Virulent legacy of discrimination harms even Americans who’ve fought for their country
December 3, 2007
Tomorrow, Dec. 6, my dad, Bennie Arellano, celebrates his 83rd birthday. He was born in 1924 in Garden City, Kan., one of seven children of immigrant parents. Both of my grandparents immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1902, as small children. The family eventually left Kansas and settled in Santa Paula, Calif., a small agricultural community nestled among orange and lemon orchards, a few miles from the Southern California coastline. My dad attended local schools and enjoyed listening and dancing to the big bands of the 1940s. But when World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Army in February of 1943.
A soldier in the 9th Army, he was shipped out to fight in the war raging in the European Theatre, and in December of 1944, barely 20 years old, he found himself in the outskirts of the Battle of the Bulge. He spent Christmas Eve in Belgium, in a barn, with other soldiers who had become separated from their units. It was one of the coldest winters in history and, although they did their best to keep their feet warm, my dad and several other soldiers suffered from frostbite. After rejoining his unit, he went on to fight in the Battle of Central Europe and the Battle for the Rhine. Over the years, on Christmas Eve, my dad has recounted his experience in Belgium, which never lets him or us forget that he was one of the lucky ones – he made it back to live a full life. He is proud of his military service, is a member of the local VFW and, up until recently, played the bugle at funeral services for veterans.
Before retiring my dad was a business manager for the Ventura County AFL-CIO. He has always been a hardworking and proud man, so when he described an obvious act of discrimination against him, I felt I had to speak out about it. He had gone to pay a bill and, with check in hand, stood in line waiting for his turn. Apparently the customer service representative assumed he couldn’t speak English, and told the woman standing behind him to come forward. The woman looked at her, pointed to my father and said, “He’s up next.” The customer service representative then stated, “Oh, he’s going to take a long time.” When another representative called my dad forward, he described what had just occurred, and the discourteous way he had been treated.
That incident troubled me as have some of this newspaper’s letters to the editor that call for racial profiling and even taking up arms against undocumented immigrants. My dad fought against the master of all racial profilers – Hitler and the Nazis. My father did not fight in the war so that 63 years later he, or his dark-haired, olive-skinned daughter, would have to prove their American citizenship. Growing up both my parents, who were born in the United States, had to endure racial slurs and even de facto segregation.
There is a long history of discrimination toward the documented and undocumented immigrant in the United States. Whether one’s ancestry is Asian, Irish, Italian, German, Hispanic or one of many other ethnicities, all have at one time or another been discriminated against in housing, jobs, and education. Immigrants often work in one or more of the most labor intensive and lowest paying jobs in order to feed, clothe, and educate their children.
Discriminatory practices lead to a divided and paranoid society. When I studied literature of the Holocaust, I learned that the Nazis came to power by blaming their depressed economic problems on the Jews and those ethnicities they considered undesirable. Slowly, over a period of several years, they indoctrinated their citizens by pitting neighbor against neighbor and child against parent, finally eroding all of their civil rights.
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The following quote from former President Clinton’s 1997 presidential inaugural address still resonates with today’s climate of intolerance 10 years later: “The divide of race has been America’s constant curse. Each new wave of immigrants gives new targets to old prejudices. Prejudice and contempt, cloaked in the pretense of religious or political conviction, are no different. They have nearly destroyed us in the past. They plague us still. They fuel the fanaticism of terror. They torment the lives of millions in fractured nations around the world. These obsessions cripple both those who are hated and, of course, those who hate, robbing both of what they might become.”
We must be ever vigilant not to allow prejudice and hatred to permeate our language and actions toward others. In this holiday season, may we be instruments of peace and goodwill toward all.
• Elizabeth Reville is a freelance writer and resident of Carson City.
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