‘Island Rodeo Queen’ by Yamile Saied Méndez

Island Rodeo Queen by Yamile Saied Méndez, 2020

The magic trick:

Perfectly capturing a white man’s oblivious racism as generous open-mindedness

Corali moved from Puerto Rico as a kid with her family to Utah.

She likes it there, but socially, it’s not as simple as maybe it should be.

She’s hoping her talent for horse-riding puts her in position to earn the town’s rodeo queen status – bringing with it a college scholarship and perhaps mainstream social acceptance.

It’s a complicated situation. Fortunately, the story outlines the nuances of the conflict brilliantly in a scene early in the text, where an older white man stops to help Corlali and her Papi, stuck on the side of the road with an overheated truck.

He is kind. He is helpful. He is even supportive of her quest to be rodeo queen.

However – and this is the brilliant part – his generosity comes completely on his own terms. On top of that – and this is the other brilliant part – he is oblivious to this fact. He feels very good about his generosity and what he probably perceives to be a progressively open-minded approach.

This is racism couched as kindness. Self-congratulatory kindness at that.

I’ve seen it. You’ve probably seen it. And now here is a story that captures it perfectly.

And that’s quite a trick on Méndez’s part.

The selection:

“I’m sorry if it sounded like I have anything against the island. I don’t,” the man said, putting his hands up in a councilatory sign. “Like I said, I love the place. It’s beautiful.”

As if he could sense how uncomfortable I was, he looked at me for the first time. His eyes widened in recognition. “I know who you are!” he exclaimed. “The surfer who wants to be a rodeo queen!”

Uneasy about correcting him again, I bit my next words. I wasn’t a surfer just because I was Puerto Rican. Maybe in my riding jeans and sweat-stained long-sleeved T-shirt I was far from the perfect image of a rodeo queen, but no one could expect me to look regal at all times, right? I just shifted in place. The wind whipped my unruly hair into my face.

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