A variety of characters were among the 50 or so passengers on the plane to Grand Junction. There were young solo adventurers and bubbly older couples whom I helped with luggage. But when I finally got settled in, I came to the realization that I was the only person of color.
The plane ride confirmed a widespread assumption. Many people of color think there are is no diversity in rural areas. But I had grown up in a county that is over 75 percent open space. It is true that my Northern California community, wedged between the mountain and the sea, is predominately white. But as long as I called Marin home, people of color existed. And my voice mattered. So I knew diversity exists in small towns, even if in small numbers.
“Often the monolithic portrayal of rural America amounts to a whitewashing along racial lines,” author Sarah Smarsh said in an interview with the Journalist’s Resource at Harvard. “In fact, rural areas are much more racially diverse than one would think from reading national headlines.”
Having been here for two weeks, it seems almost comical to have to point out that almost half of the residents of San Juan County are non-white. But to an outsider, that the number was very unexpected when I first arrived.
And I was lucky enough to arrive in San Juan County at a particularly interesting moment for diversity. I did not expect to find myself across the table from Rebecca Benally, the first Navajo woman to hold a county office. She says she’s fighting to change the perception of what women of color can and cannot do. “I think I am the voice for that little girl who believes she can be whatever she wants to be,” she told me.
Lucretia Lee, who runs Navajo foods galore with the other women in her family, is proud of Benally’s achievements. “There is a saying that if a man can’t do a job, a woman will. That’s what she’s doing I think.”
Of course, racism has a history here. Marylene Tahy still remembers racist comments from elementary school almost sixty years ago.
“My teacher said, ‘Native people are just a bunch of drunks, they’re never going to get anywhere.’ And, that just really hurt me when I was young and little. I thought, ‘you know what, thank you for saying that to me, I’m going to be the opposite.’ I want to be the opposite, I always held that idea in my head no matter what,” Tahy said.
But nothing gives me hope that society is slowly breaking down stereotypes than finding multicultural families like mine. My father is white and my mother is Filipina. Racism may grab headlines, but Pew Research has found number of interracial marriages across the country is on the rise.
I talked to the Lacy family-- Walt is white and his wife Charlotta, is Native American. In my experience, multicultural families balance a lot of the elements of their heritage, and reflect different elements of the community.
“As I’ve grown older I’ve definitely paved a way for myself as well, and so I think that it’s important to honor both cultures,” Charlotta said. “I’m not part white or caucasian like my children but I can still appreciate their culture and the other half of who they are and also celebrate the culture that we have which is the Navajo culture.”
The Lacy children told me division doesn’t define their experience as much as a harmony of cultures. They also find that their ethnic identity can also put them at the crossroads of their faith communities as well.
“You know being Native American and Mormon, you can do both,” said the oldest Lacy daughter, Nizhoni Lacy. “As long as I stand firm in my beliefs, obviously we don’t drink or smoke so we don’t really go to peyote meetings, but I still try to participate in both things at once. It’s great having both things in my life and I’m proud of who I am.”
As I head back to the redwood forests and windy beaches of the West Coast, it is clear that diversity is not easy for any community. It’s a continuous conversation. But the people of San Juan County showed me that the things that separate us are not as strong as the will to accept and love our neighbors.