Tag Archives: Hispanics
“And why is it that when you’re dining here today to honor me as Hispanic Officer of the Year, I look around the room full of ranking officers, and the only other Hispanics I see are waiters and busboys? As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your awards.” – René Enriquez, as Lte. Ray Calletano, “Hill Street Blues”, 1983
“A part of me wants to kick their ass. A part of me feels sorry for their stupid ignorant selves. But if you’ve never been farther south than Nuevo Laredo, how the hell would you know what Mexicans are supposed to look like?
There are green-eyed Mexicans. The rich blond Mexicans. The Mexicans with faces of Arab sheiks. The Jewish Mexicans. The big-footed-as-a-German Mexicans. The leftover French-Mexicans. The chaparrito compact Mexicans. The Tarahumara tall-as-a-desert-saguaro Mexicans. The Mediterranean Mexicans. The Mexicans with Tunisian eyebrows. The negrito Mexicans of the double coasts. The Chinese Mexicans. The curly-haired, freckle-faced, red-headed Mexicans. The Lebanese Mexicans. Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say I don’t look Mexican. I am Mexican. Even though I was born on the U.S. side of the border.” – Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo, Chapter 72. Copyright 2003, Vintage Books.
Recently FX Networks announced the premier of “Mayans MC,” a spinoff of their highly popular, award-winning “Sons of Anarchy.” Airing from 2008 to 2014, “Sons of Anarchy” followed the lives of an outlaw motorcycle club in the fictional town of Charming, California. Exploring government corruption, personal loyalty, racism, redemption and the vigilante spirit, it’s sort of what you’d get if the Hells Angels produced a show for the Hallmark Channel. “Mayans MC” essentially continues the storyline, but with a Latino cultural flair. While the real Mayans charted the night skies, these “Mayans” are drug runners who immediately encounter another gang, Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones). They might as well have called it ‘Mean Ass Mexicans on Motorcycles.’ I guess not much has changed since 1983.
It’s slightly reminiscent of “Kingpin,” a severely short-lived series that dealt with “the machinations of an ambitious Mexican family . . . displayed in graphic detail as the family faces challenges from both the United States Drug Enforcement Agency and from the dangerous underworld in which they work.” The show was the brainchild of the late David Mills, a “light-skinned black man whose racial identity was not always evident to those around him” and who “wrote white characters and black characters with equal zeal.” Okay, great. He may have placed Black and White folks on equal levels, but he kept Hispanics on the criminal platform. There are more colors in the rainbow of equality than black and white.
The start of 2005 saw the debut of “Jonny Zero,” a Fox series about an ex-con named Jonny Calvo, played by the underwhelming Frankie G. (Gonzales), who returns to his old neighborhood to begin life anew. He naturally finds it tough to stay on the right side of the law because his former employer seeks his tough-guy services to engage in new criminal activity, while the FBI wants him to snitch on that same former employer. Decisions! Decisions! Aside from taking place in that most Latino of all American metropolises, New York City, “Jonny Zero” was also filmed there. I presume that was meant to lend it a sense of gritty urban realism. Fortunately, like “Kingpin”, “Jonny Zero” lasted all of a nano-second in TV land.
Even now, in this allegedly post-civil rights era America, Hispanics are still portrayed on television as gang bangers, maids and illegal immigrants.
In 2011, Demián Bichir received praise and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in “A Better Life”, the story of a Mexican immigrant father who chooses to remain in the U.S. and work as a gardener in Los Angeles. His goal is simple: do for his kids what the movie’s title says to do. It’s supposed to be melodramatic and sweet and, perhaps, make the case for a more sentimental view of illegal immigration.
In an interview last year, actor Benito Martinez lamented, “I had all these images of elegance and range and style, so when I, naively, was trying to build my career, those were my examples,” the soft-spoken Martinez says. “But what I was getting in the ‘80s as a young Latino actor was, ‘You’re going to be a gang member and you’re going to go in and rob the bank.’ I had to then learn about pigeonholing. I had to learn the power of no.”
Martinez’s latest role? A migrant laborer on a tomato farm on ABC’s “American Crime”. The “power of no” often runs hard up against the need to pay bills and beef up a resume. The show was cancelled last year.
Another ABC program, “Modern Family,” has been heralded as a depiction of America’s ethnic diversity. But the main female character – portrayed by the immensely untalented Sofia Vergara – is yet another Hispanic trope: the sexpot.
