Balancing the positive experiences of my trip to Mexico with the prejudices of classmates established a recurring pattern I would have to face for many years. Accommodating to the dominant group’s negative racial attitudes while attempting to maintain a sense of self—including all I knew to be valuable about my ethnic background and family—became a necessary, frequent occurrence. Coping with a real or imagined danger of rejection began to follow me around, an extra burden to think about and add to the survival kit for growing up. I can recall days from my youth when it was not necessary to attach “dirty” or “lazy” to the word Mexican. The word effectively stood alone as a slur, especially when delivered with the proper contempt and snarl.
I can’t remember exactly when I started slowly retreating into a racial closet. I’m sure it began by degrees in elementary school. My white skin and looks, along with the anglicized pronunciation of my name, ALL-gwin (rather than the Spanish pronunciation—Ohl-GEEN), began making it easier to avoid the automatic label of Mexican others endured based merely on their skin color, looks, and surname. The dilemma of how to perform in the face of the prejudices and discrimination against Mexicans I might encounter soon created a built-in warning system for detecting an ever-present sheet of thin ice.
Deciding what to say or do when hearing a demeaning remark, whether directly aimed at me or not, presented a tough assignment for a ten-year-old. Who in their right mind would intentionally look for situations that could cause feelings of shame or rejection? For me the problem worsened before it improved, and I felt forced to slug through many unresolved years before finding the peace I yearned for and discarding my bearable but nagging cross.