Saturday, January 03, 2015

Some stuff Anglos taught a Chicano author

In an interview, Sherman Alexie once told Bill Moyers, "I know a lot more about being white than you know about being Indian.”

Similarly, Latino authors likely know a lot more about Anglos than Anglos do about us. This regularly plays out in some Latino literature's Anglo characters. This brings to mind growing up in San Antonio decades ago, and how Anglos gradually worked their way into my life. Although mine is no template for the "Chicano lifestyle," here's how it taught me the first things I learned about Anglos.

A highway like this "improved" my 1st neighborhood
Given the decrepitude of ageing, I don't remember most of the names, but the first one was a neighborhood kid my age, maybe five. He came over regularly and taught me that playing "cowboys and Indians" was fun. Ignorant of the fact that I was part "Indian," we'd ride around the dirt yard on our stick horses, shooting at each other, falling down, and getting dirty. I sort of remember sometimes getting to be the cowboy. He taught me that some Anglos would play with me.

The next ones were female teachers, first through third grade. They were mostly nice, even if I don't remember what I learned from them. Before entering first grade, mi 'amá had already taught me to read, so I assume I picked up whatever math and writing I was supposed to learn because I kept passing to the next grade. The teachers taught me that teachers were Anglo women.

Two incidents in elementary school stick out in my mind. The first was halfway through first grade. Our teacher announced that three of us were being skipped into higher grades. This one poor white boy who could've been twelve years old--the biggest, burliest kid--was being "skipped" to third grade, which was probably still less than age-appropriate for him. I remember thinking the teacher just wanted him gone from her room. From him I learned there were Anglos were much less intelligent than me, even if they were bigger, older and meaner.

Then our teacher announced that two of us--I think the other one was named Judy--were skipping into second grade. That meant something to other kids, my parents, relatives, and the teacher, but I don't remember being impressed by this, since I didn't know what it meant.

Judy gave me another memory, of dancing. During one of those school activities everyone had to participate in, maybe May Day. Out on the playground, we were all paired up and for some reason, nerd-brain, skinny, too-tall, blond Judy got paired up with the shortest kid--a "Mexican" as we called ourselves--who was me. I faked it, going around in circles, thinking I it was supposed to be having fun. Though, not as much fun as getting to be the cowboy. From Judy, I learned Anglo girls would at times be willing to hold my hand, at least in public.

San Anto was the military's playground
Next came my uncle Jack, a military-lifer who later married my mother's sister. He was real white, tall and big, loud and always made his presence known. Whenever the couple came by our house was a treat, probably because their income was higher than most of the family. Before they had any of their own kids, Uncle Jack would take me out while he courted my aunt. The best time was a zoo visit where I got to eat lots of junk because he could afford it. He taught me the military had it much better than most people, though maybe his Anglo-ness had something to do with his good fortune.

Projects like where we lived
About my age, Mary B. didn't teach me as much as I'd have liked. In the federal projects where we lived, her family was one of the few Anglo families around. She had an older sister who was a template for juvenile delinquency, and sort of respected by all the younger kids. Whenever they let her out of juvey or prison, she'd visit with her latest tattooed boyfriend who also looked like he was on parole. They taught me there were tough, young Anglos in the world, whenever they were let out.

Marie B's were shorter than this
Mary B. could've been my first love, or at least experience, except that never happened. She was hotter than her older sister and usually wore shorts that couldn't have been cut any shorter. Neighborhood culture dictated she was unapproachable because she was white, something I didn't understand. For my only teen birthday party I can remember, I invited her and, chingau, she showed up. I danced with her at least once and that was as close to heaven or to Mary B.'s shorts that I ever got. Like Judy, she taught me Anglo girls would dance with you in public, but that my life experiences might be limited to that.

like the coach who "taught" me
There were so few Anglo kids in my junior high (middle) school, none of them would've stuck out. The gym coach, however, taught me corporal punishment and how much it hurt. I got busted doing some regular-Mexican-kid obscenity to another Mexican kid, in jest. But it wasn't funny to the teacher establishment. The board the coach used on the two of us--the "victim" of my jest was deemed guilty as me--taught me to never get caught again. That's how I learned that an Anglo's "paddle" could hit as hard as my pinche father's leather belt.

