Writing about “The Help” yesterday got me thinking about my personal experience with prejudice right here in good old Azusa California. Of course it was nothing like what was going on in the south, not even close, but it did exist and was directed at Mexicans rather than Blacks as there were relatively few Blacks in our community at that time. I grew up hearing stories about segregation and the injustices put upon Mexicans in the 40’s and early 50’s. One story I’ve never forgotten concerns the use of the public swimming pool at Slauson Park. Mexican children were only allowed to use the pool the day before the pool was to be drained and cleaned. The rest of the week it was Anglo’s only. Pretty sad. By the time we moved to Azusa in 1960 that restriction had been lifted.
In the early 60’s I attended a Catholic elementary school which was actually a well balanced mix of Anglos and Mexican Americans. If I had to guess I’d say it was probably 60% Anglo. And there was really no prejudice, we all got along pretty well and the nuns treated all of us the same, Horribly! It was here, in the eighth grade that I heard my first ethnic jokes. They weren’t told maliciously but all the same it was a bit uncomfortable.
I was standing with a group of four or five guys during lunch one day and was the lone Mexican of the group. Another Anglo boy came running over and asked if we wanted to hear some jokes. “Wanna hear a dirty joke?” he asked, which got our attention instantly. He paused for effect sucking us in, then said “A white horse fell in the mud!” Dumb! We razzed him for telling such a stupid joke and started walking away. “No wait! I’ve got another one that’s way better!” We stopped and looked back at him. “Okay, Why don’t Mexicans ever barbecue?” We looked at each other and shrugged, “why?” someone finally asked. “Because the beans keep falling through the grill!” My friends thought it was hilarious, they were busting up and kept shooting glances at me. I failed to see the humor in the joke and I just sort of smiled. Duh, everybody knows you don’t barbecue beans, even Mexicans!
The boy continued, “How many Mexicans does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Everyone shook their heads, “how many?” I asked “Just Juan!” he answered, “just Juan!” More gales of laughter, quick glances at me and smirks. “Okay. Okay here’s another one!” He was on a role. “What are the three toughest years in a Mexicans life?” Everyone waited quietly. “Second Grade!” he shouted! Everyone was rolling, except me. I just didn’t think they were that funny. I hated the way the guys kept , looking at me to see if the jokes were bugging me. I remember standing there smirking and shaking my head like it was no big deal. And I suppose it really wasn’t, it just felt weird. Oh, they razzed me a bit in the days and weeks that followed. I’d hear thinks like “What’d your mom pack you for lunch today Johnny, barbecue beans?” or “Did you swim to school today? No, then why’s your back all wet?” Yeah, kids can be cruel. That was my introduction to ethnic jokes.
The whole lazy Mexican stereotype really bugged me. And TV didn’t help that image any with the Mexicans they cast in supporting roles on sitcoms like the heavy accented farmhand Pepino on The Real McCoys, Frank the Mexican gardener with the heavy accent on Father Knows Best and Saturday morning cartoons had Speedy Gonzalez the speedy little Mexican mouse with all his slow talking, slow moving, slow witted cousins. And what was the deal with those big floppy sombreros anyway?
Then there was the Frito Bandito, the cartoon spokesperson for Frito corn chips. He was dressed like a Mexican bandit, had a gold tooth, spoke broken English and would rob people of their Fritos. There was actually an uproar about him. Mexican organizations were outraged! So much so that Frito actually cleaned up his image and eventually took him off the air. Yeah Mexicans had a great image back then, Not!
See the original Frito Bandito commercial http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSVkOl-5dZw
I’m a second generation Mexican American. Most of of the Mexican American kids I knew were second generation. They didn’t have heavy accents, wear big sombreros or take long leisurely siestas. Our parents were not lazy, they were hard-working, tax paying individuals pursuing the American dream. They wanted to make the lives of their children a little better, a little easier. My dad was a hard working Teamster truck driver, My friends dad worked for Azusa Rock and Sand and owned a restaurant. Another friends dad was a metallurgist, one was in management, another in construction. Being Mexican could have held them back, but it didn’t. Their determination,work ethic and drive made them successful.
And we, their children, learned from them and went on to become successful business owners, accountants, counselors, teachers, hospital administrators, public servants and more. We became them, working hard to make our children’s life a little better, a little easier. And now our grown children have become us and are working hard to do the same for their children.
There is nothing stereotypical about this cycle of growth and accomplishment. It knows no racial boundaries. It comes from a strong believe in self, a belief in the system and a lot of hard work. It is not about luck. You make your own luck. Failure is a result of laziness and a lack of direction, not the color of your skin or your heritage…