.
“I get that comment a lot when I say I’m from Mexico. And sometimes I think it’s racist. It is stereotypical at best.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way,” she said, embarrassed.
I know you didn’t, but I know someone who did. Her name was Jenny, and she was a heavy drinker. She could polish off a bottle of wine in minutes. One glass after another, losing sense of reality, letting words out of her mouth that, if she could remember the next day, she’d wish she could take back. One night after a dinner party at her house, she told a story about living in Arizona and how she always had to deal with all the Mexicans crossing the border to go to school in Yuma, where she lived.
“They were so different,” she said. “The girls would get pregnant at sixteen and they had no manners.”
She would then brag about sleeping with the entire football team of her high school and never getting an STD. I listened to her and wondered how she dared say such things in front of her husband and in front of me, her Mexican friend.
“Jenny,” I said, “I am Mexican and I didn’t get pregnant at sixteen. In fact, I graduated from college and to my family’s dismay I am still single at twenty-six.”
“You’re not Mexican!” Jenny said, giving me hug and a kiss.
“I am one hundred percent Mexican.” I pushed her away, her breath almost getting me drunk.
“No, you’re not. Where is your dark skin? Your poor manners? Your inability to carry yourself amongst people like us? You are college educated, for God’s sake. You can’t be Mexican, not the Hillsburrito kind anyway.”
At this point, it was too hard for me to argue with her. Some people form preconceived ideas about a group, then deliberately take you out of it because you don’t fit the mold.
Where is Hillsburrito? asked my friend. Does that place exist?
“No, of course it doesn’t.”
My first job after graduating from college was in Portland, Oregon. In the nineties, Mexicans were not very common in the Northwest. Portland is where I actually learned to speak English. In college, most of my friends were like me. Sheltered Hispanic kids whose parents had enough money to send them to the U.S. to learn English and get a college education.
Most of us lived in nice apartments, close to the University, and enjoyed a monthly allowance. My dad had bought me a Honda Accord to drive the five blocks from my apartment to school, because he said he didn’t want me riding a bike.
“I know what boys look at when they see a girl riding a bike and no one will be looking at my daughter’s butt,” he told me. Yeah, that’s a Mexican dad.
Hillsboro, OR, a town close to Portland, has a large concentration of Mexicans. Some Portland natives refer to Hillsboro as Hillsburrito. That’s where the best Mexican restaurants were. My coworkers always asked me to teach them about the Mexican foods they knew nothing about.
“Order whatever she tells you to,” my friends would say to one another. “Lilia’s the expert.”
Oregon is where I learned about racist terms used to identify Mexicans. Terms like wet backs, cholos, and beaners.
A girl from work decided to change my name from from Lilia to Beaner. This bothered me; I felt she was mocking me. But I really didn’t know what to say. She seemed to think it was a term of endearment.
Just the other day, an acquaintance called my children anchor babies. In my case, nothing could be further from the truth. I became a legal U.S. resident years before I married my husband and was a U.S. citizen a year after my first child was born. I was never in this country illegally.
“You know, if Trump wins, you and your blond anchor babies may have to go back to Mexico.” He said this jokingly, but statements like these leave me speechless. They take the air out of my lungs and the thoughts out of my mind, leaving me unable to give an intelligent response.
Besides, if I confronted the offender, he would say he didn’t mean it that way.
So I have experienced racism. Not the up-front kind, the one you read about in the news. This kind of racism is subtle, very easy to miss, disguised in good intentions. You can call it prejudice, if you prefer. I was not born here. Perhaps it is a price I have to pay for assimilating into a culture that is not mine, but I can hope there is no such admission price.
One time I was standing outside a movie theater, talking to a friend. A guy I barely knew looked at me and said, “Hi, Niño.”
I turned to look at him and laughed.
“You mean Niña.”
“No, I mean Niño, like the storm.”
Apparently that was the only Spanish word he knew. I became “El Niño” to all my friends. This name I liked. Not because it was a destructive storm, but because it is something powerful, unstoppable, worthy of recognition.
I have experienced racism, in both of the countries I have lived in. One judges me because I left, the other is confused because I am something outside their preconceived notions. I didn’t turn out to be what people expected on either side of the border. And that is okay. I am willing to bet they didn’t turn out to be who they thought they would be either. I no longer make apologies for being who I am, even if I don’t belong.