In many ways I grew up a bit sheltered — not sheltered from some of the ugliness in the world, but sheltered in that my folks told me that mankind was ultimately good and that things in this country were improving.
While I would never think that the prejudices I did experience in my formative and young adult years were as much as other minorities, I was always aware of the different ways we were treated because our dad was Puerto Rican (raised in PR and NYC) and our mom was a southern white girl who was transplanted to New York. By the way, we were also a Jewish family.
We frequently traveled to the south to visit mommy’s family and we’d laugh because my dad always had her drive through some of the southern states (now I realize it wasn’t so funny, he was genuinely scared of being stopped by a southern state trooper with his dark skin). I remember walking into a diner when I was young and noticing that none of the black families were seated in the same areas as the white families; I also know how heavy my mom laid on her thick southern drawl when the wait staff looked at my dad with questions. My parents agreed that things were improving, everyone was at least allowed to come in and have a meal. I was happy to hear my parents talk so positively. Then, I was just ten years old when a church in Mississippi was bombed and four young black girls were killed, one of them was only a year older than me.
When I was in Junior High School I met my first real boyfriend, Steve, he was blonde haired and blue eyed and oh so cute. We walked to a local bowling alley for our first date and on our way home again we saw his mom on the street. She frowned when she saw me and when my boyfriend proudly introduced me by name, she looked angry when she heard my last name, Cordero. That evening I got a phone call from him, he sounded upset when he told me that he couldn’t see me anymore. I didn’t know why and he wouldn’t tell me. A fellow classmate explained it to me a few days later, Steve wasn’t allowed to go out with a Hispanic (although that was not the term that was used).
As I grew into my teen years my parents were more open about prejudice, its ugliness and the injustices people suffered. And I had become more aware of the tensions in my school when students from other schools were bussed in all in the name of integration. There were a lot of people who weren’t happy and a lot of the new students kept to themselves. Meanwhile I was beginning to feel the way others viewed my ethnicity and who I was. As a (half) Hispanic, “white” Jewish teenage girl I found myself being ostracized my many of the other groups — I wasn’t Spanish enough, I was too white, I was too non-white, I was Jewish and the local parochial schools where teaching that the Jews killed Christ, and being a girl I was excluded from many sports activities at school.
In 1968 when so many cities were rioting, I visited my grandmother living in Miami, I enjoyed sun tanning on the beach. On the way back to NY we visited family in South Carolina. My cousin and I were walking down the street when suddenly there was a huge fuss. I couldn’t understand why I was being called ugly names, we hadn’t done anything. Cops were called and my cousin and I were forcefully separated. A black police officer pushed me into the street while I heard my cousin yelling (in her thick southern accent) “But she’s white!” Suddenly my cousin broke through and pulled on my T-shirt to expose the tan lines from the bathing suit straps.
The black police officer literally fell to his knees and apologized telling me over and over again he needed his job. (The Kennedy-era Civil Rights movement enabled the hiring of black officers, but this small southern town restricted them from laying hands on any white person.) I shrugged and told the cop I was okay and he actually thanked me. I was in shock, because of my darker skin, partially due to the sun tan, and my naturally curly, kinky hair I was mistaken as being black. I had an insight into the prejudice many blacks suffered… and that was only for a few minutes of my life. I thank the good Lord every day for giving me that experience.
I grew up and got married to a really super guy, his family came from northern Europe and a few folks snidely remarked that he was marrying a non-white. It didn’t bother him and I really never thought of myself as being “white” or not. Recently I’ve been delving into my family genealogy and found several documents including both my dad’s and my father-in-law’s WW2 military records; my fil is listed as White and my dad is listed as Non-White. I also submitted a DNA test; I am a mixture of northern European, Ashkenazi Jew, Spanish, African and Native American. I am damn proud of everything I am. I would imagine that most of us have quite an unexpected mix as well. In America there are too many people who don’t want to accept differences and I would find it amusing to know the DNA background of some of our bigots.
But I will never find it amusing that someone of color is looked down simply for their skin color. And I find it tremendously sad that black parents have to teach their children the seven words (yes sir, no sir, thank you sir) and pray that they will be able to come home every night. Prejudice has no place in “the land of the free”.