As a kid, I was harassed at a pool because my skin was too dark. That bigotry hasn’t disappeared.
Andrew Young was my political mentor and the person who most influenced my thinking about race and civil rights. “Telling someone they are a bigot,” he says, “is like telling an alcoholic to quit drinking—it’s a disease.” I agree.
Long before I followed Andy around Georgia, listening to him preach and teach with his golden oratory, I’d already had my own formative experience with race and identity.
My father, along with his three sisters and two brothers, were all born in the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas—“one foot in Mexico and the other in the U.S.,” he liked to say. The Zamarripas of that era moved effortlessly between both countries, maintaining their ties to their ancestral home in Zacatecas, Mexico. My father joined the Army at age 17. At Fort Benning, he met my mother, Evelyn, on a dance floor. She was an effervescent, strawberry blonde from Chipley, Florida, with a fifth-grade education and Ginger Rogers moves.
My sisters and I were all born at Martin Army Hospital in Fort Benning; Linda in 1948, Jane in ’49, and me, the youngest, in December of 1952. We spent our early childhood years in Wahiawa, Hawaii, where my father was stationed.
In the summer of 1962, we returned from Hawaii to visit my maternal grandparents in Chipley and decided to spend an afternoon at the public pool. My grandparents lived in a house with no television, no air conditioning, and no indoor toilet. It was blazing hot. We needed a break.
Chipley is a simple town, as was its pool—a small rectangle with a light blue bottom, concrete edges, all surrounded by patchy grass and a chain-link fence. We were beach kids decked out in flashy Hawaiian swimwear, sporting our tropical tans. Linda jumped in the pool first, followed by Jane—a Gold Medalist later in life in the Special Olympics, woman’s freestyle—and, finally, me.
Suddenly, the kids in the pool started yelling, jumping out of the pool, huddling, all pointing at me and my sisters. “Ni**er in the pool,” they shouted, still pointing at us, then again, “Ni**er in the pool!”
We heard the commotion but didn’t understand what they were saying or what was happening. We’d never heard this word. Afraid that something dangerous was in the pool—a water moccasin, varmint, stinging bugs—we jumped out too. Only later did we learn that we were just too dark for my mother’s people.
Years later, sitting in an outdoor football stadium, in Plant City, Florida, while watching my sister Linda sashay across the Strawberry Queen Beauty Pageant stage, a man sitting behind me and my mother declared, “How did that damn ni**er get in the contest?” My mother turned and stared fiercely at the stranger—offended and deeply hurt, astonished that people talked that way in 1968. We stormed away. Linda was chosen, first runner-up.
“We were just too dark for my mother’s people.”
In sharing these family stories, it is not my intent to suggest that my family suffered irreparably or was subjected to the extremes of racial prejudice, but to illustrate something simple: Each of us, regardless of circumstances, develops views and feelings about race from personal life experience—experiences that become the emotional foundation of how we view ourselves and others. They may be conscious or unconscious, but they are formative.
My life experience became front and center years later when I was elected to the state senate, along with two other Latinos to the state house. Together, we were the first Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban elected to the General Assembly. It was, not coincidentally, an election that had seen a massive wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric and hatred in Georgia and throughout the South.
The pervasive rhetoric was vile and demeaning, cruel, ugly, and vicious. Illegal aliens were criminals and murderers, thieves and drug peddlers, gang members and welfare queens. As I became a political object of this ploy, I thought about my family and realized this was another rendition of “ni**er in the pool.” But this was different. It was an ignorance borne not of the isolation of 1962, but something calculated and orchestrated, designed to seduce ordinary people along an emotional continuum from mere intolerance to rank bigotry. It was a political strategy to dumb down the economic and structural issue and debate about immigration to an emotional brawl. And it worked.
I knew many state senators and representatives who adopted this hateful strategy. But I also understood they were not full of hatred themselves but rather reckless opportunists using the tools for their own benefit, to get elected, to gain power, to take control. It was a sentiment they would share with me privately but never publicly.
In the 50 years since the Dream Speech, the most damaging change in the landscape of bigotry and racism is the rise of professional bigots and their lexicon of words, symbols, and phrases, all designed to stir and manipulate. Talk show hosts, television personalities, preachers, and politicians masquerading as experts and journalists, peddling innuendo, an elixir of hate and intolerance, promising a return to a time that never was. The president of the United States calling some Mexicans “rapists.”
I’m fond of Dr. King’s notion that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, though maybe time is not an arc but an undulating line, sometimes, even a circle. And in spite of our progress in human and civil rights, sometimes the ugly past repeats itself, our darker nature rises, and the addiction returns with a ferocity.
Sam Zamarripa is the CEO of Intent Solutions and is at work on his third novel.