Guest writer Sergio Rodriguez is AFHA's Chairman, JEDI Officer, and the Armed Forces Insurance Navy Spouse of the Year 2022. To honor Black History Month, Sergio has written a piece about his experience as a Black man, and we hope it sheds light on historical and continued issues People of Color experience. Through our JEDI program, we hope to shed light and provide solutions to these issues for BIPOC families, LGBTQIA+ families, and all families in privatized military housing.
I was raised in Moreno Valley, CA, which was sadly the recipient of negativity from surrounding areas. Moreno Valley was called "Sunnymead," and there you could find a racetrack, farmland, and it was supposedly a peaceful place to reside. My family and I moved to Sunnymead in 1992 from Palm Springs, California- not the fancy part of Palm Springs you see in the movies. We lived on the outskirts, an area called Windy Point. It was off the highway; we had no traffic signals and one gas station that also acted as a market.
In Palm Springs, out of the 75 homes and trailers in the area, we were probably the 3rd black family that had resided there. We had a small house on the corner of Crystal Springs Drive. We didn’t have much money, so we rented the place. The roof leaked at times, the owner left a travel trailer with flat tires, and it didn’t look very pleasant in the back of the house either. My sisters and I would catch the bus to and from school since it was about 6 miles for me and 8 miles from my sisters' school. My mother worked seven days a week from 7 pm to 7 am, taking care of senior citizens, and my stepfather was a truck driver. Early one morning in 1992, it was a Saturday- I recall that because I did not have school- some strange men approached our home. I say men, but I was unsure because they wore white robes and hoods over their faces. They lit the travel trailer on fire behind the house and shouted, “It’s time for you to LEAVE.” I ran inside and alerted my family and we called 911. The fire to the trailer was extinguished, and no damage was done to our home. Though there was no physical damage, the psychological damage was done. My family began packing whatever we could into anything we could find. My stepfather brought his truck and trailer to the house, and we threw it all in hastily- zero organization.
We found a home to rent in Moreno Valley, CA, where my story of being black in America became even more painfully apparent. I hung out with a neighbor, his name was Ryan, and he was white. He was quite the mischievous kid. His Dad was active duty military, and I cannot recall what his mother did, but I know she was gone most of the time. Ryan had his group of friends at school and would ignore me during school hours. We were great friends after school and in the neighborhood, though. I eventually asked Ryan why he would ignore me at school, and he said, “his friends don’t like Black people.” I struggled to process this information because I was in middle school and unaware of the deep-rooted racism in America that I would come to experience over and over. In fact, as I grew, I recall having some of my teachers tell me that I needed to learn to speak intelligently or I would fail in society. This taught me that although I spoke slang with friends, I now knew not to write with it or speak with my teachers that way.
At 16 years old and learning in both high school and community college at the time, I landed my first job with the County of Riverside. I got my license at 17 and bought my first car for $500.00. I got pulled over weekly, sometimes multiple times a week, with police asking me where I was going or coming from. The police department searched my car at least twice a month. I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t drink alcohol, I wasn’t smoking cigarettes, and I wasn’t breaking the law. But I learned, regardless of what I was doing, I was going to be pulled over. As a reality of being Black, I had learned the horrible lesson that if an officer pulled behind me, be prepared to be stopped. One of the times that I was pulled over was because I had green lights in the door of my vehicle-a common light that most other vehicles had, usually in red or white. The officer followed me from getting into my vehicle at the gas station, pulled me over, searched my car, and gave me a ticket for the lights at the end. I looked the law up on the ticket and it was obscure and rarely used. I can only imagine why he waited for me to leave a gas station and searched my car, and then used an obscure law to ticket me after finding nothing illegal.
As a young black male, my experiences were aggressive and traumatic here in America. As an adult, it has not changed. On February 13, 2015, I encountered a DUI/License checkpoint. I tried to turn before the checkpoint as the Constitution allows, not because I didn’t have a license or because I was drinking- I wasn’t. It was because I did not want to deal with the possibility of racism in America, like I had experienced so many times before. I was automatically exhausted, angry and afraid. So, I pulled into a parking lot and saw an officer on a motorcycle watching for who turns to avoid the checkpoint.
I made a foolish mistake- against all my training as a certified Paralegal, through the Police Academy, and as a Veteran indicating to say nothing, I decided to talk to the officer. I got out of my vehicle on my crutches (I am disabled) and approached the officer. I asked him why the side street was blocked off, as the law says people have a right to avoid checkpoints. He responded with, “get out of here.” I then asked him to call his supervisor so I may make my inquiries- I wanted to understand why they were not allowing people through the side street. The officer got on the radio and requested the supervisor. As we stood waiting, my camera rolling for my safety, the officer got off his motorcycle and told me to sit on the ground. I told the officer, no, I would not sit on the sidewalk as it would be incredibly difficult due to my disability, I was not under arrest, and frankly the sidewalk was filthy.
I see the supervisor pulling up in their vehicle, the motorcycle officer yells at me to sit, and I say no again. My heart starts to pound. I told the motorcycle officer there was no reason for him to be aggressive, trying to calm him down-I want this to deescalate. The next thing I know, the officer tackles me and begins to beat me mercilessly. I am handcuffed, and his supervisor jumps out of his vehicle to assist with the chaos. I sustained multiple cuts, bruises, and a torn rotator cuff from the attack. I filed a complaint against the officer, and the investigation exonerated the officer, as I had predicted it would. The officer claimed he feared for his safety because I looked like I could walk normally and my crutches would be used to attack him. My heart was shattered for the millionth time.
Now I have a 20-year-old Black son whom I am concerned about daily. Being Black in America is a struggle. People fear us, they make judgments about who we are simply by seeing the color of our skin rather than by the content of our character. To say, "Black Lives Matter" infuriates some people- it makes them defensive. To that, I say my Black Life Matters, My Wife’s Black Life Matters, My Son, and Daughter’s Black Life Matters, ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER. And making sure everyone understands that-that is my lifeblood.