The story told here is mostly true. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the depraved alike.
I went to a pretty diverse middle school, like a mini-United Nations, in a suburb about half an hour outside Chicago. The schools in our district were named after great authors of the American canon, and ours was the most multicultural.
After lunch one spring day in 7th grade, this kid Juanito came up to me during passing period and goes: “Fight after school, whites verse Mexicans, you in?
He wasn’t a close friend but still part of my Mexican clique back then. I ran with a few cliques, including a black clique, and sometimes even a white clique.
Not to brag or nothing, but each of my cliques represented the most popular kids in their racial or ethnic group across all three grades —6th, 7th and 8th— except my white clique, which was made up of the most popular lower-middle and working-class white kids. My cliques overlapped, and were part of one big tribe of cliques, because nearly all of the kids played sports together, goofed off in class together, or listened to rap music together.
A few of the rich white kids were friends with us too, but since they couldn’t let their families know about their more colorful friends at school, they were mostly tied to the other rich white kids, probably more than they wanted to be. The rich white kids were technically the most popular kids in school, as far as their names being everywhere, but the kids in my cliques were easily the coolest—and that goes for the boys and the girls.
There were really two Mexican cliques, and I was in the English-dominant one. This clique of course overlapped with the ESL one, since a lot of the ESL kids were cool too, whether they played sports, or liked to goof around in class like we did, or listened to a lot of the same songs.
Being half Honduran and half Puerto Rican, I was allowed in my Mexican clique because there were maybe only a handful of other Puerto Ricans in my school —one of them ran with my Mexican clique, too— and there weren’t any other Honduran kids around, that we knew of. In fact, there were plenty of other non-Mexican kids in both Mexican cliques, Guatemalans especially, and even some non-Latino kids, like my redheaded buddy Jason, who lived in my building (when we weren’t playing basketball or unleashing mayhem on the neighborhood, we were usually at Jason’s house, inhaling cans of Dr. Pepper and playing GoldenEye 007 on his N64—that he had four controllers made him the aristocrat in our group).
Besides Jason, our clique referred to ourselves as a “Mexican” clique, or “bean,” because we didn’t know the word Latino yet (that came in high school). And we never called ourselves “Hispanic” with much pride, either, maybe because it sounded too close to spic.
Half the kids in the white clique I ran with were immigrants from Eastern Europe—Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria—and the others either came from more established Italian families or were just your run-of-the-mill white.
Though all of my white friends came from lower-middle and working-class families, they still tended to live in houses, or at least townhouses, more than my Black and Mexican friends, who usually lived in apartments, like I did. Other than that, there was really no difference between my white clique and my Black and Mexican cliques. Most of us came from broken homes, and often violent ones at that.
Hopefully, I’ve set the scene here, so you know what was running through my mind when Juanito approached me that day and told me about the fight between the white kids and the Mexicans.
Naturally, I asked: “Who’s fighting who?” I wanted to know which white kids were fighting which Mexicans. For all I knew, the rich white kids were fighting the ESL kids, in which case my loyalties were clear and firm. But a fight between my non-rich white friends and some ESL kids would’ve found me conflicted. Not that I’m a nativist or something nuts; it’s just that some of the ESL kids already lumped me in with the white kids—or, more typically, the Black kids—and hated me the same. By the 7th grade I’d been in a few fights with ESL boys, always over a girl.
Lucky for me, it was an ESL kid fighting a white kid on my bus route who wasn’t in my white clique or the rich white clique.
“Jorge S—’s fighting that Richie kid,” Juanito said.
I hated Richie too, anyway. He was a freckle-faced kid who thought everything he said and did was just hilarious. And he loved to tell racist jokes, only he’d tell his anti-Black jokes when Black kids weren’t around and told his anti-Mexican jokes when Brown kids weren’t around. I’ve always loved a good joke, racist or not, but the ones Richie shared were seriously dark and twisted, especially for mixed company. So you knew he had to be saying some real foul shit in private, around his own kind.
“You down?” Juanito asked.
I nodded, blank-faced. I was never going to tell him I wasn’t down. Saying you weren’t down for a brawl, or vandalism, or committing some other victimless crime, wasn’t something the kids in my cliques did. We had little to lose anyhow, and everything to prove.
After the final bell, I lollygagged at my locker, hoping to get to the fight just as the dust was settling. My locker was nowhere near where the Mexicans hung out, by all the ESL classes, so I figured my stalling would go undetected. Maybe I could even get on my bus and go home, and say I forgot about the fight tomorrow.
