Nonfiction from NER 41.1 (2020)
The first time someone called me a spic was during recess or after school in the playground or in the park across the street from my house. I was in shirtsleeves and it was hot or I had on a heavy winter coat with a ski hat and gloves and boots because it had snowed overnight and we could see our breath in the frigid winter cold.
I like the thought of the word spic hanging frozen in the air, the vapors of which are exhaled and linger for an unnatural period of time, like in a Saturday morning cartoon, until they disappear.
That’s how I’ve experienced most of what’s happened to me, from childhood on, as a series of vapors, exhalations, and disappearances.
Back when children wore snowsuits in such weather, the ones that had the mittens tied into the sleeves, the winters were majestic all over New York. There were blizzards every other weekend and the drifts would bury the cars parked in the streets and the trees lining the sidewalks. It seemed as if we would never see the cars again and if school ever did reopen we’d have to use wooden tennis rackets as makeshift snowshoes to get there.
We took photographs and when I say we I mean my mother and father took photographs of the cars, of my sister and me, all buried and content and whited out on our lawn outside of our Levitt house in the middle of a particularly conservative and culturally bankrupt part of the country known as Long Island.
One wouldn’t think of this as a realistic setting where one person calls another a spic for the first time. One imagines a brilliant sun and blaring heat, people sweating and wearing mirrored sunglasses and sandals instead of ski hats and waterproof boots.
My sister and I would go out to the backyard and build snow forts. We did this in matching snowsuits, designed to keep us safe and dry and warm, which were bulky and ridiculous and didn’t allow for any sort of athletic maneuver. You couldn’t fight in them, for instance, but you could build a fort and after the fort was built you could build another fort right next to it.
I have no memory of what, if anything, we did inside the forts.
The first time someone called me a spic I was six or nine or eleven years old.
The last time someone called me a spic was probably in high school and most likely a term of endearment.
I don’t think my sister was ever called a spic, regardless of the weather.
I’m sure she was called other things, but none of them ethnically motivated. I remember her friends used to call her Coco for Coco Lopez, which is a Puerto Rican coconut product used in many popular drinks.
I don’t think girls were called spics in the 1980s. Maybe they never were.
Now when it snows I stay inside. Maybe I look out the window, but I wait for the city to plow the streets and for the superintendents to shovel the sidewalks before I venture out into the world unless it is absolutely necessary, unless I have no choice and it’s about food or the possibility of tennis or sex.
I never play in the snow, stopped all that around the age of eight. I hear stories of grown people sledding in the park or cross-country skiing after a blizzard, building snow structures and the like.
I remember once a woman I dated expressed consternation when I didn’t throw a snowball at her after she pelted me with one while we were out walking one winter’s day. She accused me of having no fun.
Now I like it best when I go on the Pratt or New School or Columbia website and they say that all classes are canceled.
I don’t do anything special or especially productive with this unexpected day off and it isn’t as if I don’t like my job, but it still feels like a get out of jail free card.
I’ll stay inside for days until order is restored, until it stops snowing and the wind isn’t a constant assault.
I do the same thing during a heat wave unless it is absolutely necessary that I play tennis, which it often is but only sometimes during the heat of the day. Most often I try to play after the sun begins to hide behind the trees and I can play in shadows.
All of this amounts to staying safe, cocooned and comfortable, and away from the outside world and all of the dangers therein and thereupon.
The world is none of my business sometimes.
Inside I have countless books and cable television and a vast library of music, two air conditioners and two guitars and there are even people to bring me food whenever I’m hungry. All I have to do is sign on and order up, tip the Mexican or Guatemalan two or three dollars.
Inside a snow fort on Long Island, inside an apartment building in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, we remain safe.
We remain safe from efforts starting eighty years ago in other parts of Brooklyn and parts of the Bronx, when my parents’ parents were desperate to have their children accepted as Americans. Speaking only English at home and everywhere else, no discernible trace of an accent.
In high school, some of us had taken to calling each other by such epithets as spic or chink or kike or wop. I don’t recall ever addressing anyone this way, but maybe I did or probably I did or surely I did.
I definitely referred to myself that way, as a spic, and thought myself clever to have coined a term, spicguinea, to capture the entirety of my ethnic makeup.
