Rolly: How my childhood encounter with a group of minority kids taught me that you can trust those who look different from you

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Paul Rolly.

Ethnicity has become a thorny issue in the era of Donald Trump, with the president zeroing in on certain minority groups as “the others” you can’t trust.

His calls for building a wall to keep out the “murderers” and “rapists” from Mexico, and his proposed bans on Muslim immigrants and refugees have energized ugly elements in society that helped elect him.

I’ve heard stories about emboldened bigots yelling at people of color to “get out of our country” and “go back to where you came from.”

That happened to my neighbor, a Ute tribal member who has lived in Utah all his life but was told to go back to Mexico by a woman driving past him in a grocery store parking lot.

I wrote last March about a Venezuelan native who has lived in Utah for a quarter-century and whose 3-pound Yorkshire terrier was kicked into a stream in Sugar House Park by a woman who screamed at him to “go back to Mexico.”

One of my favorite Robert Kirby columns was about the time he stepped in to defend a maid from El Salvador who was working in a Montana motel.

She was being accosted by a woman wearing Trump campaign swag who accused her of stealing a jewelry box and told her to return to Mexico.

Since Trump’s victory and the stripping of protections given to many immigrants under President Barack Obama’s administration, we have heard heartbreaking stories of “Dreamers” who lived in the U.S. for decades suddenly being ripped from their families and deported to countries they don’t know.

The growing distrust and hatred for those who look different is alarming.

So here’s my story:

I grew up on Salt Lake City’s east side, where I never had any meaningful encounters with a person of color. My elementary school had no minorities.

A baseball fanatic in those days, I had won a fifth-grade essay contest sponsored by the Salt Lake Bees that earned me two season tickets.

I went to nearly every game that summer, sometimes taking friends, often with my father, and sometimes alone.

My dad occasionally would have a “meeting” to attend and drop me off at Derks Field, where Smith’s Ballpark sits today, to enjoy the game alone. He then would pick me up afterward.

His “meetings” actually were at the bar in the Fort Douglas Officers Club, his favorite watering hole.

Sometimes he was very late picking me up. I remember standing outside the ballpark waiting for him as, first, the crowd left, then the players and, finally, the maintenance crew.

The ballpark was on the west side, a lower-income area with a heavy concentration of minorities.

It was summertime ­— ­no school — and small groups of kids in the area would wander the neighborhoods. One group noticed me standing alone one night and started to harass me.

It was the 1950s, and Westerns were television favorites. A staple of those shows was the scene in which the tough guys in town would shoot at the feet of visiting strangers to make them dance, then laugh at them.

The cool guys, such as Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, would never dance — and the joke would be on the meanies.

As youngsters, we re-created that drama by throwing rocks at the feet of other kids who came into our neighborhoods and whom we outnumbered.

So these Latino youths started our getting-to-know-one-another ritual by throwing rocks at my feet and telling me to dance.

Being a cool guy, I refused.

After a while, they began talking to me and became curious about what this little stranger was all about.

My acceptance was cemented when I told the group’s leader that Carlos Bernier, everyone’s favorite player who was from Puerto Rico, once gave me a bat when I was watching the team take batting practice.

Throughout the summer, these kids would go by Derks Field late at night after a game to see if I was there. If I was, they would stop by to chat, goof around and protect me from any other menacing kids.

I don’t remember ever learning their names. I never saw them again after that summer. But the experience shaped my attitude about minorities, one that I have carried throughout my life.

These kids looked different from me. And I looked different from them. At first, our chance meeting was tense. We didn’t trust one another.

Then we got to know one another and figured out we’re not that different after all.

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