Menu Home

What do you see when you see Brown?

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?

Featured image credit: chavezonico / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Categories: Blog

Tagged as:

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.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

3 replies

  1. Well, I have a few thoughts. First among them is the fact that no real American *would* sing the US National Anthem. In a large part due to how they’re treated on the reservation or worse, when they make the mistake of leaving the reservation.

    My second thought was about a former Venezuelan President, I’d most certainly recognize him were we to ever meet, his murmuring “sesos” and dirty and disheveled appearance would be a dead giveaway. Argh, that was a lousy pun…

    As for Puerto Ricans, I only have some mild hard feelings for members of the Puerto Rican National Guard, who insisted on hogging the MWR network (Morale, welfare and recreation) with their video chats home, against direction, which clogged the bandwidth so horribly that I could not even get Facebook up to see pictures of my grandchild, let alone send e-mail when I was off duty.
    But, that is of a level of hard feelings that were we to meet today, I’d most certainly stick my tongue out at them and remind them of their poor sharing on their first deployment abroad.
    That’s OK, they share a bad habit with every other National Guard unit that deployed for the first time abroad. They all calm down after a few months and the network becomes useful again. 🙂

    I pick up languages with difficulty now, courtesy of an IED giving me 45db of hearing loss and tinnitus. I don’t complain, as others didn’t fare as well as I did, fatally so for some, mutilated and emasculated for one, the rest ranged in severity of injuries, but all ended up with full disability that were evacuated. I used to pick up both language and local accent quite well and quite quickly.
    (A side note, that IED bomber was finally caught. In Louisville, Kentucky. For real, he managed to travel from Iraq to the US to attempt to purchase firearms and explosive devices to ship back to Iraq. A local listened to his request and told him he could help him out, as he had a buddy. “Hello, FBI?” They’re in federal custody, in a federal prison. Arrested in the US, go to US prison. Don’t get me into GITMO and torture, suffice it to say, erm, WRONG!!!)

    As for the singer, I really don’t care *what* language a singer makes their living singing in. I enjoy listening to music in languages I’ll never learn and some that I’ve forgotten. My Spanish is horrible now, non-conversant, due to disuse over the decades. My Arabic is slipping, soon to be non-conversant. My Farsi wasn’t very good to begin with, it’s rubbish now. My Pashto was starting to become nearly acceptable, it’s gone now. My Russian is totally gone now, where it was acceptable previously. I still can speak fluent English, as well as my native American English. 😉
    Yes, I’m serious with that chuckle, I’m even quite fair with the slang of various regions of that small island.

    As for that “Apple picker” crack, were I present, I’d know the insult. I’d match it and ask him an honest question on the practices of the region, if his father and mother got divorced, would she still be his sister?
    I’m quite certain that the conversation would rapidly degenerate. But, that individual would then be at your place of work seeking repair.
    For, there are a few things that do set me off. Such behavior is one of them. Harming women and children is another, I lose my peace instantly then.
    But, that is partially due to my heritage, with my paternal grandparents “off the boat” at Ellis Island from Sicily. My maternal grandparents gave me the right to join the Sons of the American Revolution.
    Overall, I’m a peace loving guy, but those few things bring out a side of me I really don’t like, but accept the rare necessity of. A side that was useful early in my military career, with my fresh rifle green beret.
    Which is largely why I prefer peace. Qualified by the above pre-conditions. 🙂


  2. Oops, I neglected one final thought, which was actually by very first thought, which is why it was initially forgotten. A thought that I accept as naturally as the law of gravity.
    The ignorance of the average American, as well as the initial snap judgement without considering reviewing the facts first, as well as “sticking to your guns” when as wrong as a snowball on the sunward side of Mercury.
    It is disgusting, disgraceful and unfortunately, quite, quite true.


  3. Spanglish was often spoken at my second junior high school (Curundu*), and my first high school: . I admit it was strange, especially since the wealthier who did not live in the CZ sent their kids there, plus there were embassy kids from around the planet. One of the perks of being an Army brat.

    Needless to say, I don’t make assumptions, and I wish I spoke Spanish better (I do, however have a Caribbean accent). Though my Spanish is lots better than another marching band parent whose parents came from Cuba, he never learned any.

    Things are little better here on the West Coast, though there are similar issues like what you encountered. I think that the cops do actually check to see if an interpreter is needed, especially since someone who is brown is also likely to speak an Asian language, or be from the Philippines, or Samoa, or even from a tribe that has lived here for centuries.

    *(I recently saw something that the junior high school buildings are now a medical school.)


%d bloggers like this: