In Brief— The author wanders through his memories of the New Mexico boarding school and his experience as one of the few Anglos in a predominantly Hispanic school.
Prejudice is the child of ignorance. (William Hazlitt)—
They called me “Whitey.” They called me crude names. I was a scrawny, blond, fifth grader, one of very few Anglos in the Catholic school where Hispanics predominated. The other Anglos, limited in number, were day students living in town.
Wait! I need to tell you why I became “The Other” in that school in Santa Fe.
As a kid in the humid Midwest, I was an asthmatic who endured seemingly endless shots to help me breathe when my lungs struggled for air. At his wits end, the family doctor finally said that unless I was in a high dry climate I would die. A boarding school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was the answer. Alone, a thousand miles from home, I became “The Other” in a class of boys of Hispanic descent.
My class was presided over by tall, lean Brother Benedict dressed in his black cassock and split white collar. He ruled with an iron hand and brooked no nonsense. Pea shooters protruding from hip pockets were confiscated on sight, but piñon nuts were something that couldn’t be stopped. Hidden, but not stopped.
Piñon shells littered the floor and crunched under Brother Benedict’s feet as he patrolled the aisles. I really admired the way my Hispanic classmates could shell the piñons in their mouths and spit the shells out of their mouths while chewing the tasty little nuts inside.
Two of us, Guillermo and I, swapped places as the top students in the class. [I’ve occasionally wondered what became of Guillermo.] Anyway, nothing was quite so embarrassing as sitting on the Brother Superior’s lap and having him praise me while all my classmates’ eyes burned into me. Guillermo never sat on the Brother Superior’s lap. Curious, that. Maybe it was because he was Hispanic or maybe because I was the only Protestant kid in the school…or maybe because the Brother Superior was…
Twice a day, morning and evening, we attended mass in the oldest church in the United States, adjacent to the building where I slept. Damn, but those old wooden kneeling boards were murder to my bony knees. While the other kids took communion (got a round wafer and some grape juice), I had to kneel on that wooden board and wait. I was Protestant, you see. On Sundays, we had to dress up in our finest and march to the cathedral in town for the big weekly mass [Notice that God cares how his worshipers look.], but at least the kneeling boards were padded.
One day, Brother Benedict lost his temper—never far from the surface—when one of the boys was whispering to a companion. WHACK! Swinging with all his might, Brother Benedict broke the oak pointer over the boy’s head. The boy stood up and walked out the door. He never came back. Good for him! I always admired that boy.
Not all the brothers were as nasty as Brother Benedict. Some were close, like the one who struck me on the back of the head because I wasn’t moving fast enough to suit him, but friendly Brother Alec made spinning tops for all the boys and was much liked. Kindly Brother Isodor ran the infirmary and treated one of my friends who was cut by an angry Italian day student wielding a razor.
Not only was the asthma cured but I learned independence and self-reliance. Hikes into the foothills, turning over old gravestones in the abandoned cemetery looking for slithering pets, walking atop the high bordering wall studded with jagged broken bottles, eating the insides out of warm French bread while soft snow flakes drifted down, buying freshly-made tamales from a visiting vendor every weekend. These and more experiences contributed to my growth, to the person I am today.
But how did being the “The Other” teach me acceptance instead of resentment, fear and prejudice? I don’t know. Maybe I paid attention to what I felt. Maybe it has something to do with my character, but it taught me what it’s like to be an outsider in an unfamiliar environment.
Translate that to the current US election—particularly on the Republican side of the aisle—to England’s Brexit as well as the rise of the immigrant-fearing Right throughout Europe and it becomes more meaningful. All those who fear and distrust The Other need to show compassion and understanding as to what it’s like to be an immigrant in a foreign environment, a frightened human fleeing deadly violence, war and privation.
It may be too late for the fearful prejudiced ones to walk a mile in an immigrant’s tattered shoes, but it’s not too late to give thought to why those immigrants are fleeing. To them, it’s a matter of survival.
Humans have brains. They must use them. They must feel in their gut what it’s like to be “The Other.” It’s not too late to be cured. It’s not too late to experience humanity.