Twenty years ago critics wondered aloud why the highly popular show “Friends” didn’t feature any Black characters, given that it took place in New York City. Well, it didn’t have any Asian or Hispanic characters either.
Again, not much seems to have changed for Latinos in popular culture since 1983. The late Lupe Ontiveros once calculated that she’d portrayed maids and housekeepers some 200 times in her 30+ years as a professional actress. Yes, I’ve seen plenty of Hispanic housekeepers – have even known a few. But most of the Hispanics I’ve seen and known throughout my life – even those outside my own family – have been well-educated, well-spoken, gainfully-employed, law-abiding, military-serving U.S. citizens. These are MY people – not the illiterate wetbacks scurrying across the border at midnight or hyper-violent drug cartel leaders. I’m not familiar with those latter groups. I can’t identify with them. Neither can most other Hispanic-Americans.
So why don’t we see more of us on television or in the movies? I suppose my life as a 50-something freelance technical writer taking care of his elderly mother is too bland for the American entertainment – an industry still dominated by mostly White (usually Jewish) men. And I won’t start a life of crime just to get attention and maybe a reality TV show! Hell, that would cut into my writing time!
The ordinariness of the average Hispanic-American is perhaps why I had such a hard time getting my debut novel published. Traditional publishing houses couldn’t see the reality in a book with Hispanic characters who are well-educated and speak perfect English. Yes, one publisher actually told me that a little more than a decade ago! That’s why I’ve resorted to self-publishing, which I’ll get to in a different essay.
The only way I see things changing for the general American perception of Hispanics – aside from letting the ‘Old Guard’ die off – is for Latinos to get angry. Yes, just flat out pissed off and demand more AND better from the entertainment industry. To some extent, that’s already happened with the cancellation of shows like “Kingpin” and “Jonny Zero”. But we have to point out – forcefully – to TV and film producers that they don’t have a true understanding of who we all are. Who we really are. Stereotypes are pathetically old school and don’t have a place in 21st century societies.
Years ago some White people at my father’s workplace told him he wasn’t like “other Mexicans”; that he was “different.” He honestly didn’t know what to make of it, but I did when he mentioned that to my mother and me at dinner one evening. “They’re stereotyping you, Dad,” I told him.
“Everybody wants to be Black, until the police show up.”
I wonder if Rachel Dolezal took a deep breath when she marked her race as “Black” or “Negro” for the first time on a form; whether on paper or online. If you’re American, you know the kind. The section at the end of whatever application you’re completing that purports to be for “information purposes” only. People are just now starting worry about the NSA collecting data on them? Seriously?! The IRS and U.S. Census Bureau have been doing it for decades!
I used to select “Hispanic.” Then, if I could, I’d also select “White.” I mean, after all, I can’t deny my Spanish and German heritage, no matter how much I try. And I’ve never tried. Some folks, even here in the U.S., still find it hard to believe “Spaniards” classify as “White.” I guess it’s their close association with Mexicans that goes back some, oh, 500 years and occasionally pisses off some pure-blooded Spaniards. Germans, of course, are definitely “White.” You really can’t get any Whiter than that. If you do, you’re not White, you’re albino.
In recent years, however, I’ve opted to select “Choose Not to Disclose” on that race section, which is a polite way of saying, ‘What’s this have to do with it?’ Or, ‘None of your fucking business!’ When I’d apply for a job, I don’t expect special consideration because I’m Hispanic, shy, only 5’8”, and / or have a nice butt (which I do). I’ve always simply wanted people to look at my resume and base their decision on that. I feel the same way about my writing. Don’t look at me as a “Hispanic writer.” Just look at me as a writer. Damnit!
The ongoing race debate in this multi-cultural nation took on a new and very bizarre twist last month when Dolezal, head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington was outed as a White chick. Or, mostly White. Her parents back in Minnesota produced photos of their estranged daughter with her naturally blonde hair and blue eyes; noting that they’re of Nordic European heritage, with some Indian mixed into the bloodline. Why Dolezal decided to darken her hair and try to masquerade as a Negro remains the central question? (All those “central” questions begin with ‘why’ anyway.) It’s confounded people as much as it’s upset them.
