Racism. It’s an ugly word. It makes me kind of uncomfortable just typing it. So much so that I’ve procrastinated writing this post too many times. But I know that my own story isn’t void of racism. Actually, for a long time, my story was nearly void of diversity of any kind. Hence, racism — both overt and subtle.
A Dearth of Diversity
I grew up in North Carolina in a rural and basically all-white community. Seriously. Everyone was white. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But what it meant for me — more often than not — was that I didn’t really know how to deal with diversity, whether in appearance or in opinion.
Now, looking back, I see my ignorance on full display.
I remember overhearing opponents from the city school’s girls’ basketball team talking in the locker room about hair products and upkeep. I didn’t even understand half of the words they were using. Along with my other all-white teammates, I made fun of them — that day, and in the days to come. Just last spring we welcomed a bi-racial foster child with the most gorgeous and time-consuming hair I’ve ever experienced. Wow. And now — to a small extent — I understand where they were coming from.
There were two members of my high school band who were Latino. Did I recognize or celebrate their heritage? Not even close. Along with my fellow band mates, we ignorantly applied all of the stereotypes concerning tacos, manual labor and immigration. Looking back, I can’t even imagine how they must have felt. I’ve lived for most of my married life in the Rio Grande Valley, a place rich with the cultural heritage and practices of the Hispanic community. And I love it. But back then, I just didn’t get it.
Like anyone born in the mid-80s, I loved “Saved by the Bell.” I thought that it was ok for Zack and Kelly to date, but it felt wrong to me when Kelly went with Slater and Zack and Lisa got together. I mean, how messed up is that logic? I want to make it clear that no one ever told me that inter-racial relationships were something to be shunned. I just hadn’t ever seen them up close and personal. I didn’t have a framework that I could use as I sought to understand. My family has since been blessed by adoption, and now it’s hard to even imagine us as anything but a multi-race family.
I say all this to say — really — that I’m sorry. I know that it’s far too little and far too late, but I truly am sorry.
I cringe when I look back at many of my actions and assumptions. By the grace of God, my sheltered world was gradually opened up during my college years through missions trips and other friendships. But more than anything, the living in the Rio Grande Valley has changed my life, and my perspective. The Valley was at the top of our list when my newlywed husband was accepted to Teach For America right before we graduated and got married. But even then, as we drove from Kentucky to McAllen, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.
(Almost) Puro Valley
And now, almost 12 years later, I wouldn’t have it any other way. There have definitely been ups and downs. And I’m no expert — not on the Valley, or cross-cultural living, or diversity, or on, well, anything. But I am thankful to have been welcomed into this community. I’m grateful for friends and co-workers — especially those from my first and naive years — who invited me into their homes time and time again. They fed me and taught me how to make rice and beans, and how to cut fajitas the right way. They invited my husband and I to parties and family celebrations. They opened my eyes to the awesomeness that are raspas in the summer and Abuelita hot chocolate in the winter.
These are some of the things I’m trying to pass on to my own little ones, who I like to call “puro valley kids.” I know it’s not 100% accurate, but they’ve never really known anything but life here on the edge of Texas. They love hot cheetos, charro beans, and raspas with pickles and chamoy. They want a jacket if it’s below 65, and — if they can get away with it — they never wear anything but chanclas.
As they grow and mature, I pray that they will develop a love for the cultural richness that is all around them. I want them to love folklorico and mariachi as much as I grew up loving sweet tea and basketball. I pray that my sweet guerito boys would find their place and their identity, and that they would always stick up for their sister.
No matter where you’re from, there’s someone somewhere who looks and sees things differently than you. I know that for many who’ve spent their entire lives here, everything about the Valley seems normal. That will probably be the reality for my own kiddos one day. And I pray that they would expand their horizons and explore new places, diverse people and different ways of thinking. I’m sure glad that I did.