Dicky's Doodles &Scribbles

Cartoons,editorials and comment about current events and more.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Growing Up In Apartheid Texas; Coming To Terms with Race In The Fifties And Sixties

My mother used to tell me never to talk about religion or politics in polite company. She might have added race to the mix. Race and how to deal with it is the elephant in the living room. Everybody knows it's there but they just pretend they don't see it. But sooner or later all of us have to deal with it.
I was born behind what has been euphemistically called "The Pine Curtain," in North East Texas. The place has another nickname, "The Buckle of the Bible Belt." In place at the time was a code of behavior that amounted to institutionalized apartheid.
These were the last years of the Jim Crow South. Soon the civil rights movement would begin to tear down the barriers to equal citizenship and the country would go through a sea change.
As a young baby boomer, my feet had been planted firmly in the Southern Baptist Church. Tolerance of other religions was not a big part of Sunday school. This absolutism ran over into other areas of life and was nowhere more delineated than in the way the races interacted. Then there were two main racial groups in that part of the country, black and white. Hispanics had not yet settled there in any numbers.
Blacks rode in the back of the bus, could not enter most public, white owned establishments, had separate restrooms and drinking fountains in the dime store and sat in the balcony at the movie house. There was more to segregation than this, darker and sinister, but I was too young to realize much of that until I got a little older.
Whites and blacks got along just fine and everything rocked along as long as the blacks "stayed in their place."
I could hear the fear and distrust expressed when whites talked about blacks. Blacks were often dehumanized so whites wouldn't feel so guilty when they dutifully contributed to the ugly oppression of a considerable part of the community. Whites called blacks "niggers" in private and sometimes openly. When races mixed, usually it was either blacks working for whites or it was business of some kind. In these situations whites used the term "coloreds" most of the time. Some whites had trouble going that far. "Nigras" was the most polite term my maternal grandmother could ever come up with.
I don't know what blacks referred to whites as for sure. I heard "whitey" and "honky" rarely. I heard these from whites though. No black ever called a white by those terms in my presence as far I remember.
To each other, white folks were usually as polite and nice to each other as polite society would expect. Strangers were often offered extreme hospitality, as long as they were W.A.S.P.s. Most whites I knew were practicing Christians, protestants, and they took the bible and its teachings very seriously. But the principles of Christian love didn't extend beyond the core group.
For me, cracks in the system began to appear when my mom went to work in the family business, a restaurant on our property outside of town and adjacent to our home. I had not yet started school when a black maid came into the household to take care of me and do the household chores. I called her "Retha" which I would find out was short for Aretha. She brought her two young children; Elgie and Ethel Ruth and they became my playmates.
I was a little nervous at first, I recall. I had never been so intimately connected with black people before and I was a little afraid. But 'Retha was a fine woman and she knew how to take care of kids and she was a fabulous cook.
Her kids and I got along great. In age I was in the middle, Ethel Ruth was the oldest. We spent the day playing. There were woods behind our house and mostly open fields around the rest of it.
Eventually I would get a brother and two sisters and we grew up with 'Retha's kids and she watched after us. She genuinely cared about us and we loved her. This began to put some chinks into my ideas about race.
Those chinks would grow when I started going with my Grandfather to work in his "chair factory," as he called it, where he made chairs and porch swings to sell from the back of his flat bed. His factory was on the "wrong" side of town and I was aware of young black faces watching us from windows. Soon kids emerged from the houses and we would turn sawhorses and old pallets into airplanes and pass the time pretending we were pilots or sea captains. We got along fine, a bunch of kids playing.
I had to ask my mom why blacks couldn't eat in our restaurant and she would say, "They are not like us and the races shouldn't mix anyway. They're not clean either."
This confused me thoroughly since I spent my time each day with my black family and blacks worked in the kitchen in our business.
I knew nothing about Hispanics. That word had not come into use anyway. I had heard about Spanish explorers and conquistadors and of course about Queen Isabella and Columbus. I knew vaguely that Mexico was a land to the south; I didn't even think we lived in Texas because where we lived didn't look like the Texas I had seen on TV and in movies.
