When I was 8 or so years old, a fellow student at school started calling me “Slow Poke Rodriguez.” It made no sense as I was neither slow, nor named Rodriguez. Presumably, it was because I was shorter, a little more solid, and brown-skinned. There really weren’t any other comparisons. Thankfully, it didn’t stick.
At 14, the upperclassmen on my high school soccer team nicknamed me, “Beaner.” I laughed along with them, as they repeated it again and again, in a bid to be accepted. I wasn’t particularly talented, other than slide tackles (still have some of that), so I didn’t draw attention to myself in any real way…but the name stuck. I almost had a letter jacket with that name embroidered on the back, it stuck so ‘well.’ Seems pretty crappy now.
As a teenager, walking at midnight in my neighborhood, my best friend and I got stopped by five police cars, all at once, each officer inquiring about a white man and a black man reportedly robbing houses. I explained I was Hispanic and the officer asked, “are you white?” — to which I answered, “no.” And he then said, “well, then, you’re black.” It was the oddest thing, as though my ethnicity either didn’t exist or was classified disdainfully as “other.”
I befriended a girl after college who said she’d love to date me, but her parents would never accept a skin color other than white in the family. I stayed with them once, and they spoke of other suitors and their merits, asking me what I thought.
Later in my post-college life, after getting to be best friends with a fastidious, joyful, and truly beautiful woman whom I’d met at church, she was exhausted as I was from a service project. I all but collapsed on the cool floor of her apartment, and she did the same beside me, then laid her head on my chest and said, “You know, I would marry you. You’re perfect for me…if only you weren’t Mexican.”
All of these moments are just a snapshot. They don’t make up the majority of my life or of my human interactions, but it’s not like they are ever gone from me or from my interaction with the world around me. I’ve been called “wetback,” “spic,” “illegal,” “filthy Mexican,” “affirmative action,” and other names. Sometimes, it was a joke. Sometimes, it was a dagger. Sometimes, it was a little of both.
And I’ve heard, countless times, the “go back where you came from” rhetoric that was brazenly spewed across the Internet, this week. It’s been hurled at me plenty in these 45 long years.
But it has never come from the President of “where I came from,” until recently. And I’d like to think it should hurt more than it did, that those words should have filled me with rage and fury…but that wound — the one that people have continued trying to gouge for far longer than these polarized days — is scarred over so much that I rarely notice if I’m bleeding when it’s struck. When I do notice, like I did today, I have to dig deep.
I have to remind myself that, “where I came from,” free speech is the profound birthright of all citizens, whether native or not. Once you’re a citizen of “where I came from,” you’re entitled and encouraged to speak, so long as it doesn’t harm someone or take away their civil liberties.
“Where I came from,” there are fantastic people who can see past color, open their homes and their hearts and their families to those who don’t share the same skin tone or language or cultural history. “Where I came from,” there can be profound disagreements between people, but at the end of the day, we protect others in harm’s way because we are not — not one of us — so different that we can’t find common ground: children are treasures, freedom is sacred, a diversity of belief is possible within a nation, and all people are created equal.
I was born to a Mexican family on both sides. I am a PROUD uncle to two nieces and two nephews who are half African-American. I am the proudest adoptee into my best friend’s very Anglo family, and there are two blond-haired, blue-eyed boys that derive great joy from any visit from “Uncle Dan.” And their blonde, blue-eyed firebrand of a mom is as much a Ride-Or-Die as her husband is to me (even if we didn’t start that way 😉 ).
My sister from another mister is Trinidadian. My daughters are half-Anglo, half-Hispanic, and ALL-AMERICAN.
My other best friend’s family — all Aggies and conservative and Anglo — consider me a member of their clan and I am honored to be so.
My life has recently seen me befriend a true angel of a woman who is 10000x smarter than me, never sees skin color, always sees wisdom and sense (when it comes to me, that is), and let me barge into her world with reckless abandon…and stay for three years and counting.
I have a Czech sister, “where I came from,” too. And a brudder, for that matter. Who knew?
Then, if you really dig into “where I came from,” there’s a young pain in the teeth who is my partner in the war against boredom in Waco. And yet another who helps me make sense of my crazy life over ramen and beer. Or just beer. Or just ramen.
“Where I came from,” there is a Korean food and fitness queen who is the most compassionate being I’ve ever seen Dallas produce..and she calls me friend.
“Where I came from,” I have been blessed to befriend a Rwandan pastor who challenges me almost as much as my spiritual mentor, a very heartland of America man who is basically a Norman Rockwell painting. And I have Norwegian roots, as the third of my spiritual mentors, whose looks favor Bon Jovi, is still very dear.
I could go on forever about the people I love, “where I came from.” I could talk of the Southern Living postcard family (bird hunting and guns and the pinnacle of hospitality in every way) that lets me crash their Thanksgiving EVERY year, or the Waco friends, old and new, from all across the ethnic spectrum…as well as the spectrum of belief (there’s a Cajun and a Sconnie, a few Taoists and an Athiest or two, if you’re looking for exemplary pieces of the spectrum that’ll make just about anyone smile).
And, if you’re reading this, chances are, you’re a part of my heart and — if I’m lucky — I am part of yours, all in that place, “where I came from.”
So I’ll say it as loud as I did when some bully in 6th grade art class told me to “go back where you came from,” in the most venomous way I’d heard, until recently: I CAME FROM RIGHT HERE.
And if there’s anyone who doesn’t like that answer, from up the street or all the way up Pennsylvania Avenue, that’s just tough. They’re welcome to leave. After all, it’s a free country, “where I came from.”