We lose if we don’t understand what makes us different.
“Who will pick you up?“ his voice echoed. “No e-entiendo.” I stuttered, looking up. At six years old, I thought the principal was a giant. His deep voice frightened me even if he patiently waited for me to be picked up. Everyone else was gone. Sitting at the edge of the sidewalk, I saw mom at a distance, hurrying her pace as she got closer. She was late again and the waiting seemed forever.
Looking back- the five-mile walk must have been hard on her knees. Life had been difficult in Mexico. So like many people, my parents came to the United States seeking a better life for us. Among all the challenges, mine was to learn English quickly if I wanted to survive in school. It was a swim or sink nightmare. Yet, by third grade, I was already reading Charlotte’s Web, Uncle Tom’ Cabin and the books of Nancy Drew. My teacher took notice. “You are reading at a higher level, you can now checkout books from the other section.” She made me feel special every time we went to the library. Funny how we remember how someone made us feel, even if we remember little else. Not all were special moments growing up--- for each special moment--there were many more unpleasant ones.
Not So Special Moments
“Get her, get her!” I could hear them as I pedaled my bike as fast as I could. “Ouch!” The burning feeling in my knee brought me to a stop. The kids hiding in the tree shot me with their BB gun. “Ha ha ha ha,” I could hear them laughing hysterically. Limping, holding my bike with my free hand, and rubbing my knee with the other, I walked home.
On another occasion. “Take the trash out,” mom often sent me. Did she not know how hard it was for me? Did she not see my fear? How could she if I never told her. Taking out the trash was anything but easy. The bin was in the middle of the playground—which was usually packed with kids playing marbles. Mean kids.
I heard the sound of something cracking just as it hit my head. Ugh, what is it? I
thought, running my fingers through my hair. I felt it drip in my face, and the smell, what was that smell? It was an egg. "You egghead, wetback!" This time I could see their red faces get redder as they bent down laughing uncontrollably. I ran, shaking nervously. It wasn’t long before the kids caught up. “Don’t be passing through here, mojada.” They yelled as they threw stones.
The slur mojada is used to depict someone who crossed the Rio Grande River –
swimming -- illegally. It means wet thus, wetback. In fourth grade, Estela, my older sister had it with the name calling. While waiting in line, she turned around and smacked one of the girls who called her stupid wetback. It happened so fast. They were on the ground, rolling in the dirt, my sister trying to pin her down. The girl pouncing and flinging dirt in her face. “Get off of me mojada!” she kept yelling. Instead of helping my sister – I froze. Thankfully they were quickly separated. Until then, we had been strangers to violence and we didn’t know what to expect when mom found out we had been suspended.
“She’s really gonna let us have it,” I told Estella as we walked home. Mom was a firm disciplinarian, and we were ready for anything. To our surprise, she sat quietly listening as we told her what happened. Her watery eyes betrayed her frown. She wasn’t upset, instead she held my sister’s face with her hand and treated her scratches. “Tomorrow will be better,” she said, her voice breaking—as if trying to convince herself. “Tomorrow will be better.” And most of the time -- she was right.
We Lose When We Don’t Understand
In hindsight, it must have been hard for mom to see us like that. Day in and day out we were stereotyped and often bullied. For me those incidents only made me stronger. I became resilient. Even today, I still experience stereotyping. I just see it from a different perspective. People mean well, most of the time. They just have difficulty dealing with differences. This lack of understanding brings about unintentional biases. Not long ago, while teaching at a private university, I attended early mass on Ash Wednesday. “You have a smudge on your forehead,” a student pointed out as I walked into the classroom. Soon others followed, letting me
know about the smudge. “It is Ash Wednesday,” I said. I was moved by their politeness but quite surprised they didn’t know what it was. More students came in staring at my forehead. For the sake of getting class started, I provided a brief explanation. “It is the beginning of Lent season. The ashes represent death and repentance in our Catholic faith.” I said. There was silence. To the day, I question whether they were confused or amused.
On another occasion, a group of students approached me while waiting for my ride. During the brief conversation, one of them asked, “how many kids do you have?”
A bit puzzled, I replied, “two.”
“Only Two?" He asked in disbelief. “Aren’t you are Hispanic and Catholic? We
thought you had fourteen.” I was startled by the blatant stereotyping.
“Most Hispanics have less than fourteen kids,” I clarified, “and not all Hispanics are Catholics.”
Help Others Learn About Our Culture
Many of these students meant no disrespect. They just had little or no exposure to different cultures. It may have been the lack of diversity in that small private Christian university since I was probably the only Hispanic they had ever interacted with to that extent. Such incidents are a reflection of the lack of understanding and diversity that still exists today. It is up to us to help others learn about our culture.
Just recently, I went to the doctor. He came in, shook my hand – and with much effort, he struggled to speak Spanish. For at least ten minutes he tried to explain. “Me aa-entiende?" He asked.
“Si,” I did not dare interrupt him. “Esta bien,” I sat there nodding.
He managed broken phrases fairly well. Finally, “muchas gracias - adios,” with a smile he shook my hand again and left the room. I sat there briefly - wondering “why he didn’t ask if I knew English?” It didn’t seem to cross his mind. Was it my black hair? My dark skin? Or did he just want to practice his Spanish? I chose to believe the latter.
"You didn’t tell him you knew English?” My son asked when I told him about it.
“No,” I said. “He seemed proud of his effort - why take that away from
Everyone brings something valuable to the table, irrelevant of the background. We have unique values and ultimately, we all lose if we don’t understand each other. But the real losers are "those that through no fault of their own, are stereotyped and denied of learning and growth.” Is it possible we can look beyond our physical appearances? Especially, in these times of extreme criticism, racial biases, and increased violence? Yes, it is.
The Power of Example
Through the years, I’ve learned to see through people’s prejudices, to be less sensitive, to give the benefit of the doubt. I am motivated to reach and help those who misunderstand me. I don’t mind. At the end of the day, I know the things I do and how I respond have a ripple effect. Our world will unfold in better ways if we work together and promote harmony and goodwill in our daily life.
Well known author, Robert K. Greenleaf, once wrote, “Caring for persons, the more able and the less able, serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people.” That includes immigrants.
Yes, as immigrants we have struggled our way to success. After all, this is the land of opportunity. But as immigrants we too can make a difference with issues of discrimination and stereotyping. As immigrants we can encourage others to learn about us and make a positive impact within our communities. We don’t grow if we don’t know and it goes beyond simple tolerance. If we can see beyond ourselves we can then break from the stereotyping trap we live in. The social pressures resulting from discrimination can be uplifted. We can live by example - knowing it is the power of example which ultimately endures.
by Sabina Ramon
Sabina Ramon is a pen name the author uses when writing short personal stories. Sabina immigrated from Mexico at the age of six and learned English quickly to help her parents and siblings navigate through daily challenges, since her parents never went to school, and were self-taught in what little they knew. Initially she lived across the Rio Grande River in the Rio Grande Valley but has traveled extensively since.
Today she teaches leadership courses part time as an Assistant Professor. She is an international business educator, having taught in Salamanca, Spain, Xinzheng, Henan, China, and served in committee panels in Cochin, Kerala, India. She has written numerous peer-reviewed academic articles published in journals such as: Business Ethics and Leadership, Journal of Strategic Innovation and Sustainability, E-Discovery and in the international book: Research Perspectives in Human Capital Development.
Her interests are in writing short non-fiction stories and promoting positivity and well-being.