Tag Archives: Hispanic women

Maids, Beauty Queens and Other Stupidities

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Recently, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – trying desperately, yet involuntarily to retain his title as “Asshole of the Year” – defended his previous criticisms of 1996 Miss Universe Alicia Machado.  The Venezuelan-born Machado apparently had gained too much weight at the height of her reign for Trump’s taste and subsequently referred to her as “Miss Piggy.”  He later also dubbed her “Miss Housekeeping,” an obvious reference to her ethnic heritage.  While millions of women across the U.S. (and I’m quite certain, across the globe) resent the “Miss Piggy” sleight, I focused on the “Miss Housekeeping” comment and thought, ‘Here we go again with the racial crap.’  Once more, Hispanic women are being dropped into the narrow categories of maid, housekeeper, etc. by (imagine this!) an old White male.

Trump has made racism and misogyny hallmarks of his campaign.  But this latest verbal assault against Machado struck me personally and harder than his previous idiotic statements.  As the son of a German-Mexican mother, I’ve heard more than a few stories of bigotry about the American workplace.  But, as someone who labored in the corporate world for more than a quarter century, I know that Hispanic women fit into more than the standard housekeeper / maid job role.  Regardless of race or ethnicity, women overall comprise roughly 57% of the American workforce; both full-time and part-time.  It’s the first time in U.S. labor history that more women than men are working.  Such a figure would have been incomprehensible a generation ago.

Not long after I was born in 1963, my father demanded that my mother stay home and raise me; thus becoming a traditional mother and housewife.  He was invoking the machismo persona of the average American male.  Few women worked after having a child in those days – or at least that’s what the general philosophy held.  In reality a number of women entered the workforce after having children, long before it became socially acceptable.  Many had no real choice.  My mother may have had a choice, but she refused to bow to pre-defined roles.  She had already gone against tradition by telling a Catholic priest shortly before my parents married that she didn’t plan to have a child every year, as the Holy Roman Empire dictated.  It upset the priest so badly that he told her maternal grandmother, a woman who had raised her and her three siblings after their mother died in 1940.  The grandmother, in turn, expressed her frustration to my mother who stood her ground.  Unless the Church was willing to finance her progeny, my mother absolutely would not have a child every time my father got an erection.  It’s a good thing.  My mother had enough trouble with me.  She had lost two pregnancies before I was born and another afterwards.  Considering some of the financial troubles my parents experienced later, it’s a good thing my mother returned to work in 1965, when I was 18 months old.  She retired in 2003 at age 70.

In reviewing contemporary TV shows, I believe there are about as many Hispanic characters now as there were fifty years ago; meaning they could probably all be counted on one hand.  Among the most popular today is “Modern Family,” featuring Colombian-born former model Sofia Vergara.  (Apparently there weren’t enough Hispanic actresses in Hollywood needing an acting job, so the show’s casting director yanked this nitwit from the gutter of foreign refuse to fill an otherwise blatantly stereotypical role.)

In 2003, NBC presented “Kingpin,” a series about (surprise!) a Mexican drug cartel family caught between the brutal worlds of narcotics trafficking and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.  I guess these conflicts were supposed to induce some sort of dramatic intoxication in the viewer.  Entertainment insiders noted the show presented a number of Hispanic performers; folks who normally wouldn’t find much long-term work in Hollywood apart from character clichés.  Those of us outside of that insulated fantasy factory – that is, those of us with a firm grip on reality – saw it for what it was: yet more Hispanics in formulaic characters.  The cacophony of anger was loud enough for NBC to cancel the series after just six episodes.  They claimed it was actually due to poor ratings.  As far as I can tell, industry outlets such as “Entertainment Tonight” didn’t spend much time highlighting the glaring racism in the series.  But I’m certain if a similar show about Blacks or Jews had come out, protests would be louder than the sound of Donald Trump dropping another wife.  Hell, when “Seinfeld” went off the air in 1998, it made national news!

