Gabachicano in L.A.
Michael Ortiz Hill
When I was a kid in Santa Fe my race changed twice a day except weekends. When I was at home I was most certainly Mexican and my single mother was getting militant with the awakening of Chicano consciousness. But walking the ten minutes to and from Carlos Gilbert Elementary school I was just a scared white boy punked on by cholos. And at school I was whiter than white, teachers pet – the kind of snot nosed gabacho that some really wanted to bloody and did.
Weekends I was a Mexican farm boy pure and simple. On my grandfather’s farm clearing the acequia to irrigate the corn was a seasonal labor shared by many families in northern New Mexico. Harvesting the apples and making cider, milking the goats for my mother to make cheese, picking wild capulin berries for her to make syrup, cactus fruit for snacks, wild mint for tea. Gathering water from the ojito spring because we had no running water. It was a good life and all weekend my Latino cousins and the Abeytas who worked the land were quite undistracted by my white skin.
But come Monday I had to return to the hell of Carlos Gilbert and in fact years of racialized violence.
(Who was Carlos? A gabachicano name if I ever heard one.)
I didn’t call myself gabachicano then. In fact I just recently made up the word. In New Mexico we white Mexican types were called coyote and coyote was my nickname through my adolescence. I became coyote.
My WASB (White Anglo,-Saxon Buddhist) father, Milford Hill, was smitten by my mother’s beauty. They met in the artistic and intellectual ferment of Santa Fe’ in the late forties. (My mother is an artist). My white grandmother never quite recovered from losing the Civil War. “Your children will never be accepted by either side of the family,” she warned. Not quite true. But, except for my gabachicano siblings who look mostly like white folk, I never had much connection with my white relatives. But mi familia son Mexicanos. I know little about family except my Mexican kin
Doing nursing at UCLA Medical Center I do an assessment on bed A, Mr. Delgado (quien de Michoacan.) We speak in Spanish and he asks me what country I am from.
“Cuba? Costa Rica? Tell me.” I tell him I’m from a little mountain kingdom north of Chihuahua. I was born forty miles north of the Mexican border. In more ways then one Mr. Delgado and I had a common language. Like any Mexican with eyes we know that “Mexican” is not a race. Like the rest of Latin American Mexico is a multiracial world. And like all former European colonies (the U.S. for example) it has its own indigenous racism. My Mexican grandmother was once pura rubia – blond haired and blue eyes. Her ancestors went north from Mexico City in 1690. My mother would be outraged when she’d call Mexican nationals in America mojados – wet backs.
Mr. Delgado’s roommate, Jeff, was a surfer boy from Malibu. Black Angelinos who come from say Watts to work among white folk learn to “code shift” – talk like whites do or at least less “black”. I speak fluent white Southern California-ese. I spent the California portion of my childhood in Garden Grove, Redlands, Highland Park and Eagle Rock. With Jeff I was no Mexican farm boy. I was a white boy pure and simple. We talk about the waves, the Grateful Dead and psychedelic mushrooms. Can’t admit to him how far away his culture is to me. Can’t admit to myself how close it is.
So it is walking the streets of L.A. so obviously white but then I duck into a 7-11 on Wilshire cause I’m jonesing for my daily dulce de leche ice cream bar. The teller’s Latino.
”De donde usted?” I ask.
“El Salvador,” he says.
We talk about the capital, Lake Ilopango, Colonia Paraiso – the slum where I worked as a nurse after the earthquake in 1986. The war, the gangs from L.A. that terrorize San Salvador now that the war is over. And of course making it El Norte. Los Angles is no utopia but it gets pretty funky down there and we talk about those years Ronald Reagan crucified his little country and made it unlivable.
“Como Iraq no?”
We gabachicanos know that history moves south and north before east and west. Plymouth Rock was the origin myth of those my mother used to call “Atlantic Ocean wet backs.” The Puritans were nuts and their descendents more then a little genocidal.
I leave the 7-11 and hit the streets. During the two blocks to Starbucks I’m white again. At Starbucks the woman who is taking orders is clearly Latino so I try to resume my Mexican self. “I am sorry but I don’t understand you.” Her parents came north in the fifties, worked hard to Americanize themselves, made a point in not teaching their kids Spanish. Quite common.
