Submitted by Doug West
I was an eyewitness this week to some of the worst aspects of humanity: fear, distrust, defensiveness. It was a single incident that happened behind my neighbor’s house. Running behind the houses on my street is a walking trail that weaves through some woods and along a creek and a small lake. Several children, including my 3 sons, were playing at the edge of those woods, checking out the creek, throwing rocks in the water – typical kid stuff. I was in the backyard when I heard my neighbor, let’s call her ‘Liz’, talking to someone, in a tone of voice that clearly suggested she was annoyed or angry:
“Hey you – can I help you?…………Hello? What are you doing?……Leave………excuse me…GO!”
As she was saying this I looked up to see who she was talking to and saw a landscape worker, dirty, sweaty, his weed-whacker resting over his shoulder, standing just on the other side of her fence. He was standing there looking at the children, just watching what they were doing. I could see he was Hispanic and he turned his head to acknowledge her but then just smiled and turned his head away, not moving on like she wanted. I think this clearly upset her all the more as she got louder with each new question or command she issued, thinking he was purposefully ignoring or disregarding her.
With a glance at the scene outside her fence, she had immediately turned to fear, distrust and defensiveness. Her words, tone and body language were conveying “You aren’t welcome here, I don’t trust you, what the heck do you think you are doing just standing there looking at the children?, and you better get out now.” Without a single word of dialog, the man was assumed to be, at best, an uninvited, unwanted person in the community and at worst, a dangerous threat. Because he was an immigrant, a laborer, he was most likely a criminal with ill intent. If he had been a white man dressed like an executive in a pressed business suit, I am certain he wouldn’t have received the same response – at the very least not in the same dismissive tone.
I can’t tell you how glad I am that I am somewhat conversational in Spanish. I could clearly see that he didn’t understand her so I walked over to help out. José Antonio Rio is part of the landscape crew that cuts the grass and does all the landscape work on the common areas in the neighborhood. He was easily 50-60 years old, had a warm, gentle smile and had been working a full day already, with dirt and bits of grass plastered to the front of his jeans. He’s from El Salvador and told me about how bad it had been there during the war, when so many women and children were slaughtered. He is a grandfather and was quick to point out that the grass around the rocks in the drain water ditch was getting too high and was dangerous for the little children who would trip if they couldn’t see where to step. He had been busting his tail keeping our community looking nice and was just taking a break before finishing his work (cutting the grass around those rocks) and meeting up with the rest of the crew. What a thank you.
To end the story, the three of us ended up having great conversation. When Liz found out he had a reason for being there and stopped assuming he was a threat to her property, herself or her child, you could tell she felt horrible at the way she had been talking to him. She even went up to the house and got José a cold cup of water and offered to do the same every time he came through.
Now, to her defense, Liz is a widowed single mom, new to the neighborhood, with a 9-year-old son. I am sure her life experiences and circumstances have encouraged or taught her to be protective. I’m not trying to condemn her at all. I’ve seen prejudice in different forms in my own heart at times, as much as I hate to admit it. It just showed me a glimpse of how hateful or distrustful we can be toward others – particularly whole groups of people who are ‘different’ than us, whether in culture or class.