Tales From a Reluctant Tourist: The Search for Local Color

Just a few thoughts on race and culture and living as a woman of color in Santa Cruz.

The heart swells with passion and pride: today is the 2nd inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama, and the day we officially celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Call me a softie, but I still tear up quite a bit when I look at Malia and Sasha Obama and think how much they remind me of myself at that age. I never, ever once imagined that it would be possible to see *me* residing at 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue when I was growing up. A bi-racial president and mixed race children making history! 

Regardless of your politics, it's quite a treat to see and I can only imagine how many little black girls across the country (and the world) must be feeling right now.

So perhaps it's no surprise that my thoughts would turn to race and race relations on this day. When you live in a town that's supposed to be paradise, should skin color matter?  Yes, we look different on the outside, but we all have red blood, funny bones, eyes bigger than our stomachs, and hearts that can be broken.

When it comes right down to it, If we are to be truly honest with ourselves, why is it so easy to judgmental when the neighbor doesn't look like you? Santa Cruz is famous for being a nuclear-free zone, but is it a hate-free zone?

In 1997, right after I settled into my new house in Santa Cruz, I brought my parents, Ed and Mila, from Columbus, Georgia to bless it (and maybe show off just a little).  Being as I was a single woman who had accomplished the seemingly impossible (i.e., I bought a house in CALIFORNIA, y'all!), their visit was a source of pride to me.

On our first excursion to downtown Pacific Avenue, one of the first things my 75-yr old Dad says to me is "where are all the black people?"

I sighed. "Oh Daddy! " I admonished him. "My next door neighbors are BLACK." I further explained, "Santa Cruz is not like the towns in the South. Here we don't see color." I said smugly. 

My Dad is African-American, my Mom, Filipina, so I was kinda used to a mix of cultures growing up. Although being bi-racial didn't go over well in the South of the 1970's.

My neighborhood in the lower West side was pretty varied, or so it seemed to me: blue collar, white collar, and multi-colored. I thought I had truly escaped the racisim and out-and-out intolerance of my hometown when I moved here.

Or so I thought.

I have witnessed some rather unfortunate behavior. One doesn't need to go farther than the local online newspaper to see the rantings of locals about Santa Cruz's status as a "sanctuary city" (read: crime is caused by illegal immigrants, and more specifically, Hispanics). Back home in Georgia, replace "Hispanics" with "Blacks" and it's pretty much the same sentiment.

There have been other incidents as well, some funny, and some not so. For example:

  • There was the time two months ago when I listened to a man sitting at a restaurant counter using the "N" word over and over again. I didn't know if I was invisible or if he was just plain stupid, but it stung.
  • Several times (most recently was two days ago) I have had well-meaning strangers (who just happened to be white folks) approach me to ask about my tan. One woman even went so far as to say "you must not be from around here, because you have such a great tan!"  I never know how to respond to these comments, but they do make me chuckle. 


Regardless, I *can* tell you this about my adopted home of Santa Cruz:

  • There is a local and active chapter of the NAACP. I've attended their annual picnics. (Okay, so there weren't that many black folks in attendance, but hey...)
  • In June, you can be sure to find a fabulous Juneteeth celebration at the Louden Nelson Center.
  • Every year, UCSC hosts a Martin Luther King, Jr. convocation with world-class speakers and performers.
  • In sharp contrast to my hometown of Columbus, Georgia, Barack Obama is resoundingly popular here in da Cruz. When I told my Dad about this, he was astonished. Here we are in 2013, and folks in the South are still mightily bigoted.

I'd like to end on a humorous note: MLK day has been an official holiday since 1986. Several years ago, I decided to "punk" some of my white friends by informing them that it was customary for white people to buy presents for their black friends to commemorate the holiday. I managed to keep a straight face, for the most part.

Haven't gotten one present yet. SIGH!

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Lisa January 22, 2013 at 10:57 PM
I'm afraid I have to side with your father, Simone. I've been in Santa Cruz for almost 20 years - and the one thing I noticed immediately was the lack of black people. To this day, when I see a black person in SC - I am surprised. I am also on the lower West side, and nearly every face I see is white - with the occasional Hispanic thrown in. Have to admit, I don't get it - especially given that we are a university town. It's just weird.


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