When you’re a little kid, your dad is invincible, a hero. There’s nothing that can hurt him – he’s the strongest, coolest, smartest dad on the block. My dad still is. He quit high school to support a family of eight after his father died but still found time to earn his GED. Later in life, he and my mother raised three boys, finding time between the intense sibling rivalries to send one to college. I share a piece of my personal history with you not for sympathy or pity but because I recently discovered a chink in my dad’s armor. I sent him a copy of A Class Apart, an American Experience film that highlighted a little-known Supreme Court case that established a foothold for Latino civil rights. After watching it, to my surprise, he said, "Mijo, I remember when this happened."
The Supreme Court case explored in A Class Apart stemmed from a murder in a small east Texas town. My dad grew up not too far from the town where this murder took place and he remembers quite clearly what it was like growing up Latino in 1950’s Texas. Discrimination was not just between whites and blacks, but whites and Latinos and blacks and Latinos. One experience my dad shared sticks with me to this day: standing in front of two water fountains, one labeled ‘whites only’, one labeled ‘blacks only’. The repercussions of drinking from either of these fountains were the same – verbal assaults and in some cases violence.
I’ve had my own run-ins with discrimination. A KKK statuette stating ‘yesterday, today and forever’ prominently displayed at a frat party in college was unsettling but my choice was easy: I ignored it, continued to drink free alcohol and eventually left with my friends. The experience didn’t label me as less one color than another so I thought nothing of the ignorance, just sputtered some expletive and went about the awkwardness of being a freshman. But my dad’s experience made him completely aware of why he was different and where in the pecking order of society he stood as a Latino, as a person…as a man.
Dr. King said "the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." Well my father stood in front of two water fountains he wasn’t allowed to drink from and in his time of challenge, knowing the probable outcome had he dared to quench his thirst from either, he chose a water hose. There, in black and white, society made the choice for him without knowing what kind of man he was.
But the thing about heroes is they fight the battles so we don’t have to, right? They hide the scars and bruised egos as a way of passing along a strength we may need to tap into someday. I hope I can remember that if I’m ever truly tested the way my dad was.
History is indeed personal - I’m fourth generation Texan, born to two cultures, assimilated to one but trying to find my way back to the other.
Patrick Ramirez is a social evangelist for American Experience and a member of the marketing team as well as several national PBS programs. Patrick’s blogs will focus on the merging of contemporary and historic events and their personal impact.