Third-Class Citizens

Rio Arriba County, NM – I’ve come to enjoy indulging the White people here who complain about being treated like third-class citizens – behind the Natives even!

Oh, the audacity of these brown people.

In their own ancestral lands!

It is true, though. People eye you when you enter bars or restaurants and you try not to stare back, but you can feel their eyes on you. Aside from the handful of people I work with, I may go all week without seeing another Gringo and when I do it’s likely a family that had traveled from Los Alamos to shop at the Wal-Mart. Children stare at you curiously in the Laund-O-Mat. And sometimes the gas station clerks will appear to eye you with suspicion.

And yet other times it seems overt. A couple of weeks ago my co-worker ordered a plate from the casino bar. We saw the cook approaching the bar with our food. Despite us calling out to him that it was our plate, he breezed right passed us without so much as a glance. There’s no way he didn’t hear us. The bartender had stepped away, so the cook asked the security guard to watch the plate – our plate.

El Gringos.

Really, that’s the worst of it. Aside from the waiter, we’re more likely a curiosity than anything else. Once when I was younger, my grandfather took me to a bar in the small Wisconsin town he retired in. At one point, a black man entered with the beer delivery and the place fell dead silent, with everyone sneaking glances. But somehow that felt different, ugly, and from a place of genuine dislike. Aside from the waiter, the people of Rio Arriba County certainly aren’t impolite. It’s just that White people are unusual. We’re not the norm. It’s a small town. People notice. Get used to it.

There’s just something willfully ignorant in the things said by some of the Whites around here. I’ve heard some White farmers explain that they don’t sell their USDA certified organic produce at the local market because locals can’t afford to pay the high prices that those in Taos and Santa Fe can. Makes sense. Make that money. Live the dream. But while they thumb their noses and make loads of cash on their shiny fruits,  the native farmers who vend at the local market will adjust their prices to reflect what people can pay, even accepting food stamps.

I imagine USDA organic certification simply isn’t that important to families who’ve purchased produce from the same local families for generations. There is no co-op that sells local produce. Instead you go to the weekly market or to the farmer’s home.

The White farmers will warn that you won’t find USDA certified produce at the local market. But there are a variety of reasons why the traditional farmer may not be certified organic. They tend not to use pesticides on their crops, but perhaps the seed stock’s provenance is indiscernible because it’s been passed down through generations. I’m not sure how old seed stock improves the crop, but it’s an important thing you’ll hear people mention.

While you may not find USDA certified organic anything at the market, you’ll certainly find a selection of gathered foods, like wild spinach, gathered by people whose families have been gathering wild foods for hundreds of years. Others make a living selling firewood they harvest and hay they grow.

I often wonder how these griping Whites see Rio Arriba County. I’ve quite enjoyed the discriminations and profiling if only because I’ve never experienced it. It’s worthwhile. Instructive. And certainly nothing to cringe from or be mad about. The county is within America, but it’s different from America. That uniqueness is precisely why it’s special. Though I must admit it was a little awkward parachuting into what in many ways is a foreign land, with wildly different traditions and histories, to write about life here from the American perspective.

Another Gringo.

That’s true, too.

Though I indulge them, each time I hear a White complain about being treated like a third-class citizen I want to throw up my hands, then shake them. Do you know anything about the history here?

I’ve heard: They’ll never accept you. That may be true, but everyone I’ve met so far has been pretty awesome, I tell them.

Just wait, they say.

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