Juan de la Cruz thought,
felt, talked, and played like any American boy. And he was
as patriotic as Paul Revere. Each school morning, he recited
the Pledge of Allegiance with a fervor matched by no one.
His rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a recent Memorial
Day celebration downtown moved some war veterans to tears.
But Juan did not look American—not how most folks thought
an American boy was supposed to look.
“American” used to mean “white.”
Now American was white or black, and Juan was neither.
So people had trouble figuring
out what he was. Most times, adults and children called him
an “Oriental.” Literally this meant “of or from the Orient.”
But other meanings went with the word, such as having buckteeth,
slanty eyes, and yellow skin; wearing funny-looking straw
hats; and being untrustworthy. Some teachers, wanting to be
politically correct, labeled him an “international,” a polite
word for “foreigner” or “alien,” although Juan was born in
the good old US of A. He had not set foot much outside of
Mobile, Alabama. The only language he knew was English, which
he spoke with a Southern accent. Moreover, he wanted to be
called “John”; “Juan” was yucky. He refused to answer to it.
Juan wanted to be 100 percent American. Or, more correctly,
to have people think of him as American. And most of the time,
Juan’s classmates and others treated him like a regular American
boy. Juan himself usually forgot that he did not look like
everybody else; sometimes, he was surprised to see his image
in the mirror—straight, thick black hair and black eyes; a
low, wide nose; and below-average height. Then, suddenly,
somebody or something would make everybody—including, it seemed,
classmates he had known since kindergarten and whom he had
considered as friends—realize that he looked different from
here to continue (PDF excerpt opens in new window)