An apology that makes us all sorry

October 06, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON -- It ought to tell you something that Abraham Montalvo Sr. felt compelled to apologize.

He had not, after all, done anything wrong. He wasn't the man who cased a rural Nebraska bank, nor was he one of the three who subsequently stormed that bank Sept. 26, guns blasting, to slaughter five people.

No, he's just a guy from the community in question -- Norfolk, northeast of Lincoln. The only thing Mr. Montalvo had in common with the four men arrested for the crime -- Jorge Galindo, Erick Fernando Vela, Jose Sandoval and Gabriel Rodriguez -- was a Hispanic name. Apparently, that was reason enough for Mr. Montalvo to speak up at a memorial service and express contrition on behalf of local Hispanics.

"To the white community," he said, "please accept our profound condolences and sorrows. This community under no circumstances would never justify such a horrible act."

There is, if one has ears to hear, something plaintive and pleading about that statement. Something that sheds a telling light on what it means to be a minority among the majority.

Consider that in 1991, a man named Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested for killing more than a dozen men and boys. He had sex with the corpses, dismembered them, ate some of the remains. Jeffrey Dahmer was white, almost all his victims black.

I don't recall any white man saying, "To the black community, please accept our profound condolences and sorrows."

There was no apology white to black.

Nor, I hasten to add, should there have been. Jeffrey Dahmer's sins reflected upon Jeffrey Dahmer. To the degree they carried any larger dimension, we understood it to be possibly environmental, perhaps psychological, but certainly not racial.

No one would have argued that that this obscene quirk of nature, this freakish statistical anomaly, "represented" white people.

Contrast that with the freeze-frame moment, so familiar to blacks and Hispanics, that comes as the TV news anchor announces some particularly heinous crime. You wait on the mug shot or the police sketch, all the time mumbling to yourself, "Please don't let him be black. Por favor no dejes que el sea Hispano."

Similarly, how many Muslims breathed a sigh of relief when the Oklahoma City bomber turned out not to be a Middle Eastern terrorist? And winced when the Sept. 11 hijackers were found to be exactly that?

Because like it or not, when you are Muslim, black or Hispanic in the United States, you are a representative, a de facto emissary of your people to the wider world. Worse, the scale is weighted against those unwitting ambassadors so that each time one excels, he or she is called an exception. But each time one screws up, he or she is called a confirmation, an "I told you so" that comes back to their community in the form of suspicion, acrimony and fear.

The dynamic is as unfair as it is inevitable. And its power over the nation's minorities is, perhaps, difficult for many American whites to fathom. Most have never had to serve -- much less live out their lives -- as symbols of the group. So they will find it hard to make the leap of imagination necessary to understand what is felt right now by Nebraskans with names like Ruelas, Lopez and Gonzalez.

Norfolk's Hispanic population has grown mightily in recent years, a growth that doubtless brings with it all the bruises and growing pains that ordinarily arrive with an influx of newcomers. Now there's this prayer -- Por favor no dejes que el sea Hispano -- that has gone unanswered. Now evil's latest incarnation has Hispanic surnames. And at least some Hispanics will therefore feel it necessary to hold close their children, watch their steps, wait for backlash.

Abraham Montalvo's apology saddened me. It should sadden you, too.

Earnest as it was, well-intentioned as it was, the gesture nevertheless carried, in subtext, a tacit reminder: "I didn't do it."

And that should have gone without saying.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He may be reached via e-mail at lpittsherald.com, or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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