by Miguel Flores
Recently, I was talking to a few fellow freshmen in my dorm. They are all Latino, and I was asking if they had experienced discrimination. An upperclassman passing by, himself Cuban-American, overheard my conversation and posed these questions: "Why are you so proud of your race? Of being Latin-American?" and then announced, "Latinos have never done anything for me." Then I began to wonder: Why am I proud to be a Latino? What does it mean to be a Latino? Why do I feel so connected to people whom I may not even know?
Then I began to wonder: Why am I proud to be a Latino? What does it mean to be a Latino? Why do I feel so connected to people whom I may not even know?
First I look to my parents, the origin of my heritage and the color of my skin. Both my parents are immigrants; my mother and father come from El Salvador and Mexico, respectively, and arrived in the United States in the 1970s. They each faced challenges growing up in their home countries as well as here in the United States. They have endured many obstacles and have made great strides to help my siblings and me be as successful as possible.
Neither of my parents says very much about the past, but rather just tells us that "you should be proud for everything you have." Previously, I had accepted that answer, but now I want to know more about my parents' lives before coming to the U.S.
My mother, Belky, attempting to hide the scary truth and protect me, always told me that she came to the U.S. because her then-boyfriend was moving here and she followed. Perhaps that was true, but I recently discovered a deeper truth. When my mother was young, El Salvador was in havoc with a rampaging civil war. She was attending the local university during this time, but it had to close because of the war. Listening to a conversation between my mother and her friend, I overheard my mom mention that many of her high school friends had been murdered during the war. I felt shocked; sadness rushed through me as I began to realize the terrible things that my mother had gone through growing up in El Salvador. My mother came to the United States to escape the war, to avoid persecution, and to be safe. Yet, in America, having only the beginning of a college education and no knowledge of English, my mother had to clean houses for little pay just to make ends meet. She later tried to re-enter college, to pursue her dream of civil engineering, but once again had to drop out with the birth of my sister. Ending an abusive marriage, she divorced and later met and married my father. Now, my mother works three jobs: as a supervisor at a nearby hotel, at a catering company, and here at my home where she cooks, cleans, and supports my sister and my sister's son, my brother, and me as we all slowly creep into adulthood.
Similarly, my father Jeronimo arrived in the United States dissatisfied with home and seeking something more, yet always remained loyal to his family. In Mexico, my grandparents own a large plantation that requires a lot of labor power. My father, second eldest of eight siblings, dropped out of school in third grade so that he could help his family. In a large group, my father and a few of his siblings came to the United States so that they could earn enough money to send back to Mexico to help support the family. My dad and mis tías y tíos continue to do so to support my fragile grandparents and their collapsing plantation. My father has worked through sickness and injury to make sure that not only his children here at home survive and are stable, but also that his family in Mexico is just as secure. To this day, my parents bear scars of the suffering and hardships that they experienced growing up. I admire their courage and strength despite everything that they have endured; yet I still feel blind to everything that they went through for me to have my present life.
As children grow up and mature, they search for an identity. No different, growing up, I looked to my parents for an identity. When I was little, I found comfort in knowing people who looked like me. "You have brown skin and can speak Spanish? Well, I do too," I would think. With that respect, the Latino community offered me an identity and individuals to identify with.
An integral part of our Latino familia is our extended family; we have tíos y tías who aren't really our aunts and uncles, but have always been a large part of the family. Many of us, growing up as Latinos in America, switch between Spanish and English with ease and without much thought when communicating with each other.
However, after I attended a summer program for Hispanic high school students, the Hispanic Youth Symposium, I realized a few details about my identity. I became aware that brown skin is only a superficial characteristic. More important was the fact that, despite the very different backgrounds of the students there, we all shared similar experiences and core values and beliefs. Although we had different stories, there were many things in common that generally revolved our family and el barrio that we grew up in. An integral part of our Latino familia is our extended family; we have tíos y tías who aren't really our aunts and uncles, but have always been a large part of the family. Many of us, growing up as Latinos in America, switch between Spanish and English with ease and without much thought when communicating with each other.
Being Latino has also meant living with internal conflict. I grew up caught between two worlds as a Latino American. What language should I speak? How should I act? My parents, two Hispanic immigrants, would teach me one thing and society would seem to say another. One such example is that many affluent white students, after graduating high school, go away to college and parents push them to be independent of their families. In contrast, in a Latino household, it is generally expected that the student will stay close, perhaps attend college, but in general help support the family. Family over oneself is generally emphasized much more in a Latino household than in mainstream American culture. This feeling, however, is not unique to me. In their article, "Ethnic Identity and Adolescence," Dr. Carmen Guanipa-Ho and Jose Guanipa note that adolescents are often "caught between [their] parents' ethnic beliefs and values, and that of the mainstream society."
