Image from Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.
Once a week I park near Placita Olvera and make the 10-minute walk through the mercadito to meet my Spanish tutor downtown. In the morning the shops are just opening up, the smell of chorizo con huevo frying on the griddles, the colorful doors that lock the vendor booths at night are still closed and the gueros haven’t yet arrived en masse with their cameras. On the walk back to my car, I avoid the crowded mercadito and walk down to Los Angeles Street and then past Union Station. Los Angeles Street used to be called “Calle de los Negros” by the Spaniards and later, “Nigger Alley” by white Americans seeking to fulfill their “Manifest Destiny.” As I stroll down the hill from la placita, the site of INS raids aimed at the deportation of Mexicans, I look down on Union Station, whose construction displaced Los Angeles’ Chinese community. This is the site of the story I’m telling in my dissertation.
Today, as I approached the traffic light to cross toward Union Station, I saw that a crowd had gathered at the corner. A Mexicano around my papá’s age was lying on the ground, his head propped up on his backpack. He had fallen and was surrounded by white people who had already called 911. I stopped to see if I could help, but he seemed overwhelmed by the crowd and wasn’t responding to the woman who held his hand. It occurred to me that the man only spoke Spanish.
A brief wave of panic washed over me—because I wanted to help, but my Spanish isn’t that good. Because I was afraid I wouldn’t know the words to comfort him, to explain that help was coming. Because I might not understand him. And if he’s undocumented, he must be terrified. In the second that it took me to think all these thoughts simultaneously and to step forward to say that I would try to speak with him, another Mexicana walked up and said she could speak to him in Spanish. As I breathed a huge sigh of relief that someone else could help him better than I could, I heard the sirens of the ambulances rushing to the scene.
On the way home I was reminded that I choose (and yes, it is a choice) to continue living in a country that, especially today, defines itself by it’s struggles for “freedom” when undocumented peoples cannot get healthcare without fear of being violently deported, their “freedom” denied. I was reminded that there are many who I call my “colleagues” who call themselves liberals, who are “experts” on race, class and gender inequality, who refuse to recognize their roles in these systems and who (although they won’t say out loud) are against affirmative action and probably immigration too. I was reminded that there are people who I rely on for academic support who have only stopped using words like “Oriental” because it’s not p.c. and who refuse to understand why that’s fucked up, despite their profession in history. I was reminded about how mi papá was shamed for speaking Spanish in school and decided not to teach his children the language–and how I’ve inherited that shame. And how I’ve been shamed for being a Latina who did not grow up speaking Spanish, for being a mixed person and therefore only “half Chinese “ and “half Mexican” (never a whole person), and how I’ve internalized that shame so it manifests as panic in moments of emergency. Professor Black Woman’s post reminds me that shame is linked to historical processes that structure power in all aspects of our lives and that we make choices daily that are informed by, uphold and challenge power.
As Professor Zero says, “Now everybody tag your own self”!