Saturday, March 31, 2001
A life lesson the census can't teach
BEYOND THE NEWS | By Carl Laundrie
I couldn't help but think of Southern California in the '70s when the census figures came out this week. I had to smile.
I was born in Wilmington, Del., but grew up in Green Bay, Wis. My heritage is Scotch, Dutch and French; in other words a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
A certain Southeast Asian conflict that marked my generation like a dark cloud, landed me in San Diego in 1968. Except for a one-year sabbatical in Jacksonville, I remained in Southern California for most of the '70s, first in the Navy and then college.
As you might expect, Southern California's white establishment liked to think of itself as trendy and liberal. No one in polite society used the "N" word whether they were in mixed racial company or not. They didn't have to, they had the "M" word.
"Mexican" was muttered under the breath with the same connotation and used with the same combination of curse words that some people in the South used with the "N" word. It was applied to anyone dark-haired and brown-skinned, whether they were Mexican nationals, American citizens, or immigrants from India.
For the first two years of school I went to Southwestern Community College outside of Chula Vista, a stone's throw from the Mexican border. The Mexican-American students at the college were taking their lead from the Black Power movement of the '60s. They took over the student union, held rallies, attended the college governing board meetings and fought for their equal rights as citizens attending a publicly funded school.
Their battle cry was "Viva La Raza!" Roughly translated, that means "Long live the race."
All this activity I covered as a reporter and later as an editor of the student newspaper. We did such a good job of reporting that to this day I can distinctly remember the college president standing in front of me at a college board of directors meeting with a crumpled up copy of my newspaper in his right hand, asking me if I thought this was news.
I told him, as calmly as possible, that I thought it was.
Still, there were little things that bothered me. The first day of class a professor called roll and when she came to the name Martinez I winced. Martinez is a Spanish surname as common in Southern California as Smith or Jones is in the northeast. It is pronounced MarTEENez, but the teacher pronounced it wrong, uncertain and slightly uncomfortable. I couldn't help but think that for some members of that class, expectations of doing well dropped significantly. The teacher could not even pronounce the simplest Mexican name.
Generalities should not be made about any race, but if I had to make some about the people we call Hispanic, it would be that they are warm and friendly people who are passionate about life, politics and music.
Obviously, not all Hispanics are of Mexican descent. There are many countries and cultures as varied as our own.
We also call ourselves Americans when we are actually referring to the country called the United States. My friends from college were quick to point out that we share this continent with a couple of other countries.
I took three semesters of Spanish in college but learned a lot more outside of the classroom. I learned that change is not easy for the establishment. I learned that I had to broaden my perspective to see the world as it is and not as I think it is. I learned that character comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. Racial diversity is a good thing for this country. Not only are we enriched by the culture, customs and food but in the process the country becomes stronger.
So when the numbers came out this week I had to smile. California nearly has more brown faces than white faces and names like Martinez are more likely to be pronounced correctly now. The rest of the nation is on its way to becoming more racially and culturally diverse.
Some people worry about such things. To them I say: Viva La Raza!