Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Nick Lopez has won our essay contest on the theme of Imagine Your Story with "I am a Coconut".
Nick Lopez is a Marine Corps veteran, who served from 2005-20013, and is currently a coordinator for veteran programs at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Headquarters in Kansas City, MO. He volunteers on the board of the Kansas City Veterans Writing Team, who sponsor and hold biannual writing workshops for veterans and their family members of. Nick has been published in "Veteran's Voices" and "Haiku Journal", and most recently his painting 'The End' was published in "High Shelf Press".
I am a Coconut
I learned what race was at 12 years old, in 1999. That summer my family moved from a quiet neighborhood in Stephen City, Virginia, to Grain Valley, Missouri. An 89.7 % white suburb of Kansas City, with a population of 14,526 (2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimate). This is not a story about the Mexicans escaping the barrio. We were a middle-class family, who lived comfortably. My sister and I attended Rosedale Academy in Virginia, a private Baptist school, with a white majority student body and administration. The move was an opportunity for our family to grow and our parents to provide a better life for us.
Grain Valley is where I first heard the words dirty Mexican and beaner. I discovered roofers more likely were Mexicans or beaners. Until now I did not know I was bi-racial. My dad, Roger Lopez, born in Denver, Colorado, was a third generation Mexican American, with Native American and Spanish ancestry. My mom, Rena Lopez, is from northern Pennsylvania, her maiden name is Brunner, and her family is originally from England, Germany, and Sweden. While applying for their marriage license, the court clerk commented on the oddness of a Brunner marrying a Lopez. Luckily, this clerk was not a match maker for the marriage licenses she processed.
By freshman year I decided the best way to assimilate here was to be whiter than the white kids. My dad explained to me “real” Mexicans would call us coconuts. Brown on the outside, white on the inside. But, the Hollister and Abercrombie clothes I wore, and having only white friends, could not change my skin from brown to white. My peers still would call me a dirty Mexican, beaner, or roofer as a joke. I feared of not fitting in, so I would laugh along with them. Suppress the pain and confusion of who I was inside of me. When asked what race I was, my response became, “I’m a coconut. Brown on the outside, white on the inside.” Not understanding by insulting my own insecurities, I was by proxy saying racism was ok.
Two weeks left of junior year was my breaking point. It was the end of lunch time, and the racial slur of the day was, you are a roofer. The main antagonizer followed me through the halls on the way to class continuing the name calling. I asked him to stop. When that did not work, I pushed him. He retaliated by throwing a cup of tea in my face. The pain I had buried for years rushed to the surface as anger and hatred. I threw the first punch, missed, and got my beaner ass kicked. Last I remember is teachers separating us, leading us to the principal’s office. My head hurt and the pain was buried again.
I never told my parents about the racism and the racial slurs I was subjected to at school until this happened. They attempted multiple times to speak with the school administration and school board about the racist atmosphere at school. Their voices were ignored. The antagonizer and I received the same punishment, expelled for the remainder of the year for fighting. No mention of the racism.
After years of denial, self-destruction, therapy, reflection, and the support of my loving family, I accept who I am. I am sharing my experience now because the Black Lives Matter movement has empowered me to. Because, I want you to be aware of the pain racism causes. Because, I want my son to live in a world where systemic racism and inequality are not accepted as normal. No longer will I stay silent and stand by while racial injustices continue.
I am not a coconut. I am not a beaner. I am a son, a father, a United States Marine, a poet, an artist. I am a Mexican American. I am Nick Lopez.