Barrio's Living Library
Extreme Sports for Brown Folk
Updated: May 8, 2020
On a gorgeous weekend in May, 2019, a buddy and I spent an afternoon rock climbing in Birdsboro rock quarry. I clawed my way up a climb that had long intimidated me and after chalking the day up a success, my friend and I loafed around in the shade. As we basked in the beauty of nature, we suddenly encountered an armed racist who openly fantasized murdering people like me.
That’s one hell of a transitional sentence, eh? Imagine living it.
This is the reality for Black and brown people all over this country — violent death, or at least the threat of it, always potentially hiding around the corner. When “colorblind” people say “racism would go away if we stop talking about it,” this is one of the stories that will demonstrate how nonsensical that claim is for people of color. On that day, racism came looking for me. And it is out there, right now, prowling for brown-skinned boys to blow away.
I feel like I should state that in the hundreds of times I’ve gone climbing in Birdsboro, and elsewhere for that matter, I have generally had a great time making friends with people of many different walks of life, economic class, race and political views. But I was recently reminded of this unfriendly encounter and the world around me also does not allow me to forget what I experienced that day, now a year behind me.
I tell this story not as a “victim” or a “survivor.” No, I feel those words carry far too much weight to be used in this example of momentary discomfort. I tell this story as a journalist who believes that context informs our reality. It’s wild to know how many people do not believe this sort of malignant mentality even exists. I am here to say there is at least one gun-toting racist roaming Berks County, openly admitting their fetish for hurting people of color.
As my climbing partner and I took a moment to relax, a man and a woman on horseback came down the trail. They parked their horses next to us and we struck up a friendly conversation. Outdoorsy people are usually personable, nonintrusive and generally offer pleasant interactions. And at first, this was the case for the two riders. They were interested in our sport, we were interested in theirs.
“I always wanted to be a cowboy,” I said, thinking of all the photos of me as a baby wearing cowboy boots, a toy six shooter and a diaper. “I love riding horses, my family has horses in Mexico. There’s nothing quite like riding through the mountains in the desert.”
The lady was nice and handed me treats to feed to her horse. The man, an older fellow wearing a T-shirt with a cowboy shooting a rifle, openly carried a cartoonishly large pistol on his hip. My stepfather is a gun enthusiast and I have toyed with the idea of obtaining my concealed carry permit. So we began chatting.
He unholstered his weapon — red flag #1 — and explained it was a Smith and
Wesson Governor. He swung open the cylinder of the revolver and pulled out a long Black
bullet. He explained it was similar to a buckshot, delivering a wide spray of deadly lead to its target.
“This is the dog stopper,” he proudly stated.
Without even thinking about it I asked if he really needed that to protect a muscle-bound, 2,000-pound stallion from even the most ferocious canine. Apparently he did — red flag #2.
“You look like a victim”
Beyond dogs, you never know who you are going to run into on the trail, he said.
Hell, one time he took the Thun Trail into Reading and came across “three beaners” playing down by the riverside. He said he doesn’t care “if they can’t read English and they play around on the trail, they take their lives into their hands.”
I kind of zoned out for a moment for a few reasons. Firstly, it has been a long while since I’ve heard the epithet “beaners.” Secondly, “beaner” is typically used for Mexicans. The rider was on the south side of the city, so I would bet dollars-to-donuts those guys were Puerto Ricans or Dominicans, but that sort of nuance is lost on this asshole, I’m sure. But hey, we all look the same anyway, am I right?
Also, did this guy hear me say I ride my family’s horses in Mexico? Maybe he didn’t hear me or didn’t put two and two together or maybe he just didn’t give a fuck.
He also made a reference to a 2012 incident in which a Reading man shot two teens who tried to rob him. That man was not charged and was considered to be justified in protecting himself.
“You don’t know what they have in their bags,” he said as I, a beaner from Reading, sat next to my own bag. “You look like a victim to them. I’m not going to be victim”
The man also revealed that he kept those boys on the trail at gunpoint until the police showed up.
He gleefully said the officer let the whole incident go and that he continues to “look for trouble” while riding on trails.
“They come up here after crashing the southern border,” he said, working himself into a lather. “It just pisses me off.”
Again, most of the Latinos in Reading are not from Central America and most likely did not “crash” the southern border. But who needs nuance when you have a Smith and Wesson.
There is a familiar comedic trope that Black and brown people do not do extreme sports because their lives are already extreme enough. The logic is “who needs to chase a thrill when merely trying to live is plenty extreme?”
There has been a push by organizations such as the National Park Service and Green Latinos to encourage brown folks to utilize public nature spaces. I am also the type of person to notice when minorities are taking part in the amazing sport of climbing. When I do see another brown person out on the rock walls, I always try to make them feel welcomed, even in the smallest and subtle ways. I amplify those gestures if we’re in Berks County.
This incident is a perfect example of the reason why I do that. As we enter spaces that have not traditionally included our communities, we take our lives into our own hands. There are some “colorblind” people who say if we stop talking about racism, it will wither and
die. This rhetoric, whether intentional or not, is typically used so majority populations can avoid having to listen to grievances of Black and brown folk.
This incident is a case study in why that rhetoric is laughable at best and dangerous at worst. I went out into the woods to get away from the crowds, to bask in the beauty of the outdoors and to enjoy good company. Yet still, violent, malicious and potentially physically dangerous racism made its way to me. That is just one of the day-to-day realities of being “other” in a society that has a history of not valuing the humanity of Black and brown people.
When compared to even my close family, I look “white” and because of that, I have gotten an interesting peek as an undercover Mexican into the psyche of casual bigots and racists.The things people say when they feel comfortable can be eye-opening, startling or even heartbreaking.
What if I was darker, visibly more “ethnic” like my brother? What if I had informed him that I, too, am a beaner from Reading as I sat next to my climbing bag full of all sorts of imagined weapons? Would he have been nervous if I mentioned his pistol? Would he have unholstered his gun in a different way? Would he have relished finding some more of that trouble he is always looking for?
I will hand it to that backward xenophobe, you really never know what you’re going to run into on the trails.