“Go to the office right now!”, he yelled at me. His faced radiated with redness, as his voice embodied the rage he held inside. There was no doubt that he was angry, and I, a mouthy-relentless-teenager was the object of his anger. “Get out!”, he yelled again, as he pointed his finger to the doors of gym.
The minutes leading to this meltdown consisted of a heated exchange of words between the gym-teacher and me. It was mid-semester at my high-school, and I was smack-dab in the middle of the worst class of my life. By nature, I am not athletically inclined. The forty-five minutes spent in this class usually included my clumsy-self receiving a ball in the face. It didn’t matter whether it was a basketball, volleyball, dodge-ball, or any other sphere-shaped object. Truth is, I am incapable of catching anything that is hurled in my direction. If that wasn’t dreadful enough, I was also forced to witness the mistreatment and harassment of several of my classmates, every time I stepped into class. More specifically, this teacher seemed to thrive on mistreating students that did not speak English. The valley that I was raised in consisted, primarily, of immigrant families who worked seasonally during the harvest of chile peppers, onions, and alfalfa. Many of these families were fairly new to the United States and only spoke Spanish. On this day, the gym teacher stopped in the middle of roll-call, raised his voice, and told two of the migrant girls that they were no longer allowed to speak Spanish in his class. The girls were unable to understand what he had asked of them, and they asked me to translate what he had said. Before I could answer them, he yelled, “You are in America! Speak English!” At this point, I stood up in class and gave him a piece of my sixteen-year old mind. I’m assuming that he hadn’t anticipated having the token band-geek raise his voice at the football coach (his other role)…. hence his reaction. Thankfully, I had a principal, that I got along rather well with. I walked straight to his office, knocked on his door, and told him that I was there to report the racist behavior of the gym-teacher. He laughed, listened to me, empathized my concern, and made sure that I wasn’t in trouble. Although the principal is someone that I admire to this day, in hindsight, I wish more had been done. However, I realize that the culture of my community didn’t acknowledge the mistreatment of the migrant community at that time. This is something that I still struggle to understand.
As a child, my parents sheltered me from many of the cruel realities of the world. Prior to attending public school, I had not been exposed to racially charged slurs and/or remarks. Stepping onto the school-yard I was in for a surprise of my life….. I quickly learned that the words, “mojado*” and “wetback*” were the most common words used to insult migrant classmates. Although, the teachers at my school did not approve of such language, they were unable to completely eliminate the school-yard insults from being hurled during playtime. Nevertheless, it was not only the brown-skinned children that were teased. The Hispanic children equally flung insults such as, “gringo salado*”, to provoke their white classmates. Much to my surprise, many of Hispanic children that were born in the US would invoke insults on those who were born South of the border. This type of banter bothered me. It went completely against what my mother had taught me about God and loving others. It was counter-cultural to the doctrine of love and grace that my parents had instilled in me. However, there was no escaping it. This was part of the world that I lived in.
By the time I reached middle school, listening to racially charged banter no longer phased me. In fact, I lived in the expectation that I would daily witness this type of primal behavior. In hindsight, I don’t know how this type of discourse became the norm. I also don’t know why so many people were “OK” with it. In fact, it seems to contradict the rest of the cultural climate of the valley. For example, if anyone struggled a hardship, death, or sickness, the entire valley would come together to rally on behalf of the hurting individual. In spite of the awkward name-calling, I believe that I grew up in one of the most caring communities in the world. There was genuine concern for the well-being of one another. Nevertheless, many of these same people who enriched the life of the community, would also blame negative behavior on the entire race of the individual of the person who did wrong. It was common, to hear the very same respected individuals make derogatory statements such as, “those stupid Mexicans!” or “Malditos Gringos!” I remember being approached by one of my classmates’ grandfather, who had the gall to tell me, in a public setting, “You know John, for being a Mexican, you are an alright guy.” (I won’t repeat my response, because it would have to be censored, and I’d lose any Jesus points that I may have racked up on this blog. *insert sarcastic chuckle here*). To this day, I don’t understand why anyone would feel comfortable having a conversation like that. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
Those who know me, know that I am still very much like the teenager who faced his gym teacher. I’m the kind of person who refuses to remain quite about injustice. Although I no longer throw juvenile fits of rage (nor do I make it point to hurl insults back), I am on a quest to speak boldly about the things that I am passionate about. Furthermore, I am on a personal quest to allow the Holy Spirit to align my heart with the heart of Jesus Christ. I look throughout the gospels and see a King who had no problem leaving His throne to get dirty and dusty on the streets of humanity. I see a king who sat with a town floozy at a well to break down the religious barricade, that she hid behind, and to give her living water. I see a king who hung out with tax collectors and fishermen (both which stunk….. although, in completely different ways). I see a King who would sell all He has to buy a pearl of great price (research how a pearl is made and see what happens when your personal dirt falls into the loving hands of the Father). Seeing this King in action makes me want to join Him in His story, and not just join Him….. I want to be like Him.
Recently, I had a rude awakening. As I meditated on Jesus’ commandment to love God and to love others, I realized that I didn’t have many reference points on what loving others looks like. I realized that I’ve spent most of my Christian walk learning about Jesus, but somehow, I’ve failed to apply the biggest principle that He left us. For some reason, I don’t think that I’m going to be given a final exam on judgement day. I don’t think I’m going to be graded on how many facts I know about Jesus. Rather, I believe that God truly wants me to join Him in loving others as He loves.
I’ve currently entered a season of exploring what that love looks like. I’ve also been challenging those around me to join me in this journey. With that said, please feel free to join me or pray for me. I’d love to see a sea of people seeking to love as He loves. I think He’d love to see it too.
John Eli Garay.
*Wetback & Mojado are racial slurs used to describe an illegal Mexican national that swims across the Rio Grande to find work in the USA.
*Gringo salado is a racial slur that literally means “salty white person.”
*Maldito gringo is racial slur that means “damn white person.”
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