The escalating racial tensions and hate-filled rhetoric that have tragically led to the death of innocent citizens in our own country these past weeks, and over the course of this past year, should give all Americans pause.
For those who truly aspire to become agents of positive change and help heal our nation, these tragic exchanges should compel us to become more self-aware in everyday life.
While it is righteous to publicly condemn the kind of hate and intolerance threatening to Balkanize our nation, it is also critically important to take a step back and reflect on our core beliefs, our values and our character as Americans — as a nation of immigrants, and traditionally, a welcoming one.
Some may believe that righteous outrage requires “fighting fire with fire.” But, rather than fanning the flames of discord and division, moral outrage should instead compel us to adopt a personal policy of domestic de-escalation — “fighting fire with water.”
This implies making an individual commitment to fostering peace and understanding in our everyday interactions, even the most mundane and seemingly inconsequential. We should do so regardless of whether our nation’s leaders are exemplifying this behavior.
As I reflect on my own parents’ story — the discrimination and ordeals they overcame as Mexican immigrants, as well as their triumphs and personal successes — I can’t help but take comfort in, and gain greater resolve from, their philosophy of leading by example.
I can draw on many instances, but one anecdote in particular stands out. It is one that has deeply influenced the way I respond to those who mischaracterize or attempt to label me, my community, or other American “minorities” out of fear or ignorance.
To this day, I still remember the utter pride and joy of my father, Ismael — Papi — as he led my mother, Carmen — Mami — into our new suburban home in San Gabriel, California. San Gabriel boasts a rich history. It is where Spanish priest Father Serra founded the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in the late 1700s, where orange groves once lined the landscape, and Gen. George S. Patton was born.
In the mid 1970s, when we moved there, our closest neighbors were white save for perhaps two other Hispanic families. There were no African-Americans that I ever saw. It was, for all intents and purposes, practically homogeneous.
Our new neighborhood was pristine, displaying green, golf course-like lawns, perfectly trimmed hedges, and clean, litter-free streets. The yard at our new house abutted McKinley Elementary School’s little league baseball field and a park. I can still clearly recall the Spanish murmuring of my mother’s telenovela blending with the distant chant of little boys taunting an opposing team. “Hey batter, batter, batter, batter … Sah-wing batter!”
It was idyllic. And, even though our “new” house at first kind of stuck out like a sore thumb, as it had fallen into some disrepair, we felt truly blessed.
My parents did the best they could to fix up the house, with much elbow grease involved. My mother was a seamstress and my father, a welder.
Despite the intense physical labor their jobs demanded, they still found time to work on their garden and home projects. I sometimes picked up a paint brush and “helped”. They felt pride of ownership, had an incredible work ethic, and truly believed that in America, anything was possible with hard work, tenacity and a little calculated risk-taking.
In our new beautiful neighborhood, there also was one gentleman who went out of his way to express, on more than one occasion, that he wasn’t too thrilled with “the Mexicans’” arrival.
My father seemed pretty unconcerned by his chilly stares and the rude, racially charged remarks made under his breath every time he passed by our house during his daily walks. Of course, he never attempted to say hello, get to know us or speak to us directly.
Then this one day, as Christmas approached, Papi decided to take out the ladder and start putting up our lights. As he climbed the ladder and reached the middle rung, strings of lights sliding off one shoulder, he heard someone call out to him.
It was “El Racista”! Sadly, admittedly, this is how he was known to our family.
“Hey, hey you!” He called out to Papi. “Someone stole my Christmas lights! That’s never happened around here before. Do you know who could have stolen my lights?”
Without flinching and still on the ladder, my dad calmly cocked his head to the side and looked at him. He shrugged his light-strewn shoulders, and quite purposefully, in the thickest, most stereotypical “Mexican” accent he could muster, he answered: “No. Ay dunno.”
Undaunted, my father continued to work on his decorations, and the man stormed off in a rage.
This little episode prompted my father to look that man straight in the eye, smile, say hello, and attempt to start a conversation every time they crossed paths afterward. Every. Single. Time. Year after year.
And, every single time, my father was met, at best, with another chilly stare and some grumbling.
“Hay, Ismael!” my mother would chastise him. “Why denigrate yourself and waste your time? He doesn’t like us. You will never change his mind.”
To that, my father answered with the most mischevious smile. “I am going to teach that [insert colorful Spanish expletive here] a lesson, and make him my friend. Wait and see.”
Frankly, we all thought Papi was nuts.
So, I’ll cut to the chase, and to the point I would like to humbly make. I was almost 4 when this whole saga started. By the time I was in college, we were visiting the family on Christmas and bringing over our homemade tamales.
Yes, Papi finally “made amigos” with the guy.
And, by this point, he was so neighborly, he would talk our ears off for hours if we let him. Our families looked out for each other, and we no longer existed as “white” or “Mexican.” We were simply neighbors.
What I learned from my parents was to take negative circumstances and emotions and turn them into positive and constructive action. I learned to lead by example. “¡Dales con guante blanco, Mija!”
We cannot hope to live in a world with less hate if we insist on meeting hate with equal or greater hate. We must make a real effort to embody the kind of change we want to see in the world.
It is possible to take pride in our heritage, embrace the common values shared with other ethnic groups that also identify as Americans, and, with some healthy humility, remain committed to maintaining peace and civility. Yes, we can do this, even with those who seem different from us or who may be initially unkind.
Certainly, we must have the courage to publicly denounce intolerance, violence and persecution of others. However, the manner in which we handle ourselves in our everyday interactions — even and perhaps most especially in the face of hate, ignorance and prejudice — is much more important and, in the long haul, much more consequential.