Being Latino has also meant confronting ethnic stereotypes. Some Americans have negative views of Latinos, such as the stereotype that Latinos are inferior and have less potential. This view also connects with the misconception that we are uneducated and can only do manual labor.
In contrast, my view of my community is quite different; I see prominent leaders, successful businesspeople and engineers, and determined youth striving to learn more and succeed and prove the stereotypes wrong. The Latino community has offered me powerful role models to look up to. At the Hispanic Youth Symposium, I met several local prominent Hispanics and had the opportunity to speak with them and learn about their experiences and views. I found myself in similar positions as they had been in several years ago. During my senior year in high school, I had an internship, work, classes, and extracurricular activities; the successful Latinos I met assured me that I could succeed in all these activities because they had done it too. In addition, I was filling out college applications that year with little information about the financial aspect and my parents had an especially difficult time trying to figure the applications out. Again, my mentors assured me that the process was not too difficult and, if I had any questions, that I could always ask them for assistance. Once again I saw this as I attended the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers National Conference this year as an MIT student. Contrary to current stereotypes, I see Latinos who are filling the highest-ranking positions, such as new Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. We are bright and intelligent and have a lot of potential.
The Latino-American population is the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States, currently comprising 16% of the total population ...
The Latino-American population is the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States, currently comprising 16% of the total population according to the Census Bureau. According to CollegeBoard, the current Hispanic population at MIT is 14%, close to representative of the population in the U.S. With the tremendous potential that I see in my community, I hate to see suppression and discrimination occur, especially when American ideals support diversity and frown upon discrimination. Why is it that some people continue to discriminate and oppress despite the great justice movements that have arisen over the last sixty years?
My family and I have been discriminated against, both blatantly and subtly. The area where I come from, Maryland, has always been diverse; I have had neighbors and friends from many different racial and ethnic groups. But venturing out of my home community, I have discovered that the same acceptance I feel in my neighborhood is not found everywhere. Sadly, I have been to desolate areas where diversity has become synonymous with adversity. The summer before I entered high school, my family and I drove to visit family in Mexico, and on the way, stopped in a small town in Texas to eat dinner at a restaurant. The restaurant was nearly empty with only a few Caucasian families. Once my family entered, we noticed some families starting to pack and leave. The manager, not wanting to lose customers, told us that there were no more available seats and that the empty seats were reserved. My entire family was insulted, but we dared not complain for fear of the people who clearly outnumbered us. Finally, as we were leaving the small center that was absolutely devoid of diversity, we saw a car pulling into the restaurant parking lot with a pointed white hat, traditional of the Ku Klux Klan, in its rear view window. I assume that they were seated and served.
I had never before been so blatantly discriminated against, although I had been subtly discriminated against. When my family moved to the new town that we now live in, my dad and I searched for a local barbershop that would properly cut our rather simple haircuts. We tried two, one where the majority of the workers were black and another where the majority were white. At both shops, although perhaps they didn't realize it, the barbers waited for the last possible moment to serve us. If another customer came in, they would tell my dad and me to wait for a few quick minutes to cut the other's hair; this happened several times. After trying out shops in a few different local areas, my dad and I resorted to traveling the extra twenty minutes to go to the barbershop closer to my old home. Even in the United States where diversity is supposed to be celebrated, there are people who, even if subconsciously, do not accept it.
Across the country, there are many instances in which Latino communities in an area have faced hate crimes and discrimination. Many Latinos fear calling the police because of their own status as illegal immigrants and would rather remain afraid in their own homes. There have been many cases where these crimes have been ignored. In Florida, there have been several cases of the use of indentured servants, many of whom are illegal immigrants. Rather than doing something about it, many people ignore this type of modern-day slavery and just accept it as a part of having citrus fields that need harvesting. Yet, according to Amy Bennett Williams, a senior writer for the Fort Myers News Press, some cases have "involved all of the mechanisms of restraint and abuse that we associate with pre-Civil War slavery." Immigrants living in these circumstances were "shackled to posts [and] beaten" ("Indentured Servitude Persists in Florida's Fields," NPR, Nov. 19, 2009). In Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, there is one neighborhood with a history of ignored hate crimes against the Latino community. Ari Shapiro, a reporter for National Public Radio (NPR), says that people live in fear, "afraid that if they report violence, they'll be deported." Instead many people accept the crimes as a part of the package of living there. The most troublesome part of one hate crime, the 2008 stabbing death of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero, was that it was done by a group of six or seven high school students. These youth viewed anti-Hispanic violence as recreation, calling it "beaner-hopping" (Shapiro, NPR Radio, Nov. 19, 2009).
