LOOK at my name. Now, read about my family.
My brother and his wife are crack addicts and high school dropouts. When money was tight, my mother worked as a prostitute. She was held hostage once by her crazy ex-convict boyfriend, who dunked her head in a toilet, at knifepoint.
My cousin is in prison for stealing cars and checks from my aunt and grandmother. Her two sons, both teen-agers, are in jail for murder. My grandmother lives in a trailer park. I am the only one of my American cousins to go to college.
Now, let me tell you why I support the idea of looking at diversity -- and disadvantage -- in terms of economics, rather than race or ethnicity: All of the above mentioned relatives are white.
When I cover stories for the Boston Globe that deal with disadvantaged people, usually (but not always) people of color, my editors applaud my "understanding" of the people I write about. Many assume my Hispanic-ness has something to do with that. No one assumes the truth: I personally understand and identify with the disadvantaged because of my white mother, and her poor, uneducated family.
Valdes comes from my father, who is Cuban, very middle class and a college professor. Rodriguez comes from my husband, a fourth-generation Mexican-American who speaks about as much Spanish as Rush Limbaugh. My in-laws drive a minivan, live in the suburbs, shop QVC and own their own home.
My mother has red hair and blue eyes and hails from a family that is lovingly described by her as "white trash." My sister-in-law, the crack addict, is also white. Her father once called my brother a "spic" and chased him from their trailer home with a shotgun. But now my brother, who goes by Ric rather than Ricardo, has proved that he is as big a Lynard Skyynard fan as the next redneck in their family, and they have accepted him.
My brother's world is inhabited by poor white dropouts and rejects, perpetually high kids who grew up on welfare, were beaten by their parents -- a hopeless bunch forever in and out of prison, who are in every way more deserving of affirmative action than am I, with my Ivy League degree.
The folks with bad grammar in my family tree are white. The ones on welfare, white. The ones in trouble with the law, white.
At 12, I was given the choice to live with my Hispanic single father or my white single mother after their divorce.
My father wrote books, attended my school functions, traveled, and listened to National Public Radio as he cooked dinner for us. He jogged. He bought flowers for the table.
My mother wore tight cutoff shorts and T-shirts that said things like "Damn I'm Good." She flirted with my teen-age brother's friends, and bought them alcohol for their parties. She lived with a mechanic from New Jersey, a white guy, who sold drugs and robbed her of $4,000 before running out on her. She smoked pot and left the remains of her joints in Harley Davidson ashtrays. She got tattoos. She took a job with an escort service. Her convict boyfriend shot my brother's car full of bullets in a mushroom-induced rage, and promised he would kill me, too. He was a member of a white supremacist organization.
Life with father
I chose to live with my father.
My Hispanic father. My Cuban father. It was only later that I learned that Cuban-Americans have median household incomes higher than that of "whites." That didn't surprise me. The only poor people I'd known growing up were my mother's relatives -- cousins who lived in trailer parks and gave their babies bottles filled with Dr Pepper.
Let me tell you about Josh. He was my cousin Brett's youngest son. Brett is in prison. I was 14 or so when Josh was born, and I remember the deep gaze with which he observed me one Thanksgiving. He must have been about 3 years old. Sucking his soda out of that bottle, he was bruised, inside and out. He still hadn't spoken his first word.
His was a world of abuse and drugs and loud Led Zepplin and speeding junky Camaros. I wanted to wrap him up and run away with him. He did not smile. What kind of child doesn't smile? I spent hours that evening talking to him. Holding him. I remember him eventually leaning into my embrace, trusting me. I remember saying softly into his hair, "Be strong, please, please make it."
Josh is now 16. And he's in prison. He robbed a gun store, and, the police say, killed a woman. He is family. He is white. And I know I got chances in this life that Josh never got. We come from the same hell. But I have a Spanish name.
Disadvantage is more than a skin color. More than a language. More than an ethnicity. It is your mother selling her body. It is your brother smoking crack until his diaphragm separates from his lungs and he ends up in the emergency room, and they call you and tell you he is dying -- he and all his white drug addict friends.
Disadvantage is the lack of opportunity brought about by poverty. And it is ludicrous to think that my husband and his siblings, raised by a loving, stable and hard-working suburban family, are more deserving of a boost up than my sister-in-law, my cousin or my mother.
That is the truth.
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a Boston Globe reporter.
Pub Date: 3/16/99