Since today is 7/11 and free Slurpee day it reminded me of my first experience with blatant racism.
My cousin Jonathan and I lived on the same street growing up as kids. Only I lived down next to the freeway while he lived north, at the base of the mountains. Home prices and household incomes increased with the altitude and attitude. In fact, the name of the street changed a few blocks south of Jonathan’s house, to amplify the difference.
One summer night I slept over Jonathan’s house, a rare occurrence, mostly because Jonathan was a year younger than I and a bit of a rabble rouser for a ten year old. But we had fun staying up late, drinking way too many root beer floats, and watching bad TV, hours after we were told to go to sleep. The next morning we had a great breakfast (Jonathan’s parents owned a burrito joint in town so they could throw down in the kitchen) and went out to hang out with Jonathan’s friends.
First we went to Jack’s house, picked him up then headed over to Danny’s house – neither of whom I had met before. Danny’s mom answered the door then after a couple of minutes produced Danny. We had decided to walk to 7-11 to buy baseball cards and gum (the staples of my youth) when Danny and Jack stopped and had a private conversation. Danny then called Jonathan over and told him that he didn’t want to hang out with me because I was Mexican. Maybe it was my white t-shirt or my corduroy pants, my longish brown wavy hair, or my brownish skin? I had no idea why someone would act that way, especially after just meeting me. Growing up in El Sereno (part of Los Angeles) and in a racially diverse
part of Pasadena, I had never experienced anything that blatant.
Jonathan didn’t ask questions. He immediately jumped on Danny and started pummeling him. "I’m Mexican, too, you dummy!" After a few moments, he let Danny get up, then explained to Danny that we were all still going to the store. And we did.
When we got to 7-11 we found that our Slurpee and gum purchases had earned us each baseball trivia scratch-off cards. Each correct answer meant a free Slurpee. I took the first question, "who was the 1st round pick in 1962" and quickly scratched off Rick Monday for a victory. That amazed Danny and Jack and as we walked back home they asked me for help with their cards.
I can’t remember if we won any more free Slurpees, but we sure tried. We talked for a while about baseball then Jonathan and I headed back to his house.
That day I learned that racial and cultural barriers can be broken down with understanding and by finding commonalities and also that being smart can give you the upper hand.