As a small child living in Connecticut, recently arrived from Uruguay at a time when Latinos were still rare outside of the major metropolis, I was quickly labeled "spic."
It was a daily grind of humiliation and hostility, lightened only by the embrace of a few non-bigoted kids and teachers that sought to protect me.
In 6th grade, I decided to run for class president. My opponent built her campaign around the basic concept: "don't vote for the fat spic." (Yep, I was both Hispanic and chubby, apparently a major political issue in that campaign.) And although I won the election, the sting of the insult stuck.
It was the inescapable sense of being seen as the "Other," the less than acceptable intruder, not worthy of human dignity.
Of course this was not the only manifestation of bigotry in those days. My mother was at times overcome with tears when someone would treat her like garbage - because she was Latina. One afternoon, as she and I spoke outside a supermarket in Spanish, a lady gave us a dirty look and shushed us, putting her index finger on her mouth and making a hissing sound.
Over the years, there were many more of these incidents. I have to admit that I grew a tough skin - and a penchant for talking back with my increasingly accentless English. One kid in junior high who tried the spic remark on me ended with my elbow across his neck, pinned down against a locker while I explained the consequences of ever calling me a spic again. He avoided me through the end of high school.
So what a surprise that last night, as I reviewed the reader comments posted on a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post, I had the same sense of outrage. My post dealt with the increasingly dopey coverage of the immigration debate in the mainstream media - coverage which is undertaken largely without the participation of Americans of Latino descent, a very rare species indeed in the major broadcast and cable outlets, though the fastest growing group of American citizens in our country.
The comments were, for the most part, the hackneyed talking points of the right-wing radio hate mongers, regurgitated with a tone of disdain that was instantly familiar to me. As in my childhood, I responded and challenged these people to actually prove their points with some empirical data - not just propaganda.
This morning, however, I realized the irony of these exchanges. While it has been many years since anyone has called me a spic, and no one in the comments literally used the word, the tone of these responses was all too familiar. My visceral reaction took me right back to those early days in Connecticut.
Almost 35 years after being the target of bigots, here I was again.
But I am not there. Bigotry is not a condition that defines my life or that of my sons, for that matter. This time, I felt sad for those people with their barely concealed bigotry. I am not a victim - they are.
They are victims of a worldview based on a serious moral flaw - indeed, they are proof of Nelson Mandela's maxim that no child is born a racist, he or she has to be taught to hate.
Which is, in a way, cause for optimism. What is learned can be unlearned. Witness the glory of a country that 50 years ago denied basic constitutional rights to a whole group of Americans, African Americans, and now elects a president from that formerly marginalized group.
That is learning that you can believe in.