TOR HOUSE | JOE LIVERNOIS
“…We have geared the machines and locked all together
into inter-dependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable
of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all
dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet
they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we
and our children
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all
powers–or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls–or anarchy,
These things are Progress.”
— Robinson Jeffers
By Nicole Henares
In May of 2016, I attended a series of lectures at UCSF hosted by White Coats for Black Lives about the effects of police brutality as a public health crisis. The doctor in charge of White Coats for Black lives, Dr. Rupa Marya, who is married to one of my classmates from Carmel High, said, “The body is a fragile thing. And the civic body is also a fragile thing, subject to diseases of unrest that can threaten our very integration. And the body of San Francisco is in critical condition because many civil servants are harming the very people they’re sworn to protect, and I am here today to insist that we do everything we can to prevent another senseless death.”
I attended these lectures because I wanted to understand how the effects of police brutality upon a community connected back to the effects of systematic racism in education — how student success was affected by how well they saw themselves in the curriculum, and more importantly whether they felt safe in their classes.
But I already knew the answer: Not because I have been a teacher in public education for the last 20 years, but because of what I experienced as a student in Carmel schools.
I transferred to Carmel Mission School from a diverse school in Marina. There were only five girls in my class — and at first none of them would talk to me. After weeks, one of them did and said she thought I would be mean. When I asked why, she said because I was so dark.
It is almost funny to think of this now as I have faded with age. But in the sun, I get brown really fast, and as a child I was always in the sun.
Carmel Mission School was a small school, and I was surrounded by Hispanic culture. However, even in a Catholic school there were problems. When my father’s twin came back from visiting our family in Sevilla, he brought back with him the most stunning red flamenco dress with white polka dots. It was exquisitely made. He also gave me a shawl and castanets. My mother insisted that I wear my dress for the Carmel Mission Fiesta.
The location of course was wrong — flamenco in a church? It is almost downright comical to think about. Parochial school was my mother’s idea. My father’s side of family had a very uneasy relationship with the Catholic Church, which unforgivably supported Franco during the war. And a red-and-white polka dot flamenco dress at the Carmel Mission, the same year of Father Serra’s beatification? Flamenco, the art form that comes from wanting to connect to the divine without the intervention of saints? It would be funny if it were not so sad; though I loved the dress, I only wore it for a half hour. The comments I heard and the way I was looked at was unbearable. I have kept the dress after all these years. I can almost zip it up, if I do not breathe.
As an adult, I have had to look at this memory and face my shame. Was wearing the flamenco dress cultural appropriation? Was that why I felt so uncomfortable? I was raised in Carmel. I was not surrounded by flamenco classes. My parents were divorced. My life was very different than my father’s and his cousins who were given flamenco lessons to keep them connected to heritage, and to keep them out of trouble back in the days when my grandparents were immigrant cannery workers working on Cannery Row.
I was a different generation and a girl. For a girl the teasing meant something different and terrifying. My grandmother had died and I was experiencing things connected to my race and my gender that my mother did not understand and I did not have the words to explain.
Prior to attending Carmel schools, I was a high-performing student, one or two years younger than other students in my grade. In fact, I was 12 the first week of my freshman year at Carmel High. My grades at Carmel Middle School were B’s and C’s only because I had a mother who would nag and nag and nag and not give up on me. She took away privileges. My Atari. My television.
I was grounded for most of middle school. It did not matter because I did not have any friends. Looking back, I realize I was not an angry spoiled brat — I was terrified and confused. I did not know how to explain what I was experiencing at school. My first day at Carmel Middle school I was called the “n” word for my hair and told things that made me never want to wear a dress or a skirt to school again.
By the end of the first week I regretted signing up for Spanish as an elective. I started blowing off steam every afternoon by going for a ride on my bicycle. By October I became reckless and was hit by a car. I spent a week in the hospital. Rumors started going around that I was suicidal.
The Girl Scout troop refused to let me join. I developed a tic in my left eye. I was not suicidal but I was so ashamed that I was dying inside. I was ashamed that I did not know how to stand up for myself, much less the for values my parents taught me.
I hated myself. Every day I endured comments about my hair, my last name, my ethnicity, my gender and my body that made me want to disappear. I picked at my face as a way to cope. I still have the scars on my right cheek.
I always have characterized myself as an underachiever. Looking back, I realize I was not. How could I be expected to learn, perform well, and have a positive sense of self in an environment where I had bugs thrown at me, and racially hostile things said to me on a daily basis that are so crude I cannot even write them out now 30 years later?
What I experienced at Carmel Middle School is almost hard for ME to believe. For years, I never wanted to look at my yearbooks. I am glad I never threw these yearbooks away as they have been the only reason I have been able to acknowledge to myself, yes, this happened. And what was written down pales in comparison to what I was told on a daily basis.
This is exactly what racism does — it erases, it invalidates, it gaslights. Especially when you are in the minority.
I do not think this kind of ugliness is anything most people want to believe — especially those who have never experienced such things. And then there are those who for whatever reason think such things are “not that big of a deal.” Most chilling are those who take pleasure in racism and think it’s funny. People who think racial profiling, police brutality, tent cities and children in cages are methods of “criminal justice” that are “fun,” “educational,” and “exciting.”
My most positive memory from Carmel Middle school was at the end of eighth grade when I read To Kill A Mockingbird in Ms. Egan’s English class — and learned how justice was not blind, but color blind. It was a turning point for me — prior to reading To Kill A Mockingbird, I smacked the boy who sat behind me. Ms. Egan suspended me from class for a week. I held a grudge. I would do all the required readings but would check out in class discussion.
I started paying attention when we were reading To Kill A Mockingbird. I still got a B. I had a hard time putting together my ideas. But my feelings about the novel were genuine — I just did not know how to explain them. Things felt different for me after we read that novel.
What happens in Carmel affects the rest of Monterey County and the world. This is something our town’s most celebrated poet, Robinson Jeffers, understood. We are now in the closed net Jeffers said would happen. The net is closing, and we can hear the wild God of the world crying whenever a hawk speaks.
And yet I still have hope because I know the people of this community. I know my former classmates. Kids will be kids — I do not hold a grudge from things done to me when I was a child. Two of the boys who were cruel to me ended up committing suicide as adults. I could never cry when I was a kid. I was too confused and angry to cry. I cried each time I heard that these men had taken their own lives.
I urge the people of Carmel who are standing up to the “Liberty Luncheon” to keep caring about systematic racism and be the change that they want to see so we all can have a better community and a better world.
And, Ms. Egan, if you are still alive, thank you for being part of my resilience.
Editor’s note: The author is among the organizers for the protest against Joe Arpaio’s appearance at the Liberty Luncheon hosted by the Monterey County Republican Women Federated on Sept. 13.
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