When I was almost 10, my family moved from Uniondale, a mixed-ethnic town on Long Island, to Webster, a 95% white town in western New York.
Our new house was much larger than our old one. More bedrooms. More bathrooms. Huge lawns. Our neighborhood was virtually crime-free. Virtually. I came to learn crime-free is a euphemism for “white people here do fine, but that don’t mean your non-white ass is safe.”
My family moved not because we wanted to, but because my father had been discriminated against, racially, at his job. The mostly black powers-that-be where he worked didn’t like a Puerto Rican having the unprecedented success he was having; they didn’t like how popular he was becoming. So they conspired to prevent him from advancing in his career. They did so formally, and so he filed a lawsuit, and proved he’d been discriminated against, and he won. Then we moved away. Winning a lawsuit doesn’t mean you win anything. The racists got to stay. We left the town my mother had grown up in, left our grandparents who lived next door, our aunt and uncle around the corner, a lifetime of friends made, a place we never felt was anything but home. My friends were all different races and ethnicities, and so anything about me that was different had never felt “other.”
One of our first days in Webster, while we were on our front stoop, a little girl passed by on the street. Couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6. “Go home, spics,” she sing-songed as she skipped away. “Nobody wants you here.”
A few months later, I was with two white friends and two Puerto Rican friends. An older white boy and a few of his friends came up to us and started throwing punches. We were 10 years old. The older boy was 13. He and his friends did not attack my white friends. My white friends did not join in to help us. They went and stood to the side while me and my two Puerto Rican friends fought. When the fight was over and we headed down the street, the older boy screamed at me.
“Leave, spic! Get out of this neighborhood! Nobody wants you here! Nobody.”
My older sister made quick friends with a group of girls her age. One day she was hanging out with them. She had on a T-shirt that had a Puerto Rican flag and some writing in Spanish on it. The other girls asked why she was wearing that shirt.
“Because I’m Puerto Rican,” she said.
They all walked away. They were no longer friends with my sister.
Not long after that, the police showed up at my house.
I was still not yet 10. The cop at the front door told my mother I threatened the grandmother of one of the kids who attacked me. This grandmother said me and one of my Puerto Rican friends came to her front door and cursed at her, threatened violence. I never in my life set one foot on that property. I never met that old woman. I’ve never threatened anyone with violence in my life. Not once.
That same night, the mother from that house, Mrs. Kaplan, called my house. My mother answered. Two minutes later, my mother let the phone hang from the receiver and walked away. Mrs. Kaplan was cursing and cursing and cursing. Spic this. Spic that.
When I was 13, I was playing baseball in the street with my Puerto Rican friend and a young Puerto Rican boy who was staying in Webster that summer thanks to the Fresh Air Program. The Fresh Air Program took kids from New York City and sent them to stay with people in the suburbs for a while. It was seen as beneficial to the kids: get them out of the concrete jungle and let them get a taste of the soft, cool breezes of Anytown, U.S.A.
I hit a ball that broke my friend’s neighbor’s window. I sat on the man’s front stoop and waited for him to get home. When he arrived, I told him what had happened, and that I was sorry, and to tell me what it’d cost and that I’d pay to replace the window. This grown man grabbed the baseball bat and began cursing at me and my friend and the little boy, waving the bat and threatening us. My friend’s mother came outside to calm him down. He cursed at her. Kept waving the bat. I called 911. I didn’t know what this guy was going to do.
By now, the whole street had come out of their houses to see the commotion. Not to help diffuse it. No one intervened. No one told the man with the bat to calm down. No one said anything. No one did anything. They watched a large white man with a bat screaming at a Puerto Rican woman, two Puerto Rican 13-year olds and a Puerto Rican 5-year old.When the cops pulled up, the neighbors finally opened their mouths.
“You’re gonna get it now, spic,” they told me. “Now you’re gonna fucking get it.” I will never forget that. It was like the beginning of a crowd in a musical breaking into song. Except it never progressed beyond that low, hateful murmur. “You’re gonna get what you’ve got coming to you, cockroach.”
I told the police I’d been the one who called them. They told me to sit down. I said I’m the one who called you; don’t you want me to tell you why? They said sit.
I watched the cops talk to the man with the bat. Then the neighbors, the ones who’d had nothing to do with what happened, the ones who hadn’t cared to help out, the ones who told me I was a spic and was getting what I had coming to me. Finally, 15 minutes after arriving on the scene, one of the cops came over to me. My friends mother told me something in Spanish.
“Are you Puerto Rican?” the cop asked me.
Yes I am.
“So do you have a father in the home?”
In 8th grade, I brought a Malta Goya to school.
