One prison taught me racism. Another taught me acceptance.
taught me racism. Another taught me acceptance.
My first lesson in racial discrimination happened at the maximum-security prison at Calipatria, Calif.
An older Mexican dude with the signature handlebar mustache told me in a Hollywood whisper, “Hey, homie, we don’t associate with llantas (tires) around here.
The animales (animals) have their own rules.
We follow ours.
Don’t talk to them too much because someone might feel disrespected, and you’re going to get dealt with.”
Until then, I had thought “homie” meant “homey,” as in cozy and welcoming.
Here, though, the word was used to separate me from anyone who was not Mexican.
The older “homie” mumbled a list of Mexican rule violations I’d get beat up or stabbed for, most involving interactions with the black guys: The phone on their side of the day room and their concrete tables on the yard were off limits.
No eating, lingering or trading with them.
And definitely no arguing: If a black guy so much as raised his voice, I was supposed to punch him in the mouth even if it started a riot.
I was 18 years old and scared. With multiple life sentences to serve, I knew I would have to adjust to my life behind bars.
Because of that, I kept to the designated areas.
I spoke Spanish most of the time, and I interacted only with people who looked like me. I did not think of myself as a racist.
Also, I had grown up playing with black, Asian and white kids in Southern California. I had attended Asian celebrations, like the Tet Festival in Garden Grove.
In addition, I had eaten my black friend’s mama’s famous Cajun-fried chicken and stuffed baked potato. I thought I could teeter on the edge of the lines of self-segregation without the racist prison culture poisoning me.
But I had to conform to survive.