I didn’t mean for it to happen, nor did I want it to happen. One day it just did – I realized I was a “Dirty Mexican”. Here’s the thing - I wish I could say that I didn’t know how it happened either, but I can’t. Some say I was born a Dirty Mexican, they’re wrong. I was born Mexican-American (to be political, but an American to be exact). I am guilty of being a Dirty Mexican by association with, you know the ones, the troublemakers, gangbangers, drug addicts, alcoholics, wife abusers, absentee fathers, and the takers. You may even have a few adjectives of your own, but I digress. Yeah, I know - every ethnicity has a few bad apples. In border states like California, obviously, there is a higher concentration of Mexican-Americans than in most parts of the United States. Growing up in a small town on the outskirts of Los Angeles, I was considered one of those bad apples, even if it was by association with the neighborhood I grew up in, or the kids that I hung out with.
Admittedly, I was predominantly exposed to one aspect of the Mexican-American subculture, the poor one. Later, I was exposed to other, more positive ones, including the one I live-out today. Although I do not claim to understand all the issues that affect the Mexican-American subculture, I can certainly speak about the ones that I experienced. More importantly, I can offer some insight – moving away from simply defining problems and moving towards offering rational solutions.
To say I’m disappointed at the younger version of myself is an understatement. I spent so much time and effort perfecting the Dirty Mexican image. There were so many things for me to have been great at, why did I choose that one? It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because I already know the answer. Bittersweet if you ask me, because I was only one of many bad apples. As one person, de-constructing the issues is easy. But re-constructing the image requires a lot of work form the entire Mexican-American subculture. For me, that work starts here.
To this end, many may interpret my comments as self-hate or even racist against my own subculture. On the contrary, the answers I offer are rooted in logic, at the expense of short-term emotion, but long-term prosperity.
I grew up poor, in a predominately Mexican-American community, in the early 1970s. When my mother and father left their spouses and moved in together, my mother brought along her three children (two girls and a boy) and my father brought along three of his four children (all boys). That’s six children, if you’re counting. Well, eight when you add my sister and I into the mix. Their relationship didn’t last long; a few years, I think. My mother did not like to talk about it to me. Now she has passed, and I will never know for sure.
When my parents split up, my mother rented a home for herself and her five children. When she lost her job, she had no choice but to move in with my grandmother. By definition we were homeless. Although my grandmother’s three-bedroom, one-bath, 951 square foot home was small, it meant there would be a roof over our head. Although my grandfather had recently passed, my uncle and his daughter were already living with my grandmother. That’s eight people in the home, if you’re still counting. That number fluctuated over the years as my sister and brother would frequently run away or just spend days away from the home. My brother eventually went to jail for attempted murder. My runaway sister eventually got pregnant and increased our household by one, then two. Crime and teenage pregnancy were both common in my community. Another uncle eventually moved into the living room, with two children of his own. Forgive me if I lose count.
Being Poor Was Common, Accepted, and by Extension Expected
Although we were not without a roof over our head, we were certainly homeless. My mother found odd jobs to feed her kids (mechanic, housekeeper, painter, etc.), but spent a lot of time on government assistance; most people we knew were. Only one of my uncles that lived in the home had a real job. He worked as a janitor, that is, until he blew out his back and had to quit his job. Being poor was common, accepted, and by extension expected. You could say I was “normal”. Although we were a poor family, I can’t say we were an unhappy family. After all, Uncle Sam provided a steady welfare check. Although it wasn’t much, it was just enough to keep my family from getting jobs. The government checks were supplemented with free food at school in addition to free food from the local catholic church. Other families in our home and around the neighborhood were structured the same – so I wasn’t ostracized for being poor, nor for being Mexican. We never really talked about it. We just acknowledged each other when our families were collecting free food or waiting in front of the mailbox for the mail carrier to deliver the monthly welfare check. With no credit cards, families usually pooled their resources together and tried to live within their means. I learned early on that wealth did not bring happiness, it just gave people more options.
