When I was thirteen, my family moved from Southern California to the placid, sun-washed suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. It wasn’t a monumental move, just over five hours in the car through one desert and into another. But it felt to me like we were moving to another planet—a craggy, dusty, sun-choked planet, populated by retirees in golf carts and cactus that grew as tall as men. We settled into a small, single-story tract house on the edge of the city, in a neighborhood where the houses all looked more or less the same. It was only late spring, but the air was so hot outside already that you could close your eyes and imagine you were standing in front of an oven. I took one look at my new middle school, a beige collection of annex buildings tucked behind a dreary-looking elementary school, and felt a sense of impending doom.
I was an anxious, bookish kid, more at home in libraries than in shopping malls. And I was painfully aware that I had none of the outward markers of someone destined for middle school popularity: My wardrobe was small and off-brand, cobbled together from clearance racks and the indoor swap meets my family frequented on the weekends. My frizzy hair was always on the verge of tangling, and along with garden-variety acne, I had a fierce case of keratosis pilaris, which made my arms bumpy and sandpaper-dry. I tried to sheathe my delicate skin in extra layers of clothing, but that only made me feel more freakish. In Phoenix, the standard uniform was a tank top and shorts.
Apart from all the workaday pubescent woes, my biggest source of angst was pretty simple: I missed my friends. I had left behind a solid group of friends in California. They were kind, quirky, funny friends who politely overlooked the sweat stains on my shirt when I was gave a class presentation, or the nascent acne blooming across my cheeks, or the imitation Vans sneakers on my feet because my family couldn’t afford the real thing.
There was my brainy friend Sonya, whose mother came from the same red-dirt province in Jalisco, Mexico as my mother. There was Leticia, whose mind was like a bicultural jukebox that could call up song lyrics to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Smiths, and Mexican rancheras alike. And Lupita, whose house smelled a lot like mine: floral-scented bleach, burning candles, the garlicky fumes of sopita de arroz simmering on the stove. Many of my friends grew up speaking Spanish at home, sometimes translating for their parents, as I did for my mother, whose English was too shaky to navigate visits to the bank or doctor’s office alone. This scrappy Mexican American squad felt as comfortable and familiar as my own family.
There’s something essential and life-giving about friends like these. Being surrounded by people who share the same cultural touchstones—the food, music, history, inside jokes—brings immeasurable comfort. But it’s not just about comfort. When you’re navigating the world as a person of color, these kinds of friendships can be a means of survival. Research has demonstrated, time and again, how profound an influence community, and a sense of belonging, have on our ability to live, work, and thrive. That’s not even accounting for the ways in which cultural solidarity among disenfranchised groups can effect positive social and political change.
At my new middle school, there weren’t any quirky brown girls who, like me, grew up on a steady diet of Mexican home-cooking and telenovelas. It didn’t help that I was usually the only Mexican kid in the room, which became yet another thing to feel self-conscious about. The social hierarchy at this new school revolved around a group of tough-talking white kids who eyed me curiously and made fun of my clothes, my skin, and the way I talked. Mostly, though, they ignored me—the middle school equivalent of the kiss of death.
Just as I’d resigned myself to a life as a lonely desert poet, a small miracle happened: I made a friend. Her name was Chrissy. She seemed to appear out of nowhere, as if by magic.
Chrissy spotted me reading a battered old copy of The Outsiders in front of the school media center one day, where I had taken to reading during lunch.
“The Outsiders!” she said, taking a seat next to me. “I love that book!”
Chrissy was tall and slender, with sandy blonde hair pulled back into a dainty ponytail and big bangs that fell over her eyes. She wore a tank top tucked into tight blue jeans and black cowboy boots. I complimented her on her boots, and she lifted her jean legs to show them off.
“These?” she said, a slight twang in her voice. “These are my shit kickers.” She laughed, a loud, nasally laugh. The kind of carefree, I-don’t-give-a-fuck-laugh that turns heads and brings envy to the hearts of strangers. I immediately liked her.
Chrissy didn’t seem to fit neatly into any of the school’s social circles. She pin-balled among cliques, sitting at different lunch tables and making small talk with anyone who would listen. Soon, though, we were spending all of our lunch hours together.
Chrissy told me she was from the Midwest. In my imagination, the Midwest was a vast, beautiful place, where fireflies rose out of the tall prairie grasses, and every small town looked like a sun-dappled facsimile of Disneyland’s Main Street, USA. She missed her old school, she told me. She described her hometown back in Wisconsin in elaborate detail. Everyone is nice in the Midwest, Chrissy told me. Her grandma, she said, owned a farm with horse stables and a creek that ran near the back of the property. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever leave such a place.
We moved on to other topics, bonding over the things we loathed and loved. We bitched about the desert heat and the icy popular girls who flipped their long, shiny hair in class. We had a shared obsession with old movies, SNL comedy routines, and the works of S.E. Hinton. Our friendship seemed to be moving at the pace of a Hollywood rom-com. Chrissy didn’t seem to notice or care that I had bumpy skin or bad clothes, or that I had zero social clout. She laughed at my jokes and asked me questions about my former life in California. She seemed as fascinated with me as I was with her.
