Editor’s Note: The piece was first published five years ago on November 20, 2013. It still applies to this day. But you already knew that, right?
I’ve stopped being surprised or offended when white colleagues don’t acknowledge me. I remember being 24 years old, walking down the long high school hallway to my classroom. At the other end of the hallway walked a white colleague towards me. I looked straight ahead to avoid the awkward silence as you close the distance, while you wait for the moment you’re close enough to say hello, and, seconds before you cross, say, “How’s it goin’?” Or give that tight smile So footsteps before we passed shoulder to shoulder, I looked her way and said, “How’s it goin’?” She ignored me, kept looking straight ahead, didn’t say a word.
It still happens all these years later. At the start of the school year, I was setting up to run a professional development session in our school gym. I arrived early to set up. I was the only person in the gym. A white colleague walked in. I greeted him. He said nothing and kept walking. Another white colleague walked in. He ignored me, too. Then, he sat and talked with the other white guy.
Despite the implied arrogance by some, not all of my white colleagues over the years, I stopped being surprised or offended. Instead, I think of a conversation I had with my dad over 20 years ago.
I started at DePaul in 1990 and drove there in a ’79 Pontiac Bonneville my dad bought me for $250. Early in my freshman year, my dad asked me if there were lots of Latinos at school. I wanted to say, “Pa, I’m one of the only Latinos in most of my classes. The other brown faces I see mostly are the landscapers. I think of you when I see them sweating in the morning sun. I remember you were a landscaper when you first came to Illinois in the 1950s. And look, Pa! Now I’m in college!”
But I didn’t.
I just said, “No, Pa. There’s a few Latinos, mostly Puerto Rican, few Mexicans. But all the landscapers are Mexican.”
My dad responded, “¡Salúdelos, m’ijo!”
So when I walked by the Mexican men landscaping each morning, I said, “Buenos días.”
Recently, I realized what my dad really meant. I remembered learning the Mexican, or Latin American, tradition of greeting people when one enters a room. In my Mexican family, my parents taught me to be “bien educado” by greeting people who were in a room already when I entered. The tradition puts the responsibility of the person who arrives to greet those already there. If I didn’t follow the rule as a kid, my parents admonished me with a back-handed slap on my back and the not-so-subtle hint: “¡Saluda!”
I caught myself tapping my eight-year-old son’s back the other day when he didn’t greet one of our friends: “Adrian! ¡Saluda!”
However, many of my white colleagues over the years followed a different tradition of ignorance. “Maleducados,” ol’ school Mexican grandmothers would call them.
But this Mexican tradition is not about the greeting—it’s about the acknowledgment. Greeting people when you enter a room is about acknowledging other people’s presence and showing them that you don’t consider yourself superior to them.
When I thought back to the conversation between my dad and me in 1990, I realized that my dad was not ordering me to greet the Mexican landscapers with a “Good morning.”
Instead, my father wanted me to acknowledge them, to always acknowledge people who work with their hands like he had done as a farm worker, a landscaper, a mechanic. My father with a 3rd grade education wanted me to work with my mind but never wanted me to think myself superior because I earned a college degree and others didn’t.
My dad turns 77 today. And even though we don’t have many heart-to-heart conversations, we’ve learned to understand each other. A few days ago, my son interviewed him about being a bracero, a guest worker on Texas farms. He told my little boy how he enjoyed working with the land. My dad loved work. As we were leaving, my dad told my little boy, “Thank you for thinking my life is important.”
It is, Pops. You taught me how to work with a conscience, how to take pride in my work, and how to acknowledge the honest, good work of others. Happy Birthday.
For more about Ray Salazar, check him out at The White Rhino Blog’s Facebook page, or on Twitter @whiterhinoray.
Que hermoso artículo me conmovió casi hasta las lagrimas. Me hizo recordar mi madre cuando era niño y a mi padre recomendándome que la educación se ” mama ” en casa. Por eso através de los años entendí la expresión ” no tiene madre “, simple y llanamente ,no tuvo una buena educación, le falto la suficiente atención o amor. Congratulaciones por el aniversario de “apa “, y que Dios lo bendiga.
That’s a beautiful story, thank you for sharing this! I think that’s a beautiful way to view things. Ive learned over the years that us Humans can easily fall into the trap of arrogance, and no good for anyone comes of that. Humility I find is one of the best virtues for both a healthy life and seeing the truth in things. I will be sure to great everyone in the next room I enter!
Any of us who have lived in areas with high Hispanic populations know that most immigrants from Mexico are hard working, family oriented people who take pride in their successes here.
An elementary school teacher friend in Houston told me that the Hispanic parents take a great interest in their children’s’ education. Mothers will come in with younger children if unable to find a babysitter and fathers have come to meetings directly from jobs. A very large number must bring the child in question to translate. But they are there and seeking ways to help their child succeed in America.
When my car broke down it was two Hispanic men (neither of us able to speak the other’s language) in a landscaper’s truck who came to my rescue, first trying to jump the battery. When that didn’t work, rather than leave me, they removed the battery from their truck, putting it in my car to get it started. Once running they swapped batteries back and prepared to leave. I tried to give them some money in thanks for their time and kindness bur they refused politely. Despite plenty of traffic they were the only ones to stop.
A home renovation contractor, who had come to America and become very successful, bemoaned the fact his US born children expected success without working hard for it. He intended to make them all work for his company – starting in the less attractive positions, so they could learn a strong work ethic and appreciation for what they had.
There a so many interactions with Hispanic immigrants, some legal some illegal, that have given me great respect for them.
But – there is a ‘Catch-22’. They need a way to learn English and opportunities for further education. Many left school at a young age. To be successful. Vocational training should be an option. But they don’t have the time because of the need to work. I don’t know what the solution is, but if we want them to become valued members of this country, we need to do more than spend govt funds to house, feed and provide medical.
For now, they are a huge financial burden on already strained budgets.
(I speak of Mexican due to lack contact with Central Americans)