I believed in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny as a child but I never believed that my family was affected my racism. As a child I went to school with children from various ethnic backgrounds, including Israeli, Filipino and British. I found nothing odd about the fact that lunchtime was a UN smorgasbord of food. The ease by which my friendships were formed along international boundaries made it difficult to understand why my parents and grandparents felt slighted by racial intolerance. The intolerance they remembered as children seemed impossible to me as a child. As I became a teenager and an adult, my parents and grandparents shared their experiences with me.
Raised in a small agricultural community in California, my parents lived in an area occupied by mostly Hispanics. My mother remembers the burden and blessing desegregation placed on her life. She and her siblings were bused to a school in the predominantly white area. It was an opportunity at a better education even if it meant being an obvious minority. My mother took full advantage of her education and excelled in school. When she reached high school, she was eager to take advanced math and science. She was disappointed to hear a counselor discourage her from taking math courses and suggest a home economics course because she “would likely end up barefoot and pregnant”.
My grandfather would repeatedly have to visit my mother’s school every semester to politely explain why my mother – despite being Mexican – wanted and deserved the right to take advanced courses. Now my grandfather laughs off his repeated visits to my mother’s school, but I am sure he wishes he had a similar opportunity during the 1940’s. At that time, things were even worse in the city. My grandfather and grandmother would join the other teenagers on Mexican Day at the local pool. Mexican Day was the day before the city drained the pool.
As a teenager, I was mortified to think that someone would belittle my grandparents that way. My mother used to tell me that my grandfather refused to send his children to school with burritos for lunch. As a child during the 1930’s he was daily taunted by children who mocked his simple and affordable ethnic lunch. As you can imagine, my Tata always made sure his children had lunch meat to eat instead of a burrito hidden in a brown paper sack. To this day, he is stunned by the popularity of fast food Mexican restaurants.
As an adult, I am no longer naïve about social injustice and how it has shaped my family’s life. All of my cousins have graduated from college and have gone on to advanced degrees. We are doctors, teachers, scientists and above all a product of era where people judged by the color of their skin rather than human potential. I may not believe in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny anymore, but I do wholeheartedly believe that the injustice my parents and grandparents had to bare was the source of life for the seeds of determination and perseverance that flourishes in my family today.
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