In a collection of racial or ethnic epithets spic is what and where? It doesn’t sound like an insult, like it can be injurious. Perhaps because it sounds like slick, which, like countless other words, can be insulting or a compliment.
Perhaps the word spic seems harmless to me because it is monosyllabic. Other monosyllabic slurs also sound either innocuous or ridiculous . . . kike, chink, coon, kraut, mick, shine, spade, spook, wop, yid, zip.
One does notice on this list of monosyllabic slurs garnered from Wikipedia’s page devoted to ethnic and racial epithets that there are quite a lot reserved for black people.
Racists are a creative and prolific people.
Most of the words are ridiculous and some do sound worse than others and at the same time there’s twigs and rocks so I don’t know where that leaves anyone.
None are as taboo or as lacerating or satisfying to say as cunt, which is all about the acoustics and has nothing to do with meaning or origin, to my way of thinking.
Fuck works the same way. Aside from its versatility, it is satisfying to say out loud.
Probably both fuck and cunt are enjoyable to say out loud because of a shared Germanic heritage. Perhaps it’s about white supremacy over curse words.
I used to describe myself as half Puerto Rican and half Italian and half Cuban and half Spanish. I called it the new math.
Of course it wasn’t true, those percentages. But saying one was a quarter or eighth or some other tiny fraction of anything always felt stupid to me.
Which is akin to being classified as a quadroon or octoroon, which was also ridiculous and awful.
During American slavery, quadroon was used to designate a person of one- quarter African ancestry, that is equivalent to one biracial parent and one white or European parent; in other words, the equivalent of one African grandparent and three white or European grandparents.
Some terms for quadroons in Latin America are morisco or chino.
In the ’90s I worked at an Italian restaurant on Long Island as a waiter and, like in many restaurants in New York both then and now, Latinos staffed the kitchen. One such line cook was referred to as Chino. That’s what everyone called him and that’s what I called him. I have no idea what his given name was, perhaps it was Roberto or Jesus.
You can imagine why he was called Chino.
The term mulatto was used to designate a person who was biracial, with one pure black parent and one pure white parent, or a person whose parents are both mulatto. In some cases, it was used as a general term, for instance on US census classifications, to refer to all persons of mixed race, without regard for proportion of ancestries.
The US Government used quadroon and octoroon, etc., as distinctions in laws regarding rights and restrictions.
The only math I did as a teenager was the calculation of batting averages and earned run averages, the probability of drawing to an inside straight, now known as a gut-shot straight, which you should never attempt.
Now the only math I do is by increments of 15. 15-love, 30-15, deuce.
My tennis community here in Brooklyn is diverse and glorious. In the past year I’ve played with Mexicans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Jamaicans, folks from Qatar, Egypt, Nigeria, all manner of Europeans, quite a few Australians and South Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Pakistani, even people from Ohio.
White, black, brown, color and off-color. All kinds of fractions.
I’m writing this in January and we only play outside if the temperatures are reasonable and the court is mostly dry. Although we sometimes shovel snow to clear the courts and we sometimes sweep and squeegee and do whatever we have to in an effort to play.
I will have to remember to ask everyone about epithets and slurs when we all reconvene at the courts in March.
One high-school friend, George Rosado, signed my yearbook with the closing, Your spic in crime, which was probably the last time I heard or read a friend refer to himself this way.
I don’t know if teenagers still do this sort of thing.
Where I grew up, the parents dressed their children in bulky snowsuits replete with galoshes and ski hats, probably bearing a strong resemblance to other culturally desolate and homogenous parts of the country.
I don’t know if parents still dress up their kids in these outfits as I try not to look at children if I can help it.
The words you have spoken, hang frozen in the air, is the exact line from Lyle Lovett’s song “North Dakota.”
There’s no allusion to what Lyle is referencing in the song. The “words you have spoken” are left out in this particular verse.
I doubt it was the word spic.
I’ve never been to North Dakota, but I love that song.
I have been to South Dakota and I once wrote a story titled “South Dakota.” The first line of which says, The sky looks best over South Dakota.
That was true when I wrote it and I’m sure it’s still true today, though I haven’t been back.
I also haven’t been back to where I did the bulk of my growing up, Long Island, central Nassau County, in the town of Hempstead, where it is awful all the time.
