Pear Trees and Silver Spoons

Reid Bengard

Writer's comment: I cannot boast divine inspiration in the creation of this paper. My pen did not dance across the pages; it doodled, fidgeted, tapped, strayed, and in effect, did everything possible to avoid the matter at hand. My thoughts came in frequent fits. They would cough, sputter, and rumble forward and then, without warning, lurch to a halt. But at no point during the writing process, from cough to lurch, did I resent the assignment. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed it and might even go so far as to confess instances, as when words seemed to fit together particularly well, in which I exalted, gleefully clasped my hands together and then nonchalantly looked about me to see if anyone had noticed my display.

But I place too much attention on my writing process, a process that I am far from refining. The class itself—Afro-American Studies 100—more than the paper, deserves reverence. I know many who refuse to take this class because they are afraid of the “bashing” that awaits them. Yet if for one quarter they would subject themselves to such intimidation, perhaps they would begin to understand the intimidations that ethnic minorities face every day. My intent is not to preach, only to praise a class and its enthusiastic teaching assistant, Denise Isom, for both brought into focus much more than I intended to see.

Reid Bengard

Instructor's comment: Afro-American Studies 100 as a whole, as well as this paper assignment, was designed to equip students with an understanding of academic research, theories, and concepts on race relations and then use that as a basis from which to critically think about, analyze, and develop strategies for change, both for themselves and for the world around them. No paper was a better synthesis of those goals and objectives than Reid Bengard’s. In “Pear Trees and Silver Spoons” Reid takes us back to his childhood in Kelseyville and re-examines with us his upbringing, race relations in his town, his own awareness, and ultimately his and our need for change. Reid does this beautifully with the use of vivid and poignant imagery, juxtaposition, and allusions. Along the way, Reid takes us not just to Kelseyville but into our own lives and minds. This paper is by far one of the best I have ever read; it is enlightening, inspiring, and rich. Congratulations, Reid.

Denise A. Isom, Teaching Assistant, Afro-American Studies Program 

I was born a middle-class, white child. I was never self-conscious about it until now. I grew up in a small town, “hick-town” some have called it. Twenty years ago, when my family first moved there, the small green sign on the south side of town read, “Kelseyville, Elevation: 1450 feet, Population: 1350.” In twenty years, the second number on the sign has changed little more than the first. I remember when my father used to take me out through the orchards to talk with the farmers, for that’s what people do in Kelseyville. They farm. Pears, grapes, walnuts, and a few kiwis, all financed by big white banks, grown by plump white farmers, sold by chubby white brokers, and harvested by Mexican-Americans. What a country. My chubby father markets pears and grapes. And he would take me out into Rick Bengard’s pear orchard. And with acres and acres of pear trees all around us, he would tell me how Uncle Rick had started with nothing and now had one of the “best damn orchards in Kelseyville.” “Hard work,” he would tell me as we walked under the Mexican pickers—for that’s what we called these people in formal dialect, not Chicanos, not Mexican-Americans, just Mexicans. “A lot of hard work,” he would say. “That’s all it takes to make it.” Sometimes we would stop by Uncle Rick’s for lunch. And some of these times, the conversation would turn to my future. And over bowls of soup, Uncle Rick would ask me what I wanted to be. “A lawyer,” I would tell him. “Hmm,” he would respond. “Lot of studyin’ to be one of them.” “I know,” I would say, dipping my silver spoon into the split peas. “I can do it.” And father would pat me on the back and say, “You sure will, my son, if [Governor] Brown doesn’t ruin us first.” No conversation was complete without some slur on the Democrats. Chuckling, the brothers would exchange “take care’s,” and we would leave to check the crop of some other plump, white farmer. 

Thus I was nurtured into a fine young conservative Kelseyvillian. I deeply respected the farmer who gave work to all those poor legal and illegal immigrants; I went to my classes, did my homework, worked hard, and was successful, just like every good American; I sat at or near the front of the class with all my white friends; I was praised and encouraged by my white teachers while my Mexican-American peers sat in the back, disinterested and ignored. In “Is There a Hispanic Underclass?” Joan Moore describes over-crowded and poorly equipped schools attended by Hispanics. Kelseyville’s situation is just as disturbing. The funding and equipment are comparable to most other predominantly white schools, but Mexican-American students rarely receive the support that most white students do. They have neither the resources nor the role models. While Mexican-American families just make ends meet, white families suckle their young with visions of M.D.’s and M.B.A.’s, instilling in them a self-confidence which their peers with darker skin may never know. 

