The White Tortilla

The White Tortilla

by David P. Diaz

In a book originally written for his children as a glimpse into their Latino heritage, David Diaz-a second-generation Mexican-American-recounts his life and the lessons of growing up in an ethnically rich neighborhood.

Concurrently, David focuses on the dilemma of those he labels "White Tortillas:" Americans caught in a "purgatory of ambivalence," unable to fit-in

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In a book originally written for his children as a glimpse into their Latino heritage, David Diaz-a second-generation Mexican-American-recounts his life and the lessons of growing up in an ethnically rich neighborhood.

Concurrently, David focuses on the dilemma of those he labels "White Tortillas:" Americans caught in a "purgatory of ambivalence," unable to fit-in with either their native or the dominant cultures of their society.

The brief, and often humorous, vignettes introduce unforgetable characters and chronicle David's quest for success and acceptance. David also dispenses his consejo (advice) to all who seek success in a diverse America. The White Tortilla delivers sage wisdom to help us all "dream big dreams and achieve them."

Editorial Reviews

Cuestonian Book Review
"Inspiration is what this book is about, and what the benefits of a good education can bring one in their lifetime."
Latino Today Book Review
This book is "a well executed and thoughtful account that would be valuable and fun for those in search of meaning and reflection on questions of identity and success."
Writer's Digest
"I found [the author's] writing thoughtful and perceptive. The author delves deeply into the philosophy of culture and identity while still maintaining the personal, conversational tone of an autobiography."

Product Details

Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
(w) x (h) x 0.44(d)

Read an Excerpt

"Hey pocho. Don't look at me pendejo or I'll slap that look off your face." That was Butchie Gonzalez; I hated him. Butchie was a fat, greasy "beaner," whose hair was slicked back with a handful of "Butch Wax," hence the name, I suppose. He wore baggy, pachuco1 pants and black shoes with toes so pointy that they could be used for ice picks. He said he wore them in case he got in a fight, and he got in plenty. His pants were old and had patches sewn over patches, and his shoes were well worn but shined with plenty of black shoe polish.

My friends called Butchie El Indio2 (The Indian) because he was so dark. I called him a lot worse, but since my Catholic faith demanded several Our Fathers and Hail Marys for cuss words, I usually just stuck with El Indio, though not to his face of course.

Butchie's vocabulary was lethal-he had trouble stringing together more than two or three non-cusswords. He apparently had a lot of grief to purge. I never saw him in a good mood. He seemed profoundly disturbed by every aspect of his life and he took it out on those around him, especially me. His being a poor, fat beaner was a heavy cross to bear, I guess. Butchie only fit in with the pachucos of the world, those who could tolerate one another only through common dress, language, and demeanor.

One thing about Butchie though, that boy could dance. He was the best I ever saw at the "Twist" or the "Mashed Potatoes," or whatever other new dance craze was around. I was always too shy to dance, but I could watch Butchie forever. He would put a 45 on his tiny, beat-up record player and grind those black shoes into the floor and sweat grease out of his dark pores. He would grab his younger sister and twirl her back and forth, it was the only time he ever put a smile on his face. My guess is that the term "cutting the rug" must've come from someone watching Butchie dancing with his pointy black shoes.
Butchie and his two best friends liked to call themselves "Los Tres Reyes." The Three Kings indeed, more like the three stooges, if you ask me. These wannabe "gangbangers" were so pitiful that they couldn't even find a proper gang to belong to and had to make up their own.

The only two topics of conversation that occupied this triumvirate brain trust were fighting and "girls."

They would wait down on the corner of Ponoma and 5th streets every afternoon and call out to the girls walking home from school.

On this afternoon, Butchie puffed out his chest and gesticulated-calling out to Lupe Valdez as she walked toward the group. "Hey mamuchis. �C�rame mamacita!" said Butchie as she drew closer.
She crossed the street to put some distance between her and Los Tres Reyes, then she flipped them all "the bird" and picked up her pace.

"Hijole," said "Squeeky" Garcia, one of Los Tres. "She's a mean one, but sexy, she reminds me of your sister," he teased Butchie.

"�Tu madre!" said Butchie in retort.

