I am on my way to Los Angeles.
My baby brother is getting married. It is going to take me close to 12 hours to get to him, courtesy of the latest storm to hit the North East, Athena.
In order to get to LA, I am having to travel from Newark to Charlotte, NC to Phoenix before landing in LA. It dawned on me, as we landed in North Carolina, that I was landing in a “red state” – something that I am only keenly aware of because of the recent presidential election – the results of which have left some people feeling raw. I digested this reality for a moment and looked forward to the almost 3 hour layover here.
It’s incredible to casually people watch, something I love to do when I travel, because on the surface, we all look the same, and in airports especially, we all have similar goals – to get somewhere. Nothing much separates us from one another here.
I opened up my laptop and started to enjoy the free Wifi offered at the Charlotte Davidson International Airport. Two men sat next to me. Southern accent – which I often find endearing – enthusiastically talking about car racing. Conversation started about the most recent race one of them competed in, an upcoming 3-week visit to Florida for another race, their team, their sponsors…I soon got lost in work and Twitter.
Then it happened:
“….my daughter was livid! She saw the results come in and she just started hooting and hollering about those freeloaders winning the election!” said one of the men.
“Well, and you know that’s what it is. Damn moochers just wanting something. I mean, c’mon! 71% of the votes? It’s just…”
“Yup, they just want stuff. All those HISS-PAH-NICKS are happy cause they gonna git free stuff and money now!”
I heard it and reacted only on Twitter without looking up at them.
But because they were in the seats right next to mine, I had a perfect peripheral view and could see the one right next to me looking at me, before they started to whisper.
The funny thing about this moment is that it had been the 4th time since election night that I have heard that we (Latinos) “want free stuff”, though Bill O’Reilly didn’t actually go as far as saying Latinos – just “non-whites”.
The other thing is, that I have heard it before, a fact that has rendered me numb. There is no knee-jerk reaction in me. No need to give them a piece of my mind. No automatic instinct to defend or attack.
And, it’s not the first time I’ve encountered racism during my travels. One of my most memorable moments is a black man in Memphis yelling at me angrily as I walked down the street with my (white) husband and children, “You are a traitor! You’re sleeping with the enemy! You’re sleeping with the devil!”
There isn’t much I can say to someone whose ideologies are so deeply rooted and so intensely promoted, certainly not in a few minutes in a crowded airport, that would change their minds.
So, I said nothing. And honestly, I noticed, but wasn’t really all that angry by it at all. I have, after all, been brown my whole life. Sometimes, you just don’t care enough.
Until, I started packing my stuff to board the plane.
“Did you hear us?”, asked one of the men.
I smiled (yes, I smiled) and said, “Yes. I did.”
They looked at each other.
It didn’t mean much – though the embarrassment on their faces was encouraging.
“Do you like racing?” asked one of the men.
“No. I don’t care much for the sport.” I responded.
“What? Why?” asked the other,”What do you like? What do you do?”
“I’m a travel blogger.”
“A what now?”
“A travel blogger. What do you do?”
“We race for NASCAR.”
“Sounds like a good time” I responded, completely enjoying watching them try to show me how civil they are…how “not racist” they are. It’s a game I am very familiar with.
Finally, it came:
“Where are you from?”
I smiled, so used to the question now as one I have been asked millions of times.
“New York City.”
“No. Where are you from?”
There it was.
“New York.” I smiled again.
“Oh, like born there?”
“Yup. Born. There.”
I packed my electronics and got up to board my flight. “Have a safe trip,” I said and walked away.
The thing is, I do want something.
I want what most people who live in this country want. When my immigrant family came here, they came because they wanted something too: a better life, better pay, more opportunities for them and their children and they worked hard to give us those things. Yes, some of them relied on government assistance sometimes to help ends meet, but I didn’t grow up in a home where people sat around waiting for a check, or “freeloaded” on the government. I grew up in a family that encouraged me to strive for better, that pushed me to go to college, that moved me around from one place to another so that I had access to the best public schools and environment. They did want stuff, and I want that stuff too.
I’m not sure being Latina has much to do with my wanting it, because I am sure that there are a lot of people in this country who share the similar hopes and dreams for their own families.
I looked back at the two men and noticed they were still looking at me. They waved and smiled. In an instant, I wasn’t “one of them” anymore. It’s sad to me however, that I was probably not enough to change the rhetoric or their minds.