I don’t look like my mother or my siblings, I look like my dad. This made me look like a genetic “sport” in my family photos. I’m not dark brunette with bronze/olive skin and chocolate drop eyes. I’m tall, blond, fair skinned, and green eyed. The only place the “ethnic shows”is in my eyelids, cheekbones and the fact I have no ass. I grew up in a poor farming town in Arizona with a lot of people that looked like my family in some way and some that looked like me. We were taught that we were never to even think of ourselves as “better” than other people, no matter their circumstances or ours. We were also taught that it took effort and empathy to be a humane human being. Someone worthy of being a part of our community. Stepping outside our comfort zone, a lot! Talking, living, loving and laughing with people that, perhaps other people, didn’t like or didn’t want to be associated with. As a child, I honestly thought, more friends for me! Then, as I got into school, I began to see the things that some children had been “carefully taught”. All I knew then was that adults and children could and would be mean to some of my friends and, I honestly didn’t understand what the big deal was. Throw me an orange and I’ll give a few examples of my “misunderstandings.”
Angels in Arizona
In second grade, about this time of year, a classmate invited me to her birthday party. I was over the moon! As the “smart kid”, the years of isolation by other students had begun and I was so happy to be invited. Her name was Ramona Menchaca, and she was turning 7 like me. My mother took me out, probably to a thrift store as we had squat for “extra money” and I picked out one of those beautiful little ceramic birthday statuettes they used to make. The ones where the doll is dressed in a ball gown and the flowers in her basket/arms have faux birthstones set in the flowers. It was beautiful! We drove out to her house after school. Nothing about her house, from the outside, was much different, to my eyes, than the one I lived in. Ours backed onto farm fields, hers was in one. I popped out of our Rambler and knocked on the door. Mom said she’d be back in an hour or so. Ramona opened the door and the “same as me” fell away. Her floor was dirt, hard packed, swept clean, but dirt. We had linoleum. She had a fireplace. We didn’t. She had 3 rooms and an outhouse. We had 6 and indoor plumbing. I wasn’t too freaked by that as my grandparents had a farm and had an outhouse as well as plumbing. There weren’t any kind of appliances and little furniture in her house either. I remember being confused by that as I wasn’t sure where to sit, so I settled on the floor. Another thing missing was anyone else from our 2nd grade class. NO ONE else had come yet, so we waited and played with the “cup in ball” toy her sister had. Still no one showed. Finally, her abuela, her mom was at work, said, “Come outside so we can cook treats.” There was the stove. Sheet metal over an open fire. I learned how to make tortillas, butter them, sprinkle cinnamon sugar on them, roll them up and eat them. Still love them to this day, over 45yrs on. Ramona finally opened her gift. She thought it looked like an angel and it went up onto the mantle right next to the statue of the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe. My mother came back and picked me up. She didn’t comment on the dirt on my skirt, simply asked if I’d had a nice time. I did, though I did ask my mom if we couldn’t somehow get a mattress for Ramona, Maria, David and the baby to sleep on. If I remember right, she said she’d try.
The School Bus Stops Here:
My grandfather was a farmer all of his life. The family farm in Illinois was lost during the Depression so he and the family moved about in tenancy, managing, and other types of “sharecropping” until he found the place in Arizona in the early 1950’s. Granpa B. had, what were known in those days as “views”. He felt children needed to be in school and that’s where they belonged, not working in a field. He felt good labor deserved to be rewarded with good bosses. He was a good boss. He paid more than the “going rate” for his migrant workers that helped in the fields and cotton gin. He did this so that the children of these workers didn’t have to go into the fields, his or any other persons. My understanding is that he pushed for the school bus to stop at his place and he pushed until it happened. Much to the consternation of the other growers and farmers. I remember Mr. Anderson talking to Granpa one day. “Lester, you are paying them too much, they’ll expect it from everyone. You’ve got to stop it. And the school thing, it’s just not done this way around here. You have to be careful or you won’t have a crop for them to bring in. Do you know what I mean?” I had no idea what he meant, but Granpa got this look, like he was going to get the strap, and his face got a bit darker. Then he said, “I pay my people for the work they do. They do hard work and they do good work. Their kids have just as much right as mine or yours to school and to school bus stops. I appreciate the information, but you tell who ever sent you that I’ve dealt with their kind before. I know my rights and have NO TRESPASSING signs posted.” Then he muttered something about little pitchers having big ears and told Mr. Anderson to leave. The buses always stopped at his place until he died.
