Internalized racism is painful. The pain is multi-level. It affects you personally and, as I realized yesterday, in a very deep way (super huge flashbulb moment), it has implications for family connections across the generations.
So, here is where part of the story starts, and I’ll talk about other specific moments in later blogs…
My dad was born in Santa Monica, California. His name was Antonio Martinez, and he was a tall man with dark skin that reminded me of a the cafe con leche that he drank by the thermos-full (those old school big silver thermoses). He had the thickest wavy black hair that he’d slick down with Brylcream, and he’d apply generous amounts of Old Spice after shave…I think I can still smell it sometimes, especially in my times of need. (He died when I was 16. And I do feel his presence sometimes. I’m sorry for you, not for me, if you think that’s strange). I always knew he was getting ready to go somewhere because the scent of Old Spice would waft from their bathroom spreading a thin fog throughout the house. The only other smell daring to challenge it was my mom’s perfume, usually some spray from Avon that one of her friends had sold her…la Avon lady. I can picture my dad now in a white cotton tank top (why people insist on calling them wife-beaters is beyond me. stop it people. that’s horrible.), green polyester pants (with cigarette burns on them), a scapular around his necks, sipping on a Tab soda and smoking a Kools brand cigarette at the kitchen table. He was a sheet metal mechanic in Long Beach for McDonnell Douglas, and made the galleys for airplanes. He’d only gotten a 7th grade education, but it was back in the day when the U.S. actually manufactured stuff and you could get a decent job with union protection. I’d always known him with heavy eyes; he always appeared tired to me, and I’m pretty sure he was. He had these large luna shaped bags under his eyes that looked to me like you could pop them with a needle and they’d deflate. He was chronically ill with diabetes, and I even remember times when my mom would pull out a little silver case with a needle and go with him to their room to give him an insulin shot. He was the oldest of 11, I think. I know if I try to name them all, I’ll forget some. He was born to Fernando and Tirsa Martinez. I’m sure Tirsa is short for something, but not sure what. I think this is another reason I feel compelled to write at this very moment in time…I’m searching for family, and I am searching for myself (but I digress…). Who are/were these people who shaped me in some ways, many ways? I don’t really know, and it makes me think I have a lot to learn about who I am (again, I digress…damn!…please bear with me).
My mom, Maria de Jesus Escareño Lopez, was born in San Pedro, Coahuila, Mexico. She goes by Maria Martinez. She is also the oldest from a family of 11 or 12 siblings. I always remember my mom making flowers and flower arrangements. She studied up to the sixth grade in Mexico, and had to take a vocational path in her studies. She didn’t like knitting or embroidery, so she chose flower making. To this day, she makes flowers. Her hands are never idle. She makes them out of ribbon, napkins, paper bags, egg membranes (yes, you read that right), anything she can get her hands on. When I was growing up she had a little business from the house making arrangements and selling them for weddings, quinceañeras, and folkloric dance. Flowers, flowers, everywhere…I did grow to despise them at times, but her talent helped put food on the table, especially when my dad was sick, laid off from work, or on strike with his union (as he told me once, “I ain’t no scab”). My mom never smiles in pictures. She says it causes wrinkles, and she despises wrinkles. If you spend five minutes with her, she’ll break out old photos of herself and tell you how people always give her compliments on her beautiful skin. I used to get irritated by this, but c’mon, she’s got a point, just look at that picture. Flawless. I find it endearing now. I told her recently that I think I’m starting to get some fine lines. She said, “No, that’s not possible. I just started getting wrinkles myself.” FYI, her secret: Pond’s Cream. My mom is funny, though, which is odd given that she won’t smile in pictures. Well, at least I think she’s funny. She’ll start to tell a joke but can’t finish it because she breaks out in the biggest ugly laugh you have EVER seen: mouth wide open, grabbing her belly, tears streaming down her eyes. I can’t recall her ever telling a joke without this scenario playing out. She can usually get to the punch line, and the jokes are pretty damn funny, but what I love most is that beautiful “ugly” belly laugh that emanates from her very soul. In that moment she’s not worried about wrinkles; she is just full of joy. Physically, my mom is a bit vertically challenged like myself, but unlike me, she has white skin and green eyes. Yes, white skin and green eyes. And that is an important point. Her skin and eye color have shaped a number of things about my childhood and even adulthood. It wasn’t until I was an adult, however, and learned about such concepts as white privilege that I could articulate the multifaceted ways in which color shapes experience. And, specifically, the way color has shaped my experience. (I’ll tell you about the hazel contact lenses I wore my freshman year in college another time). My mother’s whiteness is such a large and looming issue that it will need it’s own series of blog entries, and likely it’s own book. It’s certainly related, and I’ll draw the connections to internalized racism at another time, but her whiteness is not what I want to focus on for this post. I’ll be building to this…But I did want to introduce my parents, and their physical, as well as personality characteristics, provide a foundation for some of the things I’ll discuss as I blog along.
