I Am Not A Spic

I'm not a spic.

Not everyone I've ever known agrees with me on that point. But more on that in a moment.

A local run of John Leguizamo's one-man show "Spic-A-Rama" and the minor stir the show's title caused among some of my Latino friends and colleagues, has me thinking about the words and phrases I've used over the year to describe myself.

Spic, by the way, is defined by the Random House Dictionary as a slang word thought to have originated around the turn-of-the-century. It was intended to be offensive toward "Spanish-Americans." Etymologists say the epithet was derived from the heavily accented expression, "I no speak English..."

Frightening, isn't it? How little literacy it takes to be ignorant.

My parents separated when I was a boy. So from the age of 5 until I turned 14, I had not lived in one town for more than six months.

One winter we'd be living in a rat-infested apartment on Manhattan's lower eastside. And a few months later we'd be in housing project in Laredo, Texas.

All that traveling taught me a lot about words and how they can be used to punish and reward.

In the Mexican American communities of South Texas, I was known as a bolillo -- a Spanish-slang word for a small French bread. Bolillos, like me, were purportedly trying to act white. Get it? Brown on the outside, white on the inside.

When I was nine years old and living in Manhattan, I remember wishing that I had been born Puerto Rican, since Mexicans then were held in such low esteem, even by Puerto Ricans.

The fact is that as a child I knew as much about the concepts of ethnic pride and racism as I did about Einstein's theory of relativity. At that age, I guess I thought insults like spic and wetback weren't that much different than calling someone four-eyes or hick.

By my late teens, and now living in rural Indiana, I had taken to calling myself, with some pride, a freak. In the street-slang of the mid 1970s, to be a freak in Indiana meant you were unconventional and something of an outsider. Having missed the anti-war movement by several years, freak-dom was the closest I could come to social consciousness.

Meanwhile, the Chicano movement had all but peaked on the West Coast, Florida's Cuban exiles had begun to resign themselves to the thought that Fidel Castro wasn't going anywhere soon, and the revolutionary wars of Central America that would later lead to a mass exodus of Nicaraguans and Salvadorans to cities like Houston and Los Angeles were still years away.

Largely oblivious to these social and political trends, I, in the meantime, had taken to calling myself a Hoosier -- with some pride no less. My wife calls this my Indiana white-boy years.

By the 1980s, the federal government had decided to label me, and just about anyone with a Spanish surname, a Hispanic.

I've since concluded that the term Hispanic was the government's way of minimizing, even if unintentionally, the great diversity of the nation's Latin American immigrants. Not to mention that the word overtly accentuates Spanish culture while ignoring the influence of Latin America's indigenous populations. You know, those people from the Aztec, Inca and Mayan empires. Not that they ever achieved anything significant.

The fact is that most so-called Hispanics in the United States are meztizos, part Indian and part European, whether our government cares to admit it or not.

Fast forward to 2002 and I find myself college educated, politicized, acculturated and prouder than ever of my diverse cultural and ethnic heritage.

In the vernacular of the day, I am a Latino now. An American Latino. This, too, is a profoundly imprecise label.

Unlike the terms spic or wetback, the connotation is clear: I want people to know that I'm no less American than George Washington or George W. Bush.

Yet, there is something unique about me. I am the noble amalgam of the conquering Spanish colonialists and the ancient, but no less magnificent, native people who occupied these lands for millenia before Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortes.

In other words, I am not a spic.

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