"�No me molestas, ese!" said Squeeky as he started to "pimp" and bounce around like he wanted to fight.
Butchie sneered, trying hard not to laugh. "Okay ching�n. Olv�dalo. Let's go back to my place, nothin's happening here."

Butchie and his friends were 3 or 4 years older than me. I was shy and didn't have many friends and I liked hanging out with the older guys in the neighborhood.

Today, as usual, I was tagging along with Los Tres, albeit at a casual distance. Butchie didn't mind having me around if he was alone, but when he was with friends, he started in on me.

"Stupid pocho. Get outta here baboso, go play with my sister, she's in the backyard."
Sister Linda (pronounced "sees-ter Lean-duh") was tall and skinny, and just as dark as Butchie. She wore plain sackcloth dresses with flowers sewn on that her mom made her. I didn't like her either, but at least she was quiet and didn't pick on me like Butchie.

I don't know why he called me such names. I didn't know what pocho meant at the time, and I never asked my parents because I figured it was just one of the many cuss words that Butchie infused into his well-practiced repertoire and that, if I even mentioned it around my mother I would have my mouth washed out with soap. Again. Though I was no stranger to the soap-in-the-mouth treatment, I was a quick learner and became a model citizen while within earshot of my parents. Together, the Our Father's and Hail Mary's-offered in repentance-along with a liberal dose of soap, became my guides on the road to sanctity.

"I don't wanna play with Linda, I wanna hang out with you guys," I complained.
"�Chupa mis huevos, you little culo!" Butchie spat. I had had enough abuse for one day and so I left his house and went back down the street to our store.

Pocho is a term that is often used to describe Mexicans that have lost, or given up, their heritage. And yet, as far as I knew, I hadn't lost nor given up anything. I was just struggling to survive like everyone else in Oxnard, trying to make friends in an ethnically rich (read: volatile) neighborhood and trying to make it through school everyday without incurring a death penalty from God-as meted out by the nuns. I had plenty on my mind for a 10-year-old.

I found it more than frustrating that my Mexican friends treated me as "white" and my white friends treated me as "Mexican." I felt like I was in a limbo of ethnic identity: one foot in the Mexican culture and the other foot in the white majority camp. In short, I just didn't fit in. I did not possess, as it were, enough of the requisite characteristics for authentic "membership" in any group.
When in the company of my white friends, I became the brunt of every new "beaner" joke. "Why can't Mexicans barbecue? Because the beans keep falling through the grill." This and countless other jokes (ad infinitum, ad nauseum)-as well as ignorant stereotypes (e.g., "macho" or "hot-blooded" Mexican)-were intended to keep me "in my place" and were a way to elevate the status of the joker and lower my status proportionately. Conversely, my Mexican friends would call me "whitey," "blanco," or "pocho." Though these taunts were not, most often, intentionally malignant, they hurt and they had the effect of reminding me of my status as an outsider. A few years later, one Mexican woman would use the term "The White Tortilla" to describe my persona. The term stuck and I became "La Tortilla Blanca," to the amusement of my friends who liked the sound of it. The feminine form of the noun was not wasted on them as a double entendre.


It's ironic that a White Tortilla like myself would have any trouble fitting in to the American societal majority. My parents instilled in me the desire to accept and embrace the ideals and practices of all cultures and to utilize any of those strengths that would help me to achieve my goals and dreams.

In my estimation, the term "White Tortilla" aptly describes an admixture of characteristics that include elements from the culture of ones ancestors as well as the culture(s) where one's family has been transplanted. The traits that emerge often reveal a strong and resilient character and can form the basis of ones success.

As family generations move further and further from the native transplants that immigrated from their country of origin, they continually mix elements of their native culture with elements of the other cultures with which they interact. At some point this integration reaches critical mass and a common identity emerges. This is true diversity, in my opinion. Not just the existence of apparent differences, but also the melding of customs, traditions, beliefs and practices into a strong and unified whole.

A major obstacle, however, is that many people will not allow change to happen. Instead of recognizing and accepting the changes wrought by diversity as a normal evolution toward assimilation, acceptance, and a common culture, many will instead use change as a springboard to discrimination, stereotyping and bigotry.

