Patty DeMarco made me cry. He called me names and wouldn’t stop as I tried to walk away, with him following me on the North Philadelphia street we lived. On and on he went, badmouthing me, until he saw my brother, who helped me into his little red wagon, and pulled it home, me sobbing all the while behind. I was four.
“Refugee,” was one of the names Patty said. “Deportee,” was another. I didn’t know what either meant, but he aimed the words at me and my family. I knew inside they were unkind words. Meant to hurt someone. To make fun of them. To belittle them.
My father spoke with an accent. He was 15 when he came from Greece, the eldest of nine boys and girls, while making his way in the “foreign” land called America during the “Roaring 20s.” He came from a small fishing village on the Island of Nysiros, a volcanic land mass split into four tiny villages.
Patty made fun of the way he talked. Patty also poked fun at the woman across the street that spoke with a German accent. He always said it in a way to make people feel bad. I felt bad for ’em, as well as myself.
As I grew older, I heard other remarks, and while none made me cry, they hurt the same way. “Spic.” “Greeseball.” And then the variation of the “N” word, as in “n—– – lover,” against me, and the full ugly word against my friends who happened to be Black.
Kids did not come up with those words by themselves. They heard them from their parents. Used at the dinner table by mostly poor White men who were just passing on bigotry from their fathers, their grandfathers.
And, it probably wasn’t just the men. I dated a girl who let her bias show. We had argued and broke up. She called me a “Spic.” I thought you had to be Spanish before someone could call you that. This Irish girl knew next to nothing about the world, but learned enough to call someone a name, whether it fit or not.
Some called me a “little Jew bastard.” They had gotten my heritage and birth status completely wrong, but it didn’t seem to matter — it fed the fear and ugliness inside of them. Their little minds, their petty need to feel superior by putting down as inferior someone different from themselves.