A new immigrant to the United States must enter public areas with caution, alert to hidden dangers. It’s a lesson I learned at a young age when my mother was bullied by a stranger in a grocery store.
So when I spot a Mexican man in a Home Depot store in St. Louis, I am not surprised that he looks anxious, shifting his weight from one foot to another. He’s short — maybe five feet tall in his heavy work boots — with a bushy black moustache. His furtive glances at the overhead signs tell me he does not read English.
I slow my cart, remembering a frightening experience from my childhood.
“Look at the treetops, Alicia!” my mother says as we creep along on shaded streets in our new station wagon. “The American oak trees are so tall and the branches are so wide that they meet at the top, like friends hugging each other.” She speaks to me in Spanish, but she is fluent in English thanks to her American teachers in Cuba. And thanks to American television, I have learned English fast.
We stop at a grocery store and push our cart up and down every aisle. “It’s expensive here,” she whispers in Spanish. As we wait in the checkout line, I notice the man behind us is watching my mother. He takes a step forward and says in a low voice, “What are you doing here?” My mother looks up, startled. “I — I am shopping.” Her English is perfect, but her voice is high, as if she is asking a question.
“You do not belong here,” the man growls. My mother turns to the cashier and holds out a coupon. But the cashier does not take the coupon; her eyes are fixed on the man. Everyone is looking at him. “Go back to where you came from, spic,” he hisses. The word hits my ears hard, like the word “spit.” Nobody moves at first, not even my mother. But when the man pushes past me to force her out of the narrow aisle, she turns to run and pulls me after her. When we are safely inside our car, I push down all four locks. My mother is trembling as we pull away.
This happened over 50 years ago. I want to believe things are better now, but I fear they are worse.
A long minute has passed, and the Mexican man in the home improvement store has not moved. I am about to step forward to help translate when a burly employee in an orange apron appears beside him. I tense. But the employee is a good man. You can see things like this at a glance. The way he ducks his head to meet the Mexican man’s lowered eyes. The way he nods encouragingly and speaks softly. I let out a breath. I did not realize I was holding it.
He gives me hope, this employee. I want to thank him when he is done helping the Mexican man. I want to remember that he and others like him have more collective power than any politician, even a demagogue.
On the way home, I look up at the treetops and repeat my mother’s words, like a poem or a prayer.
Alicia von Stamwitz is a writer and editor in St. Louis.