Wednesday, August 19, 2009
I moved to Orange County from Los Angeles 15 years ago right after I married my husband, he already had a place there and I had been living with my sister. In my mind it was only temporary because I did not want to live here, behind the Orange Curtain, because I heard stories of how racist a lot of these people were.
When I lived in Los Angeles I never thought about, or should I say, never cared about what color people were because everyone I knew was different, which meant, for me at least, that we were all the same.
I never, ever remember feeling self conscious about being Mexican American. All the schools I went to were pretty mixed in terms of race or ethnic backgrounds. Our neighbors who lived across from us when I was in high school were Italian. They shared many of their cultural foods with us, and we did the same in return. We had Mexican, Italian, Irish, and African American friends, at home and at school.
A lot of my mom's friends were Jewish because she worked on Fairfax in a little place across the street from CBS Television Studios.You might think that that's a stereotype of people in the Fairfax district, its not, it's just a fact. I loved talking to these ladies, they were loud and boisterous and opinionated. They smoked and drank and cussed and they were charming and warm and hilarious! Charming because they were real, no excuses.
There was also an older Jewish gentleman who loved to take my little sister and I out to dinner with my mom. He took us to dinner one night, and then to see Little Shop of Horrors on stage. It was our first real theater experience and it was amazing. We went for drinks after the show to a place called La Masia on Santa Monica Blvd. My sister and I drank cokes, I was only 16 and she was 11. I remember that this place seemed pretty swank to me, a virgin of the LA nightlife scene. These were all the most fabulous, interesting people to me.
There was so much culture and history in every place that we knew so when I moved to Irvine, I have to say, it felt a little creepy, a little reminiscent of a "Stepford Wives" movie set. Every house looked the same, every lawn was perfectly manicured, every shopping center was filled with the same restaurant chains and stores. There were the tiny, Nike clad moms pushing strollers up and down the streets. Perfectly coiffed, pedigreed dogs with their rhinestone collars, being obediently walked down those master planned, curvy sidewalks. I was amazed how everything was so....how can I put this....sterile.
I also found a job in Irvine, which was 1 1/2 miles from our new apartment. I started noticing little comments that people at my work would make that were off color, but being in the printing business I was used to "Men Behaving Badly". I was one of very few women in this company and for the most part I tried to ignore all the sexual innuendo that comes with working mostly with men.
One day the president of the company walked into the production area and one of the guys asked him if he was going to the weekend golf trip in Mexico that some of the guys had arranged. His reply was "Why would I go to Mexico?"
The guy who asked the question looked puzzled and asked "What do you mean?"
"What's in Mexico?", by that point we were all confused because everyone knew about the trip and we knew he did as well.
He repeated "What's in Mexico?"
Someone asked him "What do you mean?"
"What's in Mexico.... Mexicans!" was his only response, he glanced at me briefly and walked out of the room.
Of course all the guys laughed because you had to play along if you wanted to be part of the "club". I was infuriated! Did he really just say that? But, I was the new girl so I had to just move on with my day, still confused and pissed, "Do people still really act so stupidly?" The answer is yes.
A few months later, one of the salesman came in with his loud boisterous laugh and started talking about stupid racist things. I said to him, because he was white, "You have no idea how it feels to be treated badly just because of the color of your skin". He said that he could not believe that anyone would treat me badly for that reason so I told him a story about the first job I had outside of LA.
I told him how I went to a local mall near my office to purchase some greeting cards. I stood in a long line and waited forever because it was Valentine's Day. As I walked up to the cashier I gave her the cards that I wanted to purchase and the one that I wanted to exchange from a purchase I made the previous day. So, in front of a long line of customers, this 17 year old twit accused me of stealing the card. We argued as I become insulted and consequently enraged, and I finally just told her that I would never shop in her store again. "Good", as she looked me up and down, "we don't want you in here anyway!"
After I told the salesman this story, he looked shocked and said "I can't believe anyone would accuse you of stealing, you don't even have an accent!" Wow! I had never been involved in this sort of ignorant dialogue until I ventured outside of LA.
I have to say that I was naively confused by it. Confused as to why a bartender would ignore two women sitting a bar waiting for drinks, a nearly empty bar. It couldn't be because I was Mexican and she was African American. That's just ridiculous. But it wasn't, because it happened to us again at a different bar. Then it just started to piss me off.
It pissed me off when we moved into our house in Orange County and our neighbor came over and started to complain about the local public school her son was in. I listened to her story because my kids went to private school and I was curious about our local school. She proceeded to complain that these kids don't speak English and it bothered her and she didn't know what to do. She told me she was afraid. I asked her why she was afraid of these 1st graders! She said "They might have diseases!"
This is the same church going woman who won't let her kids say the word "fart" because it's offensive. She is always talking about Jesus and the bible. I said to her, "Are you really going to stand in the middle of my kitchen and spew out this racist crap? Do you see me, I'm standing here with my kids?" She laughed, "I know, I am so bad, huh?"
We were out with other neighbors who started talking about the "wetbacks" that you can hire. Another neighbor, who, by the way isn't white, told me a story about one of the ladies who lived on our corner. The lady on the corner accused her of stealing peaches off of her tree. "She must have thought I was Mexican", because that scenario, of course made more sense in her mind.
Usually people come up with their feeble attempts at rationalization when they are caught being just plain ignorant. My favorite one is "Oh, but you're not one of those Mexicans, we are not talking about you." Or, "Hey, its just a joke, you know!"
Or maybe they are talking about people like my dad, who did a lot of janitorial work, he did every job he could get his hands on to feed his kids and put them in Catholic school. Would these people consider him "one of those"? He's not well dressed, or well spoken but he's hard working, dedicated, conscientious and takes care of his family.
Apparently, to some people we are a low class, thieving, diseased, uncivilized lot. But if you ask these people if they considered themselves to be racist, they would not....because they're not talking about you!