We gabachicanos know that race is an hallucination that drives people crazy.
I’m on the phone with a friend in New Jersey, a black woman who is a priestess in an Afrocentric Church. We’d talked about a book reading of the work Mandaza Kandemwa and I did on the African shape of black American soul but she’s suddenly confused. She has a rep in the Afrocentric world and she assures me that her people would accept me as a Mexican but not as white. “Why do you call yourself white? White is the color of the oppressor. My congregation can accept you as Mexican because they know Mexicans have suffered whites like them.”
“I don’t call myself white but the world most certainly does cause the world’s nuts with this melanin thing. I don’t got much melanin.”
I modified this because I do often refer to myself as white. I’ve spent much of the last fifteen years studying and writing about white supremacy and I would be one deluded son of a bitch if I imagined that in America whiteness was ever a benign or neutral quantum. White supremacy claims my lack of melanin whether I like it or not. White supremacy certainly privileges my white skin over my brown mother’s skin. I hope I don’t indulge naivete here but bottom line is I am gabachicano which means the hallucination of race is the ocean I’ve got to swim in.
I hang up with my friend frustrated that she and I can find no common language and rush to have coffee with my adult daughter Nicole and her childhood friend Lily and her one year old, June.
Lily is not of the melanin deprived. Her father was from the south of India and if she were to put on a sari she’d pass on the streets of New Delhi. Her father drowned in a boating accident when she was a baby and she had even less contact with her Indian family as a child than I had with my white kin. Her mother is red haired and freckled and her toddler is an adorable tow head. Grandmother, daughter and granddaughter--three different racial phenotypes.
Race does not exist. Never did. Racism does and seems endlessly persistent, shape shifting, pernicious. Culture exists in wonderful variety but often its not color coded. Lily might look thoroughly Indian but her body language and her English is indigenously Santa Cruz.
I think of the exhaustive research of Dr. Luca Cavalli-Sforza who took genetic samples the world over to trace the prehistoric patterns of human migration northward from Africa. Few peoples are genetically closer than people of European and African descent. The “blackfellows” (Aborigines) of Australia are related closely to the Chinese and distantly from African.
America has its own vicious history that seduces us into the fiction of race.
In Morocco you’re black if your father is, in Brazil if you have “negroid” features. In Zimbabwe and South Africa I’m legally “colored” as would be most African- American because 80% of blacks in this country have white blood. Far as I know no country has a more extreme definition of black as the U.S. White slave owners were eager to disown their offspring by black women and ultimately the “one drop rule” was codified in law. In the seventies the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled on the case of an “obviously” white woman who was shocked to find she was legally black. It turns out that she had a black ancestor in the late 1700’s and so they legally ruled her black.
The one drop rule relied on genetic fantasy and white paranoia of being “contaminated” by black blood. During slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow As a racial hallucination it may be extreme but it underscores the reality of culture and the absurdity of “race”. Blacks never labored too much with the idea that a drop of white blood contaminated their identities and many are quite aware of white ancestors.
There are sometimes prejudices for blacks who are too white or too black but solidarity must be the bottom line in a racist country. And that solidarity is more truthfully cultural not racial. Racial solidarity would be based on melanin and as I’m sometimes reminded some blacks are as light as this pale faced gabachicano.
Let me finish this rant with a final anecdote. I was teaching writing at Crenshaw High this spring as I do a few weeks every year. My students are almost all black, the rest Latino. I assigned the black students to write a little essay about what it is to be black now.
Dear Brianna, quintessentially young, gifted and black writes about being biracial -- her father Puerto Rican. Now Brianna has a lot more then one drop of black blood and she’s more than aware that Crenshaw and Watts are killing fields of black and Latino gangs and their mindless vendettas against each other. There is courage in her reading her essay and I recognize it. No stranger would imagine her Latino ancestry.
After class lets out I see her in front of the school and call out, “Oye! Boriqua!” Basically, “Whassup Puerto Rican.” She looks at me seriously, raises her finger to her lips.