To paraphrase Wanda Sykes, you are part of the problem.
What is the most reliable way to end racial prejudice? Especially our own subconscious prejudices? Become actual friends with people from other cultures. Real friends, not just someone you only see at work or school. And. More. Than. One.
We are all siblings under the skin.
We now know that all of our DNA was passed down to us by common ancestors. Cultures have developed separately and geographically, but we are all siblings under the skin. And, if that skin is a different shade than ours, we have to immerse ourselves in one another’s culture to realize that differences in skin tone and other features do not a stranger make.
Their culture may be different from ours. Often it’s better.
When I was growing up, we had many Sundays where my grandmothers small country house was overflowing with family. Sometimes trestles were set up outdoors to feed everybody. By the time I was grown, that never happened again except at rare reunions. I miss it.
That’s why having been adopted by a Hispanic family for holidays has brightened my life and that of my sister and son. It has given my son holiday traditions and stability after my mother died. My sister and I are Caucasian, my son is half-Black, and we are now considered Hispanic by affiliation. At least by one family.
My friends, or Mi Familia, the Bonillas, have Thanksgivings, Christmas Eves, and Easters filled with family, friends and adopted family, like the three of us. There are often as many as 75 people, eating, laughing, hugging, sitting around the fire pit in the back yard, or in the huge open living space inside. Eating tamales and posole at Christmas, turkey and the works plus barbecue at thanksgiving, and ham at Easter. There is always guacamole.
We participate in La Posada, re-enacting Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay the night of Jesus’ birth. For over a decade that we have shared with the Bonilla family, we have seen the Josephs and Marys grow up and be replaced with younger ones dressed in bath robes with towel headdresses. One very special year, the first Joseph and Mary reprised the roles, carrying their own newborn child as Jesus.
I first met the Bonillas by seeing Bob Bonilla regularly on Sundays at a Jazz brunch in a funky little Greek cafe. It was a mellow place for a blending of cultures. The owner and main chef is Greek, and a well-known Jazz performer. One Easter, Bob invited me and my friend Pam, who is Black, to Easter dinner. He led us to his home about two hours early. Eva, his wife, looked a little shocked when we appeared while she was in the middle of preparations. Later, we would learn that she was accustomed to Bob bringing home strangers. She completely took us and our arrival in stride. We asked if we could help, and a tradition began.
My son and I travelled and stayed in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
We went for three years running when he was seven, eight and nine, and I continued to visit there. It was there I was able to hone my Spanish. My son studied art and Spanish at the Institudo de Allende, while I wandered the streets practicing the language. The locals were the friendliest people I’ve ever met. They tolerated my inadequate Spanish, and helped me correct it when I asked them. The ex-patriots told me that many locals would answer “yes” to whatever I asked because they were so polite. I never learned if that were true, but they were kind.
The sad part of those trips to me was the witnessing the separation of locals and ex-patriots. Even in their own town, locals were more often the gardeners and maids for wealthy ex-patriots than friends with them. I attended some events where the only Mexican people were the servers. When one of my ex-pat friends there died shortly after moving back to L.A., his family didn’t know how to contact his former house-keeper, Esperanza, even though they had to have met her.
As I write this, I realize that I can’t describe the peace I obtained by hiding out in San Miguel with my friend before his move to L.A. and after my mother died. The pure caring and kindness of even the people selling in the marketplace made me cry in the middle of stands of fruit, pinatas, and hand made jewelry. Esperanza was especially gentle with me, insisting she cook my breakfast and lunch. By that visit, she finally did accept that I was going to do the clean up, though. On that trip, I visited her home when she was ill with Bell’s Palsy, trying to give her the hope that matched her name, in a spotless, white washed house. As she smiled shakily and struggled to understand my broken Spanish, I held her hand and tried to repay in the smallest way the service and care she had provided me and my friend.
Gratitude is spoken in every language.
And yet, I don’t have words for it for Mi Familia, the Bonillas, and other Hispanic friends in America and San Miguel. I am not the only one without words. Some of the Hispanic people in America were raised by their families to speak only English in an effort to assimilate or blend in with White culture. At one time, schools in much of the U.S. forbade children to speak Spanish. They lost a valuable part of their heritage, and some of them are studying Spanish as adults in order to reclaim it. In the Bonilla family, Eva is currently learning Spanish, while her brother, Jesse Sandoval, has always spoken it.
When a people are conquered, the first thing that is stripped from them is their language. It happened to Native Americans, many of whom are struggling to get younger tribe members to learn the old languages, as they are in actual danger of dying out. It happened to African Americans, who, as slaves were thrown together from many tribes, each with its own language. They were even forbidden their African names. Out of this oppression came the very expressive mix of English and certain African languages, which you can see in the Gullah islands, and hear in the lilting speech there.
While people of Mexican heritage haven’t been conquered since the Spanish Conquistadors, many lost land when the state of Texas came into being. Much of Texas used to be Mexico. But the majority of those who remained in the part of Texas that had been Mexico kept their traditions, their art, and their language. It is also true for other bordering states who claimed Mexican land. Those of us who live in those areas today have ample opportunity to make friends and share the traditions of Hispanic people. Doing so is the very best way to expand our horizons and multiply our joys.
So, muchas gracias to everyone of Hispanic heritage who has influenced me, cared for my son and me, and taught us that while no words are enough, love is the same in any language.