Ronald is a third-generation Latino immigrant. His father, Max, was the son of a Mexican immigrant who arrived in Texas some 80 years ago when crossing the border was relatively ordinary and little discussed, although discrimination did exist. Ronald is 21 years old; he lost his father, who died of a mental disorder and the resultant disorganized life, when he was 14. Max was a veteran of the Korean conflict and received a pension that supported the children of his first family and then Ronald and his young mother. Ronald’s mother is ill with cancer and he takes care of her.
During his premature dementia, Max managed to smile and enjoy life with his second family. Members of the two families occasionally lived together around the Bay Area. They were all identified with one of the two largest rival Mexican gangs in California, to the point that two of them paid with their lives. One died very young in one of the many drive-by shootings in southern California on a visit there with friends. The other, imprisoned for a while after a shootout that left him paralyzed from the waist down, took care that his little half-brother Ronald never was involved in the gangs, repeating the cliché that once you’re in, you can never get out.
As if to prove his point, one day, when it was least expected—because he was thought to be “recovered”—he attacked a gang rival with his meticulously restored 60’s American car. As he was fleeing police, he rolled the car and, because of his criminal record, was sent to state prison along with his wheel chair. He died there a couple of years ago from kidney disease, waiting for an organ donation that could have saved his life. As a gang member he had fallen victim to excesses of alcohol and other drugs.
Ronald felt as if he were orphaned a second time. He knew that he had a half-sister whom he had never met. His father had told him of her, but in his semi-lucid state Max had never told him of her whereabouts or circumstances.
As a youth, Ronald had been stigmatized for being Latino as well as for his association with the gangs, with whom he feels so familiar and yet so far apart. He has never actually been a member of a gang, but he knows all the signs, colors and secrets. In addition, he hears first-hand anecdotes of extreme violence and discrimination from his older brothers. He recognizes and is on guard against gang rivals and almost dresses and speaks like a gang member. To further round out his Mexican “identity,” he has had the usual discriminatory experiences with Americans, other Latinos and, of course, police.
In school other Latinos often criticize him for knowing nothing about Mexico and for not speaking Spanish. He only knows a few words of gang-speak and perhaps “taco” and “burrito.” On the other hand, many Americans treat him as though he is from another country and some police officers try to talk to him in broken Spanish and threaten to deport him. He has already had a number of run-ins with the police, almost all of which have been discriminatory and unjust, even though he doesn’t see it that way, but rather as a normal part of a life in which police are just another rival with whom he battles daily.
Recently Ronald was falsely accused of not wearing a seat belt after police found nothing else to accuse him of. He went to court, where the judge believed the police and levied a heavy fine. Then someone damaged his car, leaving him with repairs he was unable to pay for, since he had no insurance. It never crossed his mind to report it to the police. Later he was on his way to buy insurance when he ran into a paisa, as he calls recent immigrants who speak Spanish, who offered him a Honda for $500. He tried it out and it seemed to be a good buy. The following day, police stopped him, pulling him out of the car abruptly—as is common—even though Ronald showed them the registration and explained that he had just bought the car.
The Honda had been stolen and he was jailed for five days, accused of possession of stolen property. The judge didn’t believe his story, but thanks to the public defender, the prosecution was unable to prove that he had stolen the car. So now, without transport, he has to go through the probation process and pay fines imposed by the judge. His police record would indicate that he is a dangerous recidivist—this man with the face of a child, full of innocent ignorance.
The problems that confront many Latino immigrants in this country can span three or more generations, as they do in Ronald’s case. Many say that the problems are merely part of the process of adaptation and that the second generation is totally integrated. This may happen occasionally, but the more immigrants’ children and their children live on the margin, as do so many African Americans, the more they will suffer discrimination and injustice.
Victor Reyes is a Sonoma-based translator, language teacher and writer and a native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to West Marin.