Amy and I sometimes work for a catering company. The work is physically demanding, but mentally easy, and the hours are good for moms with young kids, which we both have. Mostly you just serve drinks and food, open lots of wine, and clean up the mess afterward. You’re supposed to be visible to the guests if they need something, invisible otherwise.
A couple of weeks ago, Amy and I were working a swanky wedding on the grounds of this gorgeous old lakeside house-turned-art-museum. She and I were clearing the dinner dishes from a table. It was an 8-top, five young men, three young women, all invited guests to this fancy wedding. As we approached their table, their conversation turned to quinciñeras, a traditional societal coming-out party thrown for a Mexican girl on her 15th birthday. Seemed a strange topic for an all-white, young, rich group like this, but maybe quinciñeras were in the air this week. Just the day before I had been talking to my friend Jose about the flowers he bought for his niece’s quinciñera, how he’d worked ten extra hours at the flower shop to be able to afford them, how proud he was that he could present her with this special gift.
These guests were not delighting in the quinciñera tradition, however. They were making fun of the Mexican girls who participated in them. One guest started mocking the excitement of the girls, using a high-pitched voice with a fake Mexican accent, saying “I’m from Brownsville! For my keen-sin-yera we get to go to the Galleria in Houston and go shopping! Hee-hee!” The whole table started laughing, but I saw Amy’s eyes go fiery. She knows I’m Mexican, she knows my family is from Brownsville, and she was disgusted. As the conversation turned to the “problem” of Mexicans in general, I thought I was gonna puke, but I just turned and took the plates I had back to the main bussing area.
Amy had stayed behind to finish clearing, and as I returned to the table, I saw her eyes filled with angry tears. She whispered that it was a good thing I didn’t hear the rest of it. She was ready to drop those plates on their heads, but I told her no, no, it’s just ignorance, ignorance, they’re not worth losing your job over.
Later, when we were on break, we talked about what had happened. Amy was angry, sure, but she was also really hurt for me. She couldn’t believe that people would say that in front of me, not knowing that people have been saying stuff like that in front of me my whole life. My light skin, a “blessing” in the color-conscious Mexican culture, is also a curse, as it has allowed people to make their own assumptions about my heritage and spew their unfiltered racist comments all over my face. With practice, you wipe it off, maintain your dignity, return no one evil for evil, and educate when and where you can.
When I was explaining that part to Amy, about education being the only cure for ignorance, she said that these rich people went to the best schools their whole lives, and shouldn’t they have gotten an education? Can they really claim ignorance? They can, for they only learned the things rich people consider worth knowing, and honor and respect for the whole humanness of Mexicans isn’t usually one of them.
Maybe they deserved to have plates dropped on their heads, but in my current thinking, violence, even when it feels like merited commupance, is not stronger than ignorance; violence and ignorance are two sides of the same coin. I didn’t want to participate in that cycle with them at all. Love and education, love and patience, love and forgiveness, love and love and love are the only responses that have a chance of changing things for the better.
But I didn’t love them that night, and I didn’t educate them. I walked away. They’re minds are probably no different now than they were that night, but I know that by walking away I stopped a cycle of violence, and maybe that’s good enough for now.
Because Amy and I remembered that we were truly richer than they were, these well-heeled guests at this fancy party, and I wouldn’t trade places with them for the world.