I spent my childhood years living between the bustling Mexican-American border town of Laredo, Texas, and quaint Belgium, Wisconsin, a village with deep Luxembourger roots. Back then, in the 1990s, there were no hashtags or viral Facebook posts or Tweets, no Mitú or Remezcla blogs to guide my self-awareness on what it means to be a Latina in the United States. Confronted as a child by what I later learned was called “racism,” I found solace in the resilience, the power and dignity in the faces and names that told the stories of the Civil Rights Movement.
I was one of a small group of Mexican-American children in Cedar Grove-Belgium-Area School district in southeast Wisconsin, daughter of one of the migrant families who worked at a local canning factory. My dark skin and hair color stood out from the predominant blond, fair-skinned population of the descendants of German, Dutch, French, Italian and Luxembourger immigrants. Most of my peers and teachers were friendly and eager to learn about what they perceived as a foreign culture, even if I was as American as they were. I have fond memories of their friendship and kindness. But not everyone treated me the same way. Some students perceived me as an ‘other’ who did not belong, and they didn’t shy away from telling me so. By the time I was in the second grade, I had confronted the ugliness of racism, first by comments made by a few bad apples in school and then, by institutional forces when someone in the Cedar Grove-Belgium school system thought it best to segregate the Mexican students by busing us separately in a small school bus. I knew it was wrong, but no one questioned any of it. We all stayed silent.
I had no connection to any Latino civil rights leaders or organizations to guide me through any of these ordeals and answers the questions I had about race. My parents and sisters had the same experiences as I, even worse, but they forged ahead, didn’t ask questions, worked hard and enjoyed life. They chalked it up to the notion that mean-spirited people exist everywhere. I tried to follow their example, but inherently, I knew that something was not right about the way we were treated and about the distorted notion that one race was superior over another. I sought answers, and I found them in an unlikely place for a Mexican child.
When I was in the fourth grade, I invited my closest friends Claudia and Verenisse to my parent’s home for a movie night. The movie my 9-year old heart was dying for them to see was called Glory, and it told an epic story: that of the bravery, gallantry, and struggle of the 54th Massachusetts, the first African-American regiment to fight for the Union in the Civil War. An odd selection of a movie for a child to love, Glory was more than a favorite movie. The film played a special part in my childhood quest to find answers to my questions about race, as naive as they may have been at the time.
I found solace and a new sense of pride in the stories of the African-American community’s civil rights struggles that I came across in my history books, in movies, in books and in television. I loved reading about Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X among many other women and men who had overcome dire struggles so that they would not be judged by the color of their skin. The Civil Rights Movement became an inspiration for my sense of self and identity as a member of a minority community in this country. With every biography that I read, every book report I wrote about one of the African-American community’s leaders, I found a sense of belonging. Something that told me that it was okay to fight to be treated with respect and equality.
As I ventured into high school and college, I learned about César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, the Chicano movement, and I delved deeper into the history of Mexicans in the United States, which allowed me to gain a deeper connection and sense of belonging in this nation. However, I never let go of the inner connection I developed with the African-American experience through literature and history. I identified myself with the writings of Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou as much as I did with Sandra Cisneros’ and Oscar Zeta Acosta’s. To this day, I honor the African-American community’s strength and resilience because in addition to being a beacon of hope for equality, they lit the torch that helped the rest of the oppressed see that our own dignity and freedom is worth fighting for.
Our histories are not entirely the same, and each community will always have different challenges, but at the core, we are fighting for the same cause: equal rights and justice. In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegraph to César Chávez that read partially as follows:
“As brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and your members…You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.”
Dr. King’s telegraph remains engraved in both of our histories for posterity, a unifying force that reminds us that we are connected through our mutual struggles. In these trying times, we must look within ourselves — and to each other — to fight for a better world for our communities. Only by standing up to hate and fear together, Blacks and Latinos will be able to realize that “better tomorrow” that Dr. King, Chávez and countless civil rights leaders fought for.
This article was originally published at medium.com and has been reproduced at IQLatino with the permission of the author.
(The picture is from the Cesar Chavez Foundation)