Subliminal Ethnicity

Ethnically not fitting in is something I’ve had to deal with my whole life. Some are even surprised that I’m of any particular ethnicity. The following essay was published in Fuller Theological Seminary’s student journal, Ember, in 1985. At the bottom of this post is a downloadable PDF version of the original submission and footnotes. Enjoy.

Ethnicity. At my wedding my Pastor made a passing comment to my mother about “How nice it is that Kim and Joe got together, coming from different backgrounds and all,”[note]As if it wasn’t bad enough that I wasn’t being married in the Catholic Church then my well—meaning very—Anglo Presbyterian pastor made that comment … What a way to begin married life.[/note] I’d understood the comment to refer to the fact the Kim and I grew up under different family arrangements and had different educational experiences, and how nice it was that the Lord brought us together. Unfortunately my mother saw it as some sort of ethnic put-down.

1960s, Mich, Joe, Kathie, Dad, Matt and Joyce

[/media-credit] 1960s, Mich, Joe, Kathie, Dad, Matt and Joyce

Even before leaving San Gabriel[note]My parents were born and raised in San Gabriel, CA of parents that immigrated to this country sometime around the First World War. San Gabriel lies in that area of Metropolitan Los Angeles that would eventually be called East L.A., L.A.’s major barrio.[/note] in the 50’s my parents had pretty much acclimated to the larger culture around them. They had been fortunate and resourceful enough to be a part of America’s Post-War Prosperity and any reminder of their “heritage” by an outsider was in some way a denial of their full rights as paying customers on this voyage. They weren’t like some minorities with a chip on their shoulder who lamented their supposed less-than-privileged status. But having chosen that road somewhere between San Gabriel and the fabled American Melting-Pot there were more than a few volunteers to remind us of our ethnic “heritage” and how fortunate we were to be here.[note] In 1977 my father (self-taught landscaper who spent many years digging ditches for college grads who couldn’t landscape themselves out a sand box) made his way into a “White-collar” position at the Irvine Company in the early 70’s. (Can you tell I’m proud of the man?) He took us from Walnut Creek, CA (near Oakland), where we’d been for two years to an little known collection of track homes just north of San Juan Capistrano (in Southern California) called Mission Viejo.[/note]

Having been raised in white neighborhoods all my life, my Ethnic Self-identity suffered from that sense of not really belonging, I’d essentially come to see myself as a white kid with a Spanish surname and an appreciation for good Mexican food. But no matter how well I identified with my surroundings, on the basis of my last name alone, I was always “that short Mexican kid that lives down the street,” or just “Joe Burrito.” Not that I have any problems with being called a Mexican, I am one (I think), I just wonder what they mean by what they say. I mean, I have yet to hear someone refer to another individual, second generation American, no accent, maybe a serving of sauerkraut once or twice a month, as “that short German kid that lives down the street.” There’s a subtlety here that disturbs me.

I am about as “Oreo” a Mexican as they come.[note]An “Oreo” Mexican is a Mexican that looks Mexican on the outside (Black hair, brown eyes, olive skin, etc.) but inside he’s as white as Jerry Falwell (political views not included). What is white anyway? I’ve never seen a White person. I’ve seen some that come awfully close. But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves we might as well confess that we are all just different shades of the same color.[/note] So why the differentiation? Why the preferential treatment, the EEOC quotas, etc.?[note]In my case, five years of undergraduate work at two private universities funded by the State of California to a large extent because of that infamous surname of mine.[/note] To make right the wrongs of racism committed in the past? Then why the almost simultaneous prejudice? Why this persistent distinction?[note]I may have not been refused a seat on a bus or admittance to a restaurant or theater or employment opportunities because of my race but I have had my share of relationships with females end because of a parent’s “concern” over the “unnaturalness” of the relationship. You’d think I was a Cholo or some’ting.[/note] What it seems to boil down to is that we are Ethnically more of what we think we are than what we may actually be. Subliminal Ethnicity. In my white neighborhood I was the token Mexican kid but when we went to San Gabriel I was the “Oreo” that didn’t fit in. Subliminal Ethnicity. The road back to San Gabriel is paved with memories for my parents but for me and my siblings it doesn’t exist, though our white neighbors always seem to assume it does.

