Being Latina In America

It was a cold, clear night in November 2000. We were driving home from the bar, even though none of us should have been. We’d had too much to drink. April was behind the wheel of her red 1974 Volkswagen Bug, I rode shotgun and Ginny might have been sleeping in the backseat.

The presidential election was still undecided. Florida’s electoral votes were still hanging – literally. Our route home took us past the Governor’s Mansion, where almost-President George W. Bush resided. Full of piss and vinegar, I stuck my hand out of the open passenger side window and flipped the bird.

Almost immediately, the lights of a police cruiser appeared in the rearview.

April pulled the car over. Ginny sat up from her semi-drunken slumber.

“I’m sorry, ladies, that was stupid,” I muttered. “It’s my fault, I’ll talk to the officer.”

There were two police officers. Instead of approaching the driver’s side, one of them came up to my window.

“Evening. Do you understand that you just threatened the President of the United States?” He loomed in the window, looking grim, hands resting lightly on his utility belt, ready to—what? Taze me? A twenty-something girl, 115 pounds soaking wet? Even in my slightly inebriated state, I sensed a good cop-bad cop routine going on here: his partner hung back near the cruiser, almost as if he didn’t agree with the traffic stop.

He’s not actually the President, I thought. Then: DO NOT say that out loud.

I spoke up, since as I had told my friends, this was entirely my fault. “I apologize, sir, I didn’t realize it was a problem. I just don’t like Bush.”

He was unmoved. “I’m going to need all of you to get out of the car.”

We were momentarily stunned. Get out of the car? I couldn’t just apologize, tell him I meant no harm, and be on our merry way?

We clambered out of the red VW, shivering in the November cold. We were dressed for the bar, tight shiny pants and spaghetti straps, not for an autumn evening stroll. The three of us huddled together in front of the open car door, and Bad Cop collected our licenses; he gave them to Good Cop, who took them back to the cruiser to run them.

Bad Cop stared us down. “You got any weapons in the car?”

This was insanity. I stared back incredulously. “No, of course not!”

“Yeah? What am I gonna find if I search it?”

“Nothing, go ahead,” I said, crossing my arms. April looked panicked. Unbeknownst to me, she had drugs in her glove box. Not just a little weed, either. Meth, most likely.

I decided to try again. “Look, Officer, sir, I didn’t mean to do anything wrong. I’m just a bleeding heart liberal. My friends didn’t do anything. Please leave them out of this.”

He regarded me like something he’d found on the bottom of his shoe. I hoped and prayed for Good Cop to return with a clean record for each of us. After Bad Cop ran through what April and Ginny did for a living (he didn’t seem to care about me – perhaps thought I wasn’t gainfully employed), Good Cop returned with the licenses and ostensibly those clean records.

Good Cop handed licenses back to April and Ginny, both blond and obviously White. He looked at me, though, and didn’t hand mine back.

“You know what your problem is? You got a real chip on your shoulder. You know why?”

I stared at the sidewalk, biting my tongue, swallowing my retorts. Trying, as I had been through the entire interaction, to be unfailingly polite. “No sir,” I said slowly. “What’s my problem?”

He didn’t answer immediately. Instead, as if in slow motion, he handed the license to me, but didn’t let go. We stood there, each holding on to one side of it, almost playing a surreal game of tug-of-war.

“It’s your last name,” he said, sneering at me.

I said nothing. I swallowed hard. I thought about how quickly he would slap cuffs on my wrists and take me to jail had I breathed a word. I gave him a curt nod, palmed the license and got into the car.

Bad Cop had decreed Ginny was the most sober of the group, and therefore should drive, though she had no idea how to drive a standard shift car, much less a 1974 Bug. After a couple of stalls, we haltingly pulled into a gas station about six blocks away and switched drivers.

I cycled wildly through emotions – terror, relief, anger, incredulity – had that just happened to me? Had a police officer, whose job it was to serve and protect, told me that because I was Latina, I was somehow deficient, that I was somehow less than?

Ginny and I were roommates, and April had planned to stay over that night. But she pulled up in our driveway a few minutes later, gravel spraying, and effectively told us to get out. She sat there, not opening her door, fuming. “They were just doing their job!” she spit.

I could hardly believe my ears. My childhood friend was defending Bad Cop’s actions. Sure, I had screwed up by making a rude gesture, but to a building. It didn’t matter to her that the officer had discriminated against me, and that stung. Ginny and I were shocked, silent, as we climbed out of the car and then the stairs to our duplex.

I curled in the fetal position later that night, grateful to be in my own bed, knowing how close I’d come to lying on a cot in a jail cell instead. At 22 years old, I’d had my heart broken a couple of times. It felt like it was breaking all over again, and this time it was different. I wasn’t sure it would heal.

I wasn’t imagining what happened. Though I wasn’t driving that night, a Stanford University study called the Open Policing Project (OPP) found that police stopped and searched black and Latino drivers with less basis of evidence than used in stopping white drivers, who are searched less often but are more likely to be found with illegal items. It was April who was carrying drugs in her glove box that night. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t search the car—it was hers, not mine. He gave her a break.

I imagine, in his mind, Bad Cop gave me a break too. He told me what my problem was, and he restrained himself from taking me too jail.

What a magnanimous gesture.

In Memoriam: Silver Snarfer Robinson the First

I met Silver Robinson when he was three years old. He belonged to my new boyfriend Sterling. I had seen pictures of Silver – it was, after all, the background on Sterling’s phone – this beautiful, square headed yellow Labrador Retriever. In the photo, he looked regal, proud, strong.

