I came in off the unusually sunny lakefront deck and entered the crowded room. The club was bustling with activity as the revelry of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities carried into the Mac Bar. I stopped to speak with a few members as I walked through the bar, a few others stopped me to talk and ask how our vacation had gone. As I made my way through the club, I entered fireside dining room, seated at the first table was a face I hadn’t seen at the club in some time- I remembered him we served on membership committee many years ago. I was very young at the time, a new member that was eager to participate in an organization that fascinated me. I remembered that he was a professor of psychology or something at one of the local universities. I remembered his name and made my way to say hello to him. He was sitting with another gentleman at the table eating what appeared to be oatmeal. As I greeted him with a big hello, he looked up at me with eyes of confusion and said: “Can you get me some milk for this? I need some milk” he said. “Why Bob (fictitious name), don’t you remember me, Lou Sandoval, we were on membership committee many moons ago” I said. “Get me some milk!” he repeated. My mind raced with a polite way to respond to him without letting the anger that was brewing in my heart rise with the words that I would probably regret. I found the grace to keep my composure, smile and say “Bob, if you mean can I have a server get you some milk, I would be happy to” as I reached for the nearest server. “Can you please get Mr. Smith some milk?”
I walked away from the table and went directly into the probably the only room that had no one in it. Anger welling in my heart. I reached the captain’s cabin. There was no one. I breathed a sigh of relief as I sought to gather my composure- I felt the sentiment welling in my throat. I grabbed a cup of water from the nearby table an drank it. Thoughts racing into my head- Why me? I’m sure he’s not in his right mind, I’m sure he’s demented in some shape or fashion. Does he not remember? How could he confuse me with a server?
I’d been here before, I’d had the feeling of shame, of anger, of resentment. It was over nineteen years ago, steps away from where this happened. In the Mac bar, on a sunny summer afternoon, when I had arrived on sight from a work event. I was wearing a black suit that I had for some time. I was going to go sailing, that evening so I picked up a red club shirt from the front desk and ducked into the men’s room to change my dress shirt leaving the black slacks on. I walked to the edge of the bar and asked the bar tender for a beer. As I waited at the end for my drink, an older well-dressed Caucasian gentleman, wearing a blue club blazer with a club crest called over to me to ask if I could get him a drink. I looked at him in a confused state, thinking that this might be right of passage for new members, as I had only become an official member six weeks prior. I could see why he might have confused me- the waitstaff and bartenders were mostly Hispanic, I was wearing black slacks and a red club shirt like the one they had on. Easy mistake, especially since there were few if any Hispanic club members. I remember combing the member directory when I received it, pretty much none. So, I guessed, it was an easy assumption to make that any Hispanic in the club could only be an employee. “Hello, my name is Lou Sandoval – I’m a new member, I joined in July. I’d love to share a drink with you”. The well-dressed gentleman’s face turned beat red, “I’m so very sorry. That is completely ok as he got up and walked out.” I would see him on subsequent occasions, and I would break the ice by speaking with him. We would become friendly over the years until I heard of his passing many years later. I’d had similar embarrassing moments at other clubs since then around the country and in my own city where I would be asked for identification to prove that I belonged. That I was supposed to be there. That I was a member.
I’d thought we were behind much of that, you see things have changed for me a bit since then- I’ve gained a bit of a national presence in the marine industry as an oddity perhaps being one of the few Hispanics in a mostly white middle-aged dominated industry. I’d earned a seat at the table. Or had I?
Over nineteen years later, I was quickly reminded of how far I had to go. How far we had to go. I’ve led one of the most storied sailing races in the world; I’ve stood on the podium nine times to receive awards for having one that race; I’ve sold boats to some of the world’s wealthiest businessmen; I created one of the strongest one-design classes in the area and the nation; I’m on a first name basis with many politicians and civic leaders and I’m an executive for one of the top marine companies in the world. I lead a board of mostly white middle-aged men. I spend much of my free time, trying to grow participation in a sport dominated by mostly white men. As I stood staring onto the traffic on Lake shore Drive, I wondered if any of them would ever be confused for the waitstaff. Would they? Was it the way I was dressed? I mean, I probably should have shaved, I had a green long-sleeve t-shirt with a sailing vest over it –de rigueur for the day’s festivities. There were some dressed worse than I – would they have been confused for waitstaff? Should I have had my blazer on? The thoughts raced in my head as the staff came into the room, “I’m so very sorry Commodore Sandoval. Mr. Smith can be problematic sometimes, I’m sure he didn’t mean an offense” The words brought be back to reality. “That’s Ok, I understand he is old and feeble.” She stood there smiling and looking at me, the look on my face must have given away my real feelings on the issue. She walked out of the room.
I made my way upstairs to the men’s restroom. I stood in front of the mirror looking at myself, as the water ran. I ran two hands of water over my face and took some paper towels to pat myself dry. I tried to rationalize why Smith could make the mistake, trying to avoid the probable reality- that Hispanics don’t belong in yacht clubs. That even though you are ‘elected’ to office- there isn’t a general acceptance that this is where you belong. Wouldn’t be the first time the thought has crossed my mind.
The anger was welling in my throat again, the thought crossed my mind that I should go down and give Smith a piece of my mind. I should… and the memory of my dad came to me, of the day he saw the picture of the first Mac trophy we won. He was proud of us. The thought of Rafael, our server at the club who confided in me last November that he was going to retire, but decided to wait until after I completed my term because he wanted to be part of the administration of the first Hispanic commodore of Chicago Yacht Club. The words echoed in my head- The first… I wondered if that is what the first Irish or the first Jewish or the first Italian ever felt? Where they ever confused with the waitstaff, the plumber, the auto mechanic, the valet? Probably not, but then they aren’t often typecast in movies, in the news. In most circles, they are the majority. In this circle, there are two of us who are members and one is related to me.
I guess this is what it felt like to be a trailblazer in the Westward expansion, you take the arrows from the Indians on the trail as you chart new terrain. You do it so that those that come behind you might have it different. As I looked into the mirror and my face dried, I realized that I had made history once again, when I walked into the hall and saw the pictures of the sixty eight others that had been there before me, I realized how far WE had come, yet how far we still had to go.
~Lou Sandoval is an entrepreneur whose successful career transcends over 17 years of Fortune 100 experience parlayed into business ownership. Lou believes in giving back to his community and has been involved in the Boy Scouts of America's leadership. He serves on a few non-profit and professional boards. Opinions expressed here are solely personal and not a representation of any of the organizations with which he may be affiliated.