“Are You Part of a Program?”

Is what a White woman who came with a friend of my aunt and uncle asked me before I was able to introduce myself, as I welcomed them to our small dinner party.
*
I wasn’t. Part of a program, that is, but what I was, and am, is multiracial: my mother’s side is White and my father’s Latino. We lived in New Mexico. Any summer break, Christmas break, or a break longer than two weeks from school, my sister and I, or sometimes just one of us, got picked up by a family member from Denver. Whoever came for us, usually a particular aunt and uncle would turn right back around, with both of us, or one of us, in the backseat, making the five-to-six-hour drive, back to back, just so we could stay with them for a few weeks. These trips helped me, and I want to also say my sister, become more rounded, as our small, New Mexican, town has little cultural diversity, even today.
The Denver family has often been called The White Family between my sister and me. Yet, we were never treated any differently than our cousins who have both White parents. We were never asked to do more work than they did when cleaning up after family dinners. We never got any more or less Christmas money than them; everyone’s eggshell envelope, and the hallmark card inside, had the same words written in my grandmother’s perfect Catholic School cursive. Our slightly darker skin and hair, or the fact that our eyes are a shade between brown and green, and not blue, wasn’t ever completely ignored, but it wasn’t a big deal to any of us either.
*
I was 15 years old, I think, and I was staying with my aunt and uncle by myself. My sister, who is a few years older, decided to stay home to be with a current boyfriend.
My aunt and uncle were part of a social group that seemed very liberal, and very happy with having a Black president in office, but perhaps not as educated or self-aware as they might be today. If there is anything positive Donald Trump has done it is that he has made people who actually want to change for the better realize their own problematic ideas, assumptions, and microaggressions. That summer, let’s say the summer of 2009, my aunt and uncle hosted and went to dinner parties several nights a week. If they went to one, I was usually able to get out of it and would instead spend the evening playing basketball at one of the nearby parks with the friends I made in Denver’s Baker neighborhood. Most of these kids were Latino, specifically, Mexican, and were very aware their new neighbors were becoming increasingly Whiter and Whiter. However, it was my aunt’s and uncle’s turn to host that night. We probably had salmon and green salad. The adults probably drank wine while I had bubbly water. I couldn’t say for certain. Before any wine was poured, or any snacks were picked out of tiny bowls, I stood in the backyard and greeted people as they came. I recognized most of their friends, as this was near the end of the summer, and they recognized me.
Then, Jeff came through the gate of the backyard with a woman I had never seen. Jeff was recently divorced and this was the second date of his I would meet that summer. I either walked towards them, or let them approach me, and one of us (either Jeff or I) said hello first. My memory is a bit foggy, but what followed probably went something like this:
“Alejandro, this is (I have no clue what her name was, so I’ll go with Tracy) Tracy,” Jeff said, “and Tracy, this is Alejandro.” Before I could tell Tracy exactly who I was, (and, honestly, Jeff could have easily said I was the nephew of his friends who’s backyard we were all in), she said, “Oh, are you part of a program?”
*
I hope I never forget that interaction. I admit I do not remember what we ate or what we discussed that evening. Surely, it was more lighthearted than the dinner party talking points of today. I am also sure Tracy has never considered this, but her awkward question has made me ask some very important questions of my own. If I didn’t have a name that always gets the red underline in Microsoft Word, or if my skin didn’t tan so much that summer, would she have still thought I was in a program? What does being in a program mean? What kind of 15-year-old needs a program where they spend their summers having healthy dinners with middle-aged White people in a gentrified Denver neighborhood? Why would a brown kid need this experience? Should there be a program where kids who aren’t White help host parties with straight White couples for other straight White couples who probably claim to be progressive, and liberal, and who surely voted for Obama, who was our president then, and who probably say they hate the racist rhetoric of the president today? I’d say, probably not.
I would like to meet this woman again. I wonder if she remembers what she said, or ever considered how it might have hurt my feelings. I wonder if she has said similar things to others like me, or if she’s expanded her outlook of what a family could look like, or if she ever learned to allow a scene to unfold a bit more before asking questions. And, perhaps, she has met many teenagers like me, who were actually in some type of program, at dinner parties hosted by White couples. Perhaps she met several that summer. Perhaps she met several that week. With that said, I wonder what her next words would have been if I answered yes.

By Alejandro Lucero