Author’s Note: I thought this piece might have particular significance in light of the Supreme Court’s 6-2 majority decision to allow the state of Michigan, and by extension all states, the right to enact legislation banning the use of consideration of race in the collegiate admissions process for public universities.
On the morning of July 20th, the National Action Network—a civil rights non-profit founded by Rev. Al Sharpton—organized more than 100 rallies in cities all across America to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. As luck would have it, I happened to be in Los Angeles on that day and was able to attend a rally of several hundred people that was being staged in front of the Federal Courthouse. After a series of small speeches and prayers by local civic and religious leaders, a large number of those at the rally set off on a march through the streets of LA to express their discontent with the current state of affairs and their expectation that the Federal Government follow civil rights precedent by charging Zimmerman for the crimes that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law erroneously absolved him of. I managed to march along for about 3 miles before I stopped, a decision influenced in equal parts by the oppressive mid-July heat and the knowledge that I would have to walk those 3 miles again on the way back to my car.
Somewhere near MacArthur Park, I started talking with a young Latina named Maria after she offered me a slice of mango covered in what looked like chili powder from a little plastic bag. I appreciated the offer and was starving after the long walk, but I had no idea what the societally acceptable way to eat a messy fruit like mango was. I figured that I couldn’t use my hands because it would be uncouth and uncomfortably sticky and I also decided that I couldn’t ask to use the plastic fork she had in her hand because I was ignorant of West Coast Utensil Sharing Etiquette, so I just said no thanks. Maria was a short woman, but she was not small. Her body was pear shaped, with wide-set hips and a waist that tapered slightly up into sturdy upper body. All of this, when combined with her light brown complexion and her ponytail of licorice black hair made gave her the air of one of Gauguin’s Tahitian women had they worn tank tops and jean shorts. Maria was attractive, to be sure, but she didn’t seem terribly self-conscious. On the day that I spoke with her she was devoid of makeup and had no compunction about showing the world the large and visible surgical scarring around both of her knees, most likely the end result of an adolescence’s worth of playing soccer.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was accepted to Princeton University in part due to affirmative action policies, has said of her time at the Ivy league school that she felt like, “a visitor landing in an alien country.”
After walking for a few blocks and explaining to her why I was in Los Angeles and telling her a little about the march, the focus of the conversation switched from me to her when I asked if she lived in the city.
“Well, no…and yes.” Maria said. “I grew up here in LA and my family’s here, but I haven’t been living here because I was going to school in Hampshire.”
“Where were you going to school?”
“Oh, I went to Dartmouth. Have you heard of it?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of it.” I told her, doing my best not to laugh. It was a completely reasonable question considering the fact that Dartmouth is in New Hampshire and a world away from Southern California, but I went to a prep school growing up where some parents—not mine thankfully—began pressuring their kids to make it into an Ivy league before they’d hit puberty.
“What’s so funny?” Maria asked.
“Nothing. It’s just that Dartmouth is kind of a big deal.”
“Yeah, I know it’s fancy and everything.” she said, shaking her head. “But honestly, I still have no idea why I went there.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the whole time I was there, I just kept asking myself, what the heck am I doing here in Hampshire? I’m a girl from LA, you know?”
“Did you feel homesick or something?”
“No.” Maria stopped for a moment. “Well, yes I was homesick. It’s in a tiny town on the opposite side of the country where it’s always cold and gray and snowy. It’s like the complete opposite of LA. Plus, it’s an Ivy, which means that it can be kind of snobby.”
“Kind of snobby?”
“Okay, so you could take the ‘kind of’ out of it. Dartmouth’s just really snobby. That’s why I never make a habit of telling people out east that I went there. I mean, back here on the West Coast most people don’t even know what Dartmouth is. But on the East Coast?”
“On the East Coast, what?”
Maria took a deep breath: “So, I had this one friend who lived out there with me who really looked the part, you know? Blonde hair, blue eyes…the whole deal. And whenever we’d go out together people would just be completely ignoring me and jumping down her throat until I’d just happen to mention that I went to Dartmouth. Next thing you know everybody was all nice and interested in me and…it was just sick.”
“Do you think it was a cultural thing?” I asked.
“I guess so. I’m from the West Coast, you know? I’ll talk to anybody just to be friendly and say hi. It’s funny, I was in this cafe in Argentina a couple of years ago when I saw another American talking on his cell phone or something, and I hadn’t had a conversation in English in days, so I just go up and introduce myself. Pretty soon after we’d started talking, he asks me where I’m from. So, I tell him I’m from LA and he says that figures because no one from the East Coast would ever randomly start talking someone up like that.”
“What were you doing in Argentina?”
“I was just in Argentina for fun. Well, for fun and for school. Two summers ago I went to South America for a couple weeks with this summer program because I majored in Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth. I got to go through Peru and Bolivia and Brazil…God, I loved Brazil. Sometimes I’ll just tell people back here in the states that I’m Brazilian. I don’t know why I do it, but it’s fun ’cause people believe me.”
“Can you actually speak Portuguese?”
“Of course I can speak Portuguese!” Maria shrieked in mock offense. “It would be pretty pathetic if I majored in a language at school and couldn’t speak it when I graduated. It comes in handy because whenever people ask me if I’m really Brazilian I can just start talking in Portuguese and nobody questions it anymore.”
“Okay, so when does Argentina enter the story?”
“Well, Argentina was the last stop on the trip and, to be honest, it kind of sucked.”
“That’s funny.” I said. “I can’t remember why the topic came up, but I was talking to a woman I worked with who’s family is originally from Bolivia and she was said the exact same thing about going to Argentina. She said they’ve got a really bad superiority complex.”
“You got that right.” Maria told me. “Some Argentinians really do think they’re better than everyone else. It’s like they’re the Europeans of South America or something.”