Wednesday, June 27, 2018

On Being Brown

When I was fifteen, I ran away from a foster home and hitchiked from Oregon to California.  I was born and raise in California, so in my mind, I was going home.  I couldn't show up on the front porch of any family member, as they would turn me in to the police for being a runaway.  Consequently, since the year was 1969, I hitched to Haight-Ashbury, of course.

The next few months were a quick learning experience.  I loved the scene, but being under age meant I had to learn how to be invisible.   Then one day I met two young ladies who were tourists, and really wanted to experience "the hippy life."  So, they turned in their car, checked out of the YWCA, and joined me sleeping in the bushes of Golden Gate Park.  They were miserable.  They decided to go to San Diego, where some friends of theirs lived.  By then I was adopted as their "little brother," so I was invited to join them.

It took two days of hitching and a few more adventures to make the short trip to San Diego.  Only once did I have to pull my "crazy kid" act to get the driver, who was hitting on one of my "sisters," to pull over.  When we got to San Diego, it turned out that their friends were all active duty Navy.  They were not pleased to have some kid hanging around.  So once again, I learned to be as invisible as possible.  I knew that soon it would be time to say good bye to my sisters and head back north.

The night I made that decision, the sailors were having a beer party.  I slipped away to the pier, where I had fashioned a fishing rig of sorts made of  discarded stuff I'd found on the pier earlier.  I'd been there about half an hour when the police showed up.  I was alone on a long pier.  I had forgotten the first rule of being on the run; stay invisible.  I admitted to being a runaway, so as to not get my sisters and the drunken sailors in trouble, and let them arrest me and haul me off to Juvenile Hall.

The Juvenile Detention Center in San Diego is where the story I want to tell actually begins.  I'd been in such places before, so the guards and the keys and the radios and the locked doors  were not new.   What was new was that the next morning, as they lined us up for calisthenics,  I couldn't even do jumping jacks.  I'd been on the street for about six months by then, often going days without food.  My lack of nutrition caused my muscles to no longer work.  I was starving to death.  That was an eye opening realization.

But its what happened next that I have been recently pondering.   At lunch, I took my tray and sat at one of the round tables near the back.  An officer walked up, looked over the four of us sitting at that table, and said, "You Mexicans can't sit together.  Two of you get up and move."

"You Mexicans..."  From what I've been told, I have Native American ancestry on both sides, and a bunch of German and other stuff as well.   I pass for white, but I'd been living outside for six months.  My skin was very dark.  The staff at that Juvenile Center assumed I was Mexican, because I was so brown.

Even though I was only fifteen, this was a shock for me.  I'd grown up in California, and had people walk up to me speaking Spanish, so I knew some folks thought I was Mexican, but I'd never heard it said to my face.

At that time, I had conflicted feelings about this.  In elementary school, my best friend was Paul Mares.  He and I were readers.  We read all the time.  I was a reader because my mentally ill stepmother would not allow me to go outside during recess, and confined me to my room at home.  Paul was a reader because he loved a good story.   Paul and I would often get sent to sit out in the hall by the teacher because we were reading by hiding our books under our desks during something boring like math.   Paul being Mexican was something that never came up in our long conversations about the books we read.  It never entered my mind.

Until I brought my friend Vic home one day.  Vic was a big, funny kid, who lived in my neighborhood, so sometimes we'd walk home from school together.  When I brought him home, my step-mother took one look at this big Mexican kid with a runny nose, and told him to leave.  Then she lectured me about Mexicans.  They all carry knives.  They steal. They were dirty.  I was to never have anything to do with them.  And I was to NEVER bring a Mexican kid home with me again.

By that time, I knew that my step mother was sick in the head, so I took it all with a grain of salt.  Vic might be a little rough looking, but she had not met my reading  friend Paul.  So I knew she was wrong.  Not all Mexicans are dirty.  Not all steal.  And the idea of Paul Mares carrying a knife was almost funny.  But it wasn't.  In her twisted head, Mexicans were not quite human.

So now I am fifteen, locked up, and a white guard just called me a Mexican.  My first inclination was to punch him in the nose.  My second impulse was to correct him, and so alienate myself among all the Mexican boys in that detention center.  Instead, I picked up my tray, and moved to another table.

That was the moment I realize that I had been benefiting from white privilege all my life.  I might have looked darker than the rest of my relatives, but I still passed for white.  And it had opened many doors for me, doors I had never noticed before, until that white privilege was stripped away.   Being fifteen had already stripped me of most of my rights as a human being.  Back in 1969, you had few if any rights as a juvenile.  And being a homeless teen took away even more rights; with no address and no phone, you might as well not exist.   And now I was being stripped of white privilege.

I got out of that place, and was sent back to the same foster home, which I ran away from again a few months later.  Eventually I ended up being placed in Nicky Cruz's Home for Boys in Fresno, California.  There were about ten boys in this home.  Most were Latino.  A few were Anglo.  This was a couple of years after the San Diego arrest, so I had a more street smarts by then.  Eventually, I was asked by one of the boys, "Are you Chicano?"  This time, I knew the safe, and honest, response was "I don't know."  So the Chicanos left me alone.  

But my friend Ralph, who I had known in Oregon, had blonde hair, blue eyes, and some serious mental health issues.  And these were the kind of Mexicans my crazy step mother had tried to warn me about.  They did carry knives.  Of course, so did I by then, as did every kid I'd ever met living on the street.  And they did steal.  When you almost starve, you make little promises to yourself, like "Never again."  If you must steal to survive, so be it.  But the color of the skin  has nothing to do with that ethical decision.    And they were dirty.  When you sleep in the bushes and wash with sponge baths from the sink of the gas station, yeah, you get dirty.  All of us were dirty.

But, I was able to help Ralph.  Being somewhere in the middle between the Chicanos and the Anglos, I was sometimes able to step in and calm everyone down.  Ralph was not easy to pull back from the edge  sometimes, but while I was there, no one laid a finger on him.

I share those stories because it is my personal experience that has shaped who I am.   I recognize the language of those who want to make all those with brown skin the Untermenschen.  And once we are defined as subhuman, the level of required morality allows those in power to treat us as less than a dog. 
What is going on at our southern border has little to do with "controlling our borders."  It is stark racist crap, and it smells of evil.

One more brief story, to make my last point.  When I was eighteen months old, my mother left to move to Hollywood.   I was not to see her again until I was forty-five.   That pain, of losing my mother at such an early age, is a wound that will never heal.  It will haunt me every day of my life.   Taking the children from their mothers at the southern border doesn't just smell of evil.  There is no doubt.  You are causing wounds in young lives that may never heal.  You are creating more young people who will indeed grow up to carry a knife and steal.  This is evil.

One final note...we happen to be reading the Book of Leviticus in our weekly bible study at the moment.  A few weeks ago, we came across this passage:

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

That seems fairly clear to me.  Then a few chapters later, we find that the Israelites were not called to simply "love your neighbor as yourself," as some kind of nice idea, but were called to put that love out there in concrete actions:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I YHWH am your God” (Leviticus 24:22).

Children and mothers are weeping at our southern border.  We can do better than this.  In the name of God, we MUST do better than this.


  1. Would that more of us white folks could have had the benefit of your educational experiences, Jake.