A few days ago, I had the privilege of attending the Houston Symphony Orchestra’s annual Fiesta Simfonica to salute Hispanic Heritage Month and Diez y Seis, or Mexican Independence day. Conductor Jaime Morales-Matos led the orchestra in a two-hour (free!) performance of Mexican or Mexican-influenced pieces. What you might expect from a world-class orchestra such as this one–professional and spirited performance–certainly occurred, but what made the evening for me was the experience of being a minority.
I grew up in a majority-white, middle-class suburb of Portland, Oregon. Known as the city with some of the smartest zoning in the country, this meant I had the feeling of a neighborhood (with sidewalks, a place to ride a bike, and a backyard to play in) and the convenience of the city (10 minutes from downtown, almost half that to the grocery store, the video rental, the laundromat, the library, and all 3 levels of public schools). So I was never too far physically or temporally from neighborhoods with more diversity, but because most of what we needed for day-to-day life came conveniently, I also never traveled far into other neighborhoods. School and summer camp were really my only chance to mix or mingle with non-white peers but in a high school of 1300, perhaps 90% of the student body was Caucasian. Likewise, summer camp–while more diverse than schools–had it’s own economic and social divisions that kept me in effectively the same Caucasian bubble of life back home.
In short, failing to learn Spanish and surrounding myself with whites for most of my upbringing are the two things I’d go back and change if I could. (Oh, and I might have had more guts in April 1993 and kissed Jole Brandon in the courtyard.) I think I’d be a different person today, and I think I’d feel less limited by that person’s worldview than the way I feel right now.
All of that said, and Jaime Morales-Matos’ fanastic conducing duly noted, I’d still like to go on record stating that the peak of last week’s performance was, for this gringa, my visit to the ladies’s room.
Picture pasty white me in a polka-dotted $15 cotton dress from Target, surrounded by Hispanic-American women with origins in probably more than half a dozen countries. Hear their enthusiastic Spanish, the grandmother admonishing her granddaughter for scuffing her new patent leather shoes. See the sisters giggling at themselves in the mirror (they must have caught themselves off guard, so elegant in their evening gowns). Smell the perfumes, the leather handbags. Notice the cacophony of colors–bright reads, yellows, and oranges out-winning black five to one. The symphony sounded lovely, but the real music was in the women’s bathroom. The real spirit lifted from their chatter, their jostling in line, their laughter, their fantastic, confident, brilliant loudness.
What is it about being a white American in these situations that makes me feel so boring? Sure, I know my heritage and the story of my ancestors. But I don’t resonate with my own country’s Independence Day. I’m accidentally Christian because I’m American (meaning, I celebrate Christmas even though I’m Buddhist). I frequently forget the major holidays most of my white friends claim as part of their unique “cultural” or “traditional” identities. If American isn’t these things for me, and it isn’t baseball and hot dogs either, then what is it?
Part of this life on the road has taught me that, among many things, being an American means being free. Free to be self-employed and make my own path. Free to cross state lines and borders without harassment. Free to defend myself, stand up for myself, stand against my own government, love friends of all faiths and colors, start a family or deny that ability–freedom for all of these things. “Freedom” is such a laced word in this post-9/11 and post-Bush era, but I’ve been working hard and fast to reclaim the word for myself and with that in mind, I might have even done a little moving and shaking myself during the Fiesta Simfonica’s final number (a cha-cha). Yes, I might have just done that and, for a brief moment, blended right in with my fellow compadres.
14 of 25 Ways of Looking at Houston: Domesticated peacocks? Apparently so. I headed out to the suburbs this afternoon to interview an artist for a magazine feature and ran into these two highly adorned creatures. Later, I inquired at a local gas station. “Yeah, some people keep them as pets,” the serviceman told me. “Like dogs?” I asked. “Roaming freely around the yard?” He nodded his head. “They make good defenders, too, believe it or not.” Apparently at the end of they day they waddle home and roost in their owners’ backyard trees. Wow, Houston, that’s a new one for this Oregonian!