Apology highlights life as a minority in U.S.
By Leonard Pitts Jr.
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 last week. Nor was he one of
the three who subsequently stormed that bank, guns blasting, to slaughter five
No, he's just a guy from the community in question - Norfolk, about two hours
northwest of Lincoln. The only thing Montalvo had in common with the four men
arrested for the crime - Jorge Galindo, Erick Fernando Vega, Jose Sandoval,
Gabriel Rodriguez - was a Hispanic name. Apparently, that was reason enough for
Montalvo to speak up at a memorial service and express contrition on behalf of
"To the white community," he said, "please accept our profound condolences and
sorrows. This community under no circumstances would never justify such a
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. 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 on 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 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
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 in pain 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
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 such names as Ruelas,
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 Hispanic people will therefore feel it necessary to hold close their
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
"I didn't do it."
And that should have gone without saying.
* Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, One Herald Plaza,
Miami, Fla., 33132; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.