This past June the USA Network premiered a show titled “Queen of the South.”  Such a name might make viewers assume it focuses on the antics of a cynically witty granddame-type in Georgia or South Carolina; an old gal who sips mint julips, dons “Gone with the Wind” regalia every December 20 and longs for the old days Negroes had to sit at the back of the bus.  That, of course, would be more than enough to get a show bounced of the air.  But “Queen of the South” revolves around a woman named Teresa who grew up poor and loveless in a Mexican slum and falls in love with (wait for it) a Mexican drug cartel leader.  When he’s killed, she flees to South Texas and becomes involved with someone from her past in an attempt to avenge her boyfriend’s murder.  That’s bad enough.  Yet it gets worse, as Teresa realizes the narcotics lifestyle is just too good to pass up and subsequently becomes a drug czarina in her own right.  It’s a quirky spin on the life and murderous legacy of Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. “The Cocaine Godmother.”  In fact, Blanco’s story is currently metamorphosing into a Hollywood biopic starring Jennifer Lopez who – like the late Michael Jackson – is gradually turning Whiter as she gets older.

Once again, though, Hispanics and illegal drugs are linked.  Actually Hispanics are still paired up with almost anything illegal: gang members, prostitutes, immigrants sneaking across the border and the like.  If going from maids and groundskeepers to drug cartel leaders is supposed to be an improvement, I’ll stick with the maid / groundskeeper type.  It’s sort of like this year’s elections: one has to choose between the lesser of two evils.

Looking through production credits for some of these shows, I’ve noticed none had Spanish surnames.  It’s obvious, then, from the initial concept down to the actual filming of the program, people of Northern European extraction are in control.  A good number of them are Jewish.  Therefore, I dare any of them to produce a television show displaying Jews (or any-Hispanic) as crooks.  Let’s see if it even gets past its debut episode.

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I’m pleased to see plenty of Blacks and Asians (many of them women) in non-traditional roles; business professionals and law enforcement characters who actually speak perfect English.  The same doesn’t hold true for Hispanics, or Native Americans for that matter.  We’re still the drug dealers, maids, groundskeepers and / or illiterate wetbacks who comprise the much-despised “Other” group of degenerates; people who are too lazy or stupid to get a decent education and find a legitimate career.  People Donald Trump wants to wall off and deport.

I don’t want to be around drug dealers or prostitutes either.  But that’s simply because I don’t belong to either of those groups.  Nor does anyone in my family and nor do most Hispanics.

We’re educated and career-driven.  We’re concerned about national security and the economy – just like any other citizen of this country.  Race and ethnicity are wedge issues that some people love to exploit.  We’re fully aware of the myriad stereotypes that plague us as a group; whether it’s on television or in political discourse.  We’re fully aware that Donald Trump is appealing to the traditional Republican base: older White men who watch in dismay as the world they thought only they would inherit slowly slips into the chaos of what the U.S. Constitution promised – freedom and equality for all.

Hispanic and other non-White women (or “women of color” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) are double minorities in this society because of two factors: their gender and their ethnicity.  Non-White women with college degrees, for example, often earn as much (or as little) as a White male with only a high school diploma.

Having grown up with a working mother – and seeing other Hispanic women struggling both to get educated and to maintain their jobs – I understand that the American entertainment machine and people like Donald Trump just can’t (or won’t) accept the truth.  Old prejudicial concepts are tough to eradicate.  But reality is reality.  And the reality I know is that beauty queens and housemaids aren’t the only roles where Hispanic women are allowed to exist.

 

Top image “Sonhos do carnaval” (Carnival dreams, 1955), courtesy Emiliano di Cavalcanti.

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Dr. Damary M. Bonilla-Rodriguez – Dismantling the Myth of the Hispanic Woman

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The United States likes to consider itself the beacon of equality, fairness and ingenuity.  To some extent, it’s accomplished those goals.  But, if you look beneath the surface, you’ll find a number of people who have had to fight harder than most for it.  Damary M. Bonilla-Rodriguez is one of them.  I encountered Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez through the Hispanic Professionals Networking Group (HPNG) on Linked In.  HPNG is dedicated to increasing the visibility of Hispanic business professionals.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S.; something that’s due, in part, to immigration.  But, many Americans ignore the fact that, as a group, Hispanics have been here longer than any other; except for Native Americans, with whom we often have a shared heritage.

Regardless, stereotypes of Hispanics persist – in both popular culture and political debates.  While all women have endured some level of oppression and discrimination, Hispanic, Black, Asian and Native American women, in particular, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being double minorities.  This is of personal interest to me, since I’ve seen the troubles my mother and other women in my family have faced.

