Growing up as a Mexican kid in Salt Lake was great, with a few road bumps along the way. I was bullied, called a "dirty Mexican," a "savage" and taunted for being Mexican.
My kindergarten teacher called me a "savage" because I used a tortilla and my fingers to eat with, rather than utensils. And when I came home crying about this, my mother would listen and then tell me about my heritage — pyramids and Aztec calendar.
On Saturday mornings, some of my Mexican friends and I would walk from the west side to the Capitol Theatre to watch the Tarzan series and cartoons. We didn't realize it at the time, but after we got our tickets, we were ushered up to the balcony with other Mexicans and black kids, while the white kids were directed to the main floor.
After the movie, we walked over to the Kress store on Main Street and 300 South, a five and dime store, to spend the extra dime our parents gave us for treats. As we walked in the store, we heard the little customer service bells ringing and we thought it was a store signal to employees that said, "Look out, here come the Mexicans."
After graduating from high school, having been a class officer and all-state football player, I went back to a reunion on a double date. As I drove down 2100 South and 500 East, I was pulled over by the police for no reason. They asked me to get out of the car and as I did, they started swearing at me and calling me "dirty Mexican" and trying to provoke me to fight back. When I didn't respond, they finally let me go back in the car. Years later, while driving with my children in the car, I was again stopped for no reason. Sometimes, when I went to public places, white people were served first even though I was next in line. I have been denied a motel room, though there was a vacancy sign, and then watched a white person get one. The list goes on.
I had seen my father experience discrimination at work and in stores, and how he seemed to accept it. Like other minorities at that time, "he knew his place." It was then that I vowed that I would work for everyone to be treated equally. With strong parents and a Catholic upbringing, I had the strength to persevere and go to college so that some day I would be able to come back and work to improve the lives of others so that they would not have to go through what my father had to endure.
As an American of Mexican heritage, I learned the teachings of my parents who taught me love of God, country, family, community, pride in who I was and the dignity of every individual.
While working in Washington, D.C., President Ronald Reagan would celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by inviting Hispanic White House appointees and national and community leaders to a Rose Garden reception. After two hours of speeches, mariachis, good food and conversation, secret service agents gently began ushering us out by repeating, "Thank you for coming. Thank you for coming." I jokingly said, "Hey, I've been kicked out of better places than this." But then I thought again — no, I haven't.
And then again, no one ever promised me a rose garden.
A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at [email protected].