I walked across the deck of the pool at Flick Park, one of the public pools in Glenview, the embryonic suburb north of Chicago where I spent the first 18 years of my life. Little children splashed their way through the kiddie pool on my right. I was there with some friends headed for the water slide that grew out of the concrete deck at the far end of the pool. We were in junior high, finally old enough to go swimming on our own. As I walked past the pool with the high dives, I glanced to my left. There was a bunch of Mexican boys and girls, some my age, some way older, trailer-park kids. They stood clustered together near the chain link fence glaring, it seemed, at everyone else.
Every so often one of them might climb to the top of the high dive, much to the pleasure of his friends who stood below him either cheering or jeering in Spanish. He would make his way to the end of the board, his beltless cut-off blue jeans hanging off his hips, revealing the frayed waistband of a pair of white Hanes. I don’t remember him jumping off, and I don’t remember him emerging from the water. But I do remember seeing him and the other trailer-park kids in line at the snack shop, chattering back and forth in Spanish, laughing and pushing one another. And I remember how many of the suburban mothers, clad in colorful cover-ups and Keds, would shy away or cast disdainful sidelong glances at the Mexicans. I remember how some of the Anglos would clear out of the diving pool when the Mexicans walked over, inconspicuously gathering their towels and children and going back to the big pool, where there was more room.
I knew nothing of these young men and women. But at the same time, I knew so much. I knew they were Mexican. I knew that their parents probably worked cutting other people’s lawns. I had seen that much. I knew they took a different school bus home and that most of them lived in trailers on the north side of our little suburb.
Their trailer homes became part of our suburban lore. The trailer parks were off limits. We were not to go there because they were dangerous. Years later, when I was in high school, the trailer parks became material for jokes within my circle of friends. We’d laugh at the idea of living in a trailer, as we rumbled past the parks on our way to and from parties. The term trailer trash evolved as a label for anyone who called a trailer home.
Those furrowed brows and occasional quick glances at the pool may seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But such seemingly insignificant gestures taught me that somehow an entire race of people was less human than I. They helped me get to the point where I was able to understand and accept that the word trash could be used to identify a whole group of human beings.
What is racism, if not the assumption that one race is better, greater than or more human than another? This understanding does not have to be spoken, nor does it have to be acted out. Rather, it exists within us, silently casting its shadow upon everything we see and everyone we meet; and it plays itself out in so many of our actions.
I would have objected emphatically if anyone had told me I was racially insensitive or, even worse, a racist when I left college. But I was. In fact, overcoming racism is a battle I still fight today, and will probably continue to fight for the remainder of my life. But I was a racist. Somehow, without ever really thinking about it, I had come to an understanding that I was more important than a poor Mexican person. I was important because my family had more money, because I played sports, because I worked so hard in school, because my dad worked hard and wore a tie to work.
This visceral instinct toward supremacy was reinforced everywhere. When something fatal happened to a person like me, it was on the television news. It was a tragedy. The parents were shown holding each other and crying at the funeral, demanding that justice be served. The aggressors would be apprehended, whether they were drunk drivers or carjackers. But when something bad happened to someone my age who was poor, who was a person of color, it wasn’t a tragedy. It was just another dead Mexican or black kid.
When one volunteers or performs some kind of service work, the common reflection seems to be, I learned more than I could ever have taught. Platitude or not, it’s true. I undeniably profited far more from my two years as a volunteer at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School than did the students I instructed and coached.
This high school was founded in 1996 to provide college preparation for children from lower-income families, most of them Mexican. It has an innovative work-study curriculum. The students work one day a week at an entry-level job in one of the participating Chicgo businesses. The payment they receive covers most of their tuition.
During that time, I experienced a shift in perspective and understanding. It was a direct result of having had the chance to cultivate relationships with the students and families of Cristo Rey.
One was a student named Felipe. He had a slender build, very sharp features and deep eyes. He wore a thick goatee and used gel to pull his hair back. He wore his pants low and drove a long black Lincoln Town Car. He could easily have been mistaken for the stereotypical street thug or gangbanger.
Felipe was a senior. He got up for school every day at 6 a.m. and went to class. After school in the winter months, he went to basketball practice. From there he hopped the El and went downtown, where he worked as a cook at a Gold Coast hot dog restaurant in Union Station until 11 p.m. Then he took the train back to his neighborhood. Once home, he did as much homework as he could and went to bed sometime around 1 a.m. Then he got up at 6 later that morning.
The year after Felipe graduated, his sister Beatriz entered Cristo Rey as a first-year student. Felipe had a little more time on his hands now that he was taking college classes, and he returned to school occasionally on Wednesday nights to take on his old teachers on the basketball court. Over the course of that year, I met all of Felipe’s siblings and learned that he has the maturity and grace to act as a father to his younger siblings, who don’t have a father.
I have great respect and admiration for Felipe. He has endured more in his 19 years than just about anyone else I know has endured in 40. But he has not simply endured; he has thrived. He is a man who commands respect from other people because he respects himself, because he is proud of himself and because he carries himself with dignity. But two years ago, if I had rolled up next to Felipe’s black Lincoln Town Car at the intersection of Cermak and Halsted at 1 a.m. without any other cars around, I would have locked the doors. I might even have blown through the red light. Now I consider myself lucky to know Felipe. So if I roll up next to him, I can wave.
Unfortunately, one of my last experiences at Cristo Rey was unpleasant. Eight young women from the basketball team I coached at Cristo Rey attended a summer basketball camp at a local college. When I went to pick them up, they told me they had felt excluded. People looked at us weird when we talked Spanish.
Man, I bumped this one girl in line in the cafeteria and she said, Sorry, excuse me’ and pulled her tray away like she thought I was going to hit her, said one.
Our own coach didn’t even want to hang out with us, said another.
We were the only Mexicans there, a third observed.
As I listened to them speak of their experiences, I recalled the words of Mike Heidkamp, a social studies teacher from Cristo Rey, who told his class of seniors that the only way discrimination will change is if people talk about it. When people don’t talk about how they understand the world, how they see the world, he continued, then they rely on assumptions, and they act on those assumptions. The only way to start to break that down is to talk about the assumptions and to get to know people. I got to do that at Cristo Rey.