In 2007, I moved from a predominantly Hispanic community to a 95 percent white state. There were a few friends who warned me about how the transition would be difficult. They said I was going to encounter some challenges finding a job because as soon as hiring managers read my name, they’d throw my resume away.
In spite of the warnings, I moved anyway. I landed a job within 3 months of relocating and I began my career in marketing at a retail manufacturing company. People in my new state were extraordinarily nice. There was an immediate sense of community everywhere I went which was unexpected. Perfect strangers smiled and waved at me on the street. I felt right at home. There was a weird moment when I went to a trivia night at a popular bar and suddenly realized I was the only Hispanic person in the room. That had never happened to me before. I wasn’t scared and I didn’t feel threatened. It was just an awkward realization that my community looked different than the one I had just left. I was still happy I made the decision to move though.
Months past and I began to form a small group of friends. Eventually, I started to get invited to people’s homes for dinner or potluck events. Then, I noticed a few odd things.
I was often asked to make guacamole. At first, it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. People loved my guacamole. But one day someone made the comment, “I think it’s so cool that we get to eat authentic guacamole.” That’s when I realized that maybe… just maybe… I was asked to prepare this dish because I was ‘Mexican.’ I shrugged it off.
Then, one day at work, a coworker came up to me and said,
“Hey Maritza, Can I ask you something?”
“My husband and I are going to Cabo for vacation. When is National Taco Day?”
At first, I thought… Is she asking me this because she thinks I’m Mexican or is it because I lived in Texas and it’s close to Mexico so she thinks I would know? I decided to go with the latter.
“There’s no such thing as National Taco Day in Mexico.”
“Yes, there is. My girlfriend told me when she went, there was a restaurant celebrating the holiday with $.50 tacos.”
“Hate to break it to you, but that restaurant probably serves $.50 tacos everyday to bring in the tourists. National Taco Day does not exist.”
“Yes it does!”
“No. It doesn’t.”
She stormed off and I honestly can’t remember her ever speaking to me again.
The last straw for me came when my cubicle buddy was listening to Michael Franti and she said she was so happy that racism was over in America.
I think I spit out my coffee and laughed. I thought she was joking. When I looked at her face, I realized she was absolutely, 150 percent serious. The poor, innocent child thought racism was long gone. She thought we were living in one of Michael Franti’s songs, all dancing together in harmony, cherishing each other regardless of skin color. Sweet thing.
It broke my heart to tell her that racism was alive and well in the south. She didn’t believe me. Nothing I said could convince her. When someone comes from a community that is 95 percent white and they are also white, it’s hard to understand racial differences and the circumstances that befall people who are not part of the majority.
Which brings me to my ultimate point…
In my experience, most ‘racism’ and ‘prejudice’ comes from ignorance. Ideas that are outside of one’s bubble or understanding of the world can be tricky to navigate. The people who asked me to make guacamole or asked the date of a taco holiday were simply ignorant. I don’t think they had hate in their heart or prejudice on the mind. They just saw me with brown skin and assumed that I was the resident expert on all matters Latino. They didn’t even think twice about how that made me feel or if I might be offended by their questions. Likewise, the people who warned me about moving to a very white state were also coming from a place of ignorance. They were shocked when I told them how quickly I was able to find a job and how soon I was able to make friends.
Simple ignorance like this can sometimes turn into major prejudices similar to what we have seen in recent days. Especially if it keeps getting fed propaganda (Thanks, media!). Fear… lives at the center of each situation. ‘The Other’ is scary. It’s an unknown. I suspect it triggers our mammalian brain into action and engages our fight or flight response almost immediately. I am certainly guilty of this behavior myself.
How do we ‘cure’ it?
I’ve heard it said that our country, because it is so large and is made up of so many different communities of people, is more than just one big nation. It’s actually more like five nations all pushed together to form one country.
So, how do we learn about these regional communities and differences?
TRAVEL. Face ‘the other’ and get into the thick of it. See for yourself. Leave the city where you were born and raised. Find out if NYC really is full of assholes (spoiler alert, it’s not). Discover if people really do ride horses into work in Texas (spoiler alert, they don’t). Once people see ‘the other’ for themselves, it’s hard to keep being afraid of the unknown. Suddenly… you may find you have more in common with ‘the other’ than you realized. And that is a heart-warming feeling.