1896, being in the minority, historic district, maid's room, Mexican American, Queen Anne Victorian house, renovation of an old home, suffragette, Texas, The Great Hanging of Gainesville
Ferguson. Immigration reform. Racial unrest. The country has been restless and angry and hurt. And so have I.
I am restless because there is not really a name for the confusion that I feel when it comes to these things. There is no way to pinpoint the awkwardness that comes from being a minority in a land of majorities. I wrestle and grieve like everyone else, no matter what side you take. I look at my house and sometimes feel worse.
Built circa 1896 in north Texas, I can take my guesses as to the muscle that labored this house into fruition. Perhaps my suspicions are wrong. For some reason I do believe that the original owners of this home were good, honest, and kind people. Lets call it my gut instinct. Despite my hopeful gut, I have to be realistic when it comes to the circumstances that surrounded this corner of Texas all those decades ago.
Race was an issue then. Race is an issue now.
We live not even two blocks from a historical monument that marks the place were 41 men were hanged (allegedly the largest hanging in US history) for treason during the Civil War. They were accused of being unionists and were denied a fair trial. I pass that monument nearly every day. It turns my stomach into knots. Not because I am angry at the people who hanged them; no- we must forgive them. The monument puts me in an uneasy state because it reminds me of the cost and the struggle of millions who came before me all so that I could be a college educated, Mexican-American woman who owns property. The responsibility to live a life that is honorable to their sacrifice is heavy.
Many days, I walk through the halls of this house studying the intricacies of the crown moldings and the stairwell banisters and the artistry of the stained glass windows and I wonder who the original owners were. What would they think of a Mexican-American couple buying their house over a hundred years later? Like I said, for some reason I think they were humble and open-minded people. Something in the way these walls were built whisper of a family who were content to be considerate of their fellow man. Even still, would they be surprised to see my darkish skin?
Surprised is exactly the word that describes the faces of people when they find out who owns this big, white house. Its like they are expecting some older white couple to live here because, lets be honest, that is usually the population of people who own houses like ours. We stand out.
Yes, we stand out and it often feels like we stand alone. But, that is not necessarily a bad thing. I like to think that we are pioneers in a corner of the world that is still growing and grappling with these issues.
I grew up in a city in which everyone looked like me. I never gave much thought to being a “minority.” It wasn’t until I moved to Minnesota in my early adulthood that I really began to feel the gravity of the race issue that veils our country. I guess, you don’t really know what it is like to be a minority until you actually are one. I know that sounds obvious but, surprisingly, most people who are in the majority are not familiar with this concept or maybe they are but they have never experienced what that feels like. I know I used to be one of those people.
Had we bought a house in a cute little subdivision, I don’t think I would be thinking about these kinds of issues so frequently. This house forces me to weigh in on the heavy issues of race and class because I have become part of the history of this house. This house has seen the suffrage movement, World Wars I and II, the end to segregation, the feminist movement, MTV, the first African American president, etc.
Bottom Line – the chances of a Mexican-American couple owning a house like mine in 1896 were pretty slim, if not impossible. America has come a long, long way and I am proud of her for that. I am thankful that I do not have to live my life under a constant barrage of threats due to the color of my skin. I am thankful that I don’t really have a lot of stories revolving around hate. My experience has been blessed by people of all different “colors” who are content to being kind and decent human beings. For the most part, the people I have met throughout my lifetime know that it is wrong to judge a book by its cover.
There is a room in this house that I assume must have belonged to “the help” back when the originals moved into this house. The crown moldings are distinctively plain with no ornate detailing whatsoever. The floor in that room seems to be in the worst shape and it is the room that is adjacent to what would have been the washroom/kitchen area back then. From my very basic knowledge of history and how families operated circa 1896 I can deduce that the originals must have had hired help (aka live in nanny or cook or maid or farm hand or all of the above). Now it is our family room in which my kids run around barefoot and hang hand made ornaments on our Christmas tree and where they are always expected to clean up after themselves because we are not living in 1896.
I tend to feel anxious when I think about the “maid’s” room in my house, and the monument of The Great Hanging, and that this house might have been built by men who were in seriously unfortunate circumstances. They are the ghosts of Christmases past that remind me and inform me of how much things have changed for a woman like me. They make it real.
Perhaps this house was actually built by very well paid men who never felt discriminated against. That may very well have been the case. But I’m willing to bet that somewhere else in America in 1896, a house was being built by men who were degraded and downtrodden. That is the reality of those painful times and my heart aches for them. Because I am reminded of that every day, I feel a great responsibility to live a life unbound and purposeful. I don’t really know what that will look like for me but I remain the ever hopeful optimist on the hunt for my way of honoring the blood, sweat, and tears of all the pioneers who have proceeded before me.