We've come a long way in fighting racism--but we still have far to go

Copyright 2016 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published as a guest column on May 12, 2016
in the Austin American-Statesman)

     There are times when we refuse to believe that something intended to hurt us is unfolding before our eyes.

     That happened to me in the late 1960s, when my wife and I were traveling with our four children through Texas.

     We had arrived in Dallas late on a Sunday afternoon and checked into a downtown hotel. My family was tired, so we decided to order take-out food. Our 9-year old daughter and I walked for several blocks before finding a small diner open.

     As soon as we sat down at the counter, I noticed I was the only Chicano there. The other customers appeared to be locals.

     Because I was a tourist and the only minority in the place, I felt a strangeness there. The two waitresses behind the counter were busy, and so I didn’t give a second thought to the delay in being served water and given menus. I even ignored the brusqueness with which the bleached blond waitress shoved the menus in front of us.

     It didn’t hit home until, only a few feet away from us, she spoke to the other waitress.

     “Who in the hell do they think they are?” she said. “These damn Mexicans think they own the place!” She stepped away to take care of some task, then returned to continue her slurs. “Why don’t they go back where they came from? Instead of getting on our welfare rolls and living off the money you and I slave for.”

     Knowing that her words were meant for me, I yearned to take my daughter by the hand and walk out without our food order. But this was the only restaurant we had found open. I had a tired and hungry family back in the room, so I chose to stick it out, pay for the order, and get the hell out of there.

     After what seemed an eternity, the woman placed our packaged food in front of me, along with the check. I took out a $20 bill and pushed it across the counter with the check. A few minutes later, as my daughter and I stood up to leave, I picked up my change and started to put it in my pocket.

     To fight back, I placed the change in my pocket with the exception of a single penny. I placed the coin on the counter.

     As I walked past the waitress, I pointed to the penny. “Ma’am, your tip’s on the counter.” I left those words hanging in the air, waiting for her to register my payback.

     Spotting the penny, she became visibly unglued. As I reached for the door handle, I heard her angry words.

     “You take your Goddamned money and go to hell!”

     I didn’t bother turning back. As I pulled the door closed, I heard the penny hit the glass door.

     My daughter and I walked silently down the lonely street of an unkind city where we weren’t wanted. A large, black, imaginary cloud suddenly appeared over the city.

     My daughter broke the silence. “Spanish people are very talented, aren’t they, Dad?”

     “Thanks for saying that,” I said, forcing a smile, and I put my arm around her.

     Back in the hotel room, after I told my wife what had happened, she suggested I take some aspirins for the headache I felt coming on. They relieved my headache, but my despair and loneliness remained, as did that dark, ugly cloud, which loomed above.

     I’ve never forgotten that day and for my sake hope I never will. Although an isolated incident, it hurt.

     Granted, it occurred some time ago. But the question we should ask ourselves is whether it could happen again. Will racism ever be totally wiped out? I doubt it but urge it as a goal.

     My story pales when compared to other forms of racism that continue in our state today. It took place during an era when so-called “public” restrooms and water fountains at bus stations and elsewhere were there exclusively for “colored people”. Things have improved since then, but we still have a long way to go.

     Whatever inroads we’ve made, I attribute solely to civil rights legislation enacted in the past 50 years or so. Yet, some still turn away, ignoring the racism that someone somewhere endures every day, when they should be bowing their heads in shame for their complacency.