I use the metaphor of basket weaving to illustrate how a White Tortilla embodies true diversity. In Spanish, the words "la canasta" refer to a basket-one that is woven from many individual threads. Threads of different colors and variations, blended together into a cohesive whole. As a whole, the woven threads consist of something that is as beautiful and strong as it is useful. The completed basket is congealed into a resilient unity-holistic, with strength of purpose and function. When separated from the whole, the individual strands possess uniqueness, but lack meaning and purpose and represent utility and success only in their potential.

I now use the term, "White Tortilla," with pride, as an icon representing true diversity in America. The term engenders in second generation Americans, of any ethnicity, similar beliefs and practices probably taught by their parents, which were intended to lead to success.

First generation Americans wanted to be successful in America and developed a set of "how-to's" or rules for success. Two of the common features transmitted by parents to their children were a desire to assimilate into the dominant culture and a determination to obtain the best education possible. Ideally, these tendencies create a paradigm for success, a strategy for adapting to the challenges of the modern world.

For many second generation Americans, however, it hasn't turned out quite as expected. Many who have followed this path are unaware of the richness of their native culture. It's not that they have "lost" their culture, but rather, ironically, they have had their cultural traits inadvertently, yet systematically, displaced by the philosophies of their own parents who believed that they could help ensure their children's success. In other words, many of the White Tortillas of the world are living out a blueprint for life designed by those who love them and are interested in their health, happiness and success. Yet, by choosing this lifestyle, they often get caught in a purgatory of ambivalence: too white to represent their native culture and too native to represent the majority.

While still an undergraduate, I was approached by some well-meaning Latinos to become a part of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztl�n (MEChA) organization. According to the Philosophy Papers, MEChA "is a student organization that promotes higher education, cultura, and historia."3 MEChA student groups sponsor social events, conduct meetings, and members often attend conferences.

Jes�s was in my speech class. He was a gregarious Mexican with a huge smile, a potbelly and an infectious laugh. He was some kind of officer in the campus MEChA organization and so he was especially concerned with my poor pocho soul. He kept pestering me about getting involved, to get "in touch" with my Chicano-ness, I guess. I went to several meetings but felt a strange sense of angst, suffering all these people speaking in a "foreign" tongue and promoting the gospel of ethnic pride. I simply never quite got it. What was all the fuss about being Mexican? Weren't we all Americans? Would all this ethnocentric activity help me become successful? Would this extracurricular ethnicity-building get the attention of the affirmative action cops and translate into success? Not according to the dogma preached by my parents. There were no free rides-assimilation was essential in their view. Not assimilation in the same sense that a chameleon or butterfly can blend into their surroundings and not be noticed by predators. But, rather, like athletes that have so honed their innate abilities so as to be recognized and rewarded for their efforts. In other words, contrary to the idea of conformity to some perceived status quo, assimilation meant distinguishing one's self in a positive and mutually beneficial way.

As an undergraduate at Cal Poly, I was awarded an educational grant from the Spanish American Institute (SAI) of Los Angeles. I was sponsored for this grant by one of my father's Latino friends. I really didn't know anything about the organization except that they gave me several hundred dollars to attend college, and for that I was grateful. It was understandable that, upon graduating, SAI would ask me to appear at one of their conferences to make a presentation. In fact, since I listed guitar playing as one of my hobbies, they asked if I would perform a guitar number. Though not too excited about performing, I talked a friend of mine into playing with me in front of a crowd of over 500 Latinos. How na�ve I was at the time, to not even consider that an organization such as SAI was looking for presentations that would uplift the Latino culture-it never even occurred to me. I still remember playing and singing a 1970's pop/gospel song to about 500 blank faces. When I was finished, I walked determinedly through a gauntlet of stunned Latinos and not one of those 500 souls could so much as utter their condolences.

I am a White Tortilla. At first through indoctrination, and later deliberately, I have decided to follow the educational and cultural philosophies of my first-generation parents. Though my practices of these ideals are different in many cases, I share the same ideals: I have been taught, and have accordingly taught my children, to be assimilators-to so highly develop their academic, language and cultural skills as to be distinguished in all that they do. I have also taught them to live with the high expectations of a level playing field and to develop intimate relationships with all people, treating others with respect, regardless of their status or position. This is my story, and it may be yours.

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