Category Archives: ethnicity

Just when I thought . . .

As I get older my mind and my heart want to tell me that we have come a long way from the early 60’s when the world was a much meaner and heartless place. No, I did not go to Selma, nor was I involved in the farm workers strikes, which even as a young kid showed me how less than perfect the world could be. But I did not have to be there to see the cruelty in the minds and hearts of people.

My mom raised my little brother and I as a single mom for a large part of my life. That sweet woman, a Mexican immigrant, worked harder than anyone I have ever known to provide a life for me and my little brother. She did this while having to answer the questions of people who would see us together and ask – “Where is those boys’ mother? Do you have permission to be out with them? Shouldn’t you be back at their home taking care of them until their mother gets home?”

You see, my brother and I were much lighter than my mom. These clueless people thought that our dear mother was the maid that was taking care of us. It never occurred to them that we belonged to her.

I was exposed to that sort of crap early on. We would walk to the park a block from our house and the Border Patrol would follow us. My mom would try to find a place for us to live and had to subject herself to claims that the place was rented once they saw she was “not like them.”

I have a vivid memory of being in first grade and my mom looking for a cheaper apartment for us to live. As we walked around the Sunset Heights area in El Paso, we encountered a sign that is clearly imprinted on my mind. I learned to read pretty early, even before starting school, and the sign clearly said “apartment for rent. No dogs or Mexicans allowed.”

You know, it was not until that time that I realized that people looked at us differently. Even though they called me the little gringito or “el pocho” when I visited my grandparents in Juarez, it didn’t affect me because I spoke the language, played the games, and fit in regardless of how “guero” I was.

So I carried this in my heart for a long time. Being in El Paso, which is predominately Hispanic, and going to a high school that was overwhelmingly Hispanic, this feeling of discrimination slowly started to fade away. Then one day, a sportscaster on an El Paso television station (Chip Taberski) called a football game between our school (Riverside) and our big rival (Ysleta) the “battle of illegal aliens.” Boom! the feeling was back.

After getting married to my high school girlfriend, we moved to Austin where I was finishing law school. We went to eat at a fast food joint, and in conversation another patron asked us if it was difficult being in a mixed marriage. My wife, a Mexican-American, and me (the half Mexican kid) were apparently considered an oddity to these people. He was quite surprised when I questioned his lineage in Spanish as we left the place.

I finished law school, moved to Laredo where I worked in a city where everyone, regardless of racial or ethnic background, spoke Spanish. We all got along, there was little to complain about in terms of disparate treatment. Naive as I was, I thought the tide had turned.

After a couple of years, we moved to El Paso. We looked for an apartment, and found a great and affordable place in the newspaper. We called, made an appointment to see it and showed up at the landlords house, which was the other side of the duplex. When she answered the door, she took one look at my wife and told us that the apartment had been rented. We told her that we had just called, but she insisted it had just been rented. When we returned home, we called back, and this time I talked to her on the phone. She was friendly as heck and insisted that we come right over and look at the place. After mentioning to her that we had just been there and been told that the place was rented, she quickly hung up.

Shall I go on? I could name you several times when this type of stuff has occurred in my life. Previous posts to this blog talk about many other experiences.

So why do I call this post “just when I thought . . . ?”

Probably because I had lulled myself into self delusion and thought that this sort of crap doesn’t happen anymore.
I thought that little by little we were approaching a society where blatant racism like that had gone away. Don’t get me wrong. Recent events in this country show that it is not all gone, just the contrary. But I really thought that the old plantation mentality had at least mellowed somewhat.

Then this showed up on my Facebook page.

http://www.latina.com/lifestyle/our-issues/austin-landlords-demolish-pinata-store-jumpolin-sxsw-party

I cannot recall having felt this amount of unfettered rage when I read about this. Roaches? Really?
Drug Dealers? Is that the best you can come up with?

This has set me back quite a bit. Quite frankly, it just pisses me off. All those memories of the stuff my mom went through, of the unfair treatment we received growing up, and the kind of junk that people talked about Mexicans not knowing that I am Mexican despite my last name came flooding up.

