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El Weekender

No 77

On Becoming White (Part 4)

Felix Alvarado

On the way to get an education I met an Air Force recruiter who showed me what the Air Force had to offer.  There was only one minor catch.  I had to pass the Electronic score with a percentile of 85%.  That was very high.  One that most Latinos or African Americans could not reach.  I passed the test and joined to be in electronics.  Again, I found myself surrounded by very bright, very young high school graduates that I would have to lead.  This was a huge challenge in a very technical world.  Somehow, I acquired the technical knowledge that I needed to be an effective leader.

The Air Force was different than the Army in that I was no longer surrounded by officers.  I was surrounded by technicians, mostly White.  They had to pass the same electronics test that I passed.  The Army and Air Force had one thing in common.  Both were concerned with performance.  As long as you made your supervisor look good, you were okay. 

Sometimes we overemphasize the good and forget about the bad.  In the Army and the Air Force you had your share of god awful supervisors.  Starting with the ones that thought they were going to save the US from communism, Hitler, Mussolini, you name it they had it all.  What they usually crated was massive morale problems.  Until eventually, someone up the chain learned of what was going on and the person was reassigned immediately. 

There is a term used in the military to describe a person that gives it all, gung ho.  That was me.  Most of the assignments I had I was the leader so I wanted to do the best job.  Then one day a reservist taught me a lesson about my enthusiasm.  He explained things to me this way; “Alvarado, since we have been here we have seen people like you come and go.  They change everything around to look good.  Then they day they are gone, we put everything back the way it was.”  I looked at him and told him; “you may be right.  In the meantime, you are going to do what I tell you.”

As I matured I saw myself changing.  I started being conscious of whom I was.  I was not White.  I was Brown and would never pass for White.  I learned that what mattered was not the color of your skin but how Whites perceived you.  If they perceived you as White you were one of the crowd.  Because I worked with only Whites, I acquired their values.  Another way to put it is “I was a sellout.”  I was a proud sellout because I never stopped knowing who I was and where I came from.  I knew that everyone was looking at me.  I was a role model for young Latinos and an example to Whites that Mexican Americans can be just as good as them.  I consider the term sellout to be very offensive.  Perhaps, politicians that use the term should go back to the time that I was a Private in the Army and be treated like I was.  Then they would stop this Brown on Brown racism.

In the Army, I was promoted to Staff Sergeant.  A high rank for a Mexican American before the civil rights era.  I recall how differently I was treated as an NCO.  Yes, rank does have its privileges (RHIP).  In the Air Force, I was promoted to Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt) and that is when I really saw the difference.  Especially when you are treated like royalty.  I went to school part time and I got a Bachelor’s and Master’s in the Air Force.  That put me in a very rare group, CMSgt, Master’s Degree and Mexican American.  I will be asked once in a while how I was able to get promoted to the highest enlisted grade.  My reply; “In a dog eat dog world, I at the other dogs.”

Along the way I lost my “Mexicanness,” I lost my Mexican accent, learned perfect Castilian Spanish; and in short, I became White.  Yes.  I am a sellout.



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