Hello SOTGC community,
Workplace diversity is such a hot topic right now, and one particular segment of the population, Latinos, are not only making headlines, but are making an impact. As a Latina born in Mexico to a Mexican father and American mother, and having traveled between the two countries my entire life, I identify strongly with both heritages. Professionally, being the only Latina has made for a uniquely interesting and primarily positive experience, and one that is not often told in the news.
The majority of my professional career, aside from some months spent running my parent’s hotel in Mexico, has been spent working in New England. Being a Latina in New England has meant that I have often been the ONLY Latina and Spanish speaker in not just my office but in the entire professional building or community. According to the Department of Labor, there is not even sufficient data for two out of five states in New England to plot accurately the employment rate of Latinos, and of the states that have data, they have amongst some of the highest unemployment rates for Latinos in the country. My experience being in this setting has been different, though, than what you might expect: I have been greeted with appreciation, inquiry, interest, and genuine curiosity.
The process often goes the same each time. Someone will come looking for me in my office and hear the Salsa music playing on my computer while I work, or somehow, before a meeting, the conversation turns to vacationing in Mexico. My ability to pronounce El Charro Taco Stand is often also my first give away. No matter how it is brought up, I always offer my heritage before someone feels they have to ask. This saves them from any awkward and unintentionally misinformed labeling while trying to respectfully ask the question. As soon as I say, “oh yeah, I’m Mexican, and I actually was born in Mexico and grew up between the USA and the Yucatan,” most brighten up and the conversation easily transitions to that vacation they’ve always wanted to take. Although seemingly benign, this initial interaction is key to setting up a lasting positive intercultural relationship, and each interpersonal relationship is a piece to a larger pie where diversity in an office is wanted and appreciated.
After this first interaction, my ability to speak Spanish and my automatically accepted insider knowledge of all Latinos somehow becomes something that is almost always present at the forefront of my coworkers and employers’ minds. And although I have gotten many questions about food and travel, it has also offered opportunities for both my own professional development and for my employers’ success. This has come in the form of a Spanish only speaking customer, a networking opportunity for the boss with someone from Cuba, or being the voice for diversity and cultural understanding on an educational planning committee. As longs as I make sure that I am open to using my heritage positively, and make others comfortable doing so as well, this opportunity only grows. This means that my bosses have to appreciate my skills and my coworkers have to know that I am happy to engage these skills.
The problem, though, is that many feel awkward and rude using my Latinaness because they are not as comfortable with my cultural identity as I am. This is why making them at ease has been key. This is done through repetitive deliberate opportunities created to discuss my heritage, just like that first cultural interaction. This means that I bring Mexican food to the office potluck, even when I’m better at cooking brownies, so that I can easily mention my heritage while explaining why the chilaquiles smell so good and, no, they are not spicy. This also means that I deliberately answer the phone of a customer I know is Latino in front of my coworkers or bosses so that they can hear me rattle off with a smile in Spanish. Although this may seem overt, there is a careful line, of course, between bragging and the beautiful simplicity of creating an opportunity for cultural exposure and making others feel comfortable with what I am already contented with. I have to make them feel at ease with not just my pride, but I also have to make them feel comfortable with asking questions without judgement. I maintain a perspective that they are not the experts in diversity, and therefore I will not judge them as they stumble trying to learn about it. I see cultural misappropriations not as insults, but as learning opportunities. I find that most are open and want to learn, and are almost never purposefully insulting. It is in my belief that exposure, and positive simple interactions are what build up a larger acceptance of cultural difference, and then eventually, appreciation and welcoming.
So if you are of a diverse heritage or are, for example, a Latina(o) employee, looking to become admired and appreciated:
- Be up front and announce your heritage before anyone has to ask
- Look for ways to show others the humanistic positive aspects of your heritage in micro interactions
- See missteps from others as opportunities to help them learn
- Be open and accepting of attention because of your heritage
- Show others how your heritage can help the success of your company
- Be patient while looking for opportunities to use your skills to shine