Even now, if you watch American TV, you’ll find limited portrayals of Hispanic women.  Colombian-born Sofia Vergara, a star on ABC’s “Modern Family,” is one of the most prominent.  But, the former model still panders to the conventional image of a Latina – complete with mangled English that (I guess) is supposed to be humorously cute.  Then, there’s Shakira, another Colombian, who gyrated her way onto the American music scene with faux blonde locks.  The only plausible Hispanic female character in American entertainment I can recall is Eva Longoria from ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”  She spoke perfect English and wasn’t obsessed with food and sex.  Towards the end of the show’s run, another Hispanic actress, Lupe Ontiveros, appeared as Longoria’s mother-in-law.  Ontiveros, who died in 2012, once estimated that she played a maid or housekeeper-type role some 200 times in her career.

It’s against these personifications that Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez finds herself.  I asked her recently to expand upon her career as head of the Latina Initiative Project at Girls Incorporated, a non-profit organization that seeks to empower young Hispanic women into realizing they can be more than wives and mothers or singers and actresses.

Please tell us about your background.

I was born and raised in El Barrio/Spanish Harlem NYC.  My mom died when I was 8 years old; a victim to homicide.  I am the eldest three sisters.  I was raised by my maternal grandparents because my father was in prison during my childhood and not involved in my life.  I focused on education and community activism as a means to achieve success.  I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish and Social Work, Master of Science degree in Organizational Communication, Special Certification in Corporate Communication, and a Doctorate of Education with a focus in Executive leadership.

What prompted you to get involved with women and leadership?

I grew up in a family where the women worked hard to care for their families and provide but were not happy because they had jobs, not careers.  I did not have anyone in my extended circle that had graduated college or had a successful career.  The desire to achieve some level of success and be a person of influence, took me down the path of education and empowerment of others.  By accessing education and entering the work force, I gained an understanding the challenges faced by women, especially women of color; this knowledge ignited a personal passion to inspire women to pursue leadership roles in all aspects of their lives.

What are some of the ongoing challenges girls face in America today and how do you personally hope to address them?

America is still not a place of equity for girls and women, particularly women of color.  My passion is to inspire and empower girls and women to pursue leadership roles in all aspects of their lives because if we have a voice, we can make a difference in society.  Writing a dissertation was one way that I could contribute to society in this area.  I also deliver key note addresses and sessions for women and girls on leadership development and empowerment.

Do you believe girls can identify with women like Condoleezza Rice and Hilary Clinton, or are they too distant and exceptional to be role models?

I think any woman who is in a leadership role can be a role model.  However, seeing someone in a leadership role that “looks” like you or has a similar background, is the best way for girls and women to be inspired and believe they can be leaders and make a difference.

Aside from Rice and Clinton, what other notable women could serve as positive role models for girls?

For Latina girls and women, Justice Sonia Sotomayor has become an icon because we are proud of her accomplishment in breaking societal barriers, she “looks” like us, and an awareness has been awakened that we need more of her – more of us – in significant leadership roles at ALL levels of society.

If an average woman asks how she could be a role model to a girl or a younger woman, what would you say?

In each individual person’s life journey, they experience situations that teach them lessons; these experiences can help someone else along their path.  I believe we can all be role models to others.  I truly believe that I have stood on the shoulders of others who have paved a way for me to join a small group of Latinas with a Doctorate and that I – and all – should pave the way for others.

If a single father of a daughter asks what he could do to improve his child’s self-esteem, what would you tell him?

Single parents deserve so much credit for raising children alone because it is a hard job to raise children.  I believe that it takes many people to raise productive, hardworking people.  I would tell a single parent – mother or father – that hearing regularly how special you are, that you can change the world, that you need to believe in yourself, that your parent believes in you, and that you should access opportunities such as: education, are the foundation for improved self-esteem.  Also, helping your children access mentors and people that can teach them about access to higher education and various career options, as well as programs such as Girls Incorporated, where I work, can help empower kids and build their self-esteem so they can get far in life.

In the past few years, as the economy continues to struggle, more women than men are either returning to college, or staying in college to pursue higher levels of education.  What do you feel is the primary factor behind this trend?