Our parents moved us out of Brooklyn in 1973 because we all would’ve been killed otherwise.
Most people in New York in the 1970s were killed or mugged or raped and if you wanted your kids to grow up at all you had to move them out to the white suburbs. There they could go to school and eat fast food and play Little League baseball and shop at the mall with all the white kids already there and the refugee children from New York City.
So much has disappeared for me in this country, these so-called United States of America, where I was born, early lord one frosty morn, including language and culture and memory.
Disappeared before I knew it was ever there in the first place, long before I was born into these circumstances, which is a particular kind of American tragedy.
I suppose I could’ve been called a spic for the first time in a classroom or bedroom or backyard, but probably not in a church because we didn’t go to church very often when I was growing up.
My memories of church are particularly vaporous. I’d had all of the prayers and rituals and benedictions memorized even though we rarely attended services. The sitting, the standing and kneeling, the peace be unto you and also with you, a reading from Paul to the North Dakotans.
No one I knew went to church very often or was religious in any tangible way. This was the Long Island of the 1970s and ’80s, which led me to conclude the whole country had gone secular, that if God wasn’t necessarily dead he was on indefinite hiatus.
Almost the same way so many concluded that we lived in a postracial society after the election of our first black president.
Who, like me and a growing number of countless others, was half one thing and half another, which adds up to whatever you want based on how awful you are.
I remember hearing the name of a church or school all through my teenage years. Apparently a number of my friends attended mass there or played football in the field behind the building. They called it Saint Rayfields. I didn’t know where it was and had never seen it.
I did this quite a lot as a teenager, play along as if I knew what everyone was talking about instead of asking questions.
Around this time I was in the market for a used car, as were any number of my classmates and teammates. It was something akin to a rite of passage on Long Island, as nothing was within walking distance and no one walked anywhere.
I needed a car to drive back and forth to school and practice and the part-time job at my friend John’s father’s delicatessen.
I’d first wanted Kenny Ono’s red 1985 Trans Am that he was trying to unload for fifteen hundred dollars. The car was immaculate and in good condition from every angle, inside and out. It had no scratches or dents and the interior was pristine and while I can’t remember the mileage, I’m sure it wasn’t prohibitive.
I’d arranged for Kenny to bring it over to my house one day for my father to test drive, as he would either give me the green light or not.
Kenny and I waited on the street while my dad drove off and around the block, out of sight. He was gone for a few minutes and returned with some jive about the transmission slipping.
Weeks or months later I was dragooned into buying a 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88, which was the size of a city bus, for eighteen hundred dollars. Every part of this car resembled a decommissioned tank from World War II, except for the color, banana yellow.
I drove this car for a year before it gave out. I never went anywhere exciting, as I didn’t think I should drive it for more than twenty minutes at a time. The car would make unholy sounds and start to shake like an epileptic senior in the throes of a seizure. It was a yearlong death rattle.
Once I drove past a church no more than ten minutes from my house. The sign out front said San Raphael’s.
I think it took me weeks or months or years to put two and two together. This is what they were referring to; this was the church.
A whiteout is when there’s a blizzard that reduces visibility to near zero.
Spic and Span is a cleaning product I remember from my childhood. I remember it being advertised on television but I haven’t seen it advertised since the ’70s or ’80s.
Maybe it’s not around anymore.
Like my father before me, I don’t speak Spanish, but I can understand a little depending on who is speaking and where they are from. (I tend to understand the Spanish spoken by Spaniards a lot easier than those from Central America.) I can pronounce many words properly.
I can roll Rs with the best of them.
The person who called me a spic for the first time was either a classmate or teammate or my best friend or a teacher or even one of my Italian cousins, from my mother’s side of the family, most of whom lived in the Bronx or other parts of Long Island.
I would’ve liked to have had relatives in the Dakotas instead of on Long Island, but nobody lives in the Dakotas, especially not Puerto Ricans or Italians.
There’s a song called “South Dakota” by a group named Bellwether. There’s a line in there that goes, Our skyline thinks it’s bigger than it is.
This, of course, is inarguable. Everyone thinks everything is bigger than it is.
For instance, the word fuck, the word cunt.
