“The man you see is an unfortunate wanderer who has
strayed here, and now commands our care, since all
strangers and beggars come under the protection of Zeus.”
Homer; The Odyssey
I finished college a week before my nineteenth birthday. I was brought up by two college professors in a house that worshipped knowledge and beauty. School was always easy for me. I never understood why my classmates dreaded tests so much: I loved to be able to let my teachers know that they had found a receptive ear to their preaching.
The months before medical school were stressful. I had been accepted to an elite institution. I had never been away from home for more than a week at a time. My premed counselor had advised me against applying to the top ten schools: she said that my chances were much better with the lower echelons. I began to feel that maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. I knew that I had to prove myself among the best. Was I well enough prepared?
My roommate was a young man from Queens. He was only a few months older than I was. His parents were Holocaust survivors from Hungary. In 1956, during the Russian invasion of their country, they became refugees a second time. When I first met him, as we made small talk, he asked me about my favorite movies.
I liked West Side Story a lot.
“Really? They do not portray Puerto Ricans in the best of light.”
I reminded him of the song America; the line that went “Twelve in a room in America.”
He became defensive. It was obvious that he was offended.
“You know, this is a great country. My parents almost got killed twice. This is the greatest country in the world.”
True. But there are still problems.
He tried to smooth things over. He would make a joke.
“My father taught me this joke. Big tragedy! Dozens injured!
I asked where.
“A bed collapsed in a Puerto Rican neighborhood.”
That was my introduction to America.
Our first week of medical school was intimidating. There was a lot to learn. I failed to notice that all of my classmates were in the same boat. By the second week I fell into a comfortable groove. By the third week, after I had had a chance to talk to dozens of classmates, the truth came to me, as if it had been delivered by a heavenly special messenger.
This is not so hard. I know all of this stuff. And these guys are not any smarter than I am.
At week six we had the first two tests. I did exceptionally well. I did not share my results with anyone, but my roommate kept bugging me to see how I did. I showed him my tests.
“This is great.” No exclamation point. As if he had a hard time accepting this bit of news.
Two days later he, half in jest, told me that I had gotten him in trouble.
I’m sorry. What did I do?
“My father is upset with me. He thinks that I am not working hard enough. He wants to know why the Puerto Rican guy did better than me.”
Would he feel the same way if I were Jewish and had gone to Harvard?
“Of course not!”
With an exclamation point.
The next few weeks were very traumatic. The chairperson of the Anatomy department came by to meet me, she said, and become acquainted. In class we had moved form studying the extremities to the head. The orthopedic surgery residents that had been so helpful (and accepting) to me were gone. One of the full-time faculty members took their place at our table. Almost immediately he began to harass me.
None of my dissections were done right, in his opinion. He would assign homework to be done by Friday, and he would begin to question me on Wednesday. One day I came close to attacking him. He came by our dissection table, knowing that I was busy.
“Mr. Garriga, I came to ask you about the cranial foramina.”
You said Friday you would be by. I will be ready Friday.
“Where does the fifth nerve exit the skull?”
He held a skull in his hands. I could not help but remember Hamlet. I felt as alienated as the Danish prince.
I have not read on it yet. You said Friday.
“How about the seventh nerve? Maybe you could know that!”
“Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?”
He had a malignant, spiteful sneer on his face.
“This is not funny,” he said angrily.
I began to step towards him. My lab partner stepped in front of me and answered the questions, all of them.
I found out later that this gentleman had finished his PhD at the age of 22. The concept that a Puerto Rican boy could match him infuriated him. He was sure that I had cheated on my tests.
Two years later I was a student at our Allergy clinic. My Anatomy tormentor showed up to have his weekly shot. He refused to let me give it to him. Someone else had to come from a different office to give him his shot.
There were other moments. Like when the lecturer on infectious diseases talked about schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease then endemic in Puerto Rico.
“But you will never see a case of this, not unless a Puerto Rican wanders into Saint Louis.”
My classmates laughed heartily, knowing that they had one of these “wanderers” in their midst. He thought that his joke was awfully funny. It was not.
Racism. So easy to fall into the trap of demeaning the “unfortunate wanderers” that Homer wrote about. A Jewish man whose life was twice threatened by prejudice could not believe that at least one Puerto Rican was as smart as his son (Later on his son became like a brother to me, and he received me in his house, numerous times, as if I were his son). An uncommonly smart professor could not believe that a Puerto Rican university could adequately prepare a youngster to become his equal (By the way, all of my high school and most of my college classmates could have easily handled the load that my medical school hoisted on me).
As uncomfortable as these instances made me feel, they are nothing compared to what my African American friends deal with every day and have dealt with from birth. Nothing. It is much easier to make a stranger out of someone whose skin color is darker than ours. No matter how much, with time, we may find that we have in common.
Some days I want to find an isolated place where I can pound my head against a huge boulder. I keep running into people who tell me that yes, there is racism, but think of how much progress has been made!
Not enough. Not enough a year ago, or a week ago, or yesterday. We have failed. We are seeing the bitter, destructive consequences of our failures. And there is no one coming to help us.
We have been torn apart. We are, all of us, tearful and alone.