Women have a nurturing nature and sharp instincts to provide and care for others.  When the pressure is on to succeed or they see closed doors, women understand the value of education in setting oneself apart from the competition.  Also, women may have entered the work force to provide financially without having the opportunity to further their education; the struggles provide the opportunity to pursue personal goals while preparing for better work opportunities and climbing the ladder of success.

I read an editorial many years ago that stated, while Black and Hispanic men often feel they’re victims of racism, their female counterparts more often feel they’re victims of sexism.  Do you feel this is true and why or why not?

While this has not been my experience, in my work with women, I have heard this come up quite a bit.  Some things I have heard are that women sometimes feel like their abilities are questioned based on how they look or dress.  Others have expressed being “sexualized” because they are a Latina which is supposed to mean they are “sexy” as opposed to smart or any other professional characteristic.  Women in society are still struggling for equity in various aspects of the workforce experience.  Women of color are struggling for the same but also to have a voice in society.  For example, women of color do not represent a significant part of the corporate/private sector in top leadership positions and corporate Boards.  There is much work to be done.

What are some of the educational and professional obstacles Latina women in the U.S. face?

According to my doctoral research study, Latinas face four critical obstacles: lack of mentors, lack of opportunities, cultural obligations, and family obligations.

Hispanics overall often have been reluctant to move far from home, since that means they’ll be separated from their families.  That’s starting to change, but do you think Hispanics generally have a stronger commitment to their families than to their professional lives?

This has been my experience – from choosing which college I would attend, to deciding if I wanted to move to another state.  The Hispanic value of family – immediate or extended family – is positive because it means you have a strong support network but also poses challenges in education and professional journeys; this is especially true for Latinas, as they have traditionally been expected to take care of everyone.  I wrote an article which was published in the Huffington Post, about “Latinas and Modern Marianismo” which touches on balancing traditional Latino values with modern Latina experiences.  Here is the link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/damary-bonillarodriguez/latinas-and-modern-marianismo_b_4165200.html.

Do you think affirmative action is still necessary?

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU: https://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/affirmative-action) “Affirmative action is one of the most effective tools for redressing the injustices caused by our nation’s historic discrimination against people of color and women, and for leveling what has long been an uneven playing field.  A centuries-long legacy of racism and sexism has not been eradicated despite the gains made during the civil rights era.  Avenues of opportunity for those previously excluded remain far too narrow.  We need affirmative action now more than ever.”  I could not have said it better myself.

What do you hope for the general status of women in the U.S. in the next decade?

I am hopeful that as more women and women of color climb the ladder to hold highly visible and significant leadership positions across the country, doors will open so more women will have the opportunity to shine.  I am also hopeful that the in the next decade we will see a woman hold the highest political office in the country – the U.S. Presidency.

Would you like to add anything?

My doctoral research study abstract, in case anyone is interested in reading my dissertation.  Latinas face obstacles achieving proportionate representation in significant leadership roles.  This research aimed to identify characteristics unique to Latina leaders that represented shared values and beliefs of Latinas, and to understand positive factors and obstacles associated with Latina leadership in the United States.

Survey responses from three hundred thirty-five Latinas and four interviewees from across the U.S. suggested that there are forty-three characteristics an effective Latina leader should possess.  Four essential characteristics identified were: creative, good listener, optimistic/positive, and passionate.  The forty-three characteristics were categorized into five groups of similar characteristics to synthesize what study participants believed were essential characteristics of Latina leaders.  The categories were: high integrity, marianismo, new Latina, transformational leader, and visionary.  Pursuing the attributes of these five leadership categories will help Latinas who aspire to become leaders understand what it takes to be a successful Latina leader, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and enable them to create a plan of success for themselves.

Furthermore, study participants noted factors of positive influence on Latinas.  Six crucial positive influencers identified were: successful educational attainment, participating in leadership training, possessing self-confidence, having role models, religious influence, and family influence.  Study participants also noted factors which can be obstacles for Latinas.  Four critical obstacles identified were: lack of mentors, lack of opportunities, cultural obligations, and family obligations.

Literature about Latinas and Latina leadership is limited.  There is an urgent need for research about the topic(s).  This study was one step towards understanding the dynamics of Latina leadership in the U.S.  I urge Latinas to invest in themselves and become successful leaders so that together, we can make a difference in the world because this world needs Latina sazon (Latin seasoning).

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