In the early 1960s, my mother bought her father a blue tie to match his eyes for his birthday. During a gathering at the home of my paternal grandparents (her in-laws), she mentioned that to my grandmother who merely replied, “Well, I don’t like blue eyes.” It startled, and even offended my mother who didn’t know what to say. But, many years ago, my father told me that his younger brother was born with blue eyes, and that their mother prayed they’d change color. And they did – to green, like his oldest brother and their father. (My father came out with dark brown eyes and blue-black hair, like his mother.)
My grandmother’s anti-blue-eye sentiments were surprising, when I found out later that her youngest siblings were all blond and blue-eyed…like their father. Looking at antiquitous black and white photos of my father’s maternal grandfather reminds me of the late actor Richard Farnsworth. My great-grandfather was born in northeastern México in 1866 and became a captain in the Mexican Army. He was married twice; his first wife died relatively young, some time in the 1890s. He and his second wife had a slew of children (as people tended to do in those days), of which my grandmother was one. Sadly, her mother died of the “Spanish flu” in 1918. The following year my great-grandfather moved his family to South Texas.
My grandmother’s ‘I-don’t-like-blue-eyes’ comment had always been a sore point for my mother, but a curious statement for me. It reminds me of the “blue-eyed devil” slur many non-Whites bestowed upon people of European ancestry. It’s supposedly of Asian origin, but like many urban legends, who really knows? Toni Morrison focused on this sensitive issue in her debut novel, “The Bluest Eye,” published in 1970. The story follows a Black girl named Pecola who, while growing up in early 1940s Ohio, reacts to the brutality of racism by wishing her eyes would turn blue. Morrison’s frankness punched bigotry in the nose, and the book faced banishment from many libraries and schools. As a writer, I know that’s the worst affront to free speech. But I also know that, in an America confronting the legacies of Black slavery and Indian genocide, few outside of the academic and progressive communities wanted to discuss these matters.
In 2008, researchers with the University of Copenhagen presented a study claiming every blue-eyed person on Earth has a “single, common ancestor.” According to the researchers, up until about 10,000 years ago, everyone on Earth had eyes that were some varying shade of brown. Then, inexplicably, a mutation occurred within the OCA2 (oculocutaneous albinism II) gene, which resulted in a “switch” that “turned off” the ability to produce brown eyes in some individuals. Formerly called the “P” gene, OCA2 is involved in the creation of pigmentation in three areas: skin, hair and eyes. Apparently, blue-eyed folks have the least amount of pigmentation without qualifying as albinos, but still – according to some – means they represent the ideal human being.
Findings by the Human Genome Project (HGP), however, have pretty much destroyed that theory. Initiated in the 1980s, HPG was a collaborative effort by a gallery of scientists representing a variety of disciplines with the goal of understanding all of the genes that comprise human mammals. Its roots actually go back further and can be traced to a handful of forward-thinking individuals.
One of them was Alfred Henry Sturtevant who began studying genetics in the color heredity of horses. In 1908, Sturtevant presented a paper on the subject to Thomas Hunt Morgan, a professor of the then-burgeoning field of genetics at Columbia University. At the time, Morgan had focused his research on Drosophila (fruit flies), which turned out to be an ideal candidate for genetic study. They mature in ten days; are less than one-eight inch in length; can live by the hundreds in small vials; require nothing more substantial than yeast for food; and have only four pairs of chromosomes. In 1911, Sturtevant landed in Morgan’s lab and, within two years, determined the growth rate of six of the fruit fly’s traits. Sturtevant’s discovery is considered the starting point for modern genetics; it led the way for more detailed studies of human and animal genetics. It seems odd now that scientists made the leap from fruit flies to humans in less than a century. But scientific research doesn’t always take a logical path – at least not from a casual observation.
One of the most intriguing results from such intensive research and analyses is the determination of what people who lived hundreds – if not thousands – of years ago may have looked like. And I don’t mean ethereal ideas developed from artistic studies of Roman frescoes or lost Michelangelo paintings. DNA analyses of human skeletons have produced the seemingly impossible: actual data of people’s coloration, weight and diseases, among other factors. Two years ago Dutch and Polish geneticists announced the development of the HIrisPlex System, which can identify eye color (and sometimes hair color) by pulling genetic material from human teeth.