What a disappointment. I just have to work harder in my own little world to try to make sure my grandkids don’t ever see this. Good luck with that. OK, now I have partially vented. Discuss.

Don’t let the last name fool you.

I cannot tell you the number of times that people have tried to classify my ethnicity by my last name.   In fact, I have blogged about this in the past.   My father was from Michigan, the son of parents that were half Canadian.  But since he was not a part of my life after the age of one or two, my upbringing was certainly influenced by my mother Evangelina and her parents – my grandmother Mauricia and my grandfather Arturo.

Since I am a first generation American on my mother’s side, and my abuelos spoke no English, it should come as no surprise that I learned Spanish early.  In fact, it was my primary language.  My mother, who had learned to speak passable English from living in the Mormon colonies in Mexico with my aunts, emphasized the importance of speaking English well since we would be living in the U.S.  As a result, i was bilingual from the time that I can remember having any conversations with others.

I started first grade at Vilas Elementary in El Paso in 1962.  There were no kindergarten programs at the  time, so we all started in first grade.    There was a boy in my class (Jorge) that spoke very little English, and my teacher Miss Wilson spoke no Spanish.  That certainly presented a problem to both Jorge and Miss Wilson.

During recess Jorge and I struck up a conversation in Spanish and quickly became buddies.  Miss Wilson noticed that we were talking and was shocked at my ability to communicate with him.   She loudly asked something to the effect “Randy Bullis!  How on earth did you learn to speak Spanish?”  Apparently when my mom had brought me to school that day she assumed my mom was the maid.  (which is an entirely different topic that I will address some time.)  Because my last name was Bullis she assumed I could not possible know Spanish.

Jorge and I were assigned to sit with each other for the school year and we worked together with me translating as we went.  By the end of the fall, he spoke English much better.  (Isn’t it amazing how quick kids pick up language skills?)

I never thought much of my ability to speak both languages, it was just part of who I was.   I spoke English at school and with some of my friends, I spoke both languages at home, and I spoke Spanish with my family in Juarez.

It came in handy a lot of times, and I know it saved me from harm at least one time.  My brother and I and some friends were at the little park near our house when a group of thugs approached us at the park.  I listened to them as they planned, in Spanish, to take the baseball equipment from us.   As they approached i was able to warn my brother and friends to run before they got to us.   They seemed confused about how we knew what they had been talking about until my brother stopped, turned to them, and yelled some choice words in Spanish.  I don’t remember what he said, I just know that once i reached over and grabbed him to keep running that I couldn’t help but laugh.

Fast forward a few years.  My mom met my Dad (not my father) and they quickly married.  My dad spoke no Spanish except for the naughty words that he had picked up here and there.  Because of that, we quit speaking Spanish at home.  During the mid to late 60’s there was a large push in the schools to prohibit speaking Spanish, so we pretty much quit speaking it at school too.   In a short time my ability to speak Spanish was almost gone.  I struggled to speak it well enough to still speak to my loving grandparents.

In high school I dated a  young woman that insisted that I speak Spanish when I could, especially since she spoke Spanish with her parents.  There would be times when she would only speak to me in Spanish and forced me to respond in Spanish as well.    Thanks to her I gradually started to regain my ability to speak it, although with an accent.  During our marriage it was common for us to speak Spanish, and we tried to make sure our daughters learned it as well.  Although we are no longer married, I am thankful that she made me embrace my culture and language.

My first job out of law school was in Laredo, Texas.  I was quite surprised when I moved there in 1981 that the city was quite Spanish oriented.  Everyone spoke Spanish.  It did not matter if your last name was Sanchez or Bullis, people spoke to you in Spanish assuming you knew the language.   It was there that i regained my familiarity with the language, to the point that I did presentations for the DA’s office at schools, PTA meetings, etc. in both English and Spanish.

I have shared the story before about the poor shocked criminal defendants who appeared before me as a night court judge and cursed me repeatedly in Spanish, only to have me start reading them their rights in Spanish. The look on their face was priceless.

