Monday, March 16, 2009

Six Mexicans

After months and months of restraining myself, I finally created a Facebook account. It’s been interesting, fun and even frightening. It’s been fun and interesting to make connection with old friends from three decades ago. It’s been frightening as I wonder about whether or not I look as old to all of my friends as they do to me. Just to be safe, I haven’t posted a picture yet.

Most of my old friends have some kind of roots in West Texas, where I was raised in a small farming community southwest of Lubbock. It was a great place to grow up. We could ride our bikes all over town and our parents never worried about us being safe, even after dark. Neighbors helped neighbors raise each other’s kids. Teachers could paddle their students without calling an attorney first and even expect the parents to back them up. The worst and only incident of school violence I remember didn’t occur until my sophomore year when a kid pulled a knife and cut the boy he was fighting. There was no such thing as a metal detector in the hallways.

The good old days weren’t all good, though. Back in the 60’s, whites represented seventy percent of the population in our little town of 10,000. The Hispanic population made up most of the rest with the exception of a few blacks. We didn’t call them Hispanics, though. We called them “messkins,” a short, stunted kind of pejorative with not-so-subtle racial overtones. If you were using the word as a put-down, you could put a wicked spin on the inflection and say it with disdain. Some whites even referred to the Hispanics as “chili chompers,” belittling their diet as racially inferior or “wetbacks,” belittling their presumed country of origin, even if they’d been born north of the Rio Grande. It hurts me now to even write words I dared not utter in my father’s presence back then. To my parents’ credit, racial pejoratives were the same as curse words, punishable by the fear of a near-death scolding that blistered worse than any switch pulled from a tree.

The blacks and the “messkins” knew their place. If they were good at sports, they were respected on the field or the court. After the game, though, they knew where they belonged and invisible lines just weren’t crossed. The old courthouse still had separate water fountains for the whites and the “coloreds.” It was assumed, of course, that white was the standard color and anything else was a substandard and sad freak of genetic misfortune. A full century after the Emancipation Proclamation, most small town governments and even Deacon Boards hadn’t gotten the memo. We even had a “messkin” Baptist mission church in Brownfield. They still do.

I always thought First Baptist started the mission in order to reach folks who wouldn’t feel comfortable in our white church. It never occurred to me until decades later when I was able to demythologize some of my childhood memories that some of those who started the mission weren’t being altogether altruistic. They wanted to start a mission, in part, to keep the invisible lines clearly drawn; they wanted the “messkins” to remember their place.

In too many ways, nothing much has changed. In my former church, two miles from downtown Dallas in the 21st century, I once asked our Hispanic Director of Community Ministries to pray in our Sunday morning worship service. She prayed beautifully in her native tongue, the words I couldn’t understand sounding more like a symphony of praise than any prayer I knew. The next week, I got a call from an older white woman complaining that those who prayed in our church should only be allowed to pray in the language of the tithing people.

Aside from her, too many of those who made up the “tithing people” still referred to the non-English-speaking Hispanics as “those people.” I never dreamed I’d hear such profanity in the house of God. I’m so glad the tithing lady wasn’t there to welcome the first wetbacks who survived the Atlantic crossing. She’d have had to deport herself back to her very white Europe, leaving the American continent to the redskins who beat her and the other white skins to it through the Bering Sea back door centuries before.

The other day, I got an email from an old friend I haven’t seen in over thirty years. She was telling me about a friend of hers whose daughter was killed in a tragic automobile accident. My friend described how a “pickup truck with six Mexicans” came over a curb, striking the young lady and killing her instantly, just weeks shy of her graduation from a prominent university with a 4.0. My heart is broken for the young lady and her family, for a promising life that will never be.

My heart hurt, too, because of the way the accident was described. A pickup truck with “six Mexicans.” I couldn’t help but wonder. If the pickup had been carrying six whites, would my friend have bothered to make the racial distinction? I wondered, too, if she even realized she’d made the distinction. Was the pickup truck more lethal because those driving and riding in it were people of another color than hers? Did she hear what she was saying?

Old ideas usually die long, hard, slow and, even brutal deaths. Gandhi’s sandals, eyeglasses, bowl and watch were auctioned off last week for some $1.8 million. Part of what makes them so valuable is the brutal death Gandhi suffered, giving his life to help old and very profane ideas about people die.

Jesus died a brutal death, too, in no small part due to his trying to take profane ideas people have about each other to his grave with him. I wonder how long it will be until we never again refer to another person by the color of their skin, or their sexual orientation, or their political or religious ideology. Will we ever? Will we ever just refer to each other as what we truly are, brothers and sisters for whom Christ also died?

The way we treat people usually begins with what we call them, or how we speak about them in their absence. I wonder what the names of those “six Mexicans” might be, and how they felt about their role in a tragic accident. We know their skin color. Who knows their names?

Jesus loves the children. All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. The dark-skinned Middle Eastern Jesus who spoke Aramaic loves all the children of the world and when he speaks, he calls them by name, not by color. So should we.