Still, the concept that fair-eyed also means fair-skinned weakened with a unique revelation last year. In 2006, archaeologists discovered two male skeletons in a cave in northeastern Spain. The area, known as La Braña-Arintero, sits about 5,000 feet above sea level; providing a cold enough environment to allow for preservation. After determining both sets of remains were about 7,000 years old, scientists set out to learn what the men may have looked like. Each apparently had dark skin and dark hair, common traits at the time. But one, dubbed La Braña 1, also had blue eyes. For years scientists have also stated that, for humans to turn blond, they had to migrate far into what is now Northern Europe. This is credible, when you consider that some 90% of Nordic Europeans are fair-colored. But other people who settled into neighboring Arctic regions, such as Siberia and Greenland, are also at least light-skinned.
Genetic research has discovered something else: the natural occurrence of blond hair among some dark-skinned Polynesians (or Melanesians) is a distinct genetic trait. For decades, scientists believed that the fair-colored locks of some islanders were the result of unions between amorous and lonely European sailors and local women. That sort of tale has played out across the globe for generations. But, in 2012, geneticists at Harvard and Stanford Universities proved the truth isn’t so clear-cut. They studied 43 fair-haired and 42 dark-haired Solomon Islanders and found a gene for the blond coloring, TYRP1, on chromosome 9. More importantly that gene doesn’t exist in the European genome. That means the blond-haired gene manifested by itself in the Solomon Island population. No White folks needed.
DNA analyses proved the same with the aboriginal peoples of Australia. Despite their dark skin, many Australian Aborigines have fair hair and fair eyes. This compelled scientists to place them into the Caucasian racial group decades ago. But, as with the Melanesians, genetic researchers confirmed what the Australians already knew: they’re not inherently White. They’re not a separate racial group, as they’ve often claimed, but rather the descendants of people who left Africa and arrived in Australia some 40,000 years ago.
Rachel Dolezal isn’t the first person to lie about her race or ethnicity. George Herriman was best known for his cartoon, “Krazy Kat,” which ran in U.S. newspapers from 1913 to 1944. Quiet and introspective, Herriman didn’t generate much discussion about his race. Some of his closest friends thought he was of Greek extraction because of his olive-tinted skin. In fact, Herriman was of Black and White heritage; born in New Orleans in 1880. When he was a child, his family moved to Los Angeles, primarily to escape the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South. Herriman wasn’t alone. Many people of similar mixed heritage took advantage of their fair, or somewhat fair, skin to proclaim themselves as purely White. It’s unknown just how many Americans spent their lives passing as White, but were actually mulattoes. It’s sad in retrospect, but that’s the reality many people faced. It’s even more frustrating, when you realize that Herriman, in particular, often featured African-Americans in stereotypical fashion.
While some people thought George Herriman was Greek, Gregory Markopoulos really was Greek. For years, though, Markopoulos passed himself off as a Native American named Jamake Highwater. Markopoulos claimed he was born on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana in 1942 to a mother who was French Canadian and Blackfoot Indian and a father who was Cherokee. In other versions of his life, he told people his mother was full-blooded Cherokee; he was born in South Dakota; and he was born in France. He even exaggerated his educational background. Still, he developed a distinguished career as a writer and expert on Indigenous American culture; publishing over 30 books and even took part in the recording of an avant-garde / jazz album in 1968. But Markopoulos’ true identity was exposed in 1984, when Native American activist Hank Adams published a stinging editorial about him in the “Washington Post.” Afterwards Markopoulos stopped claiming he was Native American, but retained his self-anointed expertise on Native American culture up until his death in 2001.
In the 1950s, a man calling himself Korla Pandit became a musical sensation with his own show, “Musical Adventures with Korla Pandit,” where he’d played a Hammond organ or a piano. Claiming he was born in New Delhi to a French mother and an Indian father, Pandit was considered the godfather of the exotic musical genre at the time. Wearing a bejeweled turban and not saying a word during any of his shows helped to seal his mystic nature. But, in 2000, two years after his death, “Los Angeles Magazine” revealed that he was actually born John Roland Redd in St. Louis, Missouri, and was African-American.
