The American Way
I must admit I don’t think I ever felt different until I was about 7 years old. Prior to that, I had always been surrounded by people like me: Mexican Americans or Chicanos in South Texas. My parents rarely went outside their comfortable circle of family and friends in the small town where I grew up. Even when I was about 4 or 5 and we lived in San Antonio, we stayed in our (Mexican-American) area of the city. We all spoke Spanish and sometimes English. We were all brown skinned. And we were what would be considered poor today.
I went to school for the first time in my hometown of Mathis, Texas where the majority of kids were Chicano/Mexican American. All the teachers were white, but it was just the way it was supposed to be. Our parents or adults in the Mexican-American community were mostly laborers; so, it was never questioned.
We did not speak Spanish in school but that was just the way it was supposed to be, too. Although I never witnessed it, I remember hearing that we would be punished for speaking Spanish in school. We all followed the ‘rules.’ Teachers praised us mightily if we spoke English. I recall a teacher saying it was the American way to learn proper English. So, Spanish was a thing of the past for me, now? But when I was home, my grandmother always emphasized that I must never forget Spanish. Ever. No matter what anyone said.
When I was in second grade we moved to Blue Mound, a suburb of Fort Worth. That is when I remember BEING different. I was the only Chicana kid in my elementary school. I was not discriminated against really. I was lucky. I mean my teacher was kind and I think she told the other kids that I was to be treated like everyone else.
But one child did stare at me a long time when were in the cafeteria. He asked me, “Are you from New Mexico or Old Mexico?” I said I’m not from any Mexico. I am from Texas. I went to ask the teacher what he had meant but I don’t remember what she told me. I do remember she called the little boy to the head of the cafeteria table and gave him a ‘talking to,’ but I have no idea what she said.
I also remember I hated my hands because they weren’t pretty and light skinned like the white girls in my school. I thought if I could just wash them often enough…. but no one ever told me that. I just remember feeling it.
All of these memories would have been around 1965-1966 but the one memory that stands out - that made me feel ‘less than’ - was in the fourth grade. My friend from first grade (I’ll call her Betty) was half Italian, half Chicana. She and I befriended a little girl who was new to the school that year. Her name was Gretchen, I think. We would spend our recess playing together. I remember she could sing and her family could afford to take her to the movies. She had just seen The Sound of Music and sang all the songs to us and told us the story during recess.
One day, she pulled Betty aside. I was no longer included at recess? I asked Betty what was the matter with Gretchen. She said Gretchen’s parents were from Germany and refused to let her play with me when they found out I was Mexican. Betty was ‘okay’ because she was half Italian. Gretchen never talked to me again.
I was very hurt and cried. I was even more hurt because Betty chose Gretchen over me at school. That was the first time I felt different.