Pochos, Prejudice and Spanish-Shaming

Kristian Ramos, NBC News, January 11, 2016

As a pocho, or person of Mexican descent who doesn’t speak Spanish, my life has been affected by conservative discomfort with a multicultural America since before I was born. I write this for those whose lack of Spanish makes them “not Latino enough” for some friends and family, yet Mexican enough to be considered foreign or different or worse yet–part of a group of “murderers” and “rapists,” according to our leading Republican presidential candidate.

Far before this current presidential campaign cycle, there has been toxic rhetoric surrounding Latinos, Hispanic heritage and the use of Spanish. It’s been like this for a long time, and in a way I am living proof of that.

From a young age some family members called me a coconut, brown on the outside, white on the inside due to my lack of skill in speaking Spanish. In school my non-Latino friends called me beaner or wetback. Despite my protests, my friends persisted; they felt their words were harmless.

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Early in my career I was told not to pronounce my name with an accent as it was difficult for reporters to understand. Later a boss commented, “I guess it’s OK that your grammar is lacking, since English isn’t your first language.” Never mind that I was born and raised here and that my parents also grew up in the U.S. Never mind that English is the language I know.

Folks like me are in the middle. Many people assume we speak Spanish and may think we’re recent immigrants. Meanwhile, we get criticized by some of our fellow Latinos for not speaking Spanish.

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I do not blame my parents for not teaching me Spanish. But I do blame ugly rhetoric for shaming children for being who they are and for creating generations of Latinos that felt ashamed to speak in Spanish.

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If there is any comfort in any of this, it is that I know I am not alone in my pocho status. There are many people who like myself are culturally Latino and know what it is to be a Mexican-American today. Many of us are not proficient in Spanish and get frustrated with our inability to pick it up quickly. But someday we’ll learn, because we want to. Regardless, I am proud of my culture.

To my fellow pochos I say that everyday we are confronted with a choice of being who we are versus who people think we should be. Making the choice to be our most authentic self is not always easy, but it’s well worth it. For everyone else, it’s worth remembering that the inflamed rhetoric of division leaves scars that last longer than one racist candidate and much deeper than any presidential cycle. I am living proof of that.

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