There’s a stretch of road that leads to my neighborhood in a little town in Wyoming. As I drive through, I hear a refrain from my childhood.
The speed limit is 30 miles per hour, and nobody follows it. Most people find it a perfect opportunity to step on the gas to tempt the onlooking authorities to start issuing tickets. Between the big trucks coal-rolling and commuters eager to get home, the average speed limit becomes 40. Perhaps I’m an old soul, but I don’t like risking it: I keep my odometer at 29 hovering on 30 and that’s that! Yes, I’m likely that old sour grape you see behind the wheel as you blast the AC/DC or race to your early morning meetings. I don’t mean to generalize, I don’t know your life. Or maybe you’re okay following the rules and staying in your lane like me. I’ve driven this road plenty since we moved into our home nearly two years ago, and just recently it struck me that I’m not just annoyed by those who ignored the speed limit: I’m actually terrified of getting pulled over.
It’s a fear that takes over and rumbles below my heart and aches at the sight of a police officer. I know the authorities are just trying to do their job the best they can with what they have and they are not out to get me. I have not had an issue ever with a police officer, and I understand I don’t have it as bad as others. Nevertheless, there’s a fear that is built into my DNA and it reminds me not to get too comfortable, even when I’m in my own town. I’m still a brown kid who’s listening to his mother’s voice.
Growing up, this brown kid hardly experienced discrimination in the great Cowboy State. But I’m lucky. I’m conditioned to experience these peculiar moments of emotional recall sparingly. I’m privileged. I didn’t experience Wyoming like my Amá did at the restaurants and hotels. I didn’t get to hear what my Apá heard at the construction sites. I was and continue to be this fortunate thanks to their sacrifices, and I learned quite quickly that things worked differently for kids who spoke English real good.
Now, we didn’t turn our backs on our culture. My sisters and I were raised in a Mexican household in the Old West. Those thin duplex walls contained a safe haven of Latinidad filled with nightly novelas, carne con chile and a constant quest to strengthen and maintain our connection to Mexico. As you can imagine, this can be difficult to accomplish in Wyoming. We started our Wyoming story in 1996, before the internet was really a thing. Sure, we had our little Latino community that kept us afloat. I would overhear conversations between my parents and their friends after a heavy meal to celebrate the Day of the Virgen de Guadalupe, on the 12th of December. They would talk of how far the Apás would have to drive in the snow to get to the oil fields during the week, or how their parents are doing back in Chihuahua or Jalisco or Michoacán, or when was the last time they made the pilgrimage to see them again. We shared holidays and important events together, like a support group for transplants who took a wrong turn on the way home. This is part of my Latinidad, and the way I learned to be Mexican.
Every now and then, they would speak of how someone got deported after an inconvenient traffic stop, and that if we don’t bring attention to ourselves, we would have nothing to fear. You’ll be fine, they all concluded, so long as you stay in your lane.
Don’t be afraid. Be prepared. The terminology of transplants.
My Amá would tell my older sister when she started driving, and repeated the same plea to her son when I started getting behind the wheel: “Todo con cuidado. There are things your friends can get away with that you may not be able to. Be careful.” I hear her voice loud and clear as I drive past the bridge and the speed limit drops to 30, and I sigh with the slight comfort that I have nothing to hide.
I drive the same stretch of road with my son now, and I wonder if he will feel the same way I do the day he gets behind the wheel. Will this apply to him? Or does that voice belong to the transplants?