Back in the days before databases and other software programs, the courts in El Paso used an old Rolodex to appoint attorneys to represent defendants.  If you were bilingual, you were in as a pink card.   If the defendant spoke no English they skipped to the next available pink card.  I was a pink card.  My ability to speak both languages helped me keep my law practice afloat.

I do not turn my back on my father’s heritage.  I embrace that part of my ancestry with no qualms.   But I was raised in a different culture and I love it.  It is who I am.

My stomach turns when people say that i should not identify myself as Hispanic, that I am an American first.  Really?  I can’t be both a proud American and embrace the culture that defines me?

in fact, I am quite surprised that in my adopted home town of San Antonio that more Hispanics don’t speak Spanish.   While they ostensibly accept the culture, they don’t speak the language.  I think that misses a huge part of what it’s all about.   So let me say this to the many persons who in the past were surprised by my ability to speak Spanish  – Don’t let the last name fool you.

Good, I got that off my chest.

 

 

 

 

A life that made a difference

mom, art and meShe crossed the border from Juarez, Mexico to El Paso, Texas in a car with several friends. In the English she had learned while staying with her Aunts’ family in the Mormon Colonies in Mexico she declared “American Citizen” and she entered the country to begin a new adventure and a life that would touch many people down the line.

At that time, in the early 50’s her only real chance of finding work was as a babysitter/maid, which she found with Ms. Myers, a kind gentle lady that had a few kids. She washed, did some cooking, and cared for the kids while Ms. Myers worked and took care of other matters. Sometime down the line, she helped Ms. Myers put together a small party for some friends, and that is when he walked into her life. He was a young man from Michigan, stationed at Ft. Bliss for training, and the two of them generated some sort of spark. Before too long they went to Las Cruces, New Mexico and got married.

But life was not going to be the “Leave it to Beaver” fairy tale that you saw on TV. Shortly after giving birth to her son, he decided to leave her and go back to his first wife. He returned on occasion to see his son, and eventually, a second son was on his way. She never saw much of him after that. He returned to Michigan to his family and left her behind to raised two young boys on her own.

She worked hard, harder than anyone should have to work to feed their kids. Her mother and father helped as they could with a little bit of support and a lot of babysitting. The boys spent a lot of time in Juarez at their grandmother and grandfathers house while she worked. A friend of hers got her a job at Providence Memorial Hospital as a nurses aide. She had to convince a jeweler in downtown El Paso to let her may for a watch with a second hand by making payments. She needed that watch to be able to take pulses at work.

The boys grew and watched their mom come home tired, eat a small meal, and turn right back around to go back to work at the hospital for a second shift – a shift where she worked in maintenance mopping floors and cleaning up so that she could make a few extra bucks to take care of her kids. She never had much in those days, choosing to give most of what she had to her kids. On the rare occasion, she would take the boys to the Plaza Theatre downtown to watch a movie. Many times she would have to carry her boys from the bus stop back to their little apartment because they had fallen asleep on the bus on the way home.

There were a lot of obstacles at times. Even after gaining her citizenship, she was often stopped by Border Patrol and asked where she was going with those two little white boys. They did not believe that they were hers. Many men offered to “help” her with her situation, but always with strings attached that she could not, and would not accept.
Through it all she never complained, at least not to her boys. The husband that had left her alone never provided anything in terms of support, either financial or otherwise. The father figure in their lives was their grandfather, a man that was at the same time a strict disciplinarian but also a gentle soul. That husband would pass away in 1965 and the hopes of ever getting that assistance that she needed died right along with him.

She married again the following year, and her new husband treated her boys as his own. He moved them out of that little apartment into a house on the other side of the city, and he taught them the value of hard work and responsibility. Times were better, but raising two hungry growing boys required both of them to work, and often required side jobs on the weekend to provide a better life.

