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.
It shocked me so badly I couldn’t tell anyone. Not my ex-husband, who works graveyard shift at a correctional facility, where this week he watches over the sleeping forms of the three brown-skinned kids who stabbed the black football player and yelled out what they believed he was while he died on his own doorstep.
Even. Even now that is what he was, to them.
Here in inland Southern California, where my mixed-race family has lived all my life, there are daily battles between brown and browner and darker than that. It would be far too easy to categorize it in terms understandable to most Northern or Eastern people. It’s not African-American against Mexican-American. Not black versus Latino. Far more complicated than that, as race and class and struggle have always been here, in the land of Ramona, when Spaniards of pale skin hated Indians of browner skin, when ranchos turned to housing developments.
In the 1940s and ’50s, when children and grandchildren of former slaves came here from the South to stay even as braceros were hired from Mexico and promised money that they rarely received, it was actually simpler: Whites hated both groups. In cities like Riverside and Corona, signs outside bars and restaurants read No Blacks, No Mexicans, No Dogs.
In Riverside, sixty miles east of Los Angeles, racial discrimination was systematic and legal during the 1950s and early ’60s, when I was born, as was my future husband, in the community hospital. His oldest brother is 50. He remembers the pool at Lincoln Park, where black and “Mexican” kids could swim only on Fridays, before the water was drained.
Those kids, his friends, weren’t Mexican at all. They were Chicano, which is what most of our friends called themselves when we were growing up together. There are strict distinctions. Chicano kids were those who had been born here, in America and in our neighborhoods, where citrus groves had been planted in the 1800s. People of Mexican descent and African descent worked the groves with Chinese- and Italian-born laborers and Japanese-Americans.
We all ran around in the same irrigated rows of trees, with the same white-star blossoms, in the same manufactured forests of our Southern California.
It didn’t matter if black or brown people had lived here in Southern California since 1910 or 1950, there were few places where they could buy houses. One was the Eastside, a neighborhood in Riverside that was about 90 percent African-American when I was a child, with Chicano families making up the other percentage. My neighborhood, which bordered the Eastside, was largely white but not wealthy enough to be that concerned: On my street were mostly military families, with Filipino husbands and Japanese wives, with African-American husbands and German wives, with Mexican-American and Japanese-American families.
We fought over money and bikes and perceived ugliness. Our junior high was evenly divided: one-third Anglo and Asian, one-third black and one-third Chicano. The few Japanese-born, Indian-born and Mexican-born kids were learning English. They never fought with anyone.
In high school we had a race riot, and it was over the word nigger, uttered on a bandstand. A white rock band had come to play a lunchtime concert, setting up in the area where many black students usually occupied picnic tables. When the band began to play, and jeers from all races flew, one of the band members apparently said the magic word, and all hell broke loose. But within minutes, black and white students were fighting each other over every imagined or real grievance of the past year, while Chicano and Asian students got out of the way. From behind a brick wall, while police helicopters circled over, I watched bigger people try to get money out of smaller people, whoever they were and whatever they looked like. The riot had devolved from race to strong-arm robbery.
It was all about money at the end, I thought, as we were released from school. Money and race always put us at each other’s throats. I told my daughters about our 1975 riot, because all these years later I realized that it was poorer white kids fighting poorer black kids that day.
This time President Fox’s comments are really about money and competition, too, and all the simmering and erupting hatred in Southern California between brown and browner is partly about the economy and no factory jobs, no places like Alcan Aluminum and Kaiser Steel, where my friends’ parents worked. All of them. My Swiss-born grandmother worked alongside people of every color at Kaiser Steel. My friends’ parents worked making airline parts or lawn mowers, manufacturing steel or processing grain. Those jobs are gone, moved out of state or out of the country, and what’s left is competition for even the lowest-paid service or construction jobs. I’ve met California-born Chicano men who’ve told me everyone else on their construction sites is Guatemalan born.
Benefiting from the competition, and the divisive nature of poverty, are the business owners who cut wages and benefits and hire immigrants; in terms of real estate, now no one can afford to buy a house in any of our former neighborhoods. Many of the homes are rented to large groups of immigrants from Mexico or Central America. The deterioration of a manufacturing base and the inflation of real estate have made a whole class of black and brown young men who’ve grown up not playing sports together, or riding bikes in a neighborhood, but living in apartment complexes riddled with fear and suspicion of each other and perceiving each other as enemies.
