Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained Angels unawares.Hebrews 13:2
Just along Euclid Avenue, tucked away between a smoke shop and an African market, in one of Atlanta’s most eclectic neighborhoods is a Mexican restaurant that doubles as one of my favorite locations for writing on weekends. I order the ceviche, a traditional Peruvian dish of seafood, lime, and avocados. I think briefly about Ms. Lecaro, an elderly Ecuadorian woman in Union City, New Jersey who first introduced me to the dish in a third-floor apartment along Kennedy Boulevard. Ceviche is made by blending shrimp and crab together with onions, avacado and drenching the mixture in fresh lime juice. The acidity of the citric juices reconfigures the proteins in the seafood, ‘cooking’ them while they marinate. In a thick Ecuadorian accent, she struggled to explain to me how to make the dish myself, which I only attempted once. As I settled in for an authentically South American experience, I’d instead experience the American South in all its fullness.
A sign has been taped to the front door of El Bandido Mexican Restaurant that reads “Mask Required”. As I pull the handle, the door squeaks like an old saloon door causing a few people to turn their heads. I smile underneath my pale blue surgical mask because ever since the mask requirement has been implemented in metro-Atlanta, I feel that I enjoy a level of anonymity as I move through the city. I’m not recognized by anyone now. No longer am I forced to make an abrupt exit from a store or restaurant when I see a problematic parent or scholar who I’m not in the mood to encounter. I’m a masked literary crusader moving discreetly through the city unbothered as I “write the wrongs” of the Black American experience. Anonymity has its limits though. Certain features aren’t hidden by the masks we wear and certain infections are more insidious and deeply rooted than Covid-19.
As I approach the stand, I’m greeted by a familiar face.
“Amigo! Just one?”, he asks. Angel is a middle-aged Latino man. I’m not certain where he is from, but I’ve noticed in previous visits that he effortlessly vacillates between English and Spanish, sometimes in mid-sentence. He is affable and tries to remember my orders, making me feel like a familiar patron when I’m there.
I nod. “Just one.”
“Inside or outside?”
I think for a moment about it and opt to sit outside given all of the commotion inside the restaurant. Between the music and the chatter from the customers, I wouldn’t be able to settle into my thoughts and get much writing done.
“I’ll sit outside today”.
He pauses and says, “Ok, well we will need to hold your ID if you sit outside. We’ve had a few people leave without paying.”
I declined that proposition, knowing how forgetful I am about leaving my ID at a place. I’d take my chances sitting inside today at one of the high-top tables. El Bandido represents many things to me. It represents my support of a minority-owned small business. Using my dollar to support our solidarity and self-determination as minorities in America is a point of pride for me.
He nods and leads me to a table about six feet from the entrance. I unpacked my bag and began to delve into my writing. When the ceviche arrived, I took a break from my writing. Less focused on the words on the page, I could now see that the restaurant had become even more packed inside.
The door opened with that familiar screech and in walked three white females. As they were greeted I could see them looking around the restaurant. Seating was limited. Their only option would likely be outdoor seating. I began to wonder if Angel would ask for all three IDs or just one from the party. I wanted to see how Angel would slide it in so that it landed well. How would they respond once he shared the news that an ID had to be surrendered to sit outside?
He asks, “Just three today?”. They all nod as they look around the restaurant.
“Inside or outside?”
They look at one another and one of them whispers through her mask, “Outside.” He reaches underneath the podium, grabs three menus, three bundles of silverware, and whispers, “Follow me.”
There was no mention of “leaving IDs” or of “people leaving without paying”. Angel was gleeful, seating them in a corner of the patio where the sun cast bright rays of warmth upon the three of them. They removed their masks and got comfortable as Angel chatted with them about the specials of the day.
The food was South American, but the experience was one characteristic of the legacy of the American South.
Here in Little Five Points, on a tree-lined street in the mecca for Black Americans, I was experiencing the microaggressions that compelled James Baldwin to characterize our country as the “yet to be United States of America”. The food was South American, but the experience was one characteristic of the legacy of the American South. This brief encounter was layered with prejudice, White privilege, and inter-minority microaggressions that speak to assumptions about the character of people of color.
My grandparents grew up in communities where the need for them to work caused many of them to leave school by the third or fourth grade. At polls, African Americans were given literacy tests in states like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. The generation of African-Americans born around the 1920s would have experienced this widespread effort to disenfranchise them using literacy as a technicality. Because of that, I take my role as a school principal very seriously because I am only the second generation in my family to finish high school and attain a college education. But this wasn’t 1924 and this wasn’t a dusty coffee shop at a rural train depot. This was in the heart of the Black Metropolis.
My mind is racing now. I’m thinking about the relationship between Latinos and African-Americans. I’m thinking of the Jim Crow laws of the South that designated certain areas in establishments for people of color. I’m dismayed that my effort to support a minority-owned business was tainted by what appeared to be a blatant injustice.
“Nah, Angel wouldn’t do me like that would he?”, I thought to myself. I kept looking back at the patio door, waiting for him to return from taking their drink orders after he seated them on the patio. As the door of the restaurant opened again, rays of light hit the wall and my attention shifted to the large picture of a Mexican bandit and the name of the restaurant, El Bandido. Roughly translated as “the outlaw” or “the bandit”, I felt like I’d just been robbed. Those three minutes seemed like an eternity, then the door opened. With his three menus in hand, Angel was headed in my direction. Since my mind had been racing, I hadn’t yet had a chance to get my words together, but I knew that I was going to stop him and say something. There’s a saying among writers that you don’t find books, but rather books find you. I am a writer, but at this moment, I hadn’t yet found the words, but I was certain that when he approached, the words would find me.
I navigate through Little Five Points because it is one of the destinations in Metro Atlanta where I feel creatively free amongst the artists selling their portraits on the street and the musicians performing on crowded sidewalks. This incident was an affront to all that the area represented to me.
“Maybe I’m reading too much into this” I thought for a moment. Then I reminded myself that the fight for freedom is not only won in those moments that are highly visible and monumental. Real freedom and change have to reach down into the city, stroll down Euclid Avenue, and touch the soul of people like Angel who perpetuate discriminatory practices in their day-to-day existence. These small assaults on our dignity as men and women of color grow into Briana Taylor incidents, Armaud Aubury incidents, and George Floyd incidents. A police raid at the wrong address, a jog through a neighborhood, or a traffic stop should not be the precursors to Black death. Left unchecked, we die a bit every day when we continue to internalize the American reality.
I beckon for Angel to come by my table. He rushes over and I pull my mask down and say, “Hay reglas para los negros?” He pauses, touches his head as he recalls my initial request to sit on the patio and his response. Stunned by my statement and the lexicon in which it was delivered, he walks away.
I’ll miss the ceviche.