Mexicans were best known as the perpetrators of massacres at the Alamo and Goliad, which I also knew of mostly from TV and movies, and from whom we had been liberated at San Jacinto.
My maternal grandmother's family had come to Texas in the 1820's and it was said that she was related to Ben Milam and that we had an ancestor at San Jacinto.
When I was around eight or nine a new restaurant was built across the highway from our home. It was a Mexican restaurant. This was a real novelty and created quite a stir. Of course my family went over to meet the owners and to try out the food, which was something totally unknown and exotic.
A Mr. Cavasos was the owner and he and his family couldn't have been more gracious and friendly. The staff was courteous and provided a level of service I had never seen in a restaurant. The food smells were different and delicious.
The thing that made the strongest impression on me, and is still implanted firmly to this day, was the first time I had corn tortillas. They came served on a silver serving dish with a dome like lid covering them tightly. When you lifted the lid steam rolled out in a little cloud. They were hot and Mr. Cavasos told me to spread butter on them and I did. The butter melted almost instantly and soaked into the corn tortilla. They were fresh and wonderful. I knew then that people that made such food and conducted themselves with such dignity and courtesy were people every bit as good and deserving as any others.
A few years later our family restaurant failed and my family moved to West Texas to operate the second in what would become a series of restaurants my dad would open and eventually close and then move on. In West Texas the racial demographics were different than in East Texas. Here there were few black families and a lot of Hispanics and lots of Mexican food restaurants!
By now I was in the seventh grade and to my delight, I began to study Spanish. I made new friends here and my best friends were two boys, Elias Nava and Paul Aguirre. I continued taking Spanish through junior high and for two years in high school.
In 1962, at the age of 15, I made my first trip to Mexico with my dad's best friend and the youth director from our church and his wife. We traveled to Monterrey, Mexico and spent five days there and two in Saltillo. I loved it and greatly enjoyed using my newly acquired Spanish.
In the day we visited a local Baptist church that was affiliated with our church. We toured their facilities and met the pastor and others. Then we took in the sights, rode horses and took a long elevated cable ride to a mountaintop.
At night the youth director and his wife would turn in early and my dad's buddy and I would hit a few nightclubs. That was pretty exciting for me!
In subsequent years I have made many trips to Mexico and covered much of its territory. I love the country and its people and I am grateful for their hospitality and generosity.
South Texas and Corpus Christi have been my home for 30 years. In this time there have been profound changes for the better in racial relations and sexual attitudes here and Hispanics, blacks and women of all races have made gains, big gains, in the way they are perceived and treated in society. But we are still a long way from universal harmony and equality. Old prejudices die hard and people have to want to change.
Sometimes I hear Anglos put down Hispanics who lack English proficiency or question why we should have signs and ballots in Spanish. Often they will say, "This is America! If they don't want to learn English they should go back to Mexico!" Other times I hear it said, "My parents came here from Greece and they had to learn English." To some I just shake my head because I think nothing I can say will penetrate but to others I try to get them to look at another viewpoint. "Look, only 160 years ago this was Mexico. Spanish was the official language here for over 300 years. We have a long and checkered history with Mexico. Mexico is just across the border, lots of people came here from there and many still have families and ties there. You can't ignore that or wonder why there is a strong Hispanic presence here."
I also point out that immigrants to Texas often did settle in communities dominated by a certain group. Texas is dotted with German, Czech, Polish, Irish and other communities. Cuero has a Czech language radio station. But these enclaves are isolated from their homelands. None of them are here in the kind of numbers that are represented by Hispanics with ties in Mexico. They do celebrate their mother cultures and languages but less and less of their young people learn those languages or traditions.
The main thing I have learned in my path through life is that people fear what they don't know. They convince themselves that their "tribe" or group is the "chosen" one and the "others" are at the least infidels and at the worst, enemies. Segregation just fuels hatred and should not be returned to. It should be replaced by respect and tolerance for others.
By living closely with other cultures and by keeping my mind and eyes open I realize that we all have far more in common than what is different, and for that, I say "Vive la difference!"


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