Subject to Change by Rudy Yniguez: A preoccupation with racial loyalty

March 05, 2002

I'm feeling a certain need to be seen by my racial peers as Mexican enough.

Such was the result of a call I got last week shortly after Tuesday's newspaper when my criticism of Bob Filner hit the streets.

A woman called to tell me that I should change my name because I'm an embarrassment to Chicanos. She called to tell me that she, like me, is a member of the National Rifle Association but that doesn't mean she wants Charlton Heston for president. She called to tell me that I should not refer to Bill Clinton as "the sex president," and to leave such references to white men. She called to say she doesn't need to read the kind of (four-lettered word for poop) I wrote.

I cannot help but be deeply hurt by her words; I've lost sleep over them. Because I grew up during the women's liberation movement, I've always considered myself a sensitive kind of guy. I've attended gender, racial and sexual sensitivity training courses while with previous employers.


Throughout my life I've tried to be Mexican enough for those around me, but in light of the woman's comments, it's clear I've failed, and failed not just my fellow Mexicans but my family, friends and myself. Am I a product of my environment or have I been brainwashed by a world too far to the right?

The question I've been struggling to answer is how to atone for my political flaws. Perhaps the answer lies in my upbringing.

My paternal grandparents moved to the United States from Zacatecas because they were being persecuted by the Mexican government. My mother was born in Fresno, my father in Dunsmuir.

When I was 5, my father hooked up with another woman and abandoned my mother and five kids. When I was 8, my mother died. I then moved in with an aunt and uncle who did the best they could to raise me the same as their own children. My uncle Tony graduated in 1951 from UC Berkeley and subsequently received a graduate degree in Spanish from Mexico City University. My aunt Olivia was an English/Spanish court interpreter for decades.

By the time I reached 13, my aunt and uncle could no longer control me. My father picked me up and took me to live with him, my two eldest sisters, my brother, stepmother and stepsister, in Irapuato in Mexico. From there we headed to Tijuana, where my father owned two stores where he sold used clothing. On the way we stopped to visit my stepmother's mother in Navolato. I got sick and was left behind.

I spoke no Spanish. I shared a home with an elderly woman who made a living selling tortillas at 1 peso per dozen. Her home was made of mud-thatch walls, a palm-frond roof, a dirt floor, no hot-running water and a chicken coop in the back. She spoke no English.

My stepgrandmother treated me wonderfully well. In three short months I learned the basics of Spanish and I gained an appreciation for all I'd had when I was living the lower-middle class life in Sacramento.

Finally arriving in Tijuana, I started school in the sixth grade. It was awful; I was teased and beat up because I spoke Spanish poorly. I was beat up because I was a "gabacho" who had supposedly returned to Mexico because I couldn't succeed in the United States. I was beat up because I had no friends.

After I finished the sixth grade, my father, using a phony address, enrolled me in junior high school in San Ysidro, or Chula Vista. It took less than a semester for the school to find out that I, an American citizen, was not living in San Diego County, not paying property taxes, and therefore, not entitled to attend a U.S. school.

I enrolled in a public "secundaria" in La Mesa (a suburb of Tijuana), failed my first year and was not allowed to enroll the next. I graduated from a private high school. I was no longer being beat up because by this time I spoke Spanish fluently, though still with an accent, and had more friends.

After high school I moved back to the U.S., went to junior college outside of Chico, joined the U.S. Navy for eight years, worked for the Department of Defense for 10 years, worked at two commercial nuclear power plants, lost my federal job during the defense cutbacks in 1993, went to UC Davis and studied political theory and constitutional law, and after graduating, became a newspaper reporter.

All of that adds up to me.

Where did I go wrong?

(I plagiarized the title and the first sentence of this column from a book review in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.)

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