Monday, September 12, 2011

Part 28, Mexican boys

I've been camping.  Miss me?
I'm looking at a picture of my second grade class.  There are 19 kids in the picture, and about seven or eight of us appear to be Mexican-and-something-else.  I suppose the Mexican-and-something-else kids would have comprised the second largest ethnic group at Walter G. Brown Elementary in 1968 when the picture was taken, had we considered Mexican-and-something-else a separate ethnic identity.  However, we did not.

No, in the 1960s, America was just beginning to get comfortable with the concept of a multi-ethnic society, and actual multi-ethnic people went beyond our comfort level.  For example, if you look at any wholesome family TV Show from that time-- "Courtship of Eddie's Father," "Julia," "Family Affair" -- and there's a scene where the kid is talking to his friends at the playground, you will see in that group of kids (often arranged on a jungle gym or swing set) one white kid, one black kid, one Chinese-or-Japanese-looking kid, one Mexican-looking kid, and possibly one Native American kid.  But you will never see what we call these days a "bi-racial" kid.

No no no.  That is something you would never have seen during television's "Brady Bunch" era.  I know it's probably hard for younger people to imagine, but back then, the idea of people from two distinct ethnic groups getting married and having a child was too controversial to be depicted on network television. And that meant no multi-ethnic kids on TV.  Not even on a cereal commercial or milling around in the background as Buffy and Jody and Mr. French walk past the penguin enclosure at the Central Park Zoo.

Now, that doesn't mean we didn't have multi-ethnic people.  We did.  Plenty of them.  But if you were a multi-ethnic person, you were expected to pick an ethnic identity and stick with it.  Carol Channing was white, not white and black.  Della Reese was black, not black and American Indian.  Ethnicities were something people were expected to sort into, like a bucket of coins in a change machine, and, as you can discern from much of the popular music of the day, each ethnicity had a color code.  You cold be white, black, brown, yellow or red.  Nobody was gray.  Nobody was beige.

There are those who will say Cher was an exception to this rule, but to that I say isn’t Cher the exception to every rule?  Isn't that the whole point of Cher?

So Cher doesn't count.

Where were we?  Mexican boys.  In the picture of my second grade class, I see two Mexican boys, José and Juan.  Now you're probably thinking "Wait a minute.  What makes José and Juan Mexican and not Mexican-and-something-else?  Is it their names?"

No.  At least I don't think so.  I can think of friends with the last names Lopez, Villa and Camacho, and they were all Mexican-and-something-else, just like me.  Also, you could look really Mexican, like my friend Veronica—that dark-eyed girl in the second row, center-- and still be Mexican-and-something-else.

No, I think according to the cultural conventions of Walter G. Brown Elementary School in 1968, the definitive characteristic that made you Mexican was you spoke Spanish at home.  That's what set you apart.  That's what identified you as belonging to a culture distinct from the one that the rest of us lived in.

Naturally there were all kinds of mysteries and apprehensions that we attached to that culture, which is silly I know, but that's what kids do when they discover something out of the ordinary, right?  They build a mythology around it.  Like the farm next door to the school.  We had a vast tradition of folk tales about that farm.  Probably the best known was the one about a boy who snuck into the barn during recess and came out mute and absolutely chalk white from head to toe.  Though he eventually regained the power of speech, he remained an albino for the rest of his life.

All the stories followed that fundamental plotline.  You wandered into the farm, and some dark force would overtake you.  You'd be mauled by bats or zombie dogs, or a ghost would appear in the hay loft and chase you with a pitchfork or something along those lines.

And our tall tales about Mexicans reached about the same level of elevation as the ones about the farm.  They all seemed to involve some gruesome fate that befell a boy who wandered into the neighborhood where the Mexicans lived.  (The location of this neighborhood was never clear to me.  José's family lived in an apartment building around the corner from us.)

Here's a story one boy told me about the neighborhood where the Mexicans lived:  If you were a boy and the Mexican boys found you in their neighborhood after dark, they would surround you, pull down your pants and cut off your penis.

The day after I heard this story, the same boy who told it to me came to me with a revision.  Revisions were more the rule than the exception with these kinds of stories.  The one about the barn-raiding albino went through years of refinement before we settled on the canonical version that appears in the paragraph above.

The revision was this: if the Mexican boys found you in their neighborhood after dark, they would indeed surround you and pull down your pants, but instead of cutting off your penis, they would make an incision all the way around your penis.

Many years after elementary school—I suppose I was in my early 20s—it occurred to me that this story had come in to being, by whatever method such stories came into being, to explain one of the mysteries of our life, that mystery being this: How had so many of us lost that part of our anatomy that all the Mexican boys seemed to have?
Mr. Fisher and kurt_t, with haunted farm in the background.

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