I must admit to you that I was very, very sad to see some of the comments on social media (comments like these) that came about from Marc Anthony signing “God Bless America” at the MLB All-Star game on Tuesday. It appears that the racist came out of a lot of people, and they decided to openly state how racist they were. Some questioned the decision to have a “spic, Mexican, illegal, wetback, Brown, Spanish” person sign an “all-American” song at an “all-American” sporting event. Well, Marc is American of Puerto Rican descent. Even if he had been born in Puerto Rico, he’d still be an American. Puerto Rico is an American territory (for now).
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that a Latino American has been confused for a foreigner (or for a Venezuelan President). And it probably will not be the last time.
I’ve experienced first-hand the multitude of Hispanic families that try to hold on to a little bit of their cultures from south of the border while their American-born children are embracing the culture(s) in this country. I chuckle when I hear Latino children trying to speak Spanish to their elders, then getting frustrated when they use the wrong Spanish word. Or they try to pretend that they’re (Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadorean, Nicaraguan, Puerto Rican) but don’t speak a lick of Spanish. Sadly, I’ve seen these children be discriminated against because they’re Brown, the assumption being that they will not “assimilate” into American “culture.” Of course, if they do assimilate, they can expect some degree of shunning from their own friends and family back in the “vecindad” (neighborhood).
I became bilingual when I was in third grade. Before then, I spoke very little English, understanding a lot of it from watching American cartoons and television shows from living on the other side of the political boundary that splits El Paso and Juarez in two.
Once I learned English, I became fluent in it pretty fast. I was a kid, and children learn different languages pretty fast, especially when they’re immersed in it. The elementary school I attended was only a few meters from the border, but all the kids spoke English. Not wanting me to be “left behind,” mom requested that I be put into an all-English class instead of the “bilingual” class which was taught all in Spanish with a few lessons in English. I remember having a hard time with it all at first, except math. (Math is one of those universal languages, I guess.) But, once I caught on, it’s like a whole new part of my brain opened up.
Many of my relatives in my generation were not as lucky. Their parents didn’t make education a priority, so they did stay behind and, to this day, are not fully bilingual though they were educated in the States. But that’s for a whole other post.
When I would go back to Mexico to visit family and friends, I got a lot of flack over being bilingual. Kids in the neighborhood teased me because, according to them, I thought I was smarter because I spoke English on top of speaking Spanish. I didn’t feel smarter. I just felt like I had a better way of communicating. To make matters worse, Mom instituted a strict rule that I was to speak Spanish in front of people who spoke Spanish, even if I wasn’t talking to those people and was talking to English-speaking friends.
Once I “grew up” and went to college, it was nothing but English in almost every aspect of my life, except from when I was with friends and family who spoke Spanish. With them I spoke Spanish in a way that annoyed them. They criticized me using proper Spanish and, when I wrote to them by email or text message, they criticized me for using accents and proper grammar symbols (e.g. “¿?” or “¡!”). Despite their criticisms, I made it a point to not fall into speaking the pidgin Spanish that they did. (Thanks, Mom.) Likewise, I made it my mission in life to write and speak English well.
A few days ago, a friend of mine from college called me because she was in the area. “God, Ren, you sound White,” she said with some sort of amazement. I asked her what she meant, and she said that I had lost my Spanish accent and sounded just like any other person from the Northeast. I don’t know if that was a compliment. The reason why I’ve worked to lose my accent is because people see me and see “Mexican” written all over me… And that’s not always a good thing, like it happened when Marc Anthony sang at the all-star game. I’ve found that people are “disarmed” from their prejudices when they hear me speak English just like them. I am convinced that they would treat me differently if I spoke English with a heavy accent, like I did as a child.
The evidence I have of that is that I used a heavy Spanish accent in a class when I was getting my master’s degree. I pretended to have that heavy accent because we were talking about cultural differences and how public health practitioners should act in those situations. I got a few “choice” comments from some of my peers. One suggested that I take English classes. Another asked if I needed help writing my papers for class. (Does it look like I need help writing?) Still another asked why I had not become a citizen yet and if it had anything to do with my lack of English. Lack of English? Come on!
Check out this video from a guy that did the same thing for one of his classes and documented it:
True Story: I once got pulled over by a cop in Pennsylvania. It took him about 30 minutes to get out of his car. Once he did, a State Trooper arrived and joined him. The trooper was bilingual. The cop had called for an interpreter before even talking to me. Needless to say, the trooper was angry that he had been called in from his rounds for nothing. I ended up getting a ticket, and it would be about three years before the cop apologized. Also, for a couple of years after I moved to PA, I’d wear my hospital ID with me wherever I went. I wanted people to know that I was not a threat, and that I spoke enough English to get a job at the hospital.
“You must be the apple-picker,” said the ex-boyfriend of a girl I once dated. I replied to him that I wasn’t an apple-picker, that I was a lab tech. I then turned to the girl and asked her if she was also dating an apple-picker. The ex didn’t think it was funny. Apparently, in that part of “Pennsyltuckey,” the word “apple-picker” is a racial slur. I would later find out that he called me that to start a fight. That shows how little I know.
To this day, I see the change in demeanor in a lot of people when they hear me talk after they meet me. I can tell that they expected some heavy Spanish accent and get whatever my accent currently is. Or maybe I’m not seeing that change and just come to expect it because I’ve seen it so much. Then there are those times when I speak Spanish for a long time (or play soccer, or watch Spanish television) and my accent gets more pronounced. Then I have to think about every word I’m saying in order to suppress the accent until it goes away a few days later. When I think about it, I feel sad that I have to sound “American” or act “American,” even when there is no one true “American” culture or accent or way of being.
I wonder what our eventual Child® will have to do to be less Brown and not called names?
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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