Ethnic switches have reached comical levels. In 1984, the world of wrestling – no stranger to outrageous personalities – saw the arrival of Nikita Koloff, “The Russian Nightmare.” Alleging he was a Moscow transplant, Koloff didn’t speak English for some 13 months after his first televised appearance. His “uncle,” Ivan Koloff, translated for him. Nikita’s real name is Nelson Scott Simpson, and he was born in Minnesota in 1959. “Uncle Ivan” was a Canadian-born teammate named Oreal Perras. After his charade and wrestling career ended, Simpson became a “born-again Christian” and established his own ministry.
Ethnic alterations have resulted in legal disputes. In 1998, a man calling himself JoJo Chokal-Ingam was accepted into Saint Louis University Medical School. He identified as African-American. But JoJo’s first name was actually Vijay, and he was Indian-American (the “Slurpee” kind of Indian, not the casino kind) who grew up in Boston. Vijay wanted desperately to get into medical school, but felt his 3.1 GPA was a hindrance. The fact that about half of the 22 institutions to which he submitted applications, including Saint Louis, interviewed him seemed to confirm his anxiety. So, he shaved his head, cut his long eyelashes and represented himself as Black. That apparently got him the necessary academic attention and final acceptance into Saint Louis. It also garnered the unwanted suspicions of store owners and harassment by police; results, he admits, he didn’t expect. But it also got him into trouble with the university and raised the ire of several African-Americans who knew him.
Some people have changed racial identities for purely nefarious reasons. In 1988, police in Sacramento, California were horrified to discover dead bodies buried in the back yard of a group home run by a woman calling herself Dorothea Puente. Puente had slowly worked her way into the heart of Sacramento’s Hispanic community by helping the downtrodden; people who were homeless or had no family to look out for them as they aged. A long series of curious events in the 1980s revealed Puente was a cunning murderer who killed at least three (and perhaps as many as nine) of her tenants. Others disappeared. But it also revealed Puente’s true identity: Dorothea Helen Gray, a California native from a broken home who was married three times; had three children; and once ran a brothel. It was a blow to the local Hispanic community. No one really seemed to think much about Gray’s fair-colored physical attributes. That, like her ethnicity, was not important in the long run.
What does this all have to do with Rachel Dolezal? Well…a lot. If Dolezal wanted to bring any kind of awareness to racial injustices, she didn’t have to go so far as to darken and frizz her hair (which is somewhat patronizing), or visit tanning booths (which is unhealthy). John Howard Griffin underwent a similar experiment (using chemicals and ultraviolet light to darken his skin) to learn what it felt like to be a Negro traveling through segregated Mississippi in 1959. He documented his experiences – and their frightening repercussions – in his groundbreaking 1961 book, “Black Like Me.” Dolezal could have focused on her Native American heritage, even if it’s a small part of her ancestry. After all, the indigenous peoples of the Americas have endured the longest-lasting and most extensive genocide in human history. She also might want to read Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies,” and focus on Chapter 19: “How Africa Became Black.”
Coloring aside, I refer back to the Human Genome Project and something else its research discovered. We’re all part of the same race: the one called Human. I know that sounds like a touchy, feely, Kumbaya, hug a tree and sing a song type of things. But it’s the truth. Every individual on Earth shares 99.9% of human genes. There are roughly 3 billion pairs of DNA elements. That makes us all pretty tight.
I also want to turn your attention to artist and fellow blogger Bettye Harwell (Le Artiste Boots) and an essay she published after the Dolezal case blew up. Anyone who thinks they understand race relations in America could learn about Bettye’s own personal experiences. If you’re in a lighter mood, check out actress Maya Rudolph’s impersonation of Dolezal. Rudolph – who’s biracial – can also tell the wanna-be-a-Black-gal a few cold hard facts about ethnicity.
My father worked for a printing company for most of his life. One of his long-time constituents, an African-American man, once told him, “You know, it’s hell to be Black.” My father could relate. As a Mexican-American, he didn’t have it that much easier. He and the father of two of my closest friends, a brother and sister, grew up together in East Dallas. A few years ago the sister reiterated how surprised she was that our fathers knew one another and subsequently, that I’d come to know her and her brother.
“All those old Mexicans knew each other,” I informed her. “They all hung around each other. They had to! It was the only way they could survive back then.”
