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Fighting Words
One conflict led to unexpected friendship
Margarita Martinez
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I sat in my third period math class, spacing out as the teacher explained the assignment. I was distracted by two girls who were talking behind me. I kept hearing one of them, a black girl named Ashley, using the word titi, which means “aunt” in Spanish slang.

“My titi was saying…” Ashley said.

Every time she said it, I felt myself get more and more annoyed. I’m not sure why, but it bothered me to hear her say a word that didn’t seem to belong to her. I’m Puerto Rican and I considered Spanish the language of my people—not hers. When I heard her say titi again, I turned around and said, “Don’t say titi because you’re not Spanish.”

Without realizing it, I’d started a big problem. Ashley got out of her chair and began screaming at me.

“What? Who the f-ck are you to tell me what I can and can’t say?’’ she yelled. I was shocked. I hadn’t anticipated that she would be so upset. It was too late to say I was playing around, so I got up and said in a calm, low voice, “You heard me. Don’t say that word because you’re not Spanish.” Our verbal argument almost got physical, and we were sent to the dean’s office.

A Sincere Apology

I slumped down in the uncomfortable chair while I tried to explain myself. Ashley sat with her arms crossed as she stared coldly at me. I knew I had no business telling her what she could or could not say. Instead of meeting her gaze, I told the dean, “I didn’t mean to offend or disrespect her in any way. I was only playing.’’

The dean told me to apologize to her. I felt bad that she’d gotten so offended, so I told her I was sorry in a very sincere way. I could see that Ashley was still upset, but she accepted my apology. The dean let us go, and as we walked back to class I apologized again and asked why she had wanted to fight over such a small comment.

“I guess it was a quick reaction,” she said, and explained that she took it personally because I wasn’t the first Hispanic girl to question her use of a Hispanic word. It still wasn’t clear to me why she was using a Spanish word in the first place, but I figured she was entitled to say what she wanted. I apologized one last time before entering the classroom.

The Only Fish

Although I’m Puerto Rican, when I was younger, my skin was as pale as a porcelain doll’s. That made growing up in the mostly black neighborhoods of Brownsville and Harlem pretty hard. Often, I was the only white-skinned girl in my class or on my block. Sometimes I felt like I was the only one in my entire neighborhood. It was like being the only fish in a tank full of sharks.

image by Freddy Bruce

It seemed like my skin color made me the main target for abuse. People would just assume that I was a punk and couldn’t stand up for myself. I had many verbal arguments with black girls that led to physical fights. Most of the time, I was clueless about why the fights even started. My perspective on black girls was that they were all the same. I thought all of them were mean, troublemakers, and haters.

It seemed like even the black girls I was friendly with saw my light skin as an excuse to pick on me. For example, once in grade school, a black girl who I thought was my friend came up from behind me and hit me, which led to a fight. I was very quiet and never bothered anyone, so I couldn’t understand it. I found out later she just did that because her cousin didn’t like me. After that, my prejudices about black girls just got worse. I added two-faced to my list of complaints about them.

But after our altercation, I started to get to know Ashley, and we gradually became close. Ashley had always seemed like a happy and friendly person, and when I realized she wasn’t the type to hold a grudge, I started talking to her more. We hung out at school and talked about almost everything—boys we crushed on, teachers who got on our nerves, and family matters. We even started hanging out outside of school and found that we shared similar hobbies, such as writing poetry and shopping. Ashley was not like I expected her to be. She was kind-hearted, and she wasn’t judgmental.

Misunderstood

The first time I went over to Ashley’s house and met her family, I was surprised to realize that we shared a cultural background. Ashley was half black and half Puerto Rican. Finding out about Ashley’s Puerto Rican side explained a lot. I now understood why she had gotten so upset when I told her not to use a Spanish word. I realized I was ignorant to think that just because she was black, she couldn’t also be Puerto Rican or mixed with another race.

We got into a discussion about race, and I explained to Ashley that I’d been called so many names and picked on by black girls so much that I assumed no black girl would be nice to me. I had a lot of prejudices about black girls, but Ashley knew where I was coming from. I was surprised to hear that she had her prejudices about Hispanic girls, as well.

She said she couldn’t relate to them, even though she was half Puerto Rican and ate some of the same foods, like rice and gandules and roast pork. “I always felt that Spanish girls are all conceited and they only like their own kind,” she told me. But after talking to me, Ashley realized that I was quiet because I was a little shy and had a hard time trusting people, not because I was conceited.

This became one of the bigger connections we shared, since we both knew what it felt like to be unwanted, or like we didn’t fit in. And we realized that we’d disproved each other’s prejudices. Ashley was proof that my stereotype of black girls was incorrect, and I was proof that her prejudices about Hispanic girls were wrong. We laughed about our stereotypes, deciding that they were petty and naïve. We knew that it was really wrong to judge someone before getting to know him or her.

A World of Friends

From this experience with Ashley, I’ve learned to see people as individuals and not place them in categories. I know that everyone is different and that people shouldn’t buy into stereotypes. Ashley’s friendship has helped me connect with people and trust them more.

These days, I have plenty of friends of different races and backgrounds. I’ve learned so many new and amazing things about other cultures. For example, a friend from Africa taught me some of the dances that they do during celebrations. The dancing is done freely and passionately, and I’ve enjoyed that feeling while I’m doing the dance, as well. I also met a Chinese girl named Shirley who loves candy as much as I do. She introduced me to some delicious candies of her culture. Those experiences are all thanks to my friendship with Ashley.

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(NYC-2010-09-19)

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