As the weeks slipped away and summer drew closer, we sat under the school bleachers together at lunch and hung out in her garage-turned-rec-room after school. We began to plot out our exciting futures. Chrissy suggested I come visit her in Wisconsin over summer break. We could spend time on her grandmother’s farm, and maybe get part-time jobs at the ice cream parlor where her cousin was the manager, she said. We could save up to buy our own cars. We could go on double-dates.
I knew my parents would never let me go away for a whole summer, but the idea put stars in my eyes. I daydreamed about taking an extended vacation in a green place with horses and old-timey ice cream parlors and decent summer weather. Mostly, though, I was thrilled that I had made an honest-to-goodness real friend.
A new world had been born. It was a world where I could go to the Midwest and not feel like an interloper because I actually knew somebody who would welcome me into their home. It was a world where we could swap books and talk about movies and finish each other’s sentences. True, Chrissy had no idea who Cantinflas or Pedro Infante were, but we had so many other things in common. I experienced for the first time the startling feeling of seeing parts of myself in someone who, at first glance, couldn’t seem more different. I felt like I could go anywhere in the world and make a friend. Life suddenly felt easier.
I have a theory that in every friendship, there’s a decisive moment that will cause it either to deepen or to fade away. Our moment happened in a middle school bathroom. We were washing our hands after lunch one day when I casually mentioned that my mother couldn’t speak English very well. Chrissy had not yet met my mother, and I hadn’t met hers. Our friendship, so far, had been contained to school and her rec-room garage.
I don’t remember why I told her, or even how the topic came up. But I remember that the expression on Chrissy’s face immediately made me feel as if I’d said something very wrong. She squinted at me in the bathroom mirror. I tried to decipher the look. Was it surprise? Disgust?
“You’re an immigrant,” she said.
She said the words slowly and matter-of-factly, as if she had figured out the central fact of my existence. She didn’t smile or laugh, and when she said the word “immigrant,” it carried the sting of an insult. The words seemed to ping-pong around the empty bathroom: You’re. An. Immigrant.
Chrissy’s face was twisted somewhere between confusion and betrayal. She looked at me, an alien life form disguised as her funny Mexican friend. We stared at each other for a moment in the cloudy bathroom mirror: her blue eyes, my brown eyes.
I don’t remember what I said, but I probably stammered and made a dumb joke. That was my response to any awkward situation in those days: Defuse the situation as quickly as possible. Make everyone comfortable. Don’t make a scene.
Afterward, I wandered into my next class, feeling a knot of shame and confusion in the pit of my stomach. Had I done something wrong? Had she not listened to me when I told her my family spoke Spanish at home? Didn’t she beg me once to teach her how to curse in Spanish? Did she have any clue who I was? I had no one to hash the situation out with. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d done something wrong.
Chrissy had been my closest friend that spring. My only friend, in fact. I had let myself be known to her. And she didn’t seem to like what she saw. I never asked her to explain what she meant, nor did I fight or ask for an apology. I let it drop, and we both found excuses to spend less time around one another. Our friendship faded just as eighth grade graduation rolled around. I remember greeting Chrissy awkwardly as we lined up to parade into the school auditorium. I remember how we both slipped out of the auditorium after the ceremony without saying goodbye.
Chrissy headed to one high school, and I headed to another. These were the days before Facebook was the go-to virtual phonebook for stalking your exes and high school cohorts. It was easy enough to stay out of touch. I never heard from Chrissy again, but I still think about her. I wonder what she thinks of her neighbors or co-workers who don’t look or sound like her. I wonder if “immigrant” is a word she deploys regularly, and whether she still means it as an insult. I wonder who she voted for in the last presidential election. I wonder if she remembers me, too, or I’m just some vague, uncomfortable blip in her adolescent memory.
I don’t know what happened to Chrissy, but I know what happened to me. For the rest of my adolescence, I took a cautious approach to making friends. I took longer to open up to people in general. I put on my headphones before stepping out into the world, blasting punk rock and insulating myself with loud music and poetry. My gaze looked out onto the world in judgment, and I searched people for any outer signs of that we might have something in common. I was polite but distant. I didn’t want to open myself up to someone who seemed nice but who might eventually break my heart. I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.
I’m much older now, and I’ve torn down most of my walls. Some of them, though, are still standing. And in the Age of Trump, I can feel more and more walls—both figurative and literal—going up around me by the minute. In the U.S., making friends across racial divides doesn’t seem to be getting any easier than it was when I was in middle school. The number of Americans with friends outside of their own Census-designated racial category remains astonishingly small. Interracial friendship isn’t a topic we take up often in popular American discourse, either. Usually, when we talk about interracial relationships, we talk about romantic love, and the challenges of interracial dating and marriage. We don’t talk as much about the value—and the costs—of building friendships outside our racial groups. But maybe we should.
Friendships represent some of our most important and fundamental lifelong relationships. Friendships can make your life rich, and, like any type of relationship, they also have the potential to break your heart. No wonder, then, that making new friends, especially later in life, is often so difficult and feels so fraught with risk. If you do it right, though, building a friendship is like building a bridge. It can carry you far and wide, right over the walls encasing your own heart.