UndocuAmerica: ‘This Beautiful Dark Brown Skin’
A story of racial profiling experienced by a 12-year old boy, and the danger of slanderous rhetoric to an undocumented man and his American son.
Like many Latinos, I have a huge family. Unfortunately, I never get to see most of them because they are on the other side of the U.S. border with Mexico. My family in the U.S., I can count on my fingers: a few uncles, my dad, my brother and sisters.
Thankfully, I’ve always been fortunate to have wonderful friends who I see as my family. That’s why in the seventh grade when my Dad decided to move us to a different neighborhood, I chose to remain in the same middle school to stay with my old friends.
Hanging out with my friends during lunch and sitting next to my secret crush in math class seemed like a no brainer, but it made for my trip to school to be a long one. I had my routine down though: wake up at 5:30 a.m., catch the first bus at 6:15, arrive at the second bus stop at 6:45 and hope I didn’t have to chase after the bus. If I made it to the corner of Kentucky and Federal by 7:15 a.m., I was good. I could take a deep breath.
This meant I had time to stop at the convenience store and grab a cup of hot cocoa… maybe play a couple of arcade games before school. Talk about a warm up — I’m winning against hordes of zombies before even starting my school day? Yep, no pop-quiz was ever bigger than that.
After school, on nice days, I would skip the second bus and just walk. My dad would still be at work when I came home and my sister at her after-school activities, so I was in no hurry to get to an empty house. On my way home, I would use the concrete dividers on the sidewalk as measures and take the time to practice my music lessons for cello. Each step I made on the sidewalk was a note. I would walk and count: 1–2–3–4. For longer sections I would count 1…2…3…4. For shorter sections, 1234. I had my music teacher in my head telling me, “Come on Armando, stay on the beat, stay on the beat.”
So one day I’m happily counting along, looking down at my concrete measures when I see blue and red lights flashing across the sidewalk, and I hear an angry voice yelling at me, “Stop. Freeze.”
I was totally confused. I might fight video game zombies, but I was just a kid — barely old enough to sit in the front seat of a car, and here are two police officers coming at me, hands on their guns, yelling. I was freaking out, like — “What did I do wrong?” My mind was going through a mess of different emotions. Because, as an undocumented person, the last thing you want to do — the very, very, very last thing — is to get in trouble. Even a simple traffic violation can lead to deportation.
So I’m thinking, “What did I do? What could it have been? Did I forget to pay the bus driver?” But no way. I remembered paying David. He gave me a transfer. And he would never call the cops even if I did forget.
The officers were yelling at me to turn around and put my hands up. I was struggling to understand what was going on when the second officer physically spun me around, stuck his hands into my pockets and started pulling everything out: my gum, the coins left from the arcade, my bus transfer, my student I.D. He yanked my arms tight behind my back and handcuffed me.
I was in shock, totally confused, and terrified. And then, with some kind of kid logic, I thought, “Is it my hair?” My family didn’t have money for regular haircuts, so I cut my own hair. Which, as you can imagine with a 12 year-old, didn’t work out so well. I would always end up using the number four clipper to get rid of the patches. At least it was even! “No,” I thought, “it can’t be my hair.”
Then, they searched every pocket in my backpack, dumping out my school books. They were looking for something they couldn’t find and that’s when it hit me — “They stopped me because of the color of my skin. They think I’m some criminal. I can’t believe they’re doing this. What if they take me to jail and my dad has to come and get me? Will he need an I.D.? Could they deport my dad?”
The officers pushed me down, grabbed my student I.D., and went back to their car, leaving me on the street handcuffed. It took about 20 minutes to run my I.D. through some database. And while I sat on that curb, all these cars were going by with people looking at me… pointing at me… like I stole something or robbed somebody. They assumed the officers were making the city safer for them — stopping a thief. I’m a kid in handcuffs sitting on the curb and I wanted to get up and yell, “ STOP! I’m the victim here! I didn’t do anything! Let me go! I’m innocent! I didn’t do anything! I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!!”
And I can’t explain to you, even now, how humiliated and ashamed I felt sitting there with everyone going by pointing at me, looking at me, thinking I was some criminal…
Finally, the officers came out of their car, threw my stuff into my backpack, and uncuffed me. One handed me my I.D. and said the most ironic thing I’ve ever heard, “Stay out of trouble.” No apology. NOTHING. When all along I wasn’t the ‘trouble,’ they were.
I remember it taking me a long time to pull myself together — to even figure out which way was home. But I did make it home, and like many other days, there was no one there. No one I could talk to. Instinctively, I grabbed my soccer ball and went to an elementary school a few blocks away where I often played. There was no field, but there was a baseball cage where I would sometimes practice my shots. I stayed there until evening, kicking the soccer ball over, and over, and over against the metal cage; taking out my anger and shame on that ball until my foot couldn’t take the pain anymore.
I often wonder, how many other brown and black kids go through this stuff? Pulled over, harassed by the police with no way to channel the fear, anger, and humiliation? How many undocumented kids go through this stuff and have no one at home to talk to? No shoulder to cry on. No soccer ball. Because we start to serve a life sentence away from our families as soon as we cross that border.
I’m a man now, watching another man, our president, tell the citizens of this country that if you’re an undocumented Mexican you must be in a dangerous gang, a rapist, a murder. Can I be safe walking home from my job at the library when more and more Americans view people who look like me as a threat? Even more importantly, is my nine-year-old son going to look like a bad guy to a couple of cops? Will my neighbors see me for who I am? A young father hurrying to pick up his son from school so that HE doesn’t have to walk into an empty house. Or am I their worst nightmare? Like some zombie that must be stopped?
And this beautiful dark skin you see that people are being taught is a threat to this country, is the rich, brown tone I inherited from my grandfather. And let me tell you, my grandfather is the best person I’ve ever known. No matter how poor he was, he would always house and feed people. Before he turned to religion, he was so patriotic that even when the national anthem was played on the radio he would stand up. And he loved his grandkids so much, he would wake up extra early and walk miles to a place in Mexico that gave out free milk at 5 in the morning. So despite our poverty, we had what we needed to grow strong.
Across that invisible border, my grandfather is the person I’ve missed the most. And because I’m undocumented, I never got a chance to go back and say goodbye to him.
So when you see someone with this beautiful, dark, brown skin walking down the street, I hope you think of my strong, kind-hearted, Mexican, grandfather. And I hope you will think of me. And I hope you think of my beautiful son and help me to keep him safe.
Armando Peniche is a Motus Theater UndocuAmerica Monologist. He is a Library Program Associate with Denver Public Libraries. Before DACA became a reality, Armando came out about his status, telling his story on camera for the short documentary film: “No One Shall Be Called Illegal” which premiered at the 2011 Denver Film Festival. He currently runs an initiative of his own called “Leamos Juntos” which provides local businesses with books for children to read while at their establishments, nurturing a reading habit for families.
You can listen to more autobiographical monologues like this on the Motus Monologues Podcast, here.
Or, hear prominent Americans step into the shoes of our undocumented neighbors, on the Shoebox Stories Podcast, here.
This autobiographical story was written by Armando Peniche in collaboration with Kirsten Wilson as part of Motus Theater’s UndocuAmerica Series: Stories From Our Undocumented Neighbors.