My mother snuck me into another school district so I've get a college-prep education. Thomas Jefferson was heavily Anglo, from higher incomes and taller parents, and being the shortest kid from being skipped a grade became a bigger joke; most of the kids were a foot taller than me. I learned they were much more silent around me and resembled actors on TV or commercials, with nicer clothes, make-up and styles of strutting that showed they were better than other humans.

Real pic of my high school
I had some great Anglo teachers, especially in the sciences, possibly why I later imagined studying to become a physicist. I don't remember facing prejudice from the teachers, but that might've been due to my I.Q., more than anything else.

My French teacher came straight out of an 18th century novel. She exuded European style and aloofness that I'd never seen in any "Mexican." Despite being ignored by most of the Anglo student body, I'd come to understand it wasn't that hard to get good grades, especially A's. There was only one student better than me in French class, and her grandmother was French-born.

Everybody knew your grades
Each grading period, we'd go up to the blackboard and write down every one of our grades that the French teacher dictated to us, and then figure out our average. As a private joke, through three years of French, I made it a point to totally fail one test. So, I'd stand at the board, copying down A after A, but always with one F. It was obvious what I'd done. Funny thing is, no student, much less the teacher, was ever impressed by this. It took me years to understand how difficult it was for old or young Anglos to admit when a Mexican could do better than them. And how much they didn't like being involved in my sarcasm.

I could write a book: How Chess Can Pay for Your Lunch
The only friends I had in high school were other nerds, the straight-As, headed-to-Harvard kids who sat together before school playing chess or sat at the lunch table playing chess. No other club, except for science clubs, would have them as members. I was comfortable among them, especially since the only way I ever had money to buy a Coke or breakfast was from beating them at chess.

One of them--name withheld--was as fat as Fat Albert and became my best friend. With coke-bottle lenses, he was definitely smarter than me, possibly the smartest kid in the school of a thousand. Midway through, he spent a summer losing weight, getting contact lenses, and returned as New Hunk on campus, and was admitted into the exclusive club for the richest, cool Anglos. He still came around us, and I learned that if you were Anglo, you could change your outside appearance and improve your status in society.

Berkeley radicalism my best friend's parents saved him from
After we graduated, that best friend and I played tennis for the summer, until we got into a fight over a racquet, and he disappeared. I don't remember why we got in the fight, whose "fault" it was. He taught me I could have Anglo best friends, at least for a stretch. He also taught me that Anglos were sometimes smarter than me, were able to raise their societal standing, and could be accepted to schools like Univ. of Berkeley.

last time I returned to San Anto, for my novel
When his parents refused to let him go to that college, because of the student radicalism of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, he taught me Anglos could be more fragile than me, who'd only be accepted to UT. His suicide wasn't the last thing I learned about Anglos, but it's enough, for now.

Es todo, hoy,
RudyG, a.k.a. Chicano fabulist-mextasy author Rudy Ch. Garcia, striving to put on paper some of the things I learned about Anglos. And others. And some things I never learned.


Anonymous said...

BRAVO, carnal! Your aim is true. Lisa Alvarado

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lisa. I rec'd some good comments from Anglos, off-line. Funny that more Anglo writers don't write, in spec or otherwise, much about their racial experiences.

juno said...

I enjoyed your perspective. I grew up as an Anglo with a dad who was a professor of law who was bipolar, so was in and out of mental hospitals all of my life. Having a mentally ill parent when you were born in 1951 makes you feel like an outsider. Also, we weren't of any religion, and I lived in Minneapolis, which was heavily Lutheran. My friends were Jewish and Catholic and anyone else who was "other."
As far as writing about racial experiences as an Anglo, you mostly only notice if someone else is discriminated against. Sometimes you have the experience of being the minority, like in Hawaii or Jamaica--but then you just feel like some weird representative of white people who oppressed others even though you didn't do it.

Anonymous said...

I liked your comment, Juno. About your last sentence--that's what I believe is a responsibility, as well as "expertise" that is not being met by those most qualified. Los gringos. I can only speculate what it feels like, how a person reacts, how they change, if they're Anglo.