Malta is a Caribbean drink. It’s very sweet, and very good. It comes in a brown bottle. I was drinking one in the hall, before homeroom. Within minutes, I was in the principal’s office, accused of bringing beer to school. I told the principal Malta is not an alcoholic beverage. Read the label. It says “non-alcoholic beverage.” Read the ingredients. Smell it. No alcohol. He kept arguing with me. Kept trying to force me to admit I’d done something wrong.
I’ve never been good with authority. Too many authorities presume their position, and assume you presume their authority. I don’t presume that shit. 8 years of living in a racist town cemented that I never will be.
The principal played his trump card. He called my father at work. My father worked as the head of Multicultural and Bilingual Education for the city of Rochester. The principal got my father on the phone and, very seriously, very somberly, explained what I had done. My father asked the principal to give me the phone. I will never forget that principal’s face when he did. He thought he had me. He really, really thought he had me. I put the phone to my ear. My father was laughing. He called the principal a name I didn’t usually hear my father use. Never have I been prouder to have suppressed a grin.
I once had a friend “discover” I was Puerto Rican months after we met. After that, every time he introduced me to anyone, he’d say, “This is Matt. He’s Puerto Rican.”
I once had a friend “discover” I was Puerto Rican after she told a racist joke. When I informed her I was, she said, “You’re Puerto Rican? Oh. That’s OK. You’re one of the good ones.”
One of my childhood friends, a guy I hung out with every day for years, “discovered” I was Puerto Rican our senior year of high school. He knew my Puerto Rican friend from the neighborhood, too. His reaction? “Wow. I can see [my PR friend] climbing trees and picking bananas, but not you.”
One day in high school, I was hanging out on my driveway with my Puerto Rican friend and a black girl I was friends with. At the end of my street, there were a dozen white kids playing some kind of wrestling/royal rumble game on the front lawn of the older boy who’d jumped me when I was 10. A cop car came down our street. Went by the white kids fighting. Didn’t even slow down. Got to my house. Pulled in the driveway. Exited the car. Wanted to know what we were “up to.”
In high school I met a boy named Alex. Alex Williams. We hit it off right away. Alex was an amazing artist; when he was 14, he could draw comics just like Jim Lee. His clothes were fly. He had a smoothness with girls I could only envy. He loved basketball as much as I did. He was funny. He was bright. He was black.
Every time I invited Alex to take the bus back to my neighborhood after school, he’d come over. His mom worked; he loved having a place to chill/people to chill with.
Every time Alex and I went for a walk, within 5-10 minutes, a cop car would show up, and a cop would get out, wanting to know what we were up to. One day, we started to take a walk when we saw a woman peeking at us from behind the curtain of her front window. 5 minutes later, a cop showed up.
Alex stopped coming by after that.
Years later, after I’d moved away, I passed by the front entrance to my old neighborhood. There was a young black kid waiting, basketball in hand, in the spot by the street where anybody who was waiting to get picked up and driven home would wait. A couple minutes later, compelled by queasy memory, I turned my car around and passed by the spot. The kid was still there. The cops were, too.
In college, I dated a white girl. She brought me home to meet her family over Easter dinner. Afterward, I asked her how she thought it went.
“My mother’s disappointed.”
“I told her I was dating a Puerto Rican.”
“So? I’m not Puerto Rican enough for her?”
“She said she was expecting Ricky Ricardo.”
In college, some of my best friends would, after introducing me to their friends, follow up with, “So…bet you can’t guess what Matt ‘is.’”
In my MFA program, two of the people I’d come to like the most sat at lunch one day with me and a few other friends and went over all the reasons I didn’t “seem” Puerto Rican. They were laughing it up, in love with their privilege and ignorant to it. To this day, whenever I set foot in a Panera, I remember that day.
I have dozens of Puerto Rican friends and family on Facebook. I have never heard a single one of them use the word “spic.” I’ve had more than one white friend—sophisticated, liberal, progressives—use that slur. On my page. This word that is loaded and ugly and brings up memories and pains from long ago, memories and pains unresolved…and the only people I know who use it now are the same ones who used it then.
It’s not always others who make you feel Other.
One night I was at my cousins’ house in Webster. It might have been a holiday; there was a lot of food, and there were lots of people there, friends of my cousins’ family, etc. They were all Latino. One of them said something to me in Spanish. I understood what he said and answered in English.
“Why don’t you speak Spanish?” he asked.
“I’m better in English.”
“You don’t speak Spanish?” he said, and I knew it didn’t matter what I said next; the dog had his bone.
“I speak some. I’m not totally fluent. I understand more than I can say.”
He kept speaking Spanish to me from then on. I could feel this kid getting off on it.
We moved because of black people discriminating.
We moved to a town where white people discriminated.
There’s no escape from discrimination and stupidity. Not from friends. Not from others who are, supposedly, the same thing you are.
After reading some of the reactions to George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, these thoughts, these pains, were what came to mind. I can’t say what I want to any clearer than this.
I understand more than I can say.