American Pancho

My final revised essay #2 for English 404 Creative Nonfiction is the following.

Photo by Sumire Gant

There was a time before the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s cries of I have a Dream. Before Civil Rights laws ended official discrimination and hypnotized America into believing that racism was dead. A Catholic priest in a monk outfit called me Pancho when I was thirteen years old at an all-white seminary for future pedophiles (I mean priests), where I was the only Puerto Rican Dominican boy.

I’ve always wanted to be a Catholic priest since probably the first time I became an altar boy at ten or eleven. There was something special about the church's ritual, high holy mass, the religious statues, incense burning, the blessed cross, the priest robes, and the dead Latin words that we had to learn as altar boys (sorry, no girls allowed). I wanted to be a priest to comfort the sick, look after the dead, and serve the church.

The man in the monk outfit believed, in 1962, that he could mock me with the name Pancho because there was a white comedian of Hungarian-Jewish origin named Bill Dana, aka William Szathmary, who thought it would be funny to ridicule millions of Spanish-speaking Americans, both native-born and immigrant American whose only dreams were to dream upon a star for the American Dream. Dana thought it was hilarious to create a broken-English-speaking character named Jose Jimenez to prance through white television before white audiences acting like it was all good fun, mocking our accents and culture and our ability to understand what the fuck he was talking about (sort of like a Latinx version of Stepin Fetchit).

American Pancho
Photo by Antonio Ruiz

He stereotyped us at our expense, giving this Catholic priest the cojones to color me Pancho (Pancho, Jose, it’s all the same. Foreigners) like he didn’t know my real name. Or maybe he thought that all Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, and Mexicans were called Pancho instead of Antonio or Emilio or Margarita or Estella because we all looked alike or spoke Spanish only or Broken Spanish English even though I stopped speaking Spanish in the second grade after a Catholic nun told my parents

We don’t speak that foreign language here
this is America, and in America 
we speak English (Or is it American English?).

My second-grade teacher

I was taught to be a loyal flag-waving pledge-of-allegiance-reciting American like the American-born citizen I was. Still, the priest made me feel like I was different from the other boys with their blond hair, red cheeks, freckles, blue eyes, Irish and Italian names, and excellent friendly American names like Anthony or Tony.

The United States of America, when I was growing up, was not shy of proclaiming itself a white America (like today) because they were the majority and who would stop them? They taught us in Catholic school that to be a good Catholic was to be a good American, and to be a good Catholic, we must bow to Rome and Europe and follow closely behind the Irish and Italian priests in Negro (we didn’t call them black people back then) and Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods because as any good Catholic knows if you study the statues and pictures in our churches and schools and homes, Jesus and the Apostles were white like in European white. 

Yep, no doubt about it, and we should be grateful for it. Even after I wrote my name as Anthony, the priest continued to call me Pancho like he had a permanent brain fart and wouldn’t remember my real name, the boy with brown skin, black hair, and brown eyes. So, the name became a label, and then all the other students thought they had permission to suddenly not remember my proper name, and they began shouting:

Come here, Pancho. Go there, Pancho. Be our mascot Pancho.

My co-students at the school for priests.

They treated me like an outer space alien from some foreign South Bronx ghetto public housing project who was probably there on a scholarship. They didn’t hide what they thought.

You must be poor because you are brown and come from a long line of those people who are not from around here and speak some foreign language, unlike the dead language of Latin that we are taught daily.

I’m sure this is what they were thinking.

Talk about irony.

My father, who was Puerto Rican, would often proudly tell us that his grandfather was from colonizer Spain. There was no mistaking him for anything but a Spaniard on a dark moonless night. At the same time, there was no mistaking that my mother was from the Dominican Republic. You know, the country right next to Haiti on the same island called Hispaniola, where many dark people who are descendants of Africans live and where my mother had something other than the colonizer's blood in her. African and indigenous Caribbean DNA.
Nope, no mistaking where she was from.
American Pancho
Photo by Antonio Ruiz

I knew my name was Anthony or even Tony and I wasn’t Jose Jimenez or Pancho. I did hear about Pancho Villa, but I wasn’t Mexican, and I didn’t think they were talking about that Pancho. If you watched television and movies and commercials or read comic books in the fifties and sixties, you were an American if you looked a certain way. Hence, the name Pancho was to remind me that I was a foreigner from another country, not the United States of America.

My parents called me Anthony when I was born because they wanted me to grow up as a good American boy. So all my siblings’ names, Margarita, Pedro, Virginia, and Jose, were anglicized because that was the best way to prove that we were all genuinely American.

Americans want friendly American names like James, Mary, Michael, and Linda, but I still didn’t get why the priest and the white kids couldn’t swallow a nice Catholic name like Anthony or Tony but Pancho rolled right off their Catholic tongues. 

I read somewhere that Pancho is primarily a male name of Spanish origin that means free, a shortened form of Francisco, as in the name of Pancho Villa, the Mexican Revolutionary.

My feelings are raw sixty years later as the memories flood my head. I still don’t know why the Catholic priest chose Pancho (maybe Father Pancho sounded better), choosing to ignore my nice Catholic name, perhaps because it was so difficult to swallow. Naïve, I soon learned that there was pain in a name. But that didn’t stop the priest and everyone else who thought Bill Dana, aka Jose Jimenez, was hilarious with his broken English while wondering why Pancho here spoke good American English even if it was with a Bronx accent and despite being born in the United States of America in the most diverse city in the world called New York City and being given a nice Catholic name by parents who loved each other and came to America in pursuit of the American Dream just like the Irish, the Italians, the French, and the Germans. Instead, I was constantly told to go back to where I came from.

The funny thing is that my Puerto Rican father was born an American citizen, as are all Puerto Ricans since 1917, and I was an American citizen, and they still couldn’t bring themselves to say my name, Anthony or Antonio; hell, I would have even settled for Tony.

Now I see that those who called me Pancho did not appreciate the irony of the name Pancho, also a shortened form of Francisco as in Free Man, used by a Mexican hero and revolutionary who set out to make a nation Free, as in, I am a Free Man named Antonio.

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