What Vicente Fox, the President of Mexico, said was this: “There is no doubt that Mexicans, filled with dignity, willingness and ability to work, are doing jobs that not even blacks want to do there in the United States.”
He said it in Spanish. He said it to a group of Texas businessmen meeting in Mexico. American and Mexican officials cited translation issues, context and the subject of illegal immigration. Jesse Jackson brought up border policies and citizenship rights.
Those are big words. But we should all be concerned with one word. A small one: Even.
Even the blacks. Even is a term of relativity and comparison–and here it is invoked as a measure of the bottom, as far as one can go down a totem pole or ladder of propriety or scale of personhood. Even. As in a caste system. Untouchables are referred to this way in India. Even the Untouchables wouldn’t do that job. Or would they?
Even the blacks. The phrase stunned my daughters and their father. Added to it was the murder the week before of a popular black high school football player in Corona, 15 years old, stabbed to death in front of his condominium door by three young males, referred to in newspapers as “Hispanic.” While they were killing him, they shouted racial slurs. We have heard the word–the one always referred to rather coyly ever since Mark Fuhrman as “the n-word” but that I have heard said aloud more this year than ever in my life–the word nigger, which I had hoped never to explain to my children, who are truly American combinations of seven different races/nationalities–Creek, Cherokee, Swiss, Irish, African, French and American.
Even, as a word, makes nigger so much more acceptable.
And President Fox isn’t the only one who clearly feels rising contempt and increasing superiority–throughout Southern California, in the prison system, in the school system and in the grids of streets and freeways that connect us, hatred is being directed from Mexican-born and Mexican-descended peoples against other peoples of mixed race and most especially against people with African-American blood in their veins.
Earlier this year, waiting for my middle daughter at her junior high a block from our house, my youngest child, who is 9, ran her hands over the gray-painted picnic table. I looked down at the carved words under her brown fingers. Nigger beater. Kill niggers. Then the name of a Mexican-American gang.
But until recently, the only time I had ever heard anyone actually say that word, boldly and in the midst of an ordinary conversation, was at our elementary school, and it was repeated amid long sentences of Spanish.
My daughter’s fourth grade class of twenty-eight is composed of four Anglo kids, two African-American children, four girls who are part Chicano, black and white in varying percentages and eighteen kids who are “Mexican” or “Chicano.” Ten of these children were born in Mexico, go back and forth across the border frequently, speak Spanish as a first language and have parents who speak very little English.
I wait alongside them outside the playground’s chain-link fence. I’ve heard them speaking Spanish to each other and apparently not worrying about me overhearing anything since I’m blond. I speak Spanish. And I understand the word nigger. I hear it in conjunction with dismissive complaints about other children.