Around fourth or fifth grade, I remember seeing one of those infamous black and white photos of “Whites Only” and “Negroes Only” drinking fountains in the Jim Crow South that we all may have glanced at in our elementary school history books. Confused as to where a brown kid such as myself might get some water, I went home that day and asked my mom, “What water fountain did the Mexicans drink out of?” Perhaps out of ignorance, or maybe just as a way to explain to her child her feelings on her identity as a Mexican American, she said, “Well, we’re not really Black and we’re not really white, we’re kind of in the middle. So, I guess the Black one.”
Her response has stuck with me to this day and has been a remarkable indicator of the Latino/a/x experience in the US. One interpretation of the role that Latinos play in the US is that of the silent bystander, who, like a great assistant, is always working but never seen. The Latinx population in the US has both maintained this reputation and is working to break from it. The questions that remain in a time of such political and social upheaval are, “How does the Latino/a/x population in America break the cycle of feeling ‘somewhere in the middle?’” and “How do Latinos carve out a piece of an America that works toward making us more heard in this beautifully eclectic nation and works harmoniously to ensure that now, as everyone gains a seat at the table, Latinos can make our powerful voice heard?’”
Such questions make me think about my grandparents. Dementia has hit my grandfather, and it has hit him hard. In his formative years, he worked the fields of Oxnard, California, where he picked fruits and oftentimes found himself on the opposite end of a firing. He worked diligently but smelled the roses (and ate the fruits) a little too much. Trying to find his way, he worked a number of jobs as a mechanic, a forklift operator, a general contractor, a truck driver, an electrician—essentially anything that required him to use his hands and end the day exhausted. His motto, which I often heard about when I was younger, was Ganarselo, or Earn It.
In his forties, he finally found his bliss and started a real estate development company with his best friend, which still exists to this day and has provided a life that will last him and his family several times over. He is the definition of the American dream, with stories to share of a life well lived—stories that could fill a saga of books. Now, in these times of dementia, we tend to hear the stories on repeat, with a new piece of information occasionally revealing itself. He may not know who I am anymore. He often thinks I’m a cousin, a stranger who was invited to his house, or (my personal favorite) his “really good buddy,” but the lessons of ganarselo have stuck with me as he retells the same stories as if telling them for the first time.
“When will anyone tell our story? When will it be time for people to talk about the Mexicans? When will people care about us?”
Recently, after a really tough spell with the dementia, where we thought any day would be THE day, I stayed overnight at my grandparents’ a couple days a week, helping where I could. I’ll tell you something: I don’t think anyone has really lived life until they’ve had their grandpa pee on them while helping him change his poop-filled adult diaper. You experience every sense and emotion in real time. That shit will bring you closer to God. Many of these nights, after my grandpa was put to bed, my grandma and I would sit together, and we would talk about everything under the sun.
My favorite part of those nights was when she’d tell stories about her past, and I would just sit back and listen. My grandma, who is well into her eighties, is a master storyteller. She can remember every little factoid—the treats her third grade teacher used to bake for the class, the name of the neighbor who lived down the street from her, and how every one of our three hundred-plus family members are related. She is a walking history textbook for our family. Being an absolute history nerd myself, I gobble this all up. Each night I spent at her house during that time I helped with my grandpa, she pulled back the curtain on Mexican Oz, and I found new understanding of both my grandma and my grandpa.
One of these nights really sticks out to me. My grandma was asking me about my perspective on the death of George Floyd. Figuring I’d teach my grandma a thing or two using my knowledge of American history, I told her that I understood the outrage and began to explain to her why this particular event was having such a massive impact on society in general. I told her that this was America’s time to face its long-standing history of racism, both subtle and overt, toward the Black population. She didn’t skip a beat. Very directly, with not a hint of disdain or anger, she said to me, “When will anyone tell our story? When will it be time for people to talk about the Mexicans? When will people care about us?”
That feeling my grandma expressed was the same one I felt and still do feel. I have often thought, “Where do I fit into all of this? When are people ever going to know our stories when we’re always told that now is not our time?” It’s a tough pill to swallow, when you’ve felt that way your whole life. It’s tough when you feel that you’ve been working in the background, not making yourself noticed but doing everything you can, day after day, to ganarselo. When will we be heard? Will we continue to be forgotten while facing a lot of the same hurdles that our Black brothers and sisters still face? When will history books give ten, eleven, or twelve-year-old boys an idol to look up to—other than just the few paragraphs you’re required to read on César Chávez day?
As I continued talking with my grandma, she dove headfirst into one of her most remarkable stories. She told me how much she used to love going to the movies as a kid. When she would walk in, there was a white line down the middle of the movie theater. One side was for the white folks, the other for the Mexicans. A literal line in the middle to separate the two sides in a movie theater—how’s that for an allegory? School was no different. The white school, where there was education and opportunity, was a far cry from the school my grandma first attended for the pickers’ kids. My great-grandfather, who had established a very successful grocery store in the city, wouldn’t stand for his kids going to a lesser school, nor would his wife—my great grandmother, Flora—who marched up to the principal and said that her kids were going to get the same education as the white kids.
And they did. The principal tried to kick them out at a later time through some nefarious dealings, but my absolute badass of a great-grandmother told him she had no problem telling the other “high-society” members just how racist he was. They had no issues from that day forward.
The stories that my grandparents share in droves won’t be found in most history books. They’re not going to find their way into news articles or archives outside of my family’s memory. However, they are the stories that most Latino/a/x people in America share. These stories of overcoming adversity—including overt and subtle racism—and pulling yourself up from your bootstraps will remain mostly amongst us, their descendants.
Such stories, hurdles, and successes will continue to remain a part of this incredible country’s beating heart. Though my grandpa will continue to lose his capacity to tell stories, and the history of our family will dissipate when my grandparents are both gone, I will not let my family, present and future, forget what my grandparents have done, nor what their parents did. We must ganarselo each and every day, not because we need to but because no Latino kid should ever have to ask, “What water fountain did the Mexican kids drink from?” They should be nourished, strong, and ready to continue to ganarselo.
Tony Estrada is a Mexican American filmmaker based out of Los Angeles, CA. His most recent short film, ¡Viva la Revolución!, starring Mexican superstars Maite Perroni, Lonnie Chavis, and Miya Cech, played at film festivals across the world and is aligning with a national brand to gain distribution to every school in America. His previous short film, Bridesman, starring Danny Trejo, played at film festivals across the US, including the Academy Award-qualifying HollyShorts and LA Shorts festivals. Alongside his narrative work, he has directed and produced branded content work for LYFT, CBS, LA County, Mattel, Phantom Auto, and Niagara Bottling. His E Squared banner currently has a number of television, film, and branded content projects in various stages of development. His previous articles have been published in periodicals such as the Advocate, Elephant Journal, and the Good Men Project.