She taught her boys a lot of important principles – patriotism, honesty, faith, hard work, and a love of the culture from which she came. She raised them, with the help of her new husband, and sent them off into the world to live their lives as adults. It would be nice to think that she lived happily ever after, but that was not the case. Although she enjoyed a much more comfortable life and the joy of having grandkids, her health began to fail her. Two times she was diagnosed with cancer, and two times she fought back and beat it. When it came back for a third try she was just too tired and exhausted to fight it anymore. She told her loving husband and sons that she did not want to go through all the chemo and radiation again. She was at peace with her life and felt it was time to go. Eleven years ago, on January 28,, 2002 she finally gave up her battle and entered into an eternal peace.
She was a wonderful woman. She changed a lot of lives. She was a friend, a daughter, a wife, a grandmother, and my mom. I miss her terribly, even after these many years. I love you Mom.

What am I going to tell mom? I lost my little brother!!

It amazes me these days how much more security conscious we are these days about our kids –  and well we should be.  When I look back at what we did as kids,  it surprises me that my brother and I are alive to tell  stories to our kids about what we got into as kids.

It was not unusual for us to wake up in the morning, eat breakfast and head out on our bikes, sometimes traveling several miles away as we explored.  We would ride back for lunch, and disappear again until dinner.   We could not have been more than 8 or 9 years old.   On ambitious days we would pack a lunch and not come back til dinner.    We lived in the Sunset Heights area of El Paso which is on the edge of the University of Texas at El Paso.    Until 1967 or so  it was still called Texas Western College.   There is not a square inch of that University that we did not explore.    In fact, the deep old gully that we used to build forts in is now a huge parking lot at the edge of the school.

We often would take our bikes and ride downtown to go the old plaza where the buses gathered.  At the time the fountain in the middle of the plaza had live alligators in them.   To my dismay they have since been replaced by these cheesy looking fiberglass gators.   They should have just left them empty.

Anyway, I digress.  The point is that parents had a lot more confidence in having their kids out loose in the world back then.    Simpler times?   Maybe.    Do I consider my mom a bad parent for letting us loose like that.  Absolutely not.

Part of the confidence my mom   had in me at the time is that I was able to take my little brother with me on Sunday mornings to church at First Baptist Church on Montana Street which is at the edge of downtown, or at least it was at the time.    This involved taking a bus from Munday park, which was about a block away from the house, to the plaza downtown where we transferred to a bus that headed out toward the church.    After church we reversed our route and made it back home.     My mom was raising us as a single mom working as a nurses aide at Providence Memorial Hospital and would pick up as many extra shifts as she could,  so some Sundays this was what we had to do to get to church.

One Sunday we finished with church and headed back home, so we waited at the bus stop for the bus.  As the trusted treasurer of our little adventure I held the nickels that we needed to buy our fare and get home.   As the bus approached I gave my brother his nickel because he insisted on paying the fare himself.  He got on the bus, paid the fare, and moved to the rear of the bus.    It was at this time that I realized “I don’t have my nickel!”     Apparently somewhere down the line as I was pulling out the money to give my brother his nickel, I had dropped mine on the sidewalk.   I ran back as fast as I could to retrace my steps, and there on the sidewalk, shining brightly, was the nickel I had dropped.    After picking it up I turned to go back to the bus only to find to my horror that it was pulling away, with my little brother on the bus by himself.    Apparently he had gone to the back of the bus to sit down and the bus driver never noticed that we were separated.    Screaming at the top of my lungs and running as fast as my 7 or 8-year-old legs could go, I chased the bus as it pulled away, but I couldn’t catch it.    When I looked up, my brothers face was in the rear window looking out at me as the bus drove off.

OH MY GOD!!!    My brother, who at the most was maybe 5 years old at the time, was on the bus by himself, and headed downtown.    What is he going to do when he gets there?  How will he get home?    Will he get home at all?  What am I going to tell my mom?  I lost my little brother!

The next bus would not come by for at least 20 minutes so I began to hoof it to the plaza.   At the time that was the longest walk/run that I could have imagined.   It certainly seemed to last forever, even though when  I Googled  it a while ago it turns out it was only 8/10 of a mile.   That relatively short distance seemed like a march across the Sahara desert because of the fear that I had that I had lost my brother forever.

