SUMMER OF 1979: “It’s Spic & Span Under My Scars” …

We moved to Allen from Providence, Rhode Island, in 1979, back when Allen’s population was 1,700. My mother, sister and I were three of only a handful of Hispanics when we arrived which soon became the root of my deep lack of self-esteem. The first day of school at Boyd Elementary found me surrounded by a closely bound family of blond-haired, blue-eyed, small town 5th graders, most of who were raised together from birth. When the bell rang for gym class that day, the teacher, “Coach Spann”, made his way out to the middle of the gymnasium floor. As he reached for the microphone to quiet the class and call us to attention, “Lisa”, the girl who probably unbeknownst to her would thereafter become the nemesis of the rest of my school years, made her cruel announcement: “Look how Spic and Spann these floors are!”

I remember that humiliation like a million needles stinging my extremely dark brown hands and feet as if it were happening right this instant. Everyone in that space, including the coach himself, looking down and laughing at me, the “spic”, and all I wanted to do was crawl under a rock and disappear. What’s funny is that at the time I didn’t even know what it meant. “A spic? What is a spic?” It wasn’t until one of the friends that was sitting beside me leaned in closely, as if to shelter me from the trauma that I didn’t even realize I was going through, and asked if I was okay. I asked her why, why wouldn’t I be okay? Then she gently explained to me – “SPIC”! “A spic is a mexican person or what sometimes people refer to as a wetback. She just made fun of you for being so dark skinned.” And I don’t remember exactly how I finally made it from the gym floor to the bathroom, but do remember staring into the mirror and crying.  It was on that day, at the tender age of 10, that I began to despise myself and the very skin I lived in, and though I did manage to have a handful of truly good friends (many of whom after almost 40 years I actually consider some of my closest and dearest friends today) and times until my graduation in 1987, that moment bruised me forever.

Thank God for my family back then. At home, I was “safe” with a roof over my head, and, above all loved, with Mom never more than a heartbeat away. Looking back, I can’t seem to remember a moment that she missed! Not one single lunch, class party, field trip or game and never a “latched door” for us to come home to. From what I could see at that point in my life and for many years to come, my mother would have torn out her own beating heart for the sake of those that she loved despite her outwardly gentle appearance.

Of course, then there was Julie, not only my sister, but one of my truest, lifelong friends. She’s been my rock, my sounding board and one of the only people in this world who has ever truly understood me. So close are we that over the years when I have heard people talking about their “sibling rivalries” I have always been perplexed. Julie is everything that I am not, and together, we make a whole person. She, too, over the years has suffered many of the same prejudices as I, only her much more so, because she has always been so much darker than me.  Through it all, though, we have always stuck together and never once in my life has she abandoned me!