The connections swirling in my head with internalized racism at this very moment start with my parents moving to Orange County, California before I was even born. (Internalized racism definition needed? Okay: http://www.div17.org/TAAR/internalizedracism.htm ). As I’ve heard the story told, houses in Los Angeles were expensive, but there was a place a little south that was beginning to develop, and the houses were cheaper. That was Orange County, California. Yes, you read that right. This was awhile ago, mind you. My mom would tell me of the cows and orange groves that made up a large part of the area when they first moved there. Even when I was in elementary school and much of the land had been taken up by tract homes, I could smell the strawberry fields nearby. It’s one of the scents of my childhood that I carry with me; the smell of strawberries can almost always make me smile. (I have an attachment to strawberries). I lived in Cypress, California from the day I was brought home to the hospital until I went to graduate school (there was one year in between where did Education Abroad and lived in Madrid, Spain…that is a blog for another time. Let’s just say I was the only college kid in the airport weeping, feeling the weight of guilt for leaving my mama for a year).
It’s an understatement to say that Cypress had a big influence on me. It was a small community with the elementary school just two short blocks away. We were not the only Latino family on the street, the Mendoza’s still live a few houses down the street, but they seemed very different. Now, I realize it’s because they weren’t poor, like us. There were also two Japanese American families on the street a few doors down. Both families were made up of white American fathers and Japanese mothers. I rarely saw the women; they stayed mostly indoors. Trying to picture them now, I can’t. I can picture the men, though. Burly type guys that I’m pretty sure had been in the military. Both families had kids but they were older than me, and I didn’t interact with them. My oldest sister did hang out some with Mike, who lived two doors away. Everyone else on the street was white. But, it’s not to say that my neighborhood wasn’t diverse. I went to school with other Mexican American kids: Sylvia, Fernando, Toni, Guy, Johnny, Monica, Louie, Yolanda, and I’m sure a few others that I can’t remember. But what I do know is that none of us spoke Spanish to each other. I’m sure some of them spoke Spanish in their homes. I did. I grew up speaking Spanish and English because my mom doesn’t speak English to this day. I knew some of their parents spoke Spanish. But what I realize is that what we all had in common was trying to fit in…we NEVER spoke about our heritage. Hey, we were suburban kids…had there been the vocabulary, we would have embraced color blind racism to the fullest. We were all just Cypress kids with no history. Some of us still embrace that, like my Facebook friend Fred. I told him that I knew him as Fernando in elementary school and asked him why he was now “Fred.” He said a number of friends couldn’t say “Fernando” so they called him “Fred” and it just stuck. That seriously hit me like a ton of bricks! Who was I to question his name? I’m Rebecca and Becky. My mom even has a hard time saying “Becky.” Spellings of my name by my mom and Spanish speaking relatives include: Beki, Becki, Becky, Beky… What I think me and my elementary school friends were searching for is simply belonging…and that meant we had to give up our history and our language, at least in public. It was embarrassing to be of Mexican heritage. We were just American. End of story. Punto! But as I grew to have the privilege of discovering my identity in college (I was the youngest in my family and the only member at the time to attend a four-year university), things began to change…slowly. I took Spanish in college, learned the appropriate grammar, studied abroad in Spain (my only way to get to Europe), and yet, the internalized racism nagged… Speaking Spanish with my brothers and sisters was still “weird.”