My hopes and prayers were that I would find him sitting at the Plaza, next to the fountain with the alligators, waiting for me to show up.   No such luck.    When I arrived at the plaza he was no where in sight.    I checked everywhere that we used to hang around in hopes that maybe he would be hanging around entertaining himself.    Again, no such luck.    The dilemma at this point was this – do I stick around here and look for him, or go on home in the hopes of finding him.

As I think back, I do not know why I decided to walk home from there.   Maybe it was with the hope of finding him on the way, maybe it was the dread of getting home and not finding him at all.   It would not surprise me if I cried on the way home.  As a kid I cried a lot and  I got teased about it by classmates because it continued all the way to 7th and 8th grade (that is the subject of another post in the future).     We did not have a phone at home, so I could not call my mom at work.  It never occurred to me to ask an adult or a police officer to help.  Walking that huge distance home (Google says it was about a mile) was a nightmare for me.   Is he there?  Is he stuck on the bus somewhere where I will never find him?  Will my mom be childless after she kills me for losing my brother?

As I walked down the driveway to our little apartment behind the house I saw my brother sitting at the front door waiting for me.    He was as calm as could be and his only concern was getting in the house so he could pee.   I have no doubt I hugged him a lot and asked him a million questions.   As far as we could tell from what he told us,  he just followed the routine we developed.   He got his transfer when he got on the bus, got off at the plaza, and somehow managed to get on the right bus to get home.    It is said that God protects little children and fools.  He certainly protected us that day.

I am not sure what my mom told me after this happened but  I know I didn’t get punished, and I am certain my dear sweet mom never blamed me for what happened.   My recollection is that we got a lot of rides to church from that point on.  Gee, I wonder why.

gators

PLAZA BACK IN THE DAY

 

 

 

 

 

fiberglass

PLAZA NOW

I’ve got a tortilla, I don’t need a fork!

I made a great friend when I was in law school in late 1977.  We were from totally different parts of the country, I was from El Paso and Jacob was from New Jersey.   We tried to teach each other things about each others experiences, backgrounds and cultures that we were unaware of.      Jacob taught me about pastrami on rye, bagels, and the traditions of Passover.  I explained menudo, cumbias, and fajitas.

Some of our journeys were to the little Mexican restaurants that used to exist in East Austin (before the gentrification of the area).  We used to be able to eat lunch for about $3 with some of the largest plates I have ever seen in my life.

One of the times that we were feasting on the fabulous menus that were available we showed up during a very busy lunch time.   We walked into the restaurant and Tenchita, the waitress, told us to find a table and she would be with us as soon as she could.    She brought out our lemonades and the large combo plate that we usually ordered.   About five minutes into the meal I dropped my fork on the floor. Jacob frantically tried to get our waitress’ attention to no avail.  I just casually kept eating using bits of my tortilla to scoop up my food.

Jacob just stared at me as I continued to eat, and told me that I should just wait until I could get a clean fork to finish my meal.  My response?  “I have  a tortilla, I don’t need a fork!”

Needless to say I was able to finish my meal without the need to resort to the use of my utensils.  In fact, I cleaned the plate completely.    Jacob was just amazed!  “How did you know to do that? ” he asked.   At that point I realized I could not answer the question.  It was something that I had always done.  It was part of my Mexican DNA.

I learned it through osmosis,  I guess.  I know I had seen my grandfather do it, and I know that a lot of my friends ate that way too.  Some things aren’t taught, but are learned just by hanging around.

You are not Mexican!!

Those words still ring in my ears when I think of the incident. It was Fall of 1979, and I had volunteered to run the sound board for a lecture presentation sponsored by the Chicano Law Students Association. I was invited by a high school classmate that was also attending Law School at the University of Texas School of Law.

When introduced  to all the other law students at the meeting it was for the most part a rather pleasant experience. One of the students, however, was in a belligerent mood. He asked me if it was true that I had received the New Century Fund scholarship to attend school and I acknowledge that I had. “That is supposed to be for Mexican American students, isn’t it?” My answer was that it was.

Then it came. “You aren’t Mexican! The scholarship should go to a Mexican American student, and with a name like Bullis you obviously don’t qualify.” The words really stung because it had never occurred to me that I wasn’t. I countered with the fact that my mom was born in Mexico and that I was a first generation American on her side of the family. I asked him how long ago his parents had come to the US and he said that it didn’t matter. My last name was Bullis and there was no way I could be Mexican.

