By Luz Hernandez
Published on February 6, 2019
I was 15 years old when my English teacher thought it would be a great idea to take four students on a trip to Italy, a trip no student could afford. After washing cars, hosting art exhibitions, selling chocolate, and working my first job as a front desk assistant, I was barely able to scratch the surface of funding my trip. After realizing that it would take me nearly a year to fundraise everything, my teacher set up a GoFundMe page. These were the words I used on that page to present myself to prospective donors.
I come from immigrant parents, working low wage jobs, undocumented, and minimally educated. I come from parents who sacrificed their lives and lived in poverty so their daughter would graduate from high school, attend a four-year university, have a stable job, and become someone bigger in life. Today, before you, stands that daughter, an exemplary 4.0 student who, despite growing up in poverty, has proven herself worthy over and over again through her commitment to school.
In less than two months we surpassed our $35,000 goal by $2,000. I was thankful for sure. This was the beginning of countless thank-yous.
I traveled from LAX to Rome to Bologna to Venice and finally Milan, Italy. I performed my role all along the way. I continued to repeat those words, low income, poverty, immigrant, and day by day I felt the donors’ pity swell. Before taking us on exciting high-class trips, where we would learn to eat properly, speak properly, and even sleep properly, the donors’ eyes would stare at my golden-brown skin, so brown that it burned their eyes – they would cry. Brown like the rich fertilized soil their hand has never touched. I was too brown in all the senses. I was so brown that I had to thank them over and over for giving me the space to be brown and poor in their elite European world. I could see it in her eyes, the donor wanted to be my Bartolomé de las Casas.
My already-colonized body functioned in ways I did not understand. At a young age and with limited knowledge of colonialism and feminist epistemology, I was resistant, I rebelled, and I questioned. I questioned the donor, a non-Indigenous woman and her desire to “play Indian.” She asked me to teach her my native language and braid her hair, all seemingly in an effort to make me comfortable with her. I soon learned that her perception of my Oaxacan traditions was overly romanticized, and she didn’t value them. She wanted to learn the native language, yet questioned the propriety of the way I spoke. I didn’t pray before meals, and she was critical of my mother for not teaching me to do so. Her questions full of curiosity about me began to feel like threats. And they directed shame towards my mother and all the women I grew up with. To the donor, I was an exotic Indian girl that needed help. She knew I was indigenous before I knew it.
Exotic, I was complimented. At that time, my vocabulary was limited. I did not understand the ties the word exotic came with. I smiled and replied, “Thank you!” Exotic for having thick, long dark hair. Yet, despite being exotic, the donor still loved me. She loved me because I held her in wonder. She studied the way my body moved, the way my hair flowed into the restaurant. Seats were reserved, plates were served, and two waiters stood at each end of the table. I was uncomfortable, not by the waiters but by the food. My teacher knew I was vegetarian but told me to eat the sides and say thank you before I began eating. This time she did not want me to thank the donor but to thank God.
The trip was carefully planned, with three donors who guided us throughout Italy. One donor took us to church on Sundays, had us pray before we ate, and introduced us to her guests as “the little Mexicans I told you about.” She ignored the fact that one of the students was Salvadoran. Rather than introducing us as students, she assumed our ethnicity. I just smiled. I smiled a lot throughout this trip. I smiled because I could not speak. Even if I could speak, what would I say? Thank you?
Today, I want to gift those who were never thanked with my thoughts and energy. The three other students who also worked and saved to fund our tip. Their work and efforts were never recognized. Gratitude should be a humbling emotion. The feeling of being grateful is understanding that what is given is a gift rather than something wholly earned.
I took a final “thank you” picture at the airport. It was a photograph I took in the space I wanted to, for the person I most wanted to honor: my mother. The plane took off. I looked out the window and watched the curves of the European mountains, small towns scattered on the ground, and the various shades of green. I thought of how thankful I am towards earth, mostly because it has never forced a thank-you out of me and for giving me the space to exist. The thirty-five thousand-dollar wonders of Italy faded away as the plane ascended through the clouds.
- Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. 2013. “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations, 25 (1): 8-34.
- Butler, Judith. 1997. “Language, Power, Performativity – Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. Psychology Press.
- Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzalduá. 2015. This Bridge Called My Back Writings by Radical Women of Color, Fourth Edition. Albany: SUNY Press.
Luz Hernandez was born in Los Angeles. She is of Zapotec descent and is a Chicanx and Gender Studies double major with a minor in Labor and Workplace Studies at the University of California Los Angeles. She is involved in working on campus, with her community in LA, and in Mexico with indigenous people from Oaxaca. Through working with indigenous communities and being a vegetarian for ten years, Luz has developed an interest in food decolonization.
Luz’s story of her trip to Italy reminded me of the power of money. Something completely unreflective of a person’s merits, values, morals, or character can relatively accurately predict a person’s mobility, agency, and access to opportunities. In Luz’s case, financial dependence led to her belittling and objectification by her donors who believed they were personally superior to her because of their financial prestige. The idea that a person can equate the worth and skill of a human being to their financial standing baffles me and highlights how systemic inequality is ingrained in people’s thoughts and perpetuated by people’s behaviors. I am very glad that I was able to read Luz’s story of her experience and that she was able to speak out despite being silenced during the trip itself. For that I say, “thank you.”
I really, really liked this story! I can definitely relate to white “sealioning” that the donor enforced on the author, and I can especially relate to being told to automatically say thank you even if you are not so grateful for some comments or actions. It really is a way to silence voices. I was also impressed by the author’s incorporation of gender in the story, bringing up issues around race, privilege, power, and agency. My favorite line is “I was so brown that I had to thank them over and over for giving me the space to be brown and poor in their elite European world.” The story is very well written and articulated.
This story makes me feel so many things. As another woman of color, navigating spaces that were not designed with a person like me in mind, I can relate to so much of Luz’s experience. This expectation that we should not just express gratitude out of politeness, but that we should actually feel privileged to gain access to opportunities that others receive freely is something that I think about often. Power disparities serve to ensure that we internalize others’ expectations of us, learn to carry a sense of unworthiness, to smile through patronization, to yield to those who diminish our accomplishments. I hope that Luz and I—and others like us—are able to unlearn the habit of offering thanks as an apology for existing.
I appreciated this story so much. Having grown up in a white suburb where I often found myself playing “the only black kid” year after year, one quote in particular resonated with me: “I was so brown that I had to thank them over and over for giving me the space to be brown and poor in their elite European world.” This experience is SO REAL. Navigating spaces where I was deemed foreign and exotic, but a sort of “wonder” for being smart and well-mannered, resulted in so many interactions that expected me to smile in the face of being patronized and my culture being devalued. It has taken so much effort to learn that my body and being take up space rightfully, that no apology or is necessary in the face of success.
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