Tuesday, June 2, 2009

White Mexican

Early Sunday morning I sat facing the window of the Rogue Wave Café in Cayucos, Calif., observing my battered 1986 Toyota pickup parked in the street out front.

Café owner Wade Rumble sat next to me, also gazing out the window.

My dirty little brown truck, used mostly for hauling tools and making deliveries, was packed for the four-hour drive to Tustin, where my mother lives.

She will undergo a lumpectomy in a few days to remove a cancer, and will likely receive radiation treatment. I plan to stay with her until she recovers.

I’m not sure how long that will be. Pondering it made me sad. I hate leaving home. I don’t want mother to suffer more than she already has.

My father died last August after a yearlong battle with kidney cancer. It hasn’t even been a year since his death; mother and I still grieve his loss. Now, we turn our thoughts to a new challenge.

Sitting in the café, I thought of the possibility that it may be a while before I return.

I had packed for another extended stay in Orange County, which I fled 25 years ago to escape the noise, traffic and pollution.

I landed in Cayucos, where I have felt more at home than any place I’ve lived or visited since (except for Big Sur, just a quick drive up Highway 1).

I’ll miss being at home, even though I don’t have a steady job, and seldom have had any money while living here—just a handful of friends and an incredibly supportive community.

I turned to Wade. “My whole life is in that beastly truck,” I said.

He laughed. “That’s great,” he said. “What’s in it?”

“My keyboard and some gardening tools.”

“You’re the White Mexican,” he said.

To make ends meet, I’ve picked up gardening and landscape jobs and some farm labor. I washed windows for several years. I love the work but it’s seldom enough to pay the bills.

Wade’s right. I am the White Mexican, living day to day, hoping to earn enough to keep a roof over my head and put food on the table.

Frankly, I’d rather live this way than to be a slave in the corporate world.

I’ve always dreamed that the ideal lifestyle would be to split my time writing and publishing with gardening and tending plants, each day devoted to both physical and intellectual pursuits.

I had almost accomplished just that while editing and publishing The Rogue Voice, which hasn’t printed since January because of the loss of ad revenue and the economic crash of 2009.

Now, it seems, my dream is going up in smoke. Like many people my age, I’m going through a tremendous transition period on several levels: economic, career and family.

Still, I’m as poor as ever and, like many Mexicans who try to improve themselves here, living on the edge of a culture obsessed with money and trinkets.

I feel more comfortable, in fact, drinking tequila with Lorenzo and his family after a long day’s hard labor than I do driving L.A. freeways, or working in an office building to pursue the American Dream.

I’d rather be poor and socialize with people I can trust than be a corporate hack waiting to be mowed down by another ambitious social climber.

The downside of being poor in America, though, is that there’s not much support from the people who do have lots of money.

Mostly, it comes from others who have very little themselves. The poor help the poor in America.

My little Toyota with more than 240,000 miles hummed beautifully along the scenic Highway 101 out of San Luis Obispo County, and along the gritty L.A. freeways with their endless barren stream of automobiles.

I took a side trip through Malibu Canyon and worked my way back through upscale Brentwood before the final leg to Tustin.

As I passed the trendy restaurants and the beautiful people jogging along the roadside, I felt conspicuous in my work truck with its load of gardening tools and my keyboard next to me on the front seat.

Then, a stylish young man, neatly groomed and sportily dressed, passed me in his flashy black BMW, weaving in and out of traffic.

He appeared cool, trendy, at ease with his luxurious trappings.

“Think that’s cool?” I said to myself as I watched him cut through traffic. “Well, watch this!”

I putzed along at 45 miles per hour, just as I had been, nothing changed. “I’m the White Mexican.” I was happy. §


  1. wow....As a mexican-american, I found your unstated premise that you're a Mexican because you are poor, work landscaping and drink tequila incredibly offensive.
    I respect and value my heritage and I haven't retreated to a desolate coastal town to appreciate the good will of the poor in California - I see it every day working as a principal at a Title 1 elementary school in San Diego. I have an excellent staff of mostly Latino teachers who are all educated. We face the challenges of poverty every day of the week, and it's much more involved and much more complicated than bashing the trendy and the rich.

  2. I apologize for offending you or anyone else with this post. It was definitely not my intention. You'll recall that the suggestion that I was a "white Mexican" was made by another; I simply embraced it. I harbor no ill feelings toward anyone based on race, and work hard each day to weed out my own cultural blind spots and biases. I also work hard every day with people of color who, like me, face the challenges of poverty. I don't know if what I do is as complicated or involved as educating the poor, but working on a farm for low wages does give me a perspective that the trendy and rich (and perhaps educators as yourself) don't have. It's one thing to work with the poor, quite another to be poor. My embracing the moniker of "white Mexican" was intended more as a way to identify with those who actually (and perhaps stereotypically) live on the margins of American culture. Again, I meant no offense. Thanks for your comment.