For instance, the blizzards of the 1970s and ’80s.
As I type this I have tennis on in the background, picture, no sound. Women’s doubles at the Australian Open. Brady/Risk vs. Chan/Chan.
My father would shout, “Uzule,” whenever the sun would finally emerge on a gloomy day. I always assumed it was Spanish, but it was just a word he made up.
“Chan Chan” is a song written by Compay Segundo and performed by the Buena Vista Social Club.
“Chan Chan” and “Guantanamera” are two songs I can sing in very passable Spanish, though I might not know what all of the lyrics mean.
If I had to bet money on it, though of course why would I ever have to do such a thing, I’d say the first time I was called a spic was in the playground at school while in the fifth or sixth grade and by a kid named Vinny.
I remember I fought that kid one day at school in that same playground. I can’t remember if we fought during recess or after school, but it couldn’t have been in winter after a snowstorm. You couldn’t have a proper fight while dressed in one of those snowsuits and Vinny and I had a proper fight, one that involved jabs and uppercuts and wrestling moves and tight clinches.
I also can’t remember if this was the reason we fought, because he’d called me a spic.
It may’ve been because he’d said something about my mother or father. Back then I’d fight anyone who said anything about my parents, regardless of what it was, even if it didn’t make sense, which it never did.
Children are awful and the idea that it’s all learned behavior from parents and other adults is as absurd as it is ignorant.
Back then, as a very young child, I remember getting very angry whenever someone called me a spic. I didn’t know what it meant exactly but I knew it had something to do with my Latin heritage and I knew it wasn’t a compliment.
Now, I couldn’t care less were someone to call me a spic, though no one has, not for thirty years.
Is it because I live in New York, in Brooklyn, and am surrounded mostly by the liberal rainbow of ethnicities and cultures exemplified by my tennis community?
If I had been living in the South or the Midwest would someone have called me a spic sometime in the last thirty years?
Seems more likely to have happened recently.
We’re living in a golden age for racists.
I talk to my mother on the telephone every day, sometimes reporting on what I’m doing or what I’ve done or what I’m planning to do and the insanity of our current political circumstances.
Once I mentioned that I was going to Crown Heights to attend a reading. She asked me if it was safe.
She asked me, a man named Robert Lopez, he of the shaved head and salt-and- pepper beard, aged anywhere from mid-thirties to mid-forties, who though only five foot eight inches tall weighs in at a robust and muscular 190 pounds. Every part of him is muscular, save the abdominal region.
In truth, I am built like a retired running back, one who has been drinking too much beer of late but whom you still wouldn’t want to fuck with, based on appearances.
But to my mother, in her mind’s eye, I am still the five-year-old boy out in the backyard with his sister building a snow fort, anywhere from one to six years away from being called a spic for the first time.
She probably remembered Crown Heights from the race riot in 1991 between black residents and Orthodox Jews. If she didn’t remember the event specifically, then she, like countless others, associates certain New York City neighborhoods with crime and danger. Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Harlem, Washington Heights.
I enjoyed telling her that when white people categorize a neighborhood as unsafe it’s because there are people like me—olive-skinned (and darker, of course), shaved head—walking around. I’m part of what makes it unsafe.
When I told my mother that I was called a spic as a kid she had no idea.
My mother is a very fair-skinned Italian, as was her mother and plenty of her relatives, though not all, certainly.
The Crown Heights riots began on August 19, 1991, after two children of Guyanese immigrants were accidentally struck by one of the cars in the motorcade of a leader of Chabad, a Jewish religious movement. One child died and the second was severely injured.
In its wake, several Jews were seriously injured and one Orthodox Jewish man was killed. Two weeks after the riot, a non-Jewish man was killed by a group of black men; some believed that the man had been mistaken for a Jew.
I was one of the very few Latinos in my neighborhood growing up on Long Island and it wasn’t like we shared any sort of bond or formed a gang with each other.
We didn’t sit together in the cafeteria; we didn’t call each other ese or pachuco. Of course these are Mexican terms and don’t necessarily apply to Puerto Ricans.
Although maybe we did share a bond somehow. It was superficial at the time, but perhaps it went deeper than that. Perhaps it was intuitive, just a sense that we should be bonded, that we shared certain physical features and a particular heritage and people would direct jokes about hubcaps and switchblades our way and we might make those same jokes with each other, but it was okay because none of it felt particularly real.