My mother mentioned once that the insurance company where she used to work didn’t get its first Black employee until 1971. This was the same company that, shortly thereafter, issued a survey to its female associates inquiring if any of them felt it was okay for women to wear slacks to work. My mother recounted another odd story from her youth. Her father, the blond, blue-eyed German-American, had trouble with some of his male colleagues at a car plant where he used to work in Dallas. They didn’t like the fact my grandfather was from Michigan, a Yankee. His supervisor – another White guy – was especially derogatory. My grandfather finally just looked at him and said, “You know, you have cow shit on your boots.” And then walked away.
During my own youth – grade school and high school – it was other White kids who slung racial slurs at me from time to time. Within the past two decades, however, things have changed. Other Hispanics (as well as some Blacks) are now the ones who make racist comments to me. But, whenever dark-skinned Hispanics mock my Teutonic heritage, I remind them that not all Mexicans – even the pure-blooded Indians – are “dark-skinned mojados.” I can’t recount how many times that almost resulted in a fist fight. But I feel it’s a fight worth the trouble.
People like Rachel Dolezal need to stop fighting so hard to feel empathy. Just treat people respect and move forward. Yes, we’re different in some ways. But yet, we’re all still the same.
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).
“Yes, I have changed my political affiliation to the Democratic Party. It doesn’t take much to see the culture of intolerance surrounding the Republican Party today. I have wondered before about the seemingly harsh undertones about immigrants and others. Look no further; a well-known organization recently confirms the intolerance of that which seems different or strange to them.”
– Pablo Pantoja, announcing his resignation as Director of Hispanic Outreach for the Republican National Party in Florida.
Pantoja cites the RNP’s inaction on immigration reform as a catalyst for his decision, but says a report by the extremist Heritage Foundation that suggested Hispanics have lower IQs finally just pushed him into the other camp. These days a southern Republican switching to the Democratic Party is like an Indian joining Custer’s army. I know a few Hispanics who vote Republican on a regular basis – including some in my own family – but I love them anyway. I keep saying that immigration is not the only issue affecting Hispanics. To most of us, the economy and jobs are top priority. And, since the Republican Party seems hell-bent on doing nothing about that, their “outreach” efforts will keep falling on its collective ass.
In the spring of 1983, while I was a first-year student at a community college in suburban Dallas, I took a historical geology course as a science requisite. About midway through the semester, the instructor brought in a guest speaker; a man who described himself as a “water rights activist.” It was a term I’d never heard before; in fact, no one else in the class I knew had heard of it. Water rights, of course, are part of the overall environmental movement, and people are giving it much more scrutiny now as climate change becomes critical. The man (I can’t recall his name) explained how large populations in any given location can stress out the area’s natural resources. And, water is the most basic of all natural resources. But, amidst his light-hearted dialogue, he suddenly mentioned illegal Mexican immigrants. He was concerned that more people taking up residence in Texas and the rest of the southwestern U.S. were unnecessarily straining the region’s valuable resources – mainly water. It was – and still is – a compelling argument. And, I would have agreed with him, if he hadn’t blatantly classified all Hispanics under one group: illegal immigrants, Mexicans, “Chicanos.”
“Or, whatever those people call themselves,” he said, inciting a few chuckles from the crowd.
‘Those people?’ I repeated to myself. He might as well have stared at the handful of Hispanics in the room and said ‘you people.’ I’ve had that thrown at me a few times.
During his speech, he pointed to a large map of the state of Texas he’d brought with him; one that displayed population centers in comparison to water resources. “Now imagine this minus a few Chicanos,” he said, before proceeding to explain further what it was all about.
I forgot what he said because I’d lost interest in him. He was no longer jovial and quaint; he was arrogant and bigoted. Every fact he uttered after he presented his map was lost. I had grown angry. I already knew by then that my father’s paternal ancestors had been in Texas since the 1580’s. My father’s later genealogical research proved just how much influence our family had on Texas some 200 years before it joined the United States. But, in 1983, I was a rather naïve 19-year-old who was just becoming aware of his surroundings. I’d already faced some prejudice in high school. But, here I was in college; higher academia; in a science class. And, a 50-something Anglo man essentially referred to me as a “Chicano” and an “illegal immigrant.”
He then did something totally bizarre; he extracted a guitar and belted out a homemade tune about some long-standing Texas politician. Again, I forgot the name because I was too annoyed with the “water rights activist” by now. When he finished squawking, the classroom erupted into delighted applause. I remained mute, my hands on my lap.