So I asked him. If my father had been the Rivera and my mother the Bullis then would you question my scholarship? He said “of course not.” At that point I realized I was in a battle of wits with an unarmed man. I wish I had responded with something other than “Eres pendejo”, which loosely translates to “you are an idiot.’

I have fought this battle for most of my life. To my father’s family, who I rarely ever saw and have never really met, I was the little Mexican kid. To a lot of my family in Juarez, I was the little gringo or “pocho.’ When registering for classes at UTEP I was called back by one of the registrars.   She told me I made a mistake on my classification because I had checked off that I was Hispanic (or Chicano or Mexican_American or whatever the term that was used back then.)    I  remember a line in the movie “Selena” where the Selena’s father, played by Edward James Olmos”, said something to the effect that as a Tejano he was not American enough for Americans and not Mexican enough for Mexicans. I totally relate.

So the question is – what am I?  My answer is I am what I feel that I am, and if I don’t meet the image or stereotype of my ethnicity  that you have in your mind, then too damn bad.

I was raised by a single Mexican immigrant mom whose husband abandoned her and her two kids when I was very young. Since I spend a huge amount of time in Juarez with my grandparents, my primary language was Spanish. My grandfather, Arturo Rivera was my father figure. My grandmother, Mauricia Carrasco was my caretaker, morals instructor, and the director of culinary arts in our household.  From the time that I was a little boy I was fascinated with Aztec history and I have continued that love to this day.

People stare at me at times because I use my tortilla as a fork to scoop up my food.  I still find myself switching from English to Spanish to English in the same sentence when I speak to my wife or my kids.   My mom treated me with the various Mexican medical remedies that I wrote about earlier.  So am I Mexican?    Maybe not by citizenship.   I am an American, and a darn proud one at that.  But my soul is as Mexican as it can be.

It has been a struggle at times.   When my mom married my dad my when I was 10 years old, we were not allowed to speak Spanish at home because my dad did not speak the language.    It got so bad that after a couple of years I had forgotten most of my Spanish and I could hardly carry on a conversation with my grandparents.  I would get angry at my friends when they spoke Spanish to me because I lacked confidence to speak what at one time had been my native tongue.  My girlfriend at the time encourage me to connect to my roots and embrace the culture.  By the time I got to college I not only had relearned the language, I was actually a proud member of Macuil Xotchil, the UTEP ballet folklorico.    I  no longer got embarrassed when my friends spoke Spanish to me.   I will always be grateful to that girlfriend, who later became my wife and mother of my children.  We always wanted to make sure where they came from.

I have bad memories of my mom and us being followed by Border Patrol as she walked us to the park in Sunset Heights in El Paso.    They just could not believe that those two little white kids belonged to her and that she was not just the maid.   They looked at us with surprise when we spoke to our mother in Spanish.

It makes me mad that people assume that because my name is obviously Anglo and I am light-skinned that I don’t speak Spanish.   Many a person regretted that mistake when they appeared before me when I was a Night Court Judge and proceeded to call me all sorts of names in Spanish assuming that I would not understand.  They were sure surprised when I read them their rights in Spanish.    More than one student has been quite shocked when I answered their disrespectful remark with a response in Spanish.   Don’t judge this book by its light-colored cover

My daughter Erica and her hubby Shaun just finished a one year trip through Mexico, Central America, and a large part of South America.   No one could have been prouder to see her also reach out and embrace the wonderful culture, traditions, and beauty of her ancestors.   It is important to me to make sure that my children understand an important part of what makes their father tick.

This is not a story about labels.  A label is nothing more than that.  Call me a Martian if you want, but it does not change who I am.  Did that jerk in law school have a right to question my ancestry?   Of course not.  Should the college clerk have questioned my answer on the form?  Not at all.    As long as I am comfortable with who I am, where I come from, and what made me who I am, then the label is not important.

But to answer the question that poor deluded law student asked –  damn right I’m Mexican.