I’m Pamela, but most people call me Pam. Most Latinx immigrants live in cooler places, but I live in Greenwood, Mississippi, which you’ve probably only heard of if you’ve seen in The Help. (Most people watched that for Emma Stone, but I paid to watch Viola Davis). My parents arrived to the U.S. and I was born in East L.A., California. When I was two, they moved to this little town because it reminded them of Santiago Nonualco, as much as any part of the United States can resemble an impoverished part of El Salvador.
(If you’re wondering, Nonualco is Nahuátl for “tribe of mutes,” and if you weren’t born in Mississippi and it’s obvious, everyone makes it a point to pretend they don’t see or hear you, especially when they they think they can deport you). In California, you hear Spanish everywhere, but in Mississippi, it’s like speaking Klingon while everyone else is speaking English with a heavy twang.
Last summer I got hella bored in Mississippi and decided to go on my self-imposed Civil Rights tour. It was the summer before my junior year.
I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, where I just stared at the balcony where Dr. King was shot. A few days later I drove to Birmingham, Alabama. When I mentioned where I live, one of the employees there told me there was a Civil Rights museum near my home. The Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center (ETHIC) is in Glendora, Mississippi, she said. The town is so small it’s technically a village.
“Yeah,” I told her. “I’ve never had a reason to go to that town though.” She talked about Emmett Till and asked if I knew the story. I told her there was a picture of his face in a library book I read, and some of my classmates’ grandparents talk about the aftermath of his murder sometimes.
Life for immigrants in Mississippi is lonely. My parents made me watch TV and repeat my words in English like people in the news or on TV so I’d pick up on the language faster because they only spoke to me in Spanish. They made me do this because according to them, the ESL classes at my elementary to schools were a joke.
My parents make me go to the nearest park and run or walk an hour a day. They used to make me try out for sports teams even though I’m terrible. When I never made it my parents made me get after-school and summer jobs, because they brought me to America to live long and prosper (the first phrase my parents learned in English). So yeah, not only am I a brown weirdo that speaks English “correctly,” (if you learn English by repeating what you hear on TV, you won’t get much of a Southern accent), my parents are Trekkies who always talk about the greatness of Hikaru Sulu.
In a weird way, I always felt that white people definitely treated us differently. You had a few crackers here and there who insisted on asking for our papers (we’re naturalized, and getting asked for your papers gets old real quick). One time, some lady at a Walmart kept telling my mother and I to speak English only because we’re in, “America.” I turned around, told her America is in fact a continent and not a country. Then I just spoke Spanish louder. (This was before Trump won).
When you drive in the Delta, you mostly see vast greenery with absolutely zero mountains. It’s peaceful. Driving or walking here, your mind eventually gets in the zone, but never in the zone enough to forget where some people think you belong. Sometimes you could be driving at 6pm, which would be peak hour in any major city, but in the Delta you’d probably be alone then. You can see a large private prison. You could drive near Parchman, which is where many of Mississippi’s sweet potatoes are still grown by prisoners doing hard labor. It’s also where all inmates on death row are arrested until it’s their turn to die.
In Mississippi, being a Latino makes you such a rare specimen that you see other immigrants—Indian, Asian, African, Arab—as just another “one of us.” You go to gas stations owned by people from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, and the owner is very happy to see you even though you both look brown and have an awkward moment where you don’t know what language you two should conduct yourself in. You learn to say hello in Hindi or Salaam Alaikum in Arab just to be nice—and some of them notice and even throw in a free coffee because you’ve made their day.
In the Delta, every green thing you step on was once plowed by slaves. Every rich person’s home was probably once the home of a slaveowner. Corners in the town were probably places where slaves were sold, families separated, and children ripped away from their homes forever.
The eeriness you feel as you ride into the small towns and villages in the Delta is the product of the ghosts of unnamed people who are there to remind you that they want justice. In history class, I learned that Mississippi was populated by many indigenous groups such as the Natchez, Chickasaw, and many others who were mostly killed off or who were forced to leave after the Chickasaw agreed to leave Mississippi in exchange for money. Doesn’t matter if you’re not spiritual, there’s a reason why Mississippi’s racial tension suffocates you more than the summer humidity.
That year, the AC on my mother’s car was broken, so I had to freeze water in water bottles before going anywhere so I wouldn’t get dehydrated as the sweat would run down my forehead.
I was heading to the museum on a small highway called the 7, and saw small sign said Money. About 15 minutes into my drive I saw a dilapidated building. A sad blues song was being played on the radio, and even though I was driving in broad daylight I suddenly felt terrified. Like my breath was being taken away. I tried to drink from my water bottle and started coughing, so I had no choice but to pull over. To the right, the dilapidated little building looked sinister. It had once been two stories tall, but the second floor was mostly gone, and the greenery that had grown on it over the years weighed it down. Even when the gagging feeling ended, I still felt like I wasn’t breathing right.
I stepped on the accelerator and changed the blues song into some Top 40 station. I was still breathing and when I got to ETHIC, I had to chug my entire water bottle. ETHIC was a grey building that looks like some former warehouse (they told me later it was a former cotton gin). When I entered, the receptionist asked me if I was ok. I said I was fine, but I drove there and my car had no AC. I paid my fee and saw the exhibit. As I walked, I kept getting colder, recognizing that feeling of thinking that you’re free when the whole world wants to tell you you don’t even exist.
Throughout junior high and high school I saw many of my black friends worry about Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown, wondering when or if they’d be next. Because if you live in a place whose legacy involves killing people who look like you, you’d worry too.
At the end of the exhibit, a man was talking to the receptionist I had paid earlier. Turns out he was the museum’s director. We started talking and they offered me a cup of coffee. I told them that I saw all the Civil Rights museums in the area that summer. They encouraged me to travel and see others across the country. The receptionist remembered that I was short of breath when I got to the museum, so I explained what happened when I saw the dilapidated building.
“I just couldn’t breathe. It felt like something was sucking the life out of me or something.” They looked at each other.
I looked up. “That building, is that where it happened?”
The director gave me a stern look, “That’s where Emmett whistled at the white lady. That’s the last place he ever went to as a free child before he was killed.”