None of my siblings and I, there are five of us, spoke or speak to each other in Spanish. We will on occasion when we don’t want someone else to know what we are saying, but it’s rare, and FEELS incredibly awkward. And we all have different levels of fluency. My oldest sister and I embrace it the most. We developed close attachments to our cousins in Mexico, and I think that was a big part of it. I would go with my mom to Mexico when I was in my teens, and got very close to my cousins in there. I enjoyed my time there and my cousins and I had a blast! I even developed a long-time crush on a Mexican boy from my mom’s town: Armando Varela. Every summer for two or three years I tried to get him to notice me, but to no avail. I was a very late bloomer…no ass, no boobs, skinny as a rail with braces…not high on the cuteness scale. And always looming in the background…I’m darker than my mom with those “plain” brown eyes. I’m not delving deep right now, but to be white in Mexico is HUGE. In a small town where families know each other for generations, that beautiful white & green eyed Doña Maria had ordinary brown skinned, brown eyed children is, well, not quite a tragedy, but…
(Yes, I know, I digress…)…In Mexico, I could be Mexican…sort of. I would always be a “ni de aqui ni de alla” (not from here nor there), but I could explore my identity. When I started college, I was even more intrigued to know about my origins, and started the process of questioning all of the internalized racism that I had held onto. Growing up in a largely white suburb and not daring to speak Spanish outside the home makes you have survival skills. Speak Spanish? Thank god none of my friends ever asked. I spoke without any sort of accent…not like my cousins from Los Angeles…on the few occasions I would see them, I knew I was “better” because I didn’t have that awful twang that said, “L.A. Chola.” (okay, yes, this is painful). Everything about my surroundings in Cypress told me that I was “American” 100%…except my last name and darker skin and poverty. And boy did I work hard to maintain that identity. But when I got to college and had a self-identified Chicano professor and guidance counselor who changed my world, I began to question and question and question…on the road to good and painful discoveries…
My Mexican identity and the camaraderie with my Mexican cousins strengthened, but my cousins in Los Angeles, just 45 minutes away remained distant. I could celebrate my Mexican heritage, but my cousins in L.A. …something was still eating at me. Did I think I was “better” than them? Why was I competing? Who was asking me to compete? What in the hell was going on? I teach a course on Latinas and identity formation, and still, my own identity was eluding me… And, yet, for the last dozen years, I’ve known…deep within me. I did think I was “better.” Internalized racism led me to engage in this self-defeating hierarchy that masks itself as a form of “belonging.”
It wasn’t until yesterday that I was confronted with the actual possibility of confronting this internalized racism head on in the form of apologizing to my L.A cousins. I called my cousin Monica in the hopes of learning more about the farmland that my grandfather owned, and a potential story about my grandfather holding onto a farm owned by a Japanese man who was interred during World War II. But my first question to my cousin was “how are you all?” Maybe it wasn’t a fully honest question because I wanted to get to the nitty gritty of it all about the property. But when she started to answer from the heart about all of her siblings, I started to feel guilty, but also realized I really wanted to know about my cousins. I called for one reason, but started connecting on a whole other level. I was thirsty to know about this side of my family. Yes, I REALLY wanted to know. The shell around me began to dissipate. I’m no better than them, and quite frankly, I’m in many ways worse. That my Aunt Sally could tell me she loved me…that was huge. How could she tell me that? How could she have such an open and giving heart when mine had been closed all of these years? My cousin Monica was so open and giving of herself when I had not been in contact for so many years…yes, there was the Christmas party about four years earlier, but after that, nothing…I didn’t look to keep in touch.
Internalized racism made me think I was better…that’s how that shit works…it tears apart you individually but it also tears apart generations who could and should know each other. So, I dedicate this blog entry to my L.A. family. I am so very sorry from the bottom of my heart. I hope that you can forgive me. And I’m very glad to know you little by little all over again. I hope you give me a chance. With love, Becky.