Lessons learned from being a different color

By Martin Madrigal
Published on LatinoLA: November 13, 2002


"Apa, que quiere decir 'wetback?'" In addition to the words 'thank you,' 'please' and 'hello,' "wetback" was one of the first words of the English language I learned at the age of 11 when I came to Los Estados Unidos.

What exactly is ethnicity? At the age of 11, I did not know such a word existed and for that matter that my arrival to the United States would signify that my family and I were to be forced to accept a classification under such a term. We had no choice! We were lumped into a group with other people whom we had never met or knew existed simply because the color of our skin was not white. This was so, because our skin was brown. For the first time at the age of 11 it felt wrong to be brown.

You see, back then we had no choice but to be called ethnic, wetbacks. After all, we were in a "new land." In essence we had to swallow the belief that Americanos, los gringos, were superior. If we spoke out we could be kicked out of their country.

In the years after our arrival to the United States, Ama? and Apa? would take me to the Broadway Historical District in en el centro de Los Angeles to watch the matinee at the Orpheum Theater. Those were the best times of my life. Well, almost. Since we did not own a car, we would take el "Ride To Death," the RTD, the Rapid Transit District. I remember one occasion the bus had to stop for la "chota," they were looking for someone who had committed a crime. They boarded the bus and with their hands on their holsters ready to shoot like John Wayne in a Hollywood western movie, they walked towards the back of the bus where Ama?, Apa? and I were sitting. One of the huero cops looked down at us, and "under his breath," said "Where?s the fucking I.N.S. when you need them?"

"Apa, que quiere decir I.N.S.?"

After getting home that afternoon, Ama? and Apa? gathered my brothers and sisters and sternly told us, "De hoy en adelante, ustedes no hablan espa?ol en publico. Si alguien y especialmente la policia los para y les pregunta algo, ustedes solo tienen que decir que soy ?American citizens.?"

"Apa', que quiere decir 'American Citizens?'"

On my first day of public school when my parents were enrolling me at the Norwood Street Elementary School, the lady reviewing my paperwork, the school librarian, looked up at me asked, "Do you speak English?" So I replied, ?Soy American citizen!? All day that day, my first day of 5th grade, everyone that spoke to me in and asked for my name, I would tell them 'Soy American citizen!'

My immersion to the English-only language proved to be successful; I learned to speak and read English faster than any of my fellow students. I was very proud of this. On the playground my pride felt differently. I quickly learned that being Mexican and especially dark-skinned was a bad thing. I taught myself to stop speaking Spanish and to start hanging out with the hueritos. I believed that doing this, somehow, some miraculous way the color of their skin would rub off on me. I hope this be, so that my so-called ?friends? would stop calling me ?beaner.? Yeah! My efforts paid off, somewhat. Learning English did get me accepted by the white kids in school, my new friends?up to a certain point. What held me back and excluded me from being one of the elite, part of the ones that got special treatment, from the ones that were always praised for their work, and from being chosen to play handball was that I was still a damn dark brown Mexican beaner.

?Apa,? why am I dark and not white??

The lessons I learned for being a different color was influential on whom I would choose as friends; I started hanging out with Mexicans and blacks, the ones that were closer to my skin color. I also purposely did not go the West Side of LA or to Hollywood, because if I did, if a gringo would see me he would look at me like a hawk, give me the same look John Wayne gave my Ama? and Apa? in the bus that the day when we were on our way home from the movies.

The experiences I lived as a youngster were influential on how I saw my ethnicity, and it was definitely not positive. I did everything in my power to not be Mexican, to not speak Spanish, and to not listen to wetback Spanish music. Ironically I also avoided going to the West Side to not be reminded of who I truly was.

I am happy I experienced what I did. The hate that I carried as a youngster is now being transformed into positive attitude and it is a force that drive me to be who I can be: ANYTHING I WANT!

I have begun to educate myself about my ethnicity, mi gente, and the beautiful culture that makes me a Mexican. My ?opening my eyes? has also helped me realize why my parents did what they did many years ago when they forbid my brothers and sisters to not speak Spanish in public. Now it is my turn to teach my parents, my brothers, my sisters and everyone around me why, in fact, we must speak Spanish in public.

Regardless of the hate I experienced as a kid, I still love this country, for it has made me whom I am today. I am a proud and ethnic man with a twist; I am an AmerXican, an Aztec warrior with a life-saver, you know, like the one Luke Skywalker fought with against the Empire in the movie Estar Guars.

?Apa?, quiere que le diga que significa ser Mexicano??

Significa ser orgulloso de la sangre de indio que corre en mis venas, y de educar a mi gente acerca de la verdadera historia, la que se exclude de los libros de historia. La historia que se escribio con la sangre de los meechicas, los Maya, los Aztecs, los apaches, los de abajo?aquellos ya muertos, los que pelearon la guerra, la causa, para asegurar que existiera un futuro seguro para sus hijos, y los hijos de sus hijos.

According to Laura Isquebel?s book, "The Law of Love", the dead die when they are forgotten. We are just beginning to resurrect the dead.

About Martin Madrigal:
Martin Madrigal does not have a bio, just a proud soul in the City of Angeles, trying to continue to fly as high as his spirit takes him.

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