Youth Stories: Facing Systemic Racism as a Mexican-American
A Conversation with Jesus
I recently sat down with Jesus, an alumnus of Youth ERA's Clackamas Drop, to talk about his experiences growing up undocumented, the impacts of systemic racism, and Oregon's white supremacist history. Growing up, Jesus' family often had doors closed on them due to their undocumented status. His father worked in construction to help support the family, but they were unable to access government assistance due to their citizenship status (despite paying taxes).
"There was never anything available for us. No resources or programs that helped or met the needs of undocumented immigrants."
When Jesus was still young, he moved to Oregon from a Latin community in Arizona. Jesus explained that he experienced more microaggressions and blatant racism after moving to Oregon. The truth is Oregon claims to be this progressive utopia when in actuality, the state was built on white supremacy. Oregon has a long history of benefiting from the exploitation of people of color by those in privilege (click here for more information).
"When I moved out to Oregon, I started to notice discrimination a lot more. People of Color would often get harsher punishments; the white kids get suspended, while the black kids get expelled. I always felt like I was in trouble for something I never did. I was forced into English as a second language for five years, even though English is my first language."
Jesus explained how living as a Mexican American man in the United States shaped him as a person.
"As a Mexican male, it is hard to express yourself or talk about your problems. Always hearing 'be a man' caused me to bottle up my emotions until I felt numb or exploded into a fit of rage."
He also shared that he experiences feelings of displacement daily, particularly when in gentrified areas.
"I feel like I can't go to places like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods because I feel like I'm constantly looked at or watched; the same person will come up to me four or five times."
Jesus told me that for a while, he struggled to find belonging in a community that punished him for his identity. He explained how the system we live in pushes communities of color into self-fulfilling prophecies.
"We started as the land of the free but we are being forced to live our own stereotype, we get pushed into positions where we are forced to conform into the views society has of us."
Jesus told me that his resilience and sense of self-worth are what's kept him from losing hope.
"The most important part of trying to cope with things like this is getting your self-worth into perspective. A lot of people like to conform, but it's about finding what makes you comfortable and happy and sticking to it. There are just as many reasons to keep going as there are things holding you down. You need to allow yourself to grow and flourish before you can find hope in a broken system. I appreciate the thick skin the system has given me; something always happened to keep me off the ledge to bring me back."
Jesus noted that one of the ways individuals fight oppression is by staying true to their identity and authentic self. Jesus rocks a huge beard, and although he's faced discrimination due in part to his appearance, he swears that he will never shave or compromise his Mexican heritage.
"I know my worth and won't compromise my identity or myself to cope with society. Instead of following the system as it is, we should mold it into something more inclusive. If we compromise ourselves and our morals to fit into a system, change won't happen."
In a society that constantly polices those who do not fit a prescribed image, I feel Jesus's words are so incredibly important for youth to hear. We need to fight against societal policing and discrimination, particularly against communities of color. Jesus's final note of advice echoes this sentiment, he says:
"You have to be your own advocate and make sure you do everything right by you. No one else's opinion of you is important if you truly enjoy what you're doing, it gives you fulfillment, and doesn't cause harm."