Saturday, November 22, 2008

Meanderings: Spittin' Image

Whenever I'm feeling assailed as a Cuban American I think back to something that happened when I was 13 years old. My earlier years had been spent in working class South Brooklyn, where the very air breathed contempt for Hispanics. In that poor, working class neighborhood where men wore uniforms to work and swilled inordinate amounts of Schlitz, or Pabst, or even Seagram's Seven at home and let loose public diatribes on the failings of Spics, no one had ever uttered a mean word to me. Until I moved to suburban Staten Island, I had never met the monster discrimination face to face. It had never been directed at me personally.

Only in the more upscale Staten Island, the neighborhood boys began to stalk me, chanting "Mira, Mira" in unison as I walked by, following me down the street. They made my young life miserable. Once and only once, they even chanted it at the family car, which led to my father's taking an abrupt detour and their thinking better of it in the future. It was in this environment that I received my acceptance from Notre Dame High School. Perched on a tree covered hill with a long history of teaching intelligent young women, it was a refuge.

Every Wednesday, the entire school would stop, change clothes in the hallways and go on all sorts of outings, from Broadway to bicycling. One Wednesday early in my freshman year, I was on my way home from the bowling alley. A few stops down, the local hoodlums got on my bus. There were at least six or seven of them. I can remember cringing, attempting to meld into my seat, imploring all the saints that they not spot me. Almost immediately, it began. They began chanting, making a spectacle. All this time, I said not a word. Not a single adult, not the bus driver, no one stopped them. Finally, one of them spit on me.

I cannot convey the shame, the mortification of that public humiliation on a young teenage girl. Meek and mild-mannered, I had never ever done anything to them. I remember running down the block from the bus stop to my house hysterical. For once, I let loose, sobbing the story to my mother. That evening, when my father came home, he had barely put down his briefcase when he grabbed me by the arm, and we set off to the homes of the malefactors. At the first household, the father was most gracious and horrified by his son's behavior. And so it went. But when we got to the home of the spitter, we were greeted at the door by a rather mild-mannered, harried-looking man. From the hallway came the drunken tones of a woman. She came to the door in her jet black bouffant, demanding of my father what I had done to her misshapen son to cause him to spit upon me. Dad sized up the situation and said, "This time, I have come to see you. The next time, you will have to look for me because if your son ever goes near my daughter again, I am going to beat the shit out of him."

This was my father, the man who was afraid of the world out there even as he climbed up the rungs of its ladder; my father who had never stood up for me, instead leaving me to solve my own problems or at the very least endure. But when it really counted, he was there. And he would have kept his word, I'm sure. So were they. The wouldbe toughs never even looked in
my direction again. In time, they became the nothings they were.

And I? I learned two things that night. My mild-mannered, sometime explosive father, would protect me. I also learned that the only way to stop abuse is to stand up to it. Funny how these things stay with you.

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