Tag 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.

 

 

 

 

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.