Spic

Forty three years ago when I was a sophomore at St. Leo College in Florida, I stood in line waiting to register for class and thinking that this would be the fifth school I would attend since arriving from Cuba.  It was my first day at St. Leo College, a charming small private college in Florida where my father was now a professor.   Once many years before he had been a student at St. Leo, never dreaming that someday he would find himself exiled from his country and a member of the faculty.

I had been in the U.S. a few years then and it seemed to me that many if not most Americans I came in contact with were geographically challenged.  Given Cuba’s proximity to Florida I expected people to know where I was from when I said I was from Cuba.  Particularly in the mid sixties, not so long after Fidel and the Cuban Revolution as well as the tense days of an almost nuclear war that kept the island in the news so frequently and prominently, I was always surprised when people thought I was from a third world country far far away or expected me to be more exotic.

By the time I got to St. Leo I had heard questions like:

“Is Cuba near Hawaii?”

“Is Cuba near Mexico?”

“Where is Cuba in California?”

“How come you’re not brown?”

and  “Did you guys live in trees?”  I wondered why I was asked that question as I never went barefoot and my manners were impeccable for a teenager.

It was impossible to feel offended once I overheard two of my friends arguing about whether Canada was to the north or south of California.  Besides, the questions didn’t come from a stance of ridicule.  These girls and adults were curious about my country and about me.

Nothing in my experience had prepared me for the moment that was to come, as I stood in line that day at St. Leo College, looking for someone to connect with, but content to stand and take in the boisterous greetings, the colorful clothes the girls wore, and of course, picking out the cute guys in the crowd.  It was a time of hippies and peace and flowers in our hair, flowers everywhere.  We were a generation steeped in our commitment to peace, uncomfortable with the growing presence of war, with the rising body count in Vietnam.  Peace lovers at war with war.

Two very cute guys joined the queue discussing which Physics class to register for.   Knowing it was time to begin connecting with my fellow students and drawn by their relaxed demeanor and to no less extent by their handsome faces, I turned to face them and said “Hi!”  As if I were invisible, cute guy one said to cute guy two: “don’t talk to her!  She’s a Spic!”

This young man said the word with such contempt and venom that it felt as if he had spit it out instead of spoken it.  I didn’t know what a Spic was.  I had never heard the word before.  But I knew I had just been degraded, and I knew I had been insulted.  One moment a girl in her new school looking forward.  The next, a girl in her new school rooted to the ground, knowing she had just been branded not only different, but also less than.  Why?

I turned and faced the word spitter and asked: “What is a SPIC?”

Without a hint of apology he said it was a word for Spanish people.  He said, “you know, like nigger for a negro, Spic for a Spaniard, people NOT LIKE US.”

It has been many decades since that day and although I remember the incident as well as the now not so cute seeming guy’s face when he realized he was about to become my father’s student.I hadn’t thought about it until I recently spent time contemplating the power of words.

In the decades since, I have become an American who knows some geography, but now makes a point of looking at a map when she meets someone from Axum, Ethiopia or any other place that “doesn’t ring a bell” and learning something about my new acquaintances culture.  So I won’t have to ask them if they live in trees.

This fall I went to Miami, Florida, where the majority of the Cuban exile population  settled.  At a restaurant with some friends the subject of 9/11 came up and we all talked about how it affected our sense of safety in this country.  I shared with them that my first thought was “Where do we run to from here?”.  One of the people in an adjoining table turned to me and said: “Well, that’s how I felt when you Cubans started taking over my city and now you get to worry about the damned Moslem sand niggers like we worried about you.”  A flurry of spit words.  In an unexpected setting, hatred spoke again.  Gone the days of flower in our hair, our young men dying in another foreign land, our land split in red and blue reeling from the shock that we dared to elect a black man to lead our country.

Spic- NOT LIKE US

Nigger- NOT LIKE US

Moslem-NOT LIKE US

Sand Nigger- NOT LIKE US

Cuban- NOT LIKE US

Latino- NOT LIKE US

Mexicans- NOT LIKE US

Gay- NOT LIKE US

Lesbian- NOT LIKE US

Republican- NOT LIKE US

Democrat- NOT LIKE US

Liberal- NOT LIKE US

Will someone please tell me, so I can understand after half a century as an American:  WHO ARE “US?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 comments

  1. Well, people will always put themselves in certain categories and look at their differences, not at their “common points”.

    The exception is Sports. It’s always been interesting to me, how when we compete in an event, such as the Super Bowl, we can so easily get behind our “team” without judging a man’s skin color, ethnic background or religion. Maybe we should create formulas that imitate sports teams to get over our prejudices.

    It’s not a simple answer. But as the “global economy grows”, our differences will have to be if not accepted…at least “tolerated”. I believe the day will come when it will all be a practical thing “to consider ” with an open mind and without so many objections.

    Emy Botet

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    1. It appears when our focus shifts from one another to a team, to a war, to a disaster, the miracle of union happens. But even in the Superbowl there is no agreement as we rally “against” another team. Lots of personal and societal growth left to do. Always wonderful to hear from you on the blog, Emy!

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  2. Powerful words from a powerful thinker.
    I wonder… if we really try, could we can that the word “Spic” is a mispronunciation of “special”?
    I wonder if those who spit out hateful words bear their bigotry as a permanent horrific tattoo on their souls?
    I wonder if they are condemned to bear it for life?

    Your recollections and insights in this piece have stirred emotions in me that I’ve been aware of for the past few years, as I, like you, encounter once again, a disturbing disconnect between a magnificent country where we found generosity and kindness upon our arrival here, and a disturbing place where ignorance, bigotry, and malice can also appear when we least expected it. Whenever this happens, it still shocks me.
    While there still are, thankfully, “peace lovers at war with war” (what an inspired description!) there are also “willful haters not at peace with peace” who refuse to learn the lessons of a few thousand years of history. It seems that since the human saga began, there have been peace makers who instinctively want to enjoy life and share the Planet with others, and trouble makers who go out of their way to disrupt Nature’s ways and keep others from also taking part of life on Earth. While we humans are both social creatures and territorial animals, being socially cooperative has been proven far more helpful to our collective and individual survival than being territorially aggressive.
    Blessed are the peace makers –even with all our differences and all our weaknesses, and all our confusion, peace lovers can more readily see how we are all part of the same scheme, the same species, the same star dust.

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  3. It could mean U.S. as in United States. Which is ironic because in reality, the United States, the U.S., US is all of the groups above, and many more including WASPS. Many among the latter tend to think that they alone are the U.S., although in all fairness, I have to admit, unfortunately, that prejudice lurks in all groups.

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