In my white neighborhood I was the token Mexican kid but when we went to San Gabriel I was the “Oreo” that didn’t fit in.

And as more groups are swallowed by the Monolithic Caucasian culture it’s important that those of us that are aware of our ethnic heritage (even if it’s just subliminal) retain it and express it for the right reasons. Too often ethnicity has been used as a means of exclusion from being a part of the whole. Even in a setting such as ours where Ethnic groups seem to have a voice in our social policies, if this voice, this platform is just a means to placate the demands of the minorities than we are obviously still not part of the whole. The important thing to me (coming from my white neighborhood and all) is not to see my ethnicity in distinction over again my white neighbor (whose only concept of heritage or history is completely egocentric —patterns of our existential ideal?) but to see it as something greater than I that has had a part in making me the kind of person that I have become. It is a point of unity, a point of community. It is family. For those of us that are Hispanics, it is our common Hispanic experience. And for all of mankind, if we’re willing to face it, it is the common human existence. Subliminal Ethnicity.

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Blog Action Day: Inequity and The Opportunity to Learn

dad and mom - post-WWII dreamers

dad and mom – post-WWII dreamers


My mom and dad grew up in the post-World War II boon when they really believed that you could achieve anything that you worked hard at. They grew up in San Gabriel, CA, where the joke was that everyone was related to one another and it was understood which side of the railroad tracks, which ran directly behind my grandparents’ houses, one should stay on. But my dad was a dreamer and moved us away from San Gabriel, and briefly away from Southern California. When we returned to Southern California we ended up in very white Orange County, in a place called Mission Viejo and the year was 1965.

The community may have had a Spanish name, but we were the only Mexican-American family in our neighborhood that I remember. Dad and mom became fast friends with the Olivareses, but they were way on the other side of town. All of the kids I remember growing up with were various shades of white. That said, except for the occasional random name-calling, I don’t remember many cases where I was treated any differently than any other dorky kid. Mom said much later that she thought that my younger brother and next older sister had it more difficult than I did because they were darker than I was. I didn’t see it, but then I was just a kid and all I cared about was football, my G.I. Joe and the Apollo space program.

I grew up believing and then acting on the belief that you can be anything you want to be, if you just work really hard at it. It was a different time and I was able to just be a kid with no concerns about food or whether someone might take our home from us or keep my dad from doing his job. I never worried that someone might say that I couldn’t take any class, sport or school organization that I would want to participate in. I knew that I was lucky to grow up in this place, at this particular time in history, but I never really thought about how life for others wasn’t anything like what I had experienced.

Somehow it was understood that, even though my grandparents only had a grammar school education and my folks got as far as high school graduation, Education was going to be the key to having a better life. It was just a given in my mind that after high school I was going to go to college. It never dawned on me that some people had to choose between making a living or getting an education. And the idea that someone wouldn’t be allowed to continue their education because of their gender, their ethnic heritage or because of which religion they were raised with was even more foreign to me. I knew that school wasn’t some kind of better-job-factory, as much as it enabled one to reach beyond ones upbringing, ones native village and participate in the much larger world. Ones native language, country of origin or what ones father did for a living was immaterial to the task at hand. What was more important was ones willingness and energy to learn and the diversity of experiences one brought to the learning.

So, I’ve never really known inequity in my career or social life because I was one of the lucky ones who had access to Education and I was able to jump in with both feet and have never stopped learning. And now as an educator, going into my 20th year working with students, I see that my job isn’t to be someone’s judge or inquisitor. Life is hard enough and will do that job well enough. I’m the coach meant to push and motivate the students to do more and be more than they ever imagined that they would accomplish. My job is to bring as many along as are willing to do the work and surpass anything that I might have accomplished.

There will always be places in the world where small-minded people will inflict others with their own self-doubt and fear and backwater mythologies. But as my life has enjoyed great freedoms from restriction, so others will overcome and move beyond the inequities that they might have grown up with if they have access to Education and the opportunities presented having endured the process.