Instead of leaving a tip, a couple who ate recently at Jess’ Lunch restaurant in Harrisonburg, Virginia, scrawled a note on the waitress’ receipt: “We only tip citizens.”
The waitress, Sadie Karina Elledge, 18, is indeed a citizen, born in the United States. She graduated from high school this past spring and is now in a community college. But because her skin is brown, the product of having a Honduran father and a Mexican mother, the couple Sadie waited on decided she was not a citizen.
In September, as we celebrate the many contributions of Hispanic culture to this country and especially to Christianity, which the Spaniards brought to a great arc from Florida to Washington state at great cost in martyred lives and finances, we have to acknowledge that such bias is part of our heritage. It recurs again and again like a malignancy.
At its root is the notion that U.S. citizenship should be the exclusive privilege of whites, and, when Donald Trump talks about making America great again, many understand that exclusivity to be the message. Historically, that bias existed not only among individuals and groups but even in government agencies. In their classic book on the Mexican-American people, published in 1970, Leo Grebler, Joan W. Moore and Ralph C. Guzman wrote:
“Until World War II, government agencies easily could, and did, define Mexican-Americans as ‘probably foreign.’ Along with most citizens of the Southwest, they added … the notion that Mexican-Americans were permanently alien in behavior.”
In the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s, there were mass deportations of “Mexicans,” many of whom were actually citizens of the U.S. The most infamous occurred during the Great Depression. In Detroit, Los Angeles and many Southwest cities, people were simply rounded up by the thousands and put on trains to Mexico. One was my friend Santos Vega, an Arizonan.
Hispanics have borne such rejection with the calm of the stoic philosophy of our Spanish ancestors. They have not lost faith in the essential fairness and goodwill of most Americans, even in the toxic political climate of today.
John Elledge, Sadie’s grandfather, is an American who worked for the Episcopal Church in Honduras during the 1980s. There he met his wife and adopted her two children, one being Sadie’s father. Elledge said that in three decades in Virginia, his multicultural family has faced few instances of discrimination. It is a good place to raise a blended, multicultural family, he told Washington Post reporter Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
When Sadie noticed the scrawled accusation on her receipt, she showed it to her grandfather. Elledge, a lawyer who is particular to slights directed at his multicultural family, especially his six grandchildren, posted the receipt on Facebook and expressed his anger in no uncertain terms.
I read about the incident fresh from attending Sunday Mass at St. Peter Claver in West Hartford, Connecticut. That morning I had read about the crowds who scream “Build the wall” and “Deport them” at political rallies. But at Mass, I was struck by the inclusiveness of the Scripture readings and the friendliness of the people around us.
I looked around and saw that in our overwhelmingly white congregation, there were only a few black people. Two were a man and wife sitting close to us. So when the time came for the handshake of peace, I felt inspired to reach across the aisle and shake the man’s hand, saying, “Peace be with you.”
Sometimes a church is the only place a stranger can feel at home.
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