Village / Maria Ortega

While reading James Baldwin piece “Stranger in the Village” in Martha Nichols’s First Person Journalism class, I sustained emotional whiplash.  Childhood memories, which I thought were erased from my mental hard-drive flooded my mind, and they ricochet through my body.  My neck stiffened as I tilted my head forward, and rubbed my sweaty hands on my cheeks. I felt nauseous because I instantly identified with Baldwin’s piece.

I am a woman color. A caramel-colored Latina who is frequently mistaken for Hawaiian, Greek, and even Asian; my lips, like my body, are full.  My eyes are almond-shaped, and my hair is thick, long and jet-black.

As a child, I frequently heard horrific discrimination stories from my family and how these experiences rattled their spirits to the core, but also put them in physical danger. Every summer before school started, my grandmother and father talked to me about how to handle impending discrimination situations.

Their advice was simple. Do not retaliate. Do not pick-up a stick or a rock. Run and run fast. Run home, or run to the police station. My childhood mind visualized my body transforming into the cartoon female version of Speedy Gonzales.

Why were they so protective and having this discussion with me at such a young age?

Well, my grandfather was mistaken for a Japanese-American and thrown into an internment camp shortly after Pearl Harbor.  My father was not allowed to swim in Texas public pools because the signs with bold black lettering said: “No Mexicans Allowed!” There was also the story of our pregnant distant cousin who lived in California, and was thrown on a train, against her will, to be shipped back to Mexico. The story is disturbing because she was a born in Los Angeles and she had to sneak back into California, with a newborn, to be with her husband and three other children. The journey back took her more than two years because she walked part of the way, and then was smuggled in by a “coyote”.

These were my family’s war stories, and they are “people trapped in history and history is trapped in them”.[1] My family infused these stories into my childhood mind when all I wanted to do was play outside and eat grape popsicles.

Discrimination was my destiny because of my skin color. I remember using a plastic green scrub brush in the shape of a frog to try and erase away my coloring. As a kid, I thought being Mexican was a disease, like chicken pox, and I wanted to be inoculated against my darker skin color, dark hair, and chunky body shape. I wanted to be white like everyone else. I didn’t want to be different.

To protect me from the harsh world of discrimination, my father enrolled me in Catholic school. He believed God’s shield would protect me and my caramel-colored skin. I was temporarily protected until the school raised their tuition, and I was admitted to public school.

My first day of public school was the 7th grade at Holmes Junior High. Out of 200 students, I was one of eight Latinos, and I was the only one who didn’t speak Spanish. My family refused to teach me Spanish. When I asked why, someone said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

At Holmes, we had pumpkin orange lockers that matched our desks. They were hideous, especially when you throw in the brick and the shag carpet in certain rooms. It looked like the set on the Brady Bunch. We also had homeroom and a class schedule. Students rotated to different classrooms every 55 minutes. However, my afternoon schedule had me in the same class for the entire afternoon. This was weird. My schedule said, “ESL-Martinez”. What the hell is ESL? I tried guessing. English, Something, Language? What is the something? I had no idea.

After lunch, I drag my pristine Nike sneakers with the red swoosh up to the second floor. As I plop into the orange chair, I hear Hola. Hola? Is my grandmother here? Hola? They don’t offer Spanish in this junior high.

Oh no! English as a second language equals ESL. There has been a mistake. A big mistake.

I pop out of my chair and tell the short women, wearing a black bra under her white shirt, that I don’t speak Spanish. She tells me to sit down and stop showing off.  I hear my grandmother’s voice, “don’t retaliate, ” and like Baldwin, I was far too shocked to have any real reaction.[2]

For the next 55 minutes, I planned my next move. At the bell, I sprinted as fast as I could to the principal’s office. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch the other students “move with an authority which I shall never have…[I am]…a stranger…suspect latecomer”.[3] While I am forced into a class because my last name is Ortega, they glide into their next classes to expand their minds.

I attempt to tell the school secretary my issue, and she demands that I return to class because the bell has rung. I refuse. I am so angry because she refuses to acknowledge me or “my desire to be recognized as a human being”.[4]  Her idea of addressing the situation is calling the vice president, and making me sit on the blue bench as punishment.

As I explain the situation to Mr. Galvan, a fellow Latino, he sends me back to the ESL class, and I “find myself among a people whose culture controls me”.[5]  I don’t belong here.

At the end of the day, I run home crying. I am on auto-pilot, and I feel the salty tears sliding into my mouth. Our house was across the street from the junior high, and my grandmother was usually waiting for me with a snack and sugar-riddled drink. I am crying so hard, the words exiting my mouth sounded like a drunk. My grandmother applied a cold compress on my neck. The droplets of cold water drip down my back and temporarily stain my shirt. We are in agreement that we have to talk to my father when he returns from work. I lock myself in my bedroom littered with the posters of David Cassidy, and I daydream of transforming myself into Christie Brinkley with her skinny frame, blond hair and blue eyes. I just want to be white.

As I am about to drift into sleep, I am awoken by a man’s voice yelling, “que? Que. QUE!”  My grandmother was the Mexican wireless. This violet-haired lady always spilled the beans before my father closed the front door. I popped out of my bed and listened through the door. When my father was mad, you never poked that Mexican bear with a stick. His eyes would squint, he’d clench his fists wanting to fight the world, and if he were really mad, he’d pound a fist on the table. This was known as his Mexican exclamation point.

I hear my dad on the phone with my sixth-grade teacher, Sue Back. My father knew her husband and called her house. Ms. Back informs my dad that there has been a terrible mistake and she would call the school in the morning.

I wait 15 minutes before I exit my pink girlie bedroom because the Mexican bear needed time to cool down. When I sit down for dinner, he says that we are going to that school first thing in the morning, and he is going to straighten out those “gringo” teachers.

The rest of the story consists of me being forced to attend the ESL classes. The school refused to acknowledge their mistake. The only way I was getting out of there was through hard work. But my anger and hope made me work harder, and made me stronger. I refused to be defeated. This situation strengthened my character, and forced me to squeeze out every piece of courage ruminating in my cells. I was relentless when it came to studying, reading and writing. My father, who was dyslexic, couldn’t buy me books or magazines fast enough. By the time I graduated eighth grade, I was in honors English and “when life has done its worst, I was enabled to rise above myself and to triumph over life”.[6]

Rewards for triumphing over discrimination are invisible. But, the scar tissue of discrimination molds to your backbone and strengthens the soul. This imprint of discrimination will forever be recalled when I see someone being treated unfairly because of their skin color, and each time I will speak up for those who are afraid to stand-up for themselves.

[1] Baldwin, 163 Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Print.


[2] 161

[3] Baldwin, 164

[4] Baldwin, 166

[5] Baldwin, 164

[6] Baldwin, 171


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