I’ve stopped being surprised or offended when white colleagues don’t acknowledge me. I remember being 24 years old, walking down the long high-school hallway to my classroom. At the other end of the hallway walked a white colleague towards me. I looked straight ahead to avoid the awkward silence as you close the distance, while you wait for the moment you’re close enough to say hello, and, seconds before you cross, say, “How’s it goin’?” Or give that tight smile. So footsteps before we passed shoulder to shoulder, I looked her way and said, “How’s it goin’?” She ignored me, kept looking straight ahead, didn’t say a word.
It still happens all these years later. At the start of the school year, I was setting up to run a professional development session in our school gym. I arrived early to set up. I was the only person in the gym. A white colleague walked in. I greeted him. He said nothing and kept walking. Another white colleague walked in. He ignored me, too. Then, he sat and talked with the other white guy.
Despite the implied arrogance by some, not all of my white colleagues over the years, I stopped being surprised or offended. Instead, I think of a conversation I had with my dad over 20 years ago.
I started at DePaul in 1990 and drove there in a ’79 Pontiac Bonneville my dad bought me for $250. Early in my freshman year, my dad asked me if there were lots of Latinos at school. I wanted to say, “Pa, I’m one of the only Latinos in most of my classes. The other brown faces I see mostly are the landscapers’. I think of you when I see them sweating in the morning sun. I remember you were a landscaper when you first came to Illinois in the 1950s. And look, Pa! Now I’m in college!”
But I didn’t.
I just said, “No, Pa. There’s a few Latinos, mostly Puerto Rican, few Mexicans. But all the landscapers are Mexican.”
My dad responded, “¡Salúdelos, m’ijo!”
So when I walked by the Mexican men landscaping each morning, I said, “Buenos días.”
Recently, I realized what my dad really meant. I remembered learning the Mexican, or Latin American, tradition of greeting people when one enters a room. In my Mexican family, my parents taught me to be “bien educado” by greeting people who were in a room already when I entered. The tradition puts the responsibility of the person who arrives to greet those already there. If I didn’t follow the rule as a kid, my parents admonished me with a back handed slap on my back and the not-so-subtle hint: “¡Saluda!”
I caught myself tapping my 8-year-old son’s back the other day when he didn’t greet one of our friends: “Adrian! ¡Saluda!”
However, many of my white colleagues over the years followed a different tradition of ignorance. “Maleducados,” ol’ school Mexican grandmothers would call them.
But this Mexican tradition is not about the greeting—it’s about the acknowledgment. Greeting people when you enter a room is about acknowledging other people’s presence and showing them that you don’t consider yourself superior to them.
When I thought back to the conversation between my dad and me in 1990, I realized that my dad was not ordering me to greet the Mexican landscapers with a “Good morning.”
Instead, my father wanted me to acknowledge them, to always acknowledge people who work with their hands like he had done as a farm worker, a landscaper, a mechanic. My father with a 3rd grade education wanted me to work with my mind but never wanted me to think myself superior because I earned a college degree and others didn’t.
My dad turns 77 today. And even though we don’t have many heart-to-heart conversations, we’ve learned to understand each other. A few days ago, my son interviewed him about being a bracero, a guest worker on Texas farms. He told my little boy how he enjoyed working with the land. My dad loved work. As we were leaving, my dad told my little boy, “Thank you for thinking my life is important.”
It is, Pops. You taught me how to work with a conscience, how to take pride in my work, and how to acknowledge the honest, good work of others. Happy Birthday.
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