Sterling got Silver from a breeder in Oklahoma after his mom commandeered his chihuahua. When Sterling arrived to choose a dog, he saw puppies roughhousing in a pen. But there was one puppy alone in a pen by himself. When he asked, he learned that the Lone Puppy had been adopted, but then returned when his new parents couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make the payments. Thus, instead of costing $600, he was just $300, the remainder of his payments. He was also a little bit older than the other puppies. 

One Saturday afternoon, I recounted this story to Silver, ending with, “…and that’s why you’re a Discount Dog” – right as Sterling entered the room. 

“What did you just say?!” Sterling asked. “You can’t tell him he’s a Discount Dog!”

“But he is. And that’s okay. I’m simply telling him his origin story,” I said. “He needs to know where he comes from.”

In 2011, after just six months of dating, Sterling and I moved in together to his (and Silver’s) home. I brought with me a crotchedy old cat named Buttercup. Cuppie was nonplussed. Silver was thrilled. He thought she was a toy we’d brought home just for him. A few episodes of Cuppie smacking him on the nose conveyed to Silver that she was boss, she most certainly did not want to play, and she did not like having her rear end sniffed. Silver grudgingly accepted that he should give her a wide berth if he walked by.

Silver came to know our schedules and our habits: he knew that we’d probably go out on a Friday or Saturday night, come home late, and I’d wind up on the floor with him, imitating the way he was lying down showing us his belly, feet up in the air. He was smart: he knew what time he got fed, he knew what time we went for walks, he knew where his food and his treats were. He knew when I was sad, he knew when I was happy. 

In 2012, Sterling proposed to me in the living room of our rented condo in Utah, where we’d been skiing with my parents and some friends. Our friend Mohammed came to pick us up to go to the airport, and when we told him we were engaged, he said, “Silver is like, ‘I finally have a mommy!’” I’ll never forget that moment. Because though we were making our relationship “official,” I had become Silver’s mom long before.

Buttercup passed away in 2014. We adopted a cat a couple months later from the local animal shelter and named him Batman for the mask on his face. He’s a tough tuxedo cat who stalks around the house like he’s master of the jungle. After an introductory period during which neither Batman nor Silver was sure about this other new creature, Batman decided that he and Silver were going to be best friends. He’d snuggle him, bat his nose or bite his hindquarters in an invitation to play. 

Silver turned 13 in November of 2020. We knew we were on borrowed time. He was having trouble navigating the stairs, but I called him my Timex: he kept taking a licking but would keep on ticking. One of the most recent times he hurt himself meant that we put up a baby gate and kept him downstairs, even when we’d go to bed. For that week, Batman didn’t come to bed with us either. He stayed and kept watch on his big brother. Each and every night.

Batman would help him sometimes, sitting on one of the lower steps and meowing to alert us to the fact Silver was having trouble.

“We know, Batty, thank you – now get out of his way.” 

As if he understood, Batty would scamper up the stairs, and after a few stops and starts, a few confused sniffs at the steps and debating where to put his paws, Silver would follow.

In March 2020, when the pandemic shut everything down and I started working from home, I decided that the whole family needed a walk each day. The downstairs robot vacuum was scheduled to run each day at 3 p.m., which became our walk time. It seemed like a no brainer: the vacuum was loud, Silver loved getting a walk, I needed to get away from my desk for both mental and physical health. I blocked my Outlook calendar for a half hour each weekday at 3, and Silver and I would walk. His dad didn’t always come with us, depending on his work schedule. 

But Silver and I walked nearly every day without fail. If it rained, I waited until it stopped, and patiently explained to Silver that we’d go once it cleared up. If someone scheduled a meeting in Outlook during my allotted walk time, I’d move the walk, again necessitating an explanation that our schedule would be somewhat different that day. 

Not just because of our walks, Silver became my buddy. Sterling was back in the office most days during the week, so it was me and Silver most of the day. During my workouts, he thought we were playing, even though I’d been doing these workouts for the better part of a year. He’d try to pick up dumbbells in his mouth, or drop his tennis ball next to me, hoping I’d throw it back in the middle of doing lunges or squats. While he was lying in his bed, watching me pace the room during a conference call or just trying to get my steps in for the hour, I’d lean down and give him a quick scratch between the ears. I’d tell him, “You’re so cute!” or “I love your face!” even though his hearing had gotten so bad he couldn’t hear anything but the loudest noises. I read that even if a dog’s hearing wasn’t great, he could still tell if you were interacting with him, or whether you were being kind or harsh.

Because we were walking each day, and it was summertime in Houston, I got Silver some booties so he wouldn’t burn his paw pads. I should have trained him to wear them long before, because it turns out maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. He would walk around as if his paws were stuck to the ground, looking as if he were drunk. They must have really confused him. So we put the booties away and figured that some day there would be another dog who might wear them.

In April of this year, Silver hurt himself again on the stairs. We were out of town, and our pet sitter called Sterling to tell him Silver couldn’t walk. Sterling and I looked at each other, and we knew: this time wasn’t like the others. We came home from our trip, picked him up from the emergency vet and my heart broke when I saw him being supported by two vet techs in a sling. I started sobbing and I told Sterling, “I’m not ready, I’m not ready to let him go.”

But it was time. We took him to our regular vet, and while Sterling went to get him a cheeseburger from Whataburger for his final meal, I lay on the floor of the exam room with him. I told him how much I loved him, how much I would miss him, and that he had been the best dog. He relaxed with a long sigh as he left us.

He will forever be the best dog.