Sunday, April 24, 2016

Checking his race

Asher came home from school and mentioned he had taken a standardized test that day.  And before he began filling in rows of scantron bubbles with his ever-reliable Number 2 pencil, he told me he was asked to check his race and ethnicity in a box.  Slightly startled, I asked him which box he chose.  He admitted he was really confused because he knew I was white and his "papi" was Latino.  He felt badly filling in either one because he was afraid he would hurt one of us.  I asked him what he ultimately decided to do.  He said he looked down at the back of his hand and filled in white because his skin looked more "peach" that day (It was winter in Seattle.  His "Mexican" comes out more in the sun).  He cringed when he told me this, fearful he had offended his father and a long line of anonymous Mexican ancestors.

It is easy to forget that Asher hasn't been here from the beginning days of Familia Guzman.  When Ed and I started dating and we would hold each other close, the contrast between our skin tones was striking to me, my skin being on the fair side of fair and his complexion being on the darker side of Mexican American. When we were out together, I often wondered how other people perceived our difference in skin color.  It was upsetting when we would go to a restaurant and the host or hostess would assume we were not together, even as we stood together.  

However, after fifteen years of marriage, what was once glaring has become familiar. You forget the very first thing that others see when they initially meet your family is your cross section of skin color, laid out like paint chips at a hardware store. You forget that your children might have questions or confusions.

Asher has never heard his father speak in accented English.  Ed lost his accent while attending his East Coast boarding school, an attempt to duck the constant ethnic jabs from his majority white upper class peers. Today, his speech seamlessly flows between English and Spanish.  (My Spanish, unfortunately, also sounds too much like my English.)

For better or for worse, our family has blended into middle-class America. We spend Saturday mornings at soccer and swimming lessons, pay our mortgage every month, take a vacation or two every year. Asher doesn't know any other life.  But our different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds initially took a lot of working out.  Ed did not understand why I never discussed money, why I strived so hard to be thin, how my family could argue without yelling.

I didn't understand Ed's paralyzing fear of cops, the general lack of trust he had of strangers, why his eyes were always drawn down, while mine were drawn up, when we were out and something was happening on the street.

And let's just say, nothing makes you feel your full WASP-iness more than joining a clan of noisy, rambunctious, and acutely affectionate Mexicans.

And after fifteen years of living in pleasant neighborhoods in large and diverse American cities, we don't deal with ugly people on a daily basis. But we do have stories.  Maybe, someday, when the time is right, we will share these stories with Asher…..

We had recently moved to New York City and while getting to know a coworker, she asks me why someone "like me" would marry a "dirty Mexican."

It was horrifying to move to New York City, the cauldron of all melting pots, and hear 'dirty' and 'Mexican' used together as if they constituted a single word.   

We even had our moments in our multi-cultural Northern Virginia Shangri-La ….

Ed is loading groceries into our Honda CRV at our neighborhood Safeway. An older lady, feeling entitled to his parking space, yells into his face, "Do you even speak English?"    

We are headed for a rare …  our first ever…. anniversary weekend away, waiting to board a bus into the District.  Ed coughs into his elbow.  A woman turns around and shouts at Ed to "go back to where (he) came from" and spits towards him.

Sometimes we laugh these and other experiences off.  They become inside joke fodder.  We hold up our noses, knowing that we have more education, more resources, we are BETTER than these ignorant people.  Coping strategies to dull the pain.

There will always be people who will reduce you to an ugly stereotype, no matter the contrary evidence. This we have learned.

At the end of the day, and before his next standardized test, this is what I want Asher to know….


Your Mormon/Mexican/Oregon Trail pioneer heritage is rich and dense and vastly beautiful. Your abuelo, the same man who rolls tortillas for you like magic, calls you 'Achercito' because there is no "sh" sound in Spanish. Your abuelito. He was plucked off the fields of the Central Valley and deported twice before receiving his green card and with it, a tiny slice of security and hope.  Your abuela and tias labored in downtown Los Angeles garment factories, shoulders haunched over sewing machines in dark rooms choking with heat.   

That Mormon handcart company, those early Oregon settlers, and your abuelos in Mexico all forged separate trails of opportunity. They walked poised and penniless across great plains and across country borders, aided by coy├│tes and handcarts and companions making similar journeys. With faith and resolution and endless sweat they built new lives of integrity and modest means. All of these trails have intersected at this very point in time for you, Ashercito. They constitute your present life filled with joy, choice and privilege.   

Keep your family close to your heart always.  But then check the box or boxes that feel right to you, or check none at all, and don't think another thing about it.

And even as you are asked to fit yourself into tidy boxes, avoid putting other people in them.  Listen to others and give value to their experiences, especially those coming from different backgrounds than your own.   And most especially those who have been traditionally put into narrow boxes of hate rather than given voice or true opportunity.  Never forget there are many who don't have the luxury of deciding how to label their shade of skin on any given day.

 If you do these things, you will never let down your family or yourself.

We love you always,

Your Mom and Papi