I can remember many school situations in which I shared classes with Mexican-Americans. I can imagine how they might have felt sharing the class with a dominant culture. “Sharing,” however, is not an appropriate word. The dominant culture was very willing to share with each other but very restrictive when it came to allowing anyone else into our circles. I can remember times when a Mexican-American sat next to me, and I can remember my indifference. I can remember feeling so secure in my warm, sheltered dominant culture that I felt no need to associate. 

Never once did I put myself in this student’s place. Never once did I imagine myself a Mexican-American student seated next to some white boy. If I had, perhaps I would have seen things differently. Perhaps I would have seen in this white boy a nebulous self-confidence that I would never understand. It would be a self-confidence sprouted from deep roots of security, a security uninhibited by threats to one’s identity, unfamiliarity with the language, or a difference in skin color. And this self-confidence would enable the white boy to ask the teacher a question. My teacher would answer and would be encouraged by the white boy’s enthusiasm. The white boy would sense this enthusiasm and grow even more self-confident. As a Mexican-American student, I might sense my teacher's enthusiasm for the boy as well, but my reaction would be very different from his. My reaction might be one of alienation, and this alienation would breed disinterest, and this disinterest would grow proportionately with the attention showed the white boy. I don’t remember a specific occurrence of this incident. I never cared to notice. But I know now that it happened—every day. 

My point is this: Ambitions, dreams, and confidences can be lifted or smothered by the people around us, especially those whom we are taught to respect, such as teachers. For many Mexican-Americans, school is the first real exposure and taste of a white world. While their white peers sip nectars of encouragement, many Mexican-Americans receive nothing but lukewarm water of indifference. Many Mexican-American high school students at Kelseyville showed all the symptoms of an indifference showered upon them since grade school. They sat in the backs of classes and rarely participated. They were the most likely to be tardy or skip class. In addition, they had no Mexican-American teachers to serve as role models, and if they had problems, they had only white counselors with whom to talk. I graduated over four years ago. I would bet that the classes haven’t changed any more than has the green sign at the south end of town. 

I do not wish to imply that all Mexican-Americans at Kelseyville sit in the backs of classes. Many assimilated into the dominant culture and were accepted into even the tightest circles. The type of discrimination found at Kelseyville is not overt, and I’m sure that many white locals would argue that there is little, if any, discrimination. We never went around lynching or denying sales or service. We were, however, never short of low-rider or small- steering-wheel jokes. We always respected how hard Mexican-Americans worked in the fields, but I think we were more relieved that they were “willing” to do the jobs that no white people would do. We never made rules saying that they couldn’t live where we lived, shop where we shopped, or earn as much as we earned. We never needed to. 

The book calls this institutionalized discrimination. Of the two types of institutionalized discrimination, I would classify the Mexican-American Experience at Kelseyville as direct. The frightening reality is that once people live there long enough; they grow so accustomed to the social structure that they fail to notice the injustices. Mexican immigrants who choose to hold on to and be proud of those elements that make them Mexican-American or Chicano are herded into a circular chasm, one built and guarded by a predominantly white world. Drawn to America and California by visions of liberty, pursuits of happiness, and fruitful labors, Mexican immigrants often find their futures pruned and trained to the vines and trees that they harvest. It’s a very clever system that we’ve developed. We pay them just enough to keep them in the fields, but not enough to let them out. 

Four and a half years ago, I figured that I was about to take a quantum leap in cultural awareness. I was going to college. I was going to Davis. I was going to go to my business classes, and there would be a Chicano on my left, a Latino on my right, and an African- American woman sitting right in front of me. And we wouldn’t just sit near each other; we would be buddies. After class, we would go hang out at some liberal coffee house that would be crawling with ethnic minority students. Something went wrong. I remember my first big class. It was Economics 1A in 194 Chem. Out of three hundred and fifty students, there were two black men. I remember because they stuck out like two dark spots on a piece of white linen. 

Four and a half years ago, I figured that compared to most people, I was fairly aware. Since then, the most important thing I’ve learned is how much I don’t know. I don’t know what it is like to go to class and be the only dark spot on white linen. I don’t know what it is like to have to fight mentally, physically, and spiritually to preserve a cultural identity. I don’t know what it is like to fear running at night. I don’t know what it is like to be feared if I run at night. I don’t know what it is like to live under a shroud of stereotypes. I don’t know what it is like to have people who instruct me subtly ignore me and people who sit next to me subtly avoid me. 

And I don’t know what it is like being an ethnic minority on this college campus, this institute of higher education, this large-scale Kelseyville, this sheltered little world that is only “fairly aware.”