I’ve never been “that Mexican”. In both senses of the phrase. I was never that Mexican guy up in your face and confrontational about my heritage and my race. I was also never that Mexican because I saw myself as a darker toned white guy. Being Mexican was secondary to who I was. And if I’m being honest with myself, it was probably further down the list that that.
That is, until it was not. My Mexicanness came crashing through one evening during an uncomfortable dinner date in West Hollywood.
West Hollywood (or WeHo), to many, in the early 1990s was and probably still is an elitist, predominantly white affluent neighborhood–the gay mecca of the West Coast, second only to San Francisco. It is here where only the physically fit, good-looking, and mostly white gay males enjoy their inherent privilege.
I was dating a gorgeous blond guy with impossibly deep blue eyes. Our relationship was in the beginning stages of a budding romance and we were on our way to a dinner at the French Market Place in WeHo so that we could get to know each other better. I picked him up and drove the fifty-some miles to the restaurant, excited at the prospect of falling in love.
We were seated by our waiter and that’s when the problem began. This waiter, an aging Twink with the receding hairline and clothes that were about 10 years too young and two sizes too small greeted Robert, my would-be new boyfriend, with a friendly smile. He looked at me with that disapproving look that I’m all too familiar with.
What’s worse is that he even outright refused to acknowledge me. All through dinner, he never looked at me and, instead, referred to Robert to answer for me, rather than speak to me directly.
Questions in the third person: “What does he want for dinner?” “Ask him if he’d like more Coke.”
With each humiliating dismissal, I shrank even more until I felt like I had disappeared. I didn’t matter and nobody cared. But I could feel the anger building up. It started in the pit of my stomach and rose up to the tips of my ears. In that moment, all those microaggressions I lived through but didn’t notice finally came rushing at me like fractured shards cutting into me and making me bleed.
“He speaks English so well.”
“Do you have enough money to buy that?”
“He’s not like the other ones.”
And then there are the eyes of the salesclerks—the look of fear and suspicion. They ignore, but they keep watch.
They al could have been that waiter…
I’d like to say that on that night, I suddenly felt empowered to speak up and be seen. That I stood up, spoke my mind and walked out of the restaurant, leaving Robert to find his own ride home.
I’d like to say that it was a proud moment for me as I headed out, head high and determined never to look back.
But that’s not how it played out.
Instead, I swallowed my pride. It went down like half chewed portions of the dinner I didn’t get to enjoy that night. It blocked my esophagus and lodged itself in my throat. The lump remained right there silencing my voice. It felt as if I was drowning in a deep ocean of blue, unable to gasp for air. Robert never looked me in the eye for the rest of the evening. It was a quiet ride back home, filled with unresolved tension.
They say that to be silent is to be complicit. Perhaps Robert didn’t have the words to speak up for me. I know I certainly didn’t know how to express the ache that was eating me from the inside out. In any case, Robert never called me again after that night. He never came looking for me, either. And I never felt the need to find him again.
I refocused my priorities. Finding my voice was the important thing now. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a skill that is practiced and learned—much the same way that racism and prejudice is practiced and learned. It may take years, but it eventually gets learned. I’m further along now on my journey to be seen and heard. Now, if anyone ever makes me feel less than what I am, you better watch out, ‘cuz I have no problem being that Mexican up in your face.