Where does discrimination stem from? In any area, why does the racial majority generally have a sense of superiority over minority groups? With respect to illegal immigrants, some Americans may feel superior because of the belief that they were first to rule over the area. In the case of Latino Americans, this is simply not true. Many Latinos can trace their roots to Native Americans, the first peoples in America before Europeans. In certain regions of the country, like the Southwest, America conquered and took over parts of Mexico, and thus some of the Mexican-American population were there first and can be considered native.
That is one thing that amazes me most about the Latino population. We do not look alike in any particular manner; we are not a race but rather an ethnic or cultural group. There exist White Hispanics, Black Hispanics, and even those who can trace roots directly to indigenous people.
Perhaps sixty years ago in America, the primary basis of discrimination against African-Americans was the color of their skin. Dark skin was often viewed as filthy and inferior. Yet discrimination based on skin color cannot explain prejudice against Latinos. There are some Latinos who have white skin, while there are other Latinos with dark skin color. That is one thing that amazes me most about the Latino population. We do not look alike in any particular manner; we are not a race but rather an ethnic or cultural group. There exist White Hispanics, Black Hispanics, and even those who can trace roots directly to indigenous people. Alexi Silva, a Mexican-American with blonde hair and green eyes, gets a surprised reaction when people find out that she is a Latina. She responds, "Yea, and we can look like you [Caucasians] too" (CNN: Latino in America.) She's right; the Hispanic ethnic group crosses borders and mixes with races that span the world. So what are the reasons to discriminate against Latinos? There is no single visible attribute that can be used to discriminate against Latino-Americans because in appearance, we can look just like the person engaging in the discrimination.
This past summer, I went to a federal agency for security screening. In their profile of me, they asked for ethnic and racial affiliations. It was a questionnaire that I was filling out along with an employee. The form asked "Are you Hispanic?" I checked "yes." Then it asked, "What is your racial affiliation?" I felt confused; I thought "Hispanic" was my race. The employee told me that "Hispanic" is not a race, and then asked could I trace my roots to blacks? 'No, not that I know of.' Then he asked if I could trace my roots to Native Americans. If I tried, I probably could, but said 'Not that I know of.' He continued and filled in the box, "White." I asked him about it, and he said that unless you can trace your roots to blacks, Native Americans, or another minority racial group, Hispanics are considered white. So what is the basis of discrimination? What causes those views of superiority? It clearly cannot be skin color, nor race. The sole similarity among Latinos is the prevalence of Spanish as our main language. Is that sufficient reason to discriminate?
I am proud to be a Latino. The community has done a lot for me, whether tangible or not. Being a Latino in America is special and unique. For what other reason do people in Latin American countries continue to come? They have heard great stories of hope and success.
Yet I hate seeing those with whom I most identify oppressed and discriminated against. Some Americans ignore the many contributions of Latinos to society and, instead view immigrants as causing increases in rates of crime, unemployment, and poverty. These beliefs fuel acts of persecution. Why is my ethnic group different from any other? Why are Latinos discriminated against and mistreated? What reason is there to allow it? But, I am also hopeful that these sentiments will change. I see Latinos as a group being proactive to change the negative views that many people have of our community. We must bring to light everything that our community has accomplished and our many contributions to society. As people recognize the good that Latino Americans have done, I believe that the stereotypes will change.
"Do Long Island Police Ignore Hate Crimes?" NPR: National Public Radio: 19 Nov 2009. Radio. Web. 28 July 2010.
Guanipa-Ho, C. & Guanipa, J. 1998. "Ethnic Identity and Adolescence." Paper, San Diego State University. Web. 28 Nov 2009.
"Indentured Servitude Persists in Florida's Fields." NPR: National Public Radio: 19 Nov 2009. Radio. Web. 28 July 2010.
"Massachusetts Institute of Technology." The CollegeBoard . Web. 28 Nov 2009.
Silva, Alexi. Latino In America. Interview by Soledad O'Brien. CNN. TV. 21 Oct 2009. Web. 28 July 2010
United States Census Bureau. Fact for Features, 2010. "Hispanic Heritage Month." Web. 20 July 2010.