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This week I was reminded of Bryon Widner, a FORMER skinhead who erased his racist past after undergoing many painful operations to remove hate tattoos from his face and hands. Bryon’s treatment was organised by a black campaigner when he turned away from racism after finding love and starting a family. Bryon, now a dad has received death threats for exposing racists but said: “It’s a small price to pay for being human again.” I was reminded of this after reading David Whiting’s, OC Register Reporter article: “Community speaks out against racism” and some conversations, we had at Los Amigos of OC, and Los Amigos de Santa Ana.
Tatooed Young Man in Santa Ana.
And I was also reminded of an incident earlier in the year, which for me was a lesson in:
- not making assumptions,
- hope and
- the “beauty” and value of second chances.
I was at a fast food restaurant in Santa Ana, and I had just sat down to eat after picking-up my order. From where I was sitting, I had a view of the Order/Cash Register line.
A young man (about 22-25 years old), politely approached the people in the line, and was asking for spare change to buy something to eat. As people would turn around to face him, everyone was immediately struck by this young man’s many facial and body tatoos (on his face, on his head, on his neckline, on his hands and arms, including on his knuckles.) And they would just as immediately ignore him and move away from him. He had gang and racist related tatoos. I sensed too that there was a level of hurt experienced by this young man who was experiencing this strong level of rejection, and I was left wondering if this was because he had been rejected and avoided by other human beings, or partly because he was denied any spare change.
Sitting there and watching, the realization hit me that this young man, in his necessity, was not just “begging” and Panhandling but he was doing so from mostly Latinos and Hispanics. And it also dawned on me that given his obvious gang/racist tatoos that perhaps in a not too distant past, this would have been inconceivably to him. And yet here he was, a young man in need, humbling himself (and very likely”disgracing” himself and his “race” – in the eyes of other racists).
This panhandling young man was white/caucasian and the customers were mostly Latino/Hispanic, and some with toddlers/children.
I think that his humbleness compelled me to stop my meal, to get up from my table,and to walk over to this young man. I approached him and asked, “Excuse me, do you need change to buy something to eat?” And in a very polite manner he answered, “Yes sir, and sorry to bother you, but I am really hungry!” I replied, “it’s no bother, I am the one that approached you. My name’s Paco, what’s yours?” He replied, “Jesse”. I said, “Jesse, please allow me to buy you a meal!” As we waited I also engaged him in small talk, and he kept replying very politely. I noticed that people around us were staring at us, somewhat perplexed. Here I was, having a “normal” conversation with someone who on the surface, did not look “normal” because I am brown-skinned and he was white-skinned with very obvious gang-related/racist tatoos.
I said, “You know, Jesse don’t feel bad by people’s reaction to you, but your tatoos are very intimidating! . . . do you have family? Do you need help?” His answers were very polite, and his politeness was very obviously sincere. Jesse answered, “Yes sir, I have a girlfriend and we’re both looking for work.” I said, “well, then let me buy something that you can also take back with you to your girlfriend ok?” I also shared some information [e.g. 211 a line for emergency referral to services…and a place The Path of Hope Foundation, run by Gus Guzman a US Marine Korea combat veteran (a not-for-profit open Mondays-Saturday 12pm-3pm 714.775-3385) that provides a food cart with meat, fruits, vegetables, canned good, plenty of bread and pastries for a $10 contribution and which was only about 1/2 mile away at 16345 Harbor street, Fountain Valley (corner with Edinger). I said, “you know, here’s $10 bucks maybe this can tie you over to buy more food, while you get yourself situated.”
GLIMMER OF HOPE.
I also said, “I am not going to ask about your tats, but you know, it seems that you are looking to change and do something different and better for your life, and if that is the case, and you believe in yourself, I believe you can do it, and I know that you will do it.” There was an instant glimmer of hope, happiness and resolve in his face and his voice as he answered, “Yes sir, I know I will do it!”
I went back to my meal, and I as ate my meal, I reflected on our encounter. Here was this young-man, humbling himself because of his past (very likely previously affiliated with a white/supremacist group – where were they now???). And yet in his unstated humbleness, his tatoos were “speaking” more loudly than his actions. And people were making assumptions (not too irrational) because of his outward appearances, and projecting those to their kids. And for whatever his past, he was looking to change and to do it for the better, but in the process he was still encountering rejection because of his current circumstances and his tatoos.
I am thankful to Jesse, that young-man because I learned from him, and because the opportunity I hope I had to demonstrate to the toddlers and children of the other patrons, to not reject other people based on outward appearances; and also because of the sense of hope, happiness and resolve I saw in that young man as we parted ways. Jesse, was definitely searching for a second chance, and although not too obvious, I know he had started on the right path to achieve it!
P.S. On a Part Two, I will share with our readers about an unprovoked attack on my son, and the search for hope and second chances in that situation too.