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In a world of color, change

October 19, 2008|Ruben Martinez | Ruben Martinez is a professor of literature and writing at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of "Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail" and an upcoming book about race and representation in the American desert West.

My elementary school teachers often told the class that any one of us kids could grow up and become president of the United States. They would invoke Harry Truman, the Everyman from Missouri. And of course Abraham Lincoln, his log cabin and all those miles he walked to school.

I was in second grade the year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were killed, and from then on I was suspicious of the anyone-can-be-president cliche. But it wasn't done with me.

I was often the only "minority" student in a classroom, owing to the uncommon demographic space my family occupied -- brown and upwardly mobile. There wasn't much of a Latino middle class in Los Angeles all those years ago. My young, liberal teachers hovered over me with platitudes about the great things I would achieve. Their desire probably said more about them than about me; most of them assumed I was a hardship case, rising up against the odds. It placed two burdens on me -- of carrying the weight of difference, and of great expectations.

I loved and loathed the attention. I remember being intensely aware of the heat on my face. And of a sensation that I find terribly difficult to put into words even today: of not fitting inside my own body, that my skin could barely hold back my blood, like the skin of a sausage.

So I needed to succeed because I was a minority -- which meant there was no failure like success, what with the doubt and resentment that shadow one's accomplishments. (Was it because of affirmative action?) This was the unintended consequence of the liberal agenda on race. In this context, King's dream of a just and equal society was unachievable because the vision itself seemed to emphasize difference. I was doomed to always be aware of the color of the hand I held in mine.

Accepting the spotlight my teachers had focused on me, I ran for student body president in the eighth grade at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Silver Lake. I ran as an intellectual, because that was the language I'd learned in the "gifted" classes (where I was, of course, the lone "Mexican"). My stump speech emphasized lofty ideals about education, while my competitors offered cliches about getting better food in the cafeteria. This was around the time that Jerry Brown became governor of California. That a former Jesuit seminarian with long hair and sideburns who dated a rock 'n' roll goddess could lead the Golden State seemed to augur well for my own electoral chances. But I lost.

I failed to carry even my homeroom because I didn't invoke color. A mention of Cesar Chavez probably would've sufficed to rally the school's Mexican and liberal gringo votes into a winning coalition. But as far as the brown kids were concerned, I'd gone over to the whiter side; and of course I didn't fit the white kids' image of the typical overachiever. I can point to this as the moment when resentment began to well up, and though I might have thought it was directed at my white or brown peers, it dug deepest into myself.

As a young writer and spoken-word artist in the 1980s and '90s, I found that both liberal whites and "people of color" applauded when I claimed my brown-ness. Conservatives seethed, of course, but I didn't need their "votes," and their attention fed my ego as much as the sympathetic kind. Still, the louder the applause, the more I wondered about whether I'd entered into a Faustian bargain. In the end, embracing color left me as lost as having denied it, angrier at myself than ever.


A generation after I ran for student body president, Barack Obama appeared, offering a rhetorically fuzzy "hope" and a decidedly more powerful symbol in his very body. He addressed race only when he had to (the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.) because it was always implicit, from his improbable figure on the debate dais with his rivals for the Democratic nomination to the night he took the stage with John McCain for their first debate, the kind of "content of their character" scene presaged in the "I Have a Dream" speech.

Anyone who has ever felt in his own body the hot shame that awareness of color brings could not escape the myriad emotions that emerged in the course of Obama's campaign. There was cynicism. I certainly believed the axiom that my generation -- and who knew how many generations more to come -- would not live to see a black man become president. (The realization that I'd abandoned all hope shames me to no end.)

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