The second aspect of the new racism is about drugs and about prison, where those enemies are now in a second generation of hatred. Prisons are one of California’s largest industries and employers. My friends who are correctional officers have talked for more than five years now about the endless violence between brown and browner inmates in every facility from juvenile detention halls to maximum security prisons.
One friend, a vocational instructor at California Youth Authority, the facility in Chino, sees me every day at the elementary school, at that chain-link fence. This year, he has gone from depression to actual fear in his job, and earlier this year he described his vocational class: He cannot leave a single black prisoner alone, ever, in the laundry room or kitchen, because a group of Mexican-born prisoners continually attempts to murder every black inmate in proximity. It is their sole daily purpose, he says.
In late May that youth prison came close to riot. My friend, shaken and tired, told me that nine veteran guards could see, at a distance, the body postures of brown inmates clustering in the yard, and he described complicated patterns of movement that immediately led the guards, seven of whom were Chicano, to protect the black inmates.
We both talked about how young these men were–16 to 25–and how much they’d learned about hatred from older prisoners released into their communities, or communicating from the prison to their home neighborhoods. “It’s war,” my friend said, as we watched the children stream toward us.
Mike Davis wrote of this in his essay “Dante’s Choice,” published in 2002 in Dead Cities, referring to “an incipient, citywide gang war between Blacks and Latinos” in Los Angeles, describing how in LA neighborhoods where people of all races once co-existed, daily battles and skirmishes have destroyed friendships and lives. He cites prison as the major exporter of hatred, and overcrowding as a primary cause for racial animosity. Ironically, one inmate describes being “packed into these dorms all day long like slaves on an old slave ship.”
That racial hatred has wafted out to our everyday lives. In May my ex-husband called from the juvenile detention facility where he is a guard; he was worried about rumors he’d heard and wanted me to check on our high school daughter. The rumors were so widespread that thousands of high school and junior high kids had stayed home. Our daughters had both heard the rumors and been afraid. A large amount of cocaine was said to have been stolen from a Mexican gang by a black gang. On Cinco de Mayo, Mexican gang members were said to have planned to seek out any blacks wearing white T-shirts and shoot from cars at targets selected while cruising past schools and stores.
My junior high daughter was most shaken. She’d worn a white T-shirt to school.
How brown is she, truly? Brown, or browner? Black? Even? Her cousins are all brown, varying shades of brown and gold and almond and unadulterated coffee.
Her closest cousin is brown-skinned. Three years ago, when he was 13, two boys he knew, also 13, were shot to death by Chicano or Mexican-born gangs. One was at a store a few blocks from my house, the other was chased onto a porch in the Eastside neighborhood and shot. That year two older black men were hunted down randomly on the street and beaten to death, and two other black men were shot in a car on the street corner just after we pulled away from the signal light. They had no gang affiliations, but the rumors persisted that they’d been killed by brown boys, Mexican-born boys who wanted to be inducted into gangs. The men had been hunted.
My nephew was so depressed and fatalistic that he wrote up his own will. We were often afraid to gather outside my father-in-law’s house that summer, afraid to barbecue and play music.
My nephew lived with his stepmother then. Her mother was Mexican, her father black, and he most often ate tamales and enchiladas along with ribs and macaroni.
Our other closest cousin, also unnerved and frightened to drive anywhere, with anyone, is as brown. But his father is half-Chicano, half-black as well. If an assailant had seen these brown boys riding in a car, yelled out a slur and shot them, would they have known what was in their blood, or their stomachs?
The football player, Dominic Redd, a student at Centennial High School in Corona, was stabbed to death a few days after the Cinco de Mayo rumors. No motive has been admitted. His funeral was attended by 2,500 people. His mother lost her only child and will never return to the condominium where they lived. His schoolmates, many Mexican-American, raised thousands of dollars with a car wash to help her move.
Shortly afterward, another race riot broke out, at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, as well as one at Los Angeles High School. These were the latest in a series of racial fights on campuses this spring. On television news reports, black and Latino parents yelled at each other or stood side by side, sympathetic and scared, as police cordoned off the schools and hauled away still-punching brown and browner teenagers. Then Los Angeles mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, himself a veteran of LA high schools, announced he would be at Jefferson the following morning to try to defuse tension: “We’ve had fights and problems over the years,” he said, “but we’ve never had racial hatred like this.”
Students interviewed on TV kept mentioning the overcrowding at their schools, how hard it was to get along when they were all bumping into each other. Overcrowded schools, jails, freeways–brown and browner and white people working too hard, driving too far, not able to afford housing with breathing space, or not able to work at all in the new high-tech or service economy, sending children to school where they can’t find a seat or a book.
