There was a time when California’s population was mostly Mexicans and Indians (before the mid-1800s). And then a time when amped up by gold discoveries, and manifest destiny, Anglos became the dominant population in California. That time is when I grew up.
I was born in Los Angeles. During the 1960’s, when I was five years old my parents moved to Palos Verdes, a Southern California suburb. Unlike the beach community of Playa del Rey where I’d lived my entire life until then, Palos Verdes was an exotic place where most everyone was white. We settled in quickly, my Anglo mother raising her growing group of children and having coffee klatches with the neighbor ladies, and my Mexican American father teaching Spanish at Rolling Hills High School.
Neighborhood kids freely played in the streets and along the sidewalks after school and the milkman and bread-man still made home deliveries. It was a beautiful place filled with beautiful people who made beauty a priority. Cultivating their tans, something the neighbor ladies called, “laying-out”, was part of most every woman’s weekly summer schedule.
Mrs. Nordquist two doors up would put solid plastic eye shields over her lids before she settled into her half hour sunbath. Mrs. Rick shared her “secret” recipe of iodine and baby oil with a few drops of olive oil (“like they use on the French Riviera,” she’d say) to those who gushed admiringly over her tanned limbs.
Even Mrs. Wright, an over-worked mother of five managed to get in a few afternoons each week napping on her day lounge by the patio, slathered in Bain de Soleil (for the exotic “European” San Tropez tan). Dedicated, disciplined laying-out could successfully result in a tan between your fingers.
Though I had never thought about the color of my skin before, I quickly realized that I had something the neighbor ladies all wanted, a natural California tan. Comparing myself to them, I observed that my skin was a lovely golden tan color despite my lack of tanning effort. All of the neighbor ladies spent hours of time each week trying to get the same brown color to their skin that I naturally had. The evidence was irrefutable, I was lucky.
I did wonder about my good fortune. My mother’s skin was the color of the neighbor ladies’ skin, though she never seemed interested in tanning. My father had rich dark, brown colored skin that needed little attention. I don’t think I ever saw him do much more than splash on aftershave.
My mother would slather herself in white lotion to ward off the dryness her skin was predisposed towards. In the kids bathroom she put a bottle of the same brand of lotion with a difference. To keep us kids from using her lotion, she bought us “almond” lotion, infused with the scent of almonds and slightly colored to match the golden tan plastic dispenser. With a child’s logic I concluded that my skin must be darker than my mother’s and lighter than my father’s because of the color of the lotion I used.
My parents weren’t trying to keep any secrets about skin color. I watched I Love Lucy re-runs on television and knew that it was entirely normal for a man who spoke Spanish and English to marry a woman who only spoke English. Though Ricky Ricardo wasn’t very tan (at least not that I could tell on our black and white TV), he was a dark contrast to Lucy’s pale coloring. My father spoke Spanish, but like Ricky Ricardo, he didn’t speak much at home.
Despite the various shades of brown skin among family members, I never felt like our family was markedly different from our neighbors. We did eat some things the neighbors didn’t regularly eat, like enchiladas and salsa (it was the 1960’s and Mexican food wasn’t yet mainstream) but that didn’t seem like a big deal. The Nordquist’s ate pickled herring and the Goldberg’s ate matzo crackers. Like the rest of our neighbors, my mother made Jello pudding and joined the ladies in heated discussions comparing the merits of Cool Whip versus Reddi-Whip aerosol whip cream. I thought we were all pretty much the same. Until the day I looked for the Mexican.
It happened when I was eleven years old. Ridgecrest Intermediate School in Palos Verdes, California, had a split level campus. Walking up the double flight of stairs from the lower field to the main buildings I saw a boy at the top of the stairs yelling. I wasn’t into boys when I was eleven, so I didn’t pay much attention to him. I kept walking up the stairs, and he kept yelling, “Hey Mexican, Hey Mexican”.
By the time I was halfway up the stairs I wondered who it he was yelling at. I turned around, fully expecting to see some version of the Cisco kid (one of the TV shows I watched on Saturday mornings) in a serape walking across the lower grass field.
The field was empty green without any other color to be seen. There was nobody there.
At that moment, all of the little things I’d felt and heard over the years fell into place: The confused expressions that I’d see when I responded to questions about my skin color with a recommendation for almond lotion (I was raised to be helpful).
The frustration my father would express at the dinner table when talking about not being allowed to join a Los Angeles businessman’s club. My embarrassment over watching my father being patted down by the police while standing on the sidewalk on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, in full view of the restaurant we were headed towards, dressed in our Sunday church clothes.
At that moment I realized that I was “the Mexican.”
Until that moment, the things I knew were simple. I knew what type of dress was perfect for a piano recital. I knew that a man had to know how to tie a Windsor knot, because only little boys like my brothers wore clip-on ties. I knew about charity balls. I knew that a sandwich on white Wonder Bread was worth two Ding Dong cupcakes on the school lunch trade table. And I knew that the color of my skin was perfect because I had a tan, even in the winter.
What I didn’t know was that the perfect color of my skin, my long wavy dark hair and the melodious sound of my Spanish name would influence how some people treated me. Awakening to this realization began the day I turned to see the Mexican.