When I was a little girl and my Grandpa Cortez came to visit, I'd hover nearby and eavesdrop as he and my father conversed in Spanish.
Their discussions were animated, the language melodic. I understood only an occasional word because my father had forbidden my brothers and me to learn the language. For years, I resented the edict.I am now 32 years old, the product of two predominately Hispanic parents born in bilingual communities and can speak only a few phrases in Spanish.
There exists a void in my life, the fact I cannot speak the language of my forefathers. I've attempted over the years to pick up the language, with marginal success. But it wasn't until recently that I understood my father's rationale for insisting that we speak English.
My father is nearly 70, the child of Spanish immigrants who settled in northern New Mexico. For years, he has fought stereotypes about "Mexicans" that they are lazy, stupid, even dishonest. He has endured an internal struggle. Assimilating into the Anglo world has meant denying his heritage, making a conscious decision not to teach his own children a language he learned in tandem with English.
He says he forbade us to learn the language because he believed, in an English-speaking society, we would be perceived as less intelligent, less capable if we carried a hint of an accent. In his eyes, it was better to blend in than to face the consequences of being "different."
I don't agree with him. I think we missed a wonderful opportunity to be bilingual. But I haven't faced the adversity my father has encountered in his life. I don't sit in judgment of him. I just struggle to understand.
To his credit, my father has clung to his roots more than a lot of Hispanics I know have. For one, he's kept his name. A lot of Latinos anglicized their names; for instance, Martinez is transformed into Martin. I find the practice outrageous, politically expedient.
But it wasn't until the passage of California Proposition 187 that I understood why people like my father go to such lengths to deny their ethnicity. Proposition 187 would deny schooling, welfare and non-emergency health care to illegal immigrants. The measure is the subject of lawsuits questioning its constitutionality.
Even so, the issue has brought to the surface seething racism that until a few weeks ago most people kept in check. Even if they were bigots, most people had the good grace to keep their opinions to themselves.
Not any more. In Stockton, Calif., three teenagers claimed a cashier refused to sell them a pizza because they couldn't prove they were legally in the United States. The girls, two Hispanics and an Indian, were asked by a restaurant cashier for naturalization papers when they ordered a pizza on Nov. 11.
The restaurant owner said he doubted anyone refused to serve the girls, saying most of his customers are Hispanic. That may very well be the case, but the incident demonstrates the explosive climate Proposition 187 fosters.
I wonder, since when does one have to show identification, let alone prove citizenship, to buy a pizza? And tell me, when were cashiers at pizza joints given police powers?
The issue is more complex than the cloddish insensitivity of one cashier. It's about America being the great melting pot, inviting the poor and huddled masses. At some point, and no one knows precisely when, the door shut. A nation built by immigrants now says illegal immigrants are not welcome here.
But free enterprise dictates otherwise. Illegal immigrants are welcome to perform low wage, primarily unskilled jobs Americans refuse to accept. Half of California's agriculture jobs are filled by illegal aliens. But under Proposition 187, they are not welcome to health care, nor are their children entitled to an education.
It would appear illegal immigrants are welcome as long as Americans can keep them in check, not permitting them to surface from the subclass society has created for them.
Despite my father's attempts to protect me from discrimination, I was not immune to racial slurs. Racial slurs cut to who you are, ignoring what you are.
I got my first taste of racism in a seventh-grade geography class. During a unit on Latin America, my teacher "acquired" a Spanish accent, frequently singling me out. My predominately Anglo classmates roared with laughter as the teacher made jokes laced with ethnic stereotypes, goading me with his every word. I felt ashamed of who I was, who my parents were. I prayed I wouldn't burst into tears and sat at the edge of my chair waiting for the school bell.
When I told my father, who was also a schoolteacher, what had happened he rushed out of the house to my school. My teacher admitted he was out of line and apologized. But at the tender age of 12, it caused me to realize I wasn't like everyone else - that people would make judgments based solely on my last name.
Don't get me wrong. In an era of political correctness, having an Hispanic name can be a plus. It has opened doors when I have looked for work. But once I've been hired, I still have to do the job.
But when I think about the young girls whose citizenship was questioned when they tried to buy a pizza, it cuts to my soul. Racism has been carefully suppressed over the years. Seemingly, Proposition 187 gives some people an excuse to publicly vent what before they kept to themselves.
At this juncture, I'm not sure what's worse - the facade of racial equality or the naked truth.
But at last I understand what my father attempted to protect me from.