The “Right” Doll
When I was in grade school, every year, my mother’s church would buy a case or two of naked dolls to dress and give out to needy families at Christmas. I distinctly remember the “year of the brown dolls”. Mom had “views” too about how things should be done and talked her church circle into including black and brown dolls in the buying that year. I’m not sure if that was the fist year they were available or if Mom searched them out. Regardless, they were there and needed to have clothes sewn for them. So Mom got out her scraps and mill ends and went to town. My job was sewing on snaps or other handwork. I also got to dress them before they went out. I understood the importance of a doll that “looked like me” as my mom had searched high and low for one with long, blonde hair for me. It only made sense that my classmates would want a doll that looked like they did. The confusion came in when it was realized that, while we had 2 African American dolls dressed and ready, there was only one Black child in my school. And Jeffery was, well, a boy! That wouldn’t work, so if memory serves, one doll was given to Jeffery’s’ mother to give out and the other went to the Salvation Army Toys for Tots. Years later, I do know, I saw the doll at Jeffery’s house. I guess his mother finally got the doll she’d always wanted.
So the stage is set for puberty, a larger school and a bit more diversity and a totally racially, clueless young woman to walk right into the shredder known as high school cliques and clubs. But my most important lesson was not learned on campus, but in a program leftover from the Depression, the Youth Conservation Corps.
Lake Pleasant, It Wasn’t
Summer in the desert in Arizona simply sucks. It especially sucks when your “job” is to move rocks, string barb wire and relocate rattlesnakes away from the “recreational areas”. The dorms were decrepit and barely cooled by the one swamp cooler on the roof. That cooler was placed directly over where the counselors room was and the “chill” was to diffuse through that vent, through doorways, into the other rooms. The further you were from the end with the cooler, the hotter your room was. It was murderously hot at the opposite end. Which is where they stuck the 3 young Black women, the 1 Mexican and, well, the only person who would share the room with them. Me. Why? Because I didn’t care and if we didn’t fill all the beds in a dorm room, they’d seal off that room and those young women would be out of a job. And Willa Mae, Berty, Jesse, Shondra and I needed that job! Hellish as it was. Despite being teased unmercifully by other girls and boys about my “___lovin'”, and my roomies being teased about me “needing 3 maids and a housekeeper”, we hung in and hung on. I got an instant education on inter-racial living. Things I’d heard about different cultures were smashed by real life. I taught them to dance. (yes, I thought that all black people could dance, I had no way of knowing it was a trope). They taught me about how black skin can burn too. I taught them how to build a crystal radio and make an antennae so we had music to dance to. I learned the myriad uses of Vaseline in skin care and taught them about aloe. And, one morning when I wanted to “call in sick”, I was introduced to being called something, that they often called each other. I was truly confused as I’d never used that word and my mother would have slapped it out of my mouth if she’d heard me do so, and here they were, using it on each other and “bright white” me? They explained, I got it, still won’t use it though. That was the end of my freshman year summer and more was coming down the pike as I discovered the “women’s movement” and human rights for all. But that’s for another diary or two.
The upshot of these vignettes is that I truly didn’t care what color your skin was, or what you did for money, everyone I knew was poor. The question was, “what kind of a person are you?”. By these and other incidents I learned that while somethings may be different, a lot more are the same. These experiences also taught me that you can talk to anyone, as long as you are upfront and true, you can go anywhere, as long as you take responsibility for what you’re doing there. I’ve also learned I have what is known now as “white privilege”, but I don’t have “white guilt”. I didn’t do anything to deserve either one. Make no mistake though, I use the F out of my “white privilege” in service to those who, for whatever reason, don’t have that “in” into the system.
Dedicated to the friends in this diary, and Marissa, AD, Rich, Lola, Shay, Audrey, Kevin, Brien, Amia and all the other current friends who put up with my stumbles and keep helping me to be better