“WE ARE ALSO AMERICANS!”
We see it written in the newspaper, and the census records prove it. The Hispanic population is growing and spreading across the valley and our country. I am a native of Arizona and have lived primarily in the West Valley. Some in our extended family only spoke Spanish (grandparents); some are bilingual (parents, aunts, uncles, cousins) including myself. Regrettably, the fourth generation (our children) is somewhat limited in their use of the Spanish language. They can understand it, but do not have an adequate command of the language to feel proficient enough to carry a conversation in Spanish with another Spanish speaker. Are we likely to lose the richness of our culture due to the scrutiny and fear of the white majority?
As young parents, my husband and I were torn between which language to teach our children. Some said, “You are in America, speak English!” We realized that to succeed in America, we had to have the ability to communicate in English. We reminded our children that one day having command of a second language would be a benefit, and continued to encourage them to learn Spanish. I heard others say, “If you cater to the Spanish speakers, you will never be motivated to learn English.” We are a minority family born and raised in the United States. I realize we are more than our Mexican food, music, traditions, heritage, culture and language. We are also Americans! Sometimes, the color of our skin, and perhaps our accent, categorized us as inferior and uneducated in the eyes of others.
I remember the importance my parents placed on education. I was the first to graduate from high school on both sides of the family. I continued my education and received an Associate of Arts degree in 1971 in General Business. In 1971 for a female to have some college was considered beyond the norm. I married, worked for seven years and raised a family of four. I volunteered at our church, which helped to sharpen my secretarial skills. Feeling confident in my abilities, after thirteen years at home I returned to the work force.
I worked as a bilingual aide, so I was not a threat or competition to other White employees since at that time, most did not possess reading, writing, and speaking skills of a second language. After one year I applied for a position required the skills I had acquired in college, used as a volunteer, and used in my current position. When asked, “What other skills do you possess that would benefit this department?” I stated, “I am bilingual.” I knew the department dealt with parents who needed help in translating. The position went to a White female with whom the White director had a history. I was new, hadn’t yet “paid my dues” so I didn’t feel over-looked because I was Hispanic. I did wonder, since this person was not bilingual, how she would help Spanish monolingual parents. The language barrier was a growing concern for our district. In an effort to improve myself I spoke with the Afro-American Personnel Director. I asked him, “What am I lacking and what should I improve for the future?” He encouraged me not to give up, and to continue applying. He assured me that I had interviewed quite well, the right position would open, and I would be ready.
A second position became available in another department. This time persistence paid off and I accepted the position offered to me by the White department director. I was excited. As I began to take directions from my immediate supervisor, an Afro-American female, she informed me I had not been her first choice. Her first choice had been a White female she was friends with. I felt she was trying to intimidate me because she kept telling me “There is a lot you do not know, and you will need to learn quickly.” I remember feeling determined to prove to her that I would be a good worker, and that she would not be disappointed.
Two weeks into my new job, a disappointed White female co-worker informed me “The only reason you got the position was because the person you replaced was a Hispanic, so a Hispanic had to fill the spot.” I resented that comment and let my colleague know I did not agree. I informed her “My secretarial and language skills were what secured the position for me, not because I am Hispanic.” I remember the gaze of envy and jealousy as we spoke in the hallway. She reiterated to me “You will need to learn a lot quickly to keep up with the flow of work that will be coming your way. I hope you can do it. I have more years of service, I am smarter than you, and the supervisor recommended me. How could you get the position? The director must like you and think you are cute, he’s just a dirty old man.” Evidently she must have been my immediate supervisor’s first choice. Our conversation was cut short due to oncoming traffic in the hallway. Feelings of resentment, doubt, and dejection surfaced as I re-played that hallway conversation in my head.
The conversation lead me to believe she felt secure in getting the position because she had been recommended by the supervisor, and for her years of service. Today I can name that hurtful feeling as invisible White privilege on the part of my colleague. When competing with a non-white (minority) candidate, a White person expects to achieve the goal they set out to reach judged on their own merit, in this case the expectation to be hired. Many times when the competition is against another White individual, losing a potential job is not as great an issue as it is when lost to a non-white individual, when the rules of merit seem to disappear. The concept of white privilege does not enter the thought process of a White person. In spite of the additional skills and/or qualifications required for some jobs today, such as technology or a second language, the fact remains that a White person expects to have the best chance at getting a job when competing with a non-white person.
Racism or prejudice can be experienced in various forms and combinations. In my second incident an Afro-American supervisor wanted to hire a White friend, but a Hispanic was selected. Unusual? Yes. Why? Perhaps the department director wanted to take the department in a direction that was unclear to the supervisor. Perhaps there was a difference in the skill levels. If all things were equal, perhaps the ability to speak another language made the difference as this was an opportunity for additional diversity. Perhaps the director had a prejudice against the supervisor.
In retrospect, I felt used by the first department that overlooked me. I was not skilled enough to be hired for his department. After I accepted the position in the second department, the first department often asked, “Could you come to our department to help us translate? We have a family who needs help.” I could easily have refused to help, but that is not my way of thinking. I chose to help, and I am glad I did. I am in my thirteenth year and continue to advance in my career with this employer. I am happy to report that later, at evaluation time, my immediate supervisor apologized and said I was doing a great job. It took a little longer for the co-worker and I, but we eventually were able to communicate on friendly terms. These are the two instances that I can remember when I felt discriminated against on the basis of my ethnicity.
This has been my experience as an American. How much more difficult must it be for those immigrants who are here legally, have obtained citizenship and like everyone else are simply trying to remain employed for a just wage and improve their standard of living. Many times these are the people who are trying harder, and are not taking for granted the opportunity to work.
Despite the change in demographics in some areas requiring additional qualifications, such as a second language, political initiatives have been introduced to make it difficult to help anyone who may be different, particularly the immigrant. The English Only initiative prohibits communication, oral or written, in anything other than English. Individuals, who can speak and understand English, are given power over those who do not master the language, creating another level of superiority.
Another initiative now in progress, Protect AZ Now, promotes providing proof of citizenship in order to receive health care and welfare assistance. One wonders whether equal diligence will be required for all to show proof of citizenship. If one looks white, will agents be more lenient with that person?
Until we begin to accept one another without judgment, and truly get to know an individual, we will continue to be fearful of that which we do not understand. Whether white or non-white, monolingual or bilingual, rich or poor, as a nation that will survive oppression and exploitation of others, we must begin to value the differences within our communities. Competition is what has built our capitalistic society. I do not propose eliminating healthy competition, whether in the hiring process or in any other form.
But with competition comes the sense of a winner and a loser. Our history has categorized the White individual as the “winner” and the non-white as the “loser.” Our challenge is to transform the competitive nature where we believe “I am the only one who matters, even if at the expense of another.” I propose a counter-cultural thought. Celebrate and appreciate the various differences we each represent. Help all children to treasure and preserve that which is a positive representation of their heritage, and to learn from and change that which is negative. Without fear and with pride we enjoy the various food cultures, music and traditions. What really makes us whole is acceptance and understanding of the whole person, where people both young and old can be proud and share their heritage and its many facets.
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