But then here comes Juanito swaggering down the hall, looking right at me, with a smirk on his face. And he’s with two other Mexicans, scrawny little René and this chubby kid we called Bolas, plus our Polish friend Maciek, with his big frame and narrow eyes, and Ernest, one of our black friends, the first kid I knew who could do a backflip off a wall.
“C’mon,” Juanito says without even breaking his stride as he walked by. “They’re out there already.”
Sure enough there was a loose circle of kids out by one of the back entrances, on the side of the building that formed an alcove, perfect for making out or settling beefs.
Richie was with a handful of other white kids, the friends he played hockey with. They stood in a little semi-circle, talking softly with each other and glancing over at the much wider and thicker semi-circle of Mexican kids standing 15 feet away and doing the same. One of his boys looked ready to do some damage, but the others seemed anxious like Richie did, even scared.
They had every reason to be shitting their pants, because whereas there were only five or six of them, at least 20 kids had shown up to back Jorge—and by “back” I mean they were ready to jump in at a moment’s notice.
There was a code amongst us rougher kids that said you always rolled deep but you let any fight between two people play itself out, only acting as a referee or lookout. But, of course, there were always kids who didn’t know the code, or didn’t believe in it, and would throw a fist or swing a foot if they saw the chance, at which point it was anarchy till the frenzy died down and the fight was over.
Jorge wasn’t a big kid but he was strong, pale with black hair and black eyes, always with cuts and scabs on his arms and legs. He landed a few solid punches, as did Richie. But mostly it was a lot of tussling and shirt pulling, their worn-out gym shoes skidding around on the asphalt, the kids on both sides crowding around them and yelling them on.
Then “Hey!” came a woman’s voice. “You boys stop that!”
It was Ms. Hart, the music teacher, marching toward us in her black flats, long floral skirt, and music books under one arm and her purse hung across her torso—some things you never forget.
Richie had a stream of blood trickling from his snub nose. He sniffed and wiped away the wetness, inadvertently smearing a bright red splotch up against his freckled cheek. He saw the blood on his hand and sniffed again. Jorge was just fixing himself, head down, eyes on his battered shoes.
The rest of us scattered like roaches as Ms. Hart approached, leaving Jorge and Richie to deal with the consequences on their own.
That fight between Jorge and Richie is the only racial flare-up I can remember from middle school, which is pretty good considering how diverse we were.
Thinking back on it now, I’m sure it was our system of overlapping cliques that kept the peace. As with me, and Jason, there were plenty of other kids who had their de facto cliques, based on their racial or ethnic group, but they moved in and out of other cliques, especially if they were one of the cool or smart kids, who were liked and admired by almost everybody, regardless of color. Even some of the rich white kids, the ones that didn’t lord their wealth over us, were cool with everybody.
At my middle school, it wasn’t really about your skin color, where you lived, or what you did or didn’t have. What mattered most was whether you were cool or not—whether you were funny, or athletic, smart, or just down as hell.
I was reminded of this story from my boyhood when I read a story on NPR about the other underground railroad that led slaves to freedom, not in the North, but south of the border, in Mexico. The article tells of a white settler in Texas who married a slave woman, had three kids with her, bought all their freedoms for their master, and how the couple then went on to help other slaves escape to Mexico, which had abolished slavery in 1837, 18 years before the United States.
One bit struck me especially:
[M]any Mexicans were sympathetic to fugitive slaves from Texas and the United States, according to María Hammack, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. “In fact, Mexicans would often put up a fight against vigilantes and bounty hunters from Texas looking for escaped slaves who had crossed over the river to free Mexican soil.
Moreover, Mexican laborers working in Texas befriended slaves and acted as guides to help them escape south. This happened so often that enslavers came to distrust any Mexican.
To my still immature mind, the whole story basically boils down to some white people who were down to stand with the slaves and the Mexicans in Texas—not only working together, but living together and building families together—and together they undermined the slave system.
Both stories, mine and NPR’s, are about solidarity in the face of hatred and power.
There had to have been a bunch of white kids at my school who hated sharing the halls with so many Black and Brown faces, just as there were plenty of Black kids who hated the Brown faces and plenty of Brown kids who hated the Black faces, as well as plenty of Black and Brown kids who hated the white kids. Plus there were a few Asians at our school—Chinese, Indian, Filipino—who probably got a lot of hate, too.
But since a lot of us were cool with each other, even close friends out of school, our different appearances and the strangeness of our distinct identities soon faded into the background, and we were just kids who were into a lot of the same stuff. In this truly multicultural environment, kids like Richie, whatever their color, were outcasts.
There were a few changes in high school, but the cliques mostly stayed the same. If anything, we got closer, more intermingled.
Those were happier days.
And while America is merely a society of cliques, I often wish America’s cliques behaved like the cliques back in middle school.