I always wondered why we were never called Americans. As long as I can remember, people referred to us as Mexicans. They didn´t say Mexicans though. They pronounced it one of two ways.
The first pronunciation was said in whispers and pronounced messy-kins. When we were in the Traverse City area, the local children poked each other in the ribs when we walked by and loudly whispered, “Hey, look at the messy-kins.”
The second pronunciation was said in a stern voice and pronounced meXX----kinz. The X severely accentuated with a two second pause before saying the second syllable. This was the pronunciation people in authority often used. “Hey, you meXX—kinz better move right along.”
This was all normal to my young ears. It was normal that is until Dad brought home our first TV set. On TV, I watched shows like “Father Knows Best.” I pictured my Dad as Jim Anderson. I thought of myself as Kitten.
On TV we were all Americans. In school we learned we were Americans. Why didn´t anyone ever call us Americans? I wanted to know.
“Momma, Momma,” I asked, “Why don´t they call us Americans? We were born here. Why can´t we be Americans too?”
“That is what they call us, Mija. It doesn´t matter what they call us. We are God´s children and He made us in His image,” she answered. It was a good answer, but she didn´t answer my question.
School had no answers for me either. Teachers always said, “Sign your identification cards.” Then she came directly behind me and said, “Dee, be sure to mark the box Mexican American. “
I tried to overlook their efforts to differentiate us from the rest of the children. I worked hard in school and I made friends. My best friend in Kindergarten was Helen.
Once, Helen took me to the bathroom and tried to help me scrub my skin. “I just know that brown will come right off. I get dirty myself and all the brown comes off.” She was trying to help me, but she just didn’t understand that the color stuck.
When I came home from Kindergarten that day, Momma saw my arms were red and raw. She asked, "What happened to your arms?"
"My friend Helen tried to help me wash off the brown, Mama. She said my skin was just dirty and it would come off if I washed it," I answered.
Momma gathered me up in her arms. She said, "The color doesn't come off mija."
"Then why would she say my skin was dirty mama? Why?" I asked, tears rolling down my cheeks.
She hugged me and replied, "They just think it is mijita. But don't worry. God made you this way. God loves you. Just be proud of who you are."
“But Momma,” I pleaded. “Why can´t we be Americans too?”
Patiently, she tried to explain, “they have always called us Mexicans. We have brown skin. We haved lived in the country for hundreds of years. It doesn´t matter what they call us. Never be ashamed of who you are. You are a child of God, made in God´s image.” Still no answers.
When I think back to those times, I know our family was brought to the state because we were migrants. In the fields, we worked. When the work was finished, we were expected to leave. The farm owners hired us for this purpose. They did not want us to disrupt their lives. They wanted us to do the work and go. Somehow our humanity was not part of the equation. From their perspective, we were not much different than machines.