None of us spoke Spanish, except for maybe the Sandoval brothers. They’d come over from somewhere in Central America and joined us in the ninth grade and seemed more Latin than the rest of us.
I remember tryouts for the ninth-grade baseball team, which was a formality for a number of us, but they were still called tryouts. Our coach, a new one, probably had received some sort of scouting report on who was good and who wasn’t, but he hadn’t seen anyone play before.
So there we were that first day of tryouts and the new kid, Danny Sandoval, from somewhere in godforsaken Central America, has the audacity to walk over to shortstop, my position.
There were a few positions on the field that everyone knew you shouldn’t go near: me at short, JR Genzale behind the plate, and Phil Schneider at first.
And Danny starts fielding ground balls and displays a cannon of an arm while throwing the ball to first. I didn’t want the new coach to get too impressed with the new guy, so I started throwing the ball as hard as I could to keep up.
I never would’ve done this under any other circumstance, as it was the first day and it was March and cold and there was no reason to air anything out and let it fly. My position on the team was secure. But I couldn’t let this spic show me up.
So I wound up hurting my arm that day and before long I had to move over to second base.
Turned out Danny wasn’t that good of a baseball player, he just had that cannon for an arm. But he was a good guy and a spic like me and George, so we were friends.
I was called a spic because my last name was Lopez, maybe because my hair was dark and curly and my eyes were brown, but no darker than anyone else’s.
George and Danny and me, we all looked a little alike, with thick hair and olive skin and dark eyes.
But back then no one was Latin, you were Spanish, maybe Hispanic. Always spics, to each other in the halls and outside on the playgrounds.
My school didn’t have any black kids, I don’t think, maybe a few brown ones here and there, different shades, Mexican maybe, Indian or Pakistani, Sioux or Comanche or Seneca.
My grandfather, Sixto Lopez, spoke English with a thick accent. I had a hard time understanding him sometimes and I thought this was a particularly egregious failing on my part.
The word spic, according to most sources, dates back to the digging of the Panama Canal. In 1908, the Saturday Evening Post sent a reporter to Panama to write about the thousands of North American laborers digging out the canal. He kept hearing the word spiggoty, which he learned the northerners had taken to calling Panamanians.
As in the Panamanians saying, I don’t spiggoty English.From there spigotty moved around and migrated north and morphed to spigoties and then shortened to spig and finally spic, where it has remained ever since.
My grandmother, Lola DeLeon, known as Delores, once told me she heard two Spanish guys on the subway planning a robbery. She found a cop when she got off at her stop and ratted them out.
This is why it was important I should learn Spanish.
This was also the New York of the 1970s where every brown person talking on the subway was planning a rape or murder or robbery.
My grandmother never tried to teach me Spanish. I don’t remember her ever trying to teach my sister or me a single word.
I didn’t know my grandmother’s maiden name so I asked my mother, who also didn’t know. She knew she was in touch with one of my grandmother’s sisters on social media and looked her up. This is when my mother told me that Grandma’s last name was Deleon.
Not five minutes after I typed Deleon into this document for the first time my sister said that our grandmother’s last name was Colon. I asked her how she knew and she said she didn’t know how she knew, but she was confident it was correct.
Why she knows this and not if she was ever called a spic shouldn’t call anything into question.
Colon seems right to me. It rings a faint and distant bell. 98 new england review
I could go back and correct it all or I could try to check it out for myself, but this would defeat any number of purposes.
This is what happens when you come from nowhere.
I come from people who either were the people or came from the people who were desperate to be Americans, who were desperate to assimilate and sound American, so they changed their names and they only spoke English to their children and they’d forbid them from speaking Spanish or Italian, perhaps even punishing them for doing so, corporally and vigorously, so that they would grow up to be good Americans and accepted by all Americans.
This was common for immigrants in this country for a long period of time, particularly the first half of the twentieth century, particularly if you were working class.
It seems less common now. Yesterday on Meet the Press, television journalist Tom Brokaw said, “I happen to believe that Hispanics should work harder at assimilation. They ought not to be just codified in their own communities but make sure that all their kids speak English.”
