Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Slow to Learn the Lessons of Racism

By Harry Willson

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  I think I'm a slow learner. Not in the schoolroom test-taking sense, but in the sense of grasping what the cosmos insists on teaching me over and over.

Decades ago, there I was, getting acquainted with an elderly Chicano couple, learning who they were and the names of all their relatives, when the man jumped up, went into the back of the house, and returned with an ancient rifle painted green. He put it in my hands, saying, "Este es el rifle que mi abuelo usó en la guerra contra los tejanos." [This is the rifle that my grandfather used in the war against the Texans.]

I stared at it, fingering it very gently. That war was more than 110 years earlier. El Sr. Martinez, his grandfather (maybe he meant his great-grandfather), was very old. But I marveled even more at the fire in his eyes, the vociferous hostility toward Texans that I saw in him.

My wife, who is Chicana, tosses the extremely popular mass-paperback, The Milagro Beanfield War, across the room. "Damn Texans! And it is not at all funny! Just because the dog is named 'Pendejo'!" I ask what's not funny. "The way the Texans came in and stole water rights, and then everything. My father lived through that, fought that all his life. There's nothing funny about it. He's making fun of us." I say no more, but resolve to be very careful what and how I write about this subject, or any subject.

"I can smell that attitude when people come into the room," a gorgeous black woman told us later. "It doesn't matter what they say. I can smell it." I think I'm learning to smell it, too -- and I'm learning that it can turn up at any time and in any place in any mixture.

Meanwhile I can't make a final decision about Texans. We keep finding exceptions to what seems to be the rule -- very sensitive and aware persons with the same drawl but none of the tendency toward spite and hatred. And persons who are not Texans at all move to Dallas and stay for decades and rear their children there and become Texans, and are not racists, like those others.

Sometimes I think language is the problem. "Ah been livin' heah fo'ty yeahs, 'n ain't larned a word o' thet lin-go." Told with pride. That attitude is downright common in these here parts. Those who want to make English the only legal or official language, in violation of international treaties that are supposedly the law of our land, have the same arrogance and pride mixed in with their ignorance and dull-wittedness.

I knew a school principal who, after four years, still couldn't pronounce the names of his students or colleagues: Castañeda, Vizcañino, Gallegos, Martïnez, Gutiérrez. He mangled the pronunciation, and at the same time insulted very sensitive people. When I called him on it, correcting his pronunciation at faculty meetings, he excused himself saying, "It's a foreign language!" I told him he could, and should be expected to, learn Martian, given four years with Martian students and colleagues. He missed the sarcasm. His kind usually does.

I watch home developers, recently arrived from "back East," mangle the language as they name new city streets. They must think the language is "cute." They certainly don't comprehend it. Casita Vista? Via Conejo? El Marta?

Careful, here. I just looked that last one up and found it could mean "the male of the species marten," a fur-bearing water mammal -- but I doubt it. I think it's an error by someone who knows too little Spanish. A little learning is a dangerous thing. I remember chuckling when I first moved to New Mexico and discovered the name of the town of Los Lunas. Don't they know that the article has to agree with the noun in gender and in number? But I was wrong, it turned out. Los Lunas isn't an incorrect grammatical construction, meaning "the moons." It means, "the place where all those people named Luna [moon] live."

My wife tells how her six-year-old came home from school ages ago, excited about a new little girl in his class. She asked him if the girl was Anglo. He had no idea what that meant. "She has a tinkle in her voice," he noted. It was his poetic way of describing her Anglo way of pronouncing English, and the adults wondered in mild alarm if they weren't teaching the little poet the first unfortunate lessons in racism.


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