My ex-husband sat on the porch later that day and told me about the 15-year-old killer of the football player. He watches over the three incarcerated boys while they sleep, during his graveyard shift. He knew the word the brown boys had been yelling at the browner boy, while he was dying of nine stab wounds. Our girls were inside. I told him, for the first time, about the picnic table and the elementary school parents. He shook his head. “Do you remember that little kid?” he said to me, and I nodded.
He’d ridden a bike to work twelve years ago. He worked early mornings then. At dawn he rode past a house a mile away, where a little white kid sat on a porch eating fruit and spitting it out onto the dirt yard. The kid glanced up and said loudly, “Nigger. Nigger.” He said it over and over as my husband rode past. Glee. Repetition. More glee.
My husband told me that night, with a tone of wonder, “His parents must say that to him all the time, to get him so comfortable with it. To just say it over and over and over.”
President Fox’s comment lingered in my head that week as I followed a car whose license frame read Morelia Auto Sales. Morelia is a town in the state of Michoacan in the country of Mexico. Thousands of people in this area are from Morelia, or have parents or grandparents born in Morelia, and they are very loyal to the place of their ancestry. Markets near my house sell menudo and carnitas estilo Michoacán, and restaurants are named for states and cities. Zacatecas. Sinaloa.
When decrying the horrific treatment of immigrants in this country, and especially in California, people rightly bring up slavery. I have written a novel about immigrants from Mexico, about the border, farm work and desert deaths and desperation.
Mexican nationals, and increasingly Guatemalans and Salvadorans, are found locked in houses in our county, sixty to a two-bedroom house, imprisoned by the Mexican coyotes waiting for payment from their families. Mexican nationals die in locked trucks, freeze in boxcars, are robbed by Chicano and Mexican and Salvadoran gangs, are cheated of their money and are often treated in ways similar to some slaves in America’s past.
My ex-husband’s ancestors were slaves. They were brought here from Africa. They were owned by white people. Slavery, as an institution, is not comparable to present-day immigration.
Slaves didn’t swim back across the ocean to Senegal for Christmas. They didn’t wire money home to Angola so their waiting wives and children could build houses for their old age. They didn’t struggle back and forth across a dangerous and fortified border, cross polluted streams and bravely trek hundreds of miles to work so they could support their families and send their children to school, as so many immigrants do now, their children in school with my children, their wives and themselves elbow to elbow with me at the chain-link fence while we watch our children cross the playground toward us.
Instead, slaves from Africa were here in America forever, until released by death. They never saw the landscapes of their homeland again.
Their children did not go to school. They were forbidden to read or write or worship or sing songs unpleasing to their owners. They were whipped to death or rewarded with food. They made no money. They sent no money. They owned nothing, not even their own clothes. They didn’t own their own children.
They regarded their surroundings and either succumbed or survived. Their descendants did the same. Some of them survived Tennessee, Mississipi, Texas and Oklahoma, and made their way to California. One of them, a woman named Callie, gave birth to my father-in-law. And my own eldest daughter plans to name her girl child Callie, in tribute.
Tonight I will listen to my favorite local radio show, a Friday night program I have been dedicated to for twenty years, Radio Aztlan. Aztlan is the legendary land of Chicano pride. A former student of mine, a Chicano native of the Eastside neighborhood, is a deejay for the show. “Come on, brown, time to get down,” he says every Friday. “‘S up, raz?”
Raza means race. The brown race. “Viva la raza!” was the cry of farmworkers and Chicano activists in the 1960s and ’70s. Raza is a term of endearment, much like homey or brother.
The historic favorites of oldies shows are sixties soul singers, most of them black, and for all these years I’ve loved that about my hometown. That Chicano guys would drive past in a cherry 1964 Impala listening to Brook Benton sing “Oogum Boogum.” “You got soul, baby, too much soul,” he sings.
Another killer oldies show has become the most popular radio show in the Southwest, beloved by Chicano audiences in all of California, in Las Vegas and Phoenix and Tucson. Every Sunday, Chicano listeners call in song dedications for their loved ones incarcerated in prisons all over the area, and two of the favorites are also by black soul singers from much earlier times. Every Sunday evening, while I’m cooking, I hear these same two songs, sent to men and women inside overcrowded prisons that would seem to resemble slave ships transporting captives from another shore to labor here all their lives: “It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” and a song about a black Southern mother telling her son that “Only the Strong Survive.”