I was the first person on either side of my family to go to college. My sister was the second.
I’ve only been curious about this as of late, this American loss, which has always been a part of me, even when I wasn’t aware of it.
I’ve been asked if I speak Spanish countless times and countless times I’ve said no, that I understand a little, un poquito, and that my father didn’t speak Spanish either, and my mother is Italian.
I’ve seen the disappointment and disapproval in people’s eyes, particularly every Gonzalez and Sanchez and Perez I’ve ever met.
I don’t know why this has gotten inside me now as opposed to years ago. Perhaps it’s because I’m nearing fifty, another year older and closer to death. Perhaps it’s because we have a president who classifies Mexicans as criminals and doesn’t know that Puerto Rico is (supposed to be) part of the United States.
I suppose before I was busy or had other things on my mind.
My sister remembers our grandmother talking to her in Spanish and then telling her what she just said in English. She said she was an early teen, which means I was, as well.
I must’ve been outside playing ball or held hostage in a snow fort.
My Italian grandparents were both born in New York City, as well. Their parents were from Italy, a town called Roscigno, a word I didn’t hear until I was in my thirties, until one of my mother’s ninety-eight cousins compiled a cookbook and skeletal family history.
The word spic was first seen in print in Scribner’s magazine in 1916, reported to describe the term border troopers at Fort Bliss, just north of El Paso, had employed to describe Mexicans.
Here’s something I didn’t know and it goes along with not making any sense but being perfectly understandable.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, one character describes another from Rome, an Italian presumably, with this exclamation: He’s a spic!
I myself have never heard an Italian called a spic. Dago, guinea, wop, sure, but never spic.
Vinny, an Italian who I don’t believe anyone ever called a guinea, dago, or wop, was a year older than the rest of my classmates because he’d been held back. He was the biggest and strongest and toughest kid in the school and this of course meant something to everyone. It was talked about, discussed, understood.
At that age one year makes a big difference, but I was fearless back then and I fought him in the playground to a respectable draw.
It was quick and fast and involved a mixture of wrestling and boxing and square- dancing. I was probably jacked up on adrenaline because this was the first time I’d ever fought anyone who was as tough as me.
Vinny and Joey called me a spic because of my last name, because I had dark curly hair and brown eyes.
It meant nothing to me.
Sure, I’d get angry and ready to fight but that was true if anyone called me or my mother or father or sister anything at all.
Someone probably broke it up, the fight between me and Vinny, probably a teacher, because kids always like to watch other kids fight each other.
But it’s possible we stopped fighting on our own, when we realized neither was going to win or quit.
My grandfather was born and raised in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, a small town in the middle of the island, population around 90,000. I’ve never been there, but I’m planning to go next year sometime.
As long as they don’t get hit with another hurricane and the response from the United States government isn’t appalling.
I don’t know what his life was like in Puerto Rico and I don’t know when he emigrated to the United States. Deductive reasoning puts it during the late 1920s or early ’30s.
I remember my grandfather saying he was homesick not long before he died. I also remember my father pointing out to him that his fly was open and he replied, nothing to see.
I use the word emigrated because Puerto Rico isn’t actually a part of the United States and never has been.
I don’t know what my grandfather’s life was like when he came to Brooklyn. I don’t know if he was ever called a spic.
I thought he was a house painter but my mother said he was a longshoreman. She said this with absolute confidence.
I also don’t know if my father was ever called a spic, growing up in Red Hook. He never said anything about it and I never asked.
Growing up I never heard stories about Puerto Rico, about Italy, about Cuba or Spain. No one ever said that your great so-and-sos came here in 1908 with thirty-eight cents in their pockets.
Maybe it was because everyone still had about that same amount, more or less.
Maybe they were ashamed of who and what they were and where they came from. Maybe assimilation for them was like a black grandmother admonishing her grandchild by saying, don’t act your color.
Maybe they weren’t storytellers. Maybe none of them possessed any curiosity about these matters.
The woman my grandfather married and had children with, including my father, was born in New York City.
My mother said Sixto married Delores Deleon/Colon when she was sixteen. He was older but no more than twenty-two or twenty-three. One of her parents was from Cuba and the other Spain. I don’t know which was which.