Today, I was reading a conversation on a Facebook group focused on Mexican food. Pretty normal until someone took exception to using the word “America” to mean “United States.” This instantly reminded me of a conversation I overheard once. A conversation worth sharing, I think.
It was early afternoon on a Sunday in September or October. I was about to go canvass voters on behalf of a candidate I was supporting. I had stopped by my favorite taqueria in Roseville, California to grab a bite to eat prior to the canvass kick-off meeting.
I placed my order and sat down to wait for my food. A large family (actually, two families: in-laws, cousins, etc.) came and were looking for a large table at which to sit. I moved over into a small table in the corner to open up some seats, and four young / teenage boys sat at the table I’d just left.
“Gracias,” said the father.
“De nada,” I responded, hoping they didn’t notice my American-ized accent.
My food came and I put my phone down to enjoy my enchiladas. As I ate, I overheard the boys’ conversation. It was pretty normal. They were discussing some happenings at their schools (they went to different schools), their friends, and the reaction of their friends to Mexican food (many were scared of “spicy food”).
As the conversation continued, I noticed that they were referring to their friends and school-mates as “the Americans.” This brought back many of my own memories and how I had often thought of myself as being different from “the Americans” in my own life while growing up. I still do, on occasion.
In the late 1960s, the separation between Whites and Latinos was more clearly defined than it is today (at least in MY world). As an adult, I look back on things and realize that what I thought of as odd behavior by others was racism, pure and simple. There were many things understood or taken for granted by “real Americans” that were new or foreign to me. This continued well into High School and even into my University years. I understood the young boys’ perspective too well when it came to “the Americans.”
That day, I was wearing my “canvass uniform”: a “Placer County Democrats” t-shirt, and my “US Navy Veteran” cap. A couple of the boys had noticed my cap as they walked in. This was happening at the same time that I was exchaning “the look” with one of the fathers as he walked in. So as I listened, I wondered whether the boys thought of me as an “American” or one of them.
As I finished my lunch and got ready to leave, I was fully focused on the irony of my day: I was about to encourage people to vote, after re-living memories of understanding that I was “different” and one of the “others” and that something like voting was not meant for me.
I kept thinking that I should have told the boys “You are Americans, too.” But I’m sure they would have looked at me wondering what the hell I was talking about.
But it’s true: they are Americans. So am I. Even if I need to remind myself of that, on occasion.
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