“Hey Jill, can I ask you a question?” my neighbor girl asked over the phone. She was picking the last of the blackberries with her family out in the field. The bandana around her neck was sweaty. School, work, caring for her brothers and sisters. It would be her job to make tortillas when they got home. She taught me but I couldn’t make them as fast as her, ever.
“Sure, you can ask me anything,” I told her. We’d had this discussion before. It was useless to hide things: my privilege, my finances, the way I learned to navigate things like doctor’s appointments, my opinions on dating-slash-teen pregnancy-slash-respect, how to stand up for yourself, and again my privilege.
“Are you Caucasian?” she asked.
“Yes, I am,” I told her. “…very Caucasian. I am very white.”
“Oh,” she said.
‘“Yeah.” My heart broke a little at the edges. How else was I able to own my own home, live alone for months at a time as a single woman, travel across the country – and, in fact, to her home in her home country?
“Oh,” she thought for a minute. “Okay.”
“What does that make you think?”
“Well, we are learning about it in my multicultural class.” Remember that she is 13-years old.
“Yeah?” I flubbed. “…Yeah, it isn’t always great to be white. That’s why your mom thinks I need to get married to a Latino person.” I exhaled, realizing that this 13-year old was having a conversation so real that it could change her life. She was having a conversation that, in just a few years, age would make the questions too taboo to ask. I made like cellophane: transparent, stretching, ripping on the edges.
“White people have not always been nice…in fact, they’ve been awful. It’s hard sometimes to be white.” She wasn’t interested in my sweat saga. I complimented her in my mind. Don’t you spend all your time making people around you feel okay with how you’ve been marginalized.
“So,” I asked. “What do you think you are then? Latina?” It was the best I could do. I have been to their pueblo; I know their family; but I have never asked this girl how she wanted me to think of her.
“I’m Chicana,” she said in complete confidence. My heart leapt.
“Chicana!” I smiled at her willingness to connect herself to one of the biggest movements in the United States. I’m not going to be just Latina. I’m not going to be Hispanic. I’m not just Mexican-American even though you depend on me to pick in your fields, care for your elders, and disenfranchise me while I pick your food. I am Chicana. And I have changed this country. I stated my pride in her words.
“You know, Chicanas have had a big voice in this country. They are such a very big voice. They stand up to people and they make things change. You must be proud to be Chicana.” I moved a little to tears. Her pride – and my pride for her – was white with being pure and true.
“Yeah, I know, Jill. That’s what I am learning. Hey, I have to keep working, okay? I will call you later.” She shouted to her family in the blackberry rows and handed the phone to her sister who is a junior in high school. The sister asked if I could help her get into college. Yes, I told her, anything I could do.
“Alright then, Jill. Thanks.” This was the young woman who decorated my Christmas tree, raised her younger brothers and sisters, probably completed her homework on the steps for just a little peace and quiet. She depended on me but wouldn’t demand.
“You’d be the first one from your family to go to college, wouldn’t you?” I asked.
“Yeah, Jill. Yeah, if you could help, that would be cool.” She promised to tell me more later. I promised with all my heart to help.
Anything, I thought as I watched the phone hang up. Woman, anything for you.