For the First Time I Realized I was a Dirty Mexican
School was not important to me growing up. I misbehaved, never studied and rarely completed my homework assignments. I spent my days after school playing baseball in the streets with the rest of the kids on my block. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t wait to quit school. When things were missing at school, I was always suspect - and for good reason. That changed in middle school when my mom enrolled me in catholic school, with financial help from the church. The school was three miles away from my house and not in my neighborhood. My sister and I often walked to school as my mom often did not have a working car; parts were just too expensive. I struggled socially at the school, as most of the other kids came from families that were financially stable. I was the poor kid and the other kids let me know it. For the first time, I realized I was a minority; for the first time I realized I was a Dirty Mexican.
Although Spanish was my first language, after my parents separated, when I was three, my mother mainly spoke English in the home. I always thought that was strange, since Spanish was my mother’s first language, too.
Seventh grade was tough. The nuns at my catholic school didn’t put up with any type of bad behavior. Not completing school assignments was considered bad behavior. I quickly learned the importance of staying out of trouble and studying. Not following directions or turning in an assignment meant I would need to stay after school. For reasons I still don’t understand to this day, I did not want my mother to wait for me in the parking lot – so I followed directions and studied hard. My grades improved, and I was accepted into a catholic high school seminary - a closed campus boarding school.
I Desired to Pursue A New Normal
I am not certain the exact age I became a conservative. But I do remember Regan was in office. Growing up in a poor community, politics were not important to my family. For reasons that were unclear to me then, we were liberal. Somewhere in late elementary school, I gained an innate desire to break the cycle that surrounded me; I was tired of the spinning. My friends wanted to break the cycle too - by supporting the government structure that ensured the community’s livelihood – more welfare programs, more after school programs, more free cheese, etc. Although I directly benefited from these programs, I felt that I wanted to be on the contributing side of society and not the taking side. Free things were nice, but they were short term solutions to long term problems. I knew these programs were pitched by well-intended people to get people out of poverty. But living in that reality, I knew my family had no intention of getting out of poverty. What one group defined as poverty, we defined as a normal way of life and I desired to purse a new normal.
The clergy at my high school didn’t put up with much – especially my antics. Although my family continued to struggle financially, I continued to mature both social and academically while in high school. The high school was forty-three miles away from my home. Although I came home on the weekends, most of my time was spent studying. My friends from the neighborhood quickly went on to other things. My senior year, I attended a public high school in my neighborhood. I quickly regressed. My grades suffered, and I was at risk of allowing my social life to dictate my future, that is, until my aunt stepped in.
I spent most of my high school summers living with my maternal aunt in a well-to-do community, and hanging out with her son, my cousin. My aunt and uncle owned a successful business and were financially stable. For the first time, I was exposed to living in a stable Mexican-American family environment. Normal day to day activities were not interrupted by lack of resources, crime, or arguing – a new “normal.” My aunt’s grown daughters were successful in their own right too. Although I wanted to join the Marine Corps after high school, my aunt encouraged me to go to college instead. My sister (same father) was in college and encouraged me to follow her lead. Ironically, my brother (who spent some time in the National Guard) encouraged me to go to college too, when my mother and I visited him in jail. I had a decision to make.
I knew getting into college with a low GPA would be difficult. Taking the words of my aunt, sister, and brother into consideration, I decided to apply to one college. If I was not accepted, I planned on joining the Marine Corps. I was accepted to the university on academic probation.
In college, I prospered socially, but continued to struggle academically. Joining a social fraternity was not a good idea for me. Nevertheless, I graduated with a degree in psychology and a minor in business administration. After college, I shed most of the social aspects of my life that were holding me back. While working for a local county, I went on to obtain a master’s degree in public administration, and a doctorate degree in Public Administration, thus re-constructing a new “normal” for myself.
Anomaly of Sorts
My journey to the middle-class was tough, but I made it. I’d like to say I shed the Dirty Mexican image along the way; I haven’t. I am regularly reminded, by well-intended individuals of every ethnic background (including my own), that I am an anomaly of sorts – that if I truly wanted to advance, I would need to work in an organization where Mexicans define the “fit” of the company. I now realize that no matter how hard I try, I will always be considered a Dirty Mexican at worst, and a Mexican-American at best, even if it is by my own subculture. I hope that one day my children will simply be known as Americans, regardless of their subculture. To this end, I will continue to grow and advance my profession for all those that follow, regardless of their background.