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.