Case Study: Heartbreak in a Word


With one word, an individual can experience not only racism and classism, but a shock and kind of shame that may stun and sting for many years.



Note: this case study uses the word, "slavey," which is more often used in British English. It means as the word implies, servant.

I was born in France in 1962. I am a single child. My parents were a mixed couple. My father was a French jazz pianist who played with local and national orchestras my mother was Spanish. They met in Madrid, the capital city in Spain, where my father the musician, settled for a couple of years.

Since she fell in love with my father at the age of twenty two, my mother left her family, her town and her country, in order to follow her husband to France.

France, like many other countries in the world, is a land of immigration. During the sixties, French immigrants were essentially poor Spanish, Italians and Portuguese in search of a better life. But like other countries, French people only tolerated those immigrant strangers by permitting them to take the jobs no one else wanted and for much less money than the native French would work for.

Nicole's Mother, Pilar

My mother, a fiery but tender, yet passionate, kind and independent woman—did justice to her beautiful name: Pilar. She was a Spanish beauty with dark flashing eyes, dark hair cut in the modern boyish style, and porcelain skin. She didn’t share the fate of the immigrants because as the wife of a professional musician, she became a French citizen. A wife and homemaker, mother did all the things that a family matriarch does for her husband and her child.

My early memories of mother were of walking out of school and seeing her waiting for me among the other mothers. To me, she was the most beautiful, caring and loving mother who, when she embraced me, had a smell that I imagine baby animals must also know and find comforting as they search for and snuggle against their mothers. As mother picked me up from school, she would unwrap a treat for my afternoon snack, a cake that she bought at the baker shop.

My musician father played in clubs and I don’t remember him being home at night, so mother and I would spend our evenings home by ourselves. She always did her best to make life enjoyable for me. So, we often had dinner while watching cartoons, or she would tell me stories about her childhood. We became close in those years.

A very intelligent person, mother learned the French language easily and spoke it perfectly without almost any accent. She loved literature and mostly learned French by reading lots of books. I remember that when she was not taking care of the house or me, she was always holding a book and reading. And she made sure that I would develop a love for books too, by bringing books home from the store which always made me so happy!

I was so proud of my mother; to me she was the “ultimate mother.” Although she adjusted to life in France, my mother never forgot her roots. She missed her country and her family very much. In her soul, she would forever be Spanish. She had come from Madrid, a beautiful capital full of historical monuments, magnificent churches, monasteries, delightful gardens and parks. Mother grew up in a historical part of town between the royal palace and the opera while as a child, playing with friends in the very gardens of the palace!

My mother was a bright woman who had come from a cultured and educated family, her own father being a musician at the Madrid Philharmonic Orchestra. I think what she missed most, was her family and the Spanish soulful culture and mentality, which is very unique. The Spanish have this inner pride, a sense of dignity and a kind of passion within. They have a dramatic flair and constant interaction between tears and laughter, between the deepest spirituality and the spirit of “fiesta” or having fun. The “Spanish soul” is the result of combining a mix of cultures and traditions: the Christian, the Moorish and the Gypsy. This cultural diversity gave birth to many artistic forms of expression such as Flamenco, considered one of the most moving, soulful and wild musical styles of dance on the planet.

For all those rich cultural reasons, my mother made sure that I would love and be proud of my Spanish heritage. From birth she taught me Spanish which became my second language, and during my summer vacations she would send me for a whole month to Madrid to stay with my Spanish family.

Those times with my grandmother, my uncles, aunts and cousins are part of my fondest childhood memories. I was treated like a princess, and to bliss and happiness. Showered with love during those summers, I truly felt “at home” in Madrid. And my heart would break every time I had to go back to France where people were formal and aloof and not at all warm like my Spanish family.

One day, at school, I innocently told a little girl who was one of my classmates, that my mother was Spanish. I still remember the feeling of pride in my heart as I said it. But I was not prepared for what the little girl replied when she said: “Oh, so your mom is a slavey!”

It was my first encounter with ignorance and those concepts. Even though my child intellect was not able to embrace fully its meaning, I fully understood for the first time that some people on this planet are patently considered “inferior” to others. That moment and that discovery impacted me deeply. The pain and sadness of that moment is clear to this day. My own flesh and blood were targeted through my mother. For me, mother was nothing but beauty, sweetness, intelligence and elegance. I was so proud of her! How could she be labeled a “slavey” only because she was Spanish?

My classmate may as well have lanced open my heart for the pain was like a dagger: I felt insulted for her, for my Spanish family and for myself. I remember that the pain was overwhelming and later I spoke of it with my mother. Her dark eyes clouded over upon hearing my story, but ever the lady and ever the diplomat, she simply informed me about ignorance. How, at age seven, could a world be magical one moment and shattered the next? And with only a word!

I suppose there are other words that “immigrants” have heard that may seem to be much worse. But for me, “Slavey” meant that my mother and I were somehow “inferior,” unacceptable, not worth being respected. And how could that be, when my mother was the most respectable person I knew? It is not a feeling that I will forget. After that moment, I understood that I could be harmed at any moment by other people. I have since adopted the belief that every human being is my brother and I have that incident to thank for my philosophy.

This story holds another great lesson: I was not the only one harmed. My little classmate was also a victim—of her parent’s thoughtless words because children believe everything their parents say. Parents would be wise to consider more seriously their responsibility and the power of their words and how they impact the mind and life of a child.


Discussion Questions

  1. What lesson does this story hold?
  2. Who was harmed in the exchange between the two classmates?  Who was the victim and why?
  3. Do you think the little friend in this story intended to harm her friend?
  4. What was lost during this encounter?  Was something gained?
  5. Do you remember a similar incident in your life?
  6. Should people try to retain their ethnic pride? Why or why not?
  7. Does diversity add to or detract from the socialization and the human experience? Why or why not?
  8. What other words indicate race or class that might harm an innocent mind?
  9. What would you say to the parents in this story? To the little girls?


Case Study written by Nicole Pagani-Hopkins:

Nicole is a nurse with a degree in clinical research who considers herself a "citizen of the world" who likes to travel and have encounters with her human brothers and sisters all over the world. Music, reading and art are important to her; she contributed to this curriculum because she believes it will contribute to a spiritual awakening on this planet. Nicole lives on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea in France.