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American Born And Raised, This Latina Often Feels Invisible


Maria Caballero Rubio says the racism she experiences today is more subvert than what she experienced as a child. "I’ll be at a counter and I won't be seen. I’ll be there. I'm at the front of the line, but the person working doesn't seem to notice," she said.

Maria Caballero Rubio says the racism she experiences today is more subvert than what she experienced as a child. “I’ll be at a counter and I won’t be seen. I’ll be there. I’m at the front of the line, but the person working doesn’t seem to notice,” she said.

Shirley Chan/OPB

Maria Caballero Rubio’s parents came to the United States through a World War II program that brought manual laborers north to fill in for American men off at war. Once peace returned, they were supposed to go back to Mexico, but …

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“They were sitting at the back of the bus with their 3-month old baby ready to go back and all of a sudden, the baby — my older sister — started crying,” she said. “The bus driver came back and said, ‘What is that? You need to get off the bus. This is an American citizen, and she needs to stay here.’”

They became U.S. citizens and worked the fields. Rubio, her parents and her 10 siblings moved with the seasons, from Southern California to the vineyards of the Sonoma Valley, and then up to Oregon. Everybody worked.

“From the age of 5 years old, we were out there, five in the morning harvesting crops, and everybody contributed to whatever money we made that day,” she said. “We purchased whatever groceries we needed. If somebody needed shoes, we bought shoes that day.”

It was an isolating way of life, but she didn’t see it that way at the time.

“We lived in our migrant farmworker world. We didn’t really engage much into the greater society, we lived way out in a rural area, we took a bus into school, then a bus all the way back,” she said. “We didn’t really do extracurricular activities. Everything we did was as a family unit.”

In a way, that experience was good preparation for what she says is a central fact of her life as an adult, professional Latina: being ignored.

“When people think about race, they think about black and white — African Americans and whites. The brown people are kind of lost. We’re sort of invisible, and I think we’ve felt that way in the way that people talk about race and ethnicity. The conversation always goes one way or another. We tend to not be noticed.”

As a child, the racism she experienced was overt. Today, it’s quieter.   

“I’ll be at a counter and I won’t be seen. I’ll be there. I’m at the front of the line, but the person working doesn’t seem to notice,” she said. “So I’m thinking, maybe it’s because I’m short. but it happens so often it’s not funny anymore, that they’ll look at the person behind me and help them.

“And then other people will say, ‘She was here first.’ They’ll point to me, but I’m in line in front of the guy, and they’re talking to him and not me. It’s just a strange phenomenon.”

It’s especially strange given her experience. She’s spent more than two decades in public policy management, much of that in law enforcement. She worked for the U.S. Department of Justice, as the director of the Community Policing Institute at Western Oregon University and as the public safety director for former Portland Mayor Tom Potter.

“I remember walking into a room full of white people to do a talk on crime prevention and how to be safe and people would look around and go, ‘Oh, where is the cop?’ Well, that would be me,” she said. “And they were highly disappointed because they were expecting to see this officer with a uniform and badge, and here was this short brown woman.”

“Short brown woman” is one of many things Rubio has called herself or been called over the years – none quite ideal.

“We started as Mexicans, because that’s what my parents told us we were. Then we started school, and they said, ‘no you’re not Mexican, you’re Mexican-American.’ Then Hispanic, then Chicano because it was the Chicano movement. It was like the black pride movement. That’s where I would love to live, the Chicano stage. And then of course, Hispanic, and now Latino. 

“It’s like we have to be political. We can’t just be. We can’t just be part of this country, can’t just be American or Mexican. We have to be political,” she said.

“If you don’t have white skin, you cannot be just American.” 

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