The first time I experienced racism, I was 12 years old. It was such a horrible thing to feel and sense hatred. I was a girl who knew, even though was born to Mexican parents, that I was Latina. I had grown up in a multicultural neighborhood where Spanglish was spoken all of the time. I had Black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Salvadorian and Chilean classmates and I also had a white classmate. He was the only white kid in the school, but we were all so accustomed to difference that we did not see really see him as anyone different. I grew up in bodegas with Latin music and the smell of flavored foods in the streets. I could speak both Spanish and English and I knew that at any given minute, I would always have a response.
North Carolina was tremendously different from where I grew up. The culture shock after my family’s move was so intense that I kept to myself and tried to avoid all eye contact. I remember riding the bus on my first day of school in North Carolina and wondering why I was so far away from home. Back in the Bronx I walked across the street and stopped at the bodega to get breakfast. My first impression, when I got to my new school, was unforgettable. Never in my life had I been in a building full of white kids. I had never been the minority, I never even knew that word existed. It felt like everyone was looking at me that day and there was barely anyone who looked like me, and absolutely no one speaking Spanish in the halls.
After a few weeks, I became close friends with two Mexican girls. They were quieter than me, but at least I could connect with them and speak the language. They would make fun of me at times because they said I spoke Spanish and English too much in the same sentence. I told them it was called Spanglish and that it was actually a thing in New York. They were so used to only speaking English that they barely spoke Spanish in our conversations.
One day, the three of us were at the lunch table having a Spanish conversation and minding our own business. All of a sudden, this tall, skinny, pale, white kid stood up across the room from us and yelled, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from and stop speaking Spanish.” I was furious. My friends just sat there and said nothing back. I quickly responded, “I speak whatever I want.” He yelled back, “Why don’t you shut the fuck up and go cross the border again.” I quickly replied, “You shut the fuck up and watch your mouth or I’ll beat the shit out of you.” His last words were, “make me.” I jumped across the table towards him, but my friends held me back. The school resource officer quickly approached us and we were both sent to the assistant principal’s office.
Sitting outside the office, I was so angry that someone could make hateful comments like that. I just couldn’t understand why there was so much hate towards Mexicans. I also didn’t understand how there could be so much ignorance in one place. Why did everyone assume that anyone who spoke Spanish was Mexican? It was sad to see how little my classmates knew about the world.
When I walked into the office, the assistant principal said, “You used profanity and we do not use profanity in this school.” I replied, “Okay. Well, he was racist to me and I think that is much worse than anything that I said.” The assistant principal quietly looked at me with a straight face, not knowing what to say. He finally responded, “I understand, just make sure that you do not use profanity again.” To which I replied, “Well, I hope you make sure there aren’t any more racist comments around your school in the future.”
The kid got suspended from school for a couple of days and after he came back he tried to talk to me, but I would not have it. It was from that day on I knew I had to speak up for those that couldn’t. If I had not said anything, it would have looked as if it was okay for him to insult my friends and me. It was not okay and I was not going to put up with anyone who thought it was. I think I built myself a reputation because white kids did not really talk to me after that incident. They looked at me weird which made me feel uncomfortable. We held quick functional conversations, but I never really made friends during those years, not any white friends anyway. Nevertheless, I was proud of who I was. I learned I cannot change people’s minds, especially when they grow up in small towns and when most have not even been to other cities or states, much less countries.
Many years and many brushes with racism later, I still know I am Latina. I am starting my masters in social work next fall and I am successful. That experience so many years ago and many others throughout my life have taught me to know the importance of standing my ground, knowing my worth and making a difference.
Esmeralda Mendez is Mexican-American. She is the proud daughter of immigrant parents and has Latinx roots. Esmeralda is a dancer, poet, and passionate young woman who is beginning her Masters in Social Work in the fall of 2019.