Memoirs of an Anti-Mexican County
by Gabriel San Román
Act I: “Looking for Trouble”
The recess bell buzzed at my elementary school in Anaheim. A frenzy of kids rushed to return to class from the playground with flushed cheeks from the cold.
I grabbed my jean jacket and flung it over my shoulders before heading back.
Only, this wasn’t just any ordinary jacket.
Sure, it kept me warm that winter in 1990.
But that’s not all it did. Between the dark denim and classic Levi’s buttons, my jacket gave me a sense of style for the first time in my life! The Sherpa that fluffed my collars might as well have been sheared from a real sheep somewhere pastoral in my imagination.
Wearing my jean jacket finally made me feel cool at school—never mind my bowl cut!
With a subtle swagger, I stood in a line that formed with fellow third-graders.
That’s when I noticed Principal Tate making her way towards me in the hallway.
Soon, Tate towered over me, dressed in modest high heels, a long, black skirt and a black coat jacket to match.
The outfit gave her the stature of a secular nun. Instead of a wimple, she sported a bit of a bowl cut, like me, only with her bangs swept to one side.
Thirty-five years after the integration of the last segregated “Mexican” school in Anaheim, Tate bent down towards me, grabbed my jacket collars and gave them a tug.
“Why do you people dress like you’re always looking for trouble?” she asked.
I panicked before protesting my innocence without even thinking about my people.
“I don’t get into trouble,” I said. “I get good grades!”
She slackened her grip on my jacket before letting go of its collars.
I walked into class, still baffled by the brief encounter. Something felt off about it.
If I didn’t wear my brown skin to school, would my jean jacket have made me a cowboy, trucker, surfer or anything other than a cholo-in-training in the eyes of my principal?
Those questions didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t know what racism was back then.
Act II: D.A.R.E. to Resist Racism
Three years later, I sat at a Wienerschnitzel booth and faced the first real quandary of my young life.
To borrow a phrase from an old stoned-Shakespeare headshop shirt: “Doobie or not doobie?”
That was the question.
With nothing better to do, my friends and I had walked around our neighborhood aimlessly one afternoon before Brian stopped at a house to pick up a joint from someone he knew.
A few weeks before, we all puffed on cigarettes from a pack of Marlboros.
This time, the choice before me weighed heavier. I felt every pang of Catholic guilt lord over any desire to experiment with weed, the very drug venerated by the West Coast hip-hop anthems that reigned over the airwaves and our imaginations back then.
“You don’t have to try it if you don’t want to,” said Tony, my Vietnamese friend.
With that hall pass, I scarfed down some chili cheese dogs and walked home instead of getting high.
Months later, a white Anaheim policeman walked into my 6th grade class to warn us about drugs. He was an officer with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program—better known by its red-lettered acronym D.A.R.E.
The mustachioed man of the law had us fill out blank pieces of paper to submit anonymous questions to start things off. I asked if he knew what the gang graffiti that recently sprayed a wall in my neighborhood meant on my submission.
Turned out, he didn’t.
Instead, he impersonated a drug dealer to show us the real-life scenarios we may soon be confronted with.
I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remembered how he said it.
The cop threw in a few “eses” to punctuate his best impression of a stereotypical Mexican accent coupled expressive movements that seemed out of a bad cholo casting call for American Me.
At lunch, I simmered with indignation over his performance. Then, I spotted him standing alone at the middle of our soccer field when something came over me.
“I’m going to tell him what he did was wrong,” I told my friend Manny.
“Dude, you’re crazy,” he said.
I left the lunch tables propelled by some burgeoning sense of justice. Before too long, I was at midfield squaring off with the law.
“I didn’t appreciate the accent you used in class,” I said. “Not all drug dealers are Mexican!”
The cop was taken aback for a brief moment before bending down towards me.
“Thank you for letting me know,” he said, genuinely.
I didn’t tell him that the first joint offered to me came by way of two gabachos, not some stereotypical cholo. And I don’t know if what I said had any lasting impact on his future D.A.R.E. presentations.
It didn’t matter anyway. That summer, Orange County activists began gathering signatures in support of what became Prop. 187, with its illogic of targetting undocumented immigrants as criminals.
But, by then, I already knew what racism was.
Act III: The Orange Screwjob
In 1996, Wrestlemania came to Anaheim and a new arena in town known then as the Arrowhead Pond.
A new generation of WWF superstars emerged and the main event pitted two of my favorites—Bret “The Hitman” Hart and Shawn Michaels—against each other for the heavyweight championship belt in a 60-minute iron man match.
With all the hoopla leading up to Wrestlemania 12, my friend Manny and I somehow found out about a “meet-and-greet” autograph singing at a card shop in Orange. The Bushwackers, Goldust and Jerry “The King” Lawler were all scheduled to appear.
What better way to kick off Wrestlemania weekend?
As junior high kids without anybody to give us a ride, we pooled whatever cash we had to call a taxi.
The driver assured us we had enough to get to the card shop but conveniently got lost and charged us a little more.
We grumbled briefly but it didn't matter too much.
Two “mystery guests” were advertised to appear at 5 p.m. and we got there in time. That's what really mattered. Manny and I took our place in the line that already stretched far outside the shop.
As we got closer to the front, we saw who the mystery guests were: The Brooklyn Brawler, a “jobber” routinely beat up by big name wrestlers, and Harvey Wippleman, an annoying pencil-necked manager.
What a letdown!
Once inside the shop, I picked up a pack of baseball cards to look at before putting it back in its box.
Soon after, the card shop owners pulled us out of line.
“Someone said they saw you two stealing,” one owner said.
They searched Manny’s backpack and the pockets of our baggy jeans.
We didn’t know our rights.
After nothing was found, we returned to the line and got our first round of autographs before exiting the
Believing ourselves to be in the clear, we hung around for the bigger superstars. The queue only swelled.
After a lengthy wait, we arrived back at the entrance of the card shop only to be stopped at the front door by the owner who didn’t let us in.
“But you already searched us,” we said. “We didn’t steal anything.”
The argument took a heated turn. The owner mouthed some nonsense about us passing the stolen cards between each other to evade detection.
An older Chicano in line recognized what was happening and told us to just let it go. If police got involved, the situation would only get worse, he advised.
Dejected, I called my folks from a nearby pay phone to ask for a ride home. I sobbingly told them what had happened.
My father arrived, enraged.
He stood up for Manny and me. The card shop owners got an earful as Dad pointed his finger at them for falsely accusing us.
I remember wanting to take the card shop to court for what the owners had done as I reached for some vague notion of justice on the long ride back home. My dad didn’t give the idea much credence.
That Sunday, I walked to Manny’s house to listen to Wrestlemania through a scrambled television screen as we didn’t have any money left over from the cab ride to buy the pay-per-view event.
Shawn Michaels beat Bret Hart for the title as we cheered him on from afar.
A few months later, the Anaheim police union asked City Council to support its call to give officers the power to arrest undocumented immigrants. The question of brown skin and “reasonable suspicion” arose in protest.
Those days, I didn’t pay attention to what happened at City Hall. I was too busy watching wrestling.
I thought I trashed the paper with the autographs from the Brooklyn Brawler and Harvey Wippleman long ago but recently found it.
If I had tossed it in the trash, it wouldn’t have mattered.
Other things aren’t so easily discarded.
Gabriel San Román is an Orange County writer for the Los Angeles Times. He previously worked at OC Weekly – as a reporter, podcast producer and columnist – until the newspaper’s closing in late 2019. San Román just may be the tallest Mexican in O.C.