After the next class, I approached the instructor and asked if she could make time for a meeting in her office. I wanted to talk to her about that guest speaker. I wanted to be a diplomatic. She said yes, and I met her later in the day. I explained how offended I was by his verbiage, adding that me and most other Hispanics were born and raised in the U.S. She was surprised by my reaction. She literally had no idea and fumbled an apology.
That was in 1983, and now, nearly two decades later, with the clown show known as the 2012 presidential campaign season in full swing, I’m almost contemptuous of politicians’ attempts to placate the Hispanic vote. Moreover, I’m still annoyed to find that the issue of immigration – specifically illegal immigration – seems to be the only concern of the Hispanic American community. I know many Hispanics give that impression with their own focus on immigration. But, like most people in the U.S., my biggest grievance is the economy, along with unemployment.
Hispanics have a longer history in this country than any other ethnic group, save Indigenous Americans, with whom we share a common heritage. Spaniards established the first permanent European colony in what is now North America. But, in modern times, we still had to work hard to attain our fair share of the American dream, combating blatant racism and the old guard status quo that dictated where we could live and work. Now, we’re mixed up in this awful immigration fight with no easy solutions; a fiasco that has people on all sides paranoid and angry.
I don’t support illegal immigration – from Latin America or anywhere in the world. The laws are very clear: you cannot enter the United States without proper documentation. Hispanics have fought long and hard for equal rights in employment, housing, education and all other aspects of American life. Sneaking across the border under the cover of darkness is not one of them. It never was and it never will be. That viewpoint has made me a traitor in the eyes of many other Hispanics; both American-born and immigrant. But, I structure my opinions around other people’s sentiments. I consider myself an American first; a proud mix of Spanish, Mexican Indian and German extraction. Some of my own ancestors fought for Texas against Mexico – including one with my exact name! The much-heralded Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, along with most of the others, were outsiders; that is, non-Texans.
Many Americans are upset with the mass influx of illegal immigrants who have disregarded our laws. If only the latter group would show some respect for our country and emigrate legally, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. But, their actions have generated an unprecedented level of fear among some folks – especially the narrow-minded – and allowed all Latinos to be branded with the unsavory title of “illegal alien.”
While my paternal ancestry in Texas extends back to the late 16th century, I am also the son of an immigrant. My mother was born just outside México City. But, she was already a U.S. citizen at birth, since her father was born in Michigan. After my maternal grandmother died in 1940, my grandfather moved his four kids to Dallas where he’d found a job in the midst of World War II. His mother-in-law, who already spoke fluent English, came with them. My grandfather got his children social security numbers immediately and insisted that they speak only English in that household. Some Hispanics laugh at me when I tell them my mother was born in México. They get even uglier when I tell them my grandfather was German-American. You don’t make friends with people by mocking their families. It’s ironic though; in high school, it was the Anglo and Irish kids who hurled racist statements at me. Now, it’s other Hispanics.
Several years ago, during the Independence Day weekend, a friend and I went nightclubbing. We started at a Tejano bar just north of downtown Dallas. I donned my American flag vest; something I usually wear during the Memorial and Independence Day periods. But, on that one night, my friend suggested I remove it before we enter that Tejano bar; noting that, if anything, I should be wearing a Mexican flag vest, lest I offend the crowd.
“Excuse me?!” I replied. “This is the United States; not México! If someone doesn’t like that I’m wearing this American flag vest, they’re more than welcome to tell it to my face – in Spanish or English. And then, stand back and watch while I rip their head off and dump shit down their throat.”
He didn’t pursue the matter, and I didn’t remove the vest. No one complained about it – at least not to me.
Some people accuse me of being confused or conflicted. I’m neither. One girl dubbed me a “coconut” – brown on the outside and white on the inside. “Well,” I told her, “I am White – White as in Spaniard and German.” It seemed I had to remind her – as I do many people – that Spaniards are “White,” too; as in European, as in Caucasian. Read my essay, “Name Calling,” and you’ll get a sense how ridiculous that racial stuff can get.
The U.S. is at a crossroads; an uncomfortable fork of its own making. Some large companies and farms began employing illegal immigrants – mostly Mexicans – so they could avoid paying decent wages and health care costs and skirt OSHA safety laws. As many states and individual cities target illegal immigrants, some of those farms and meat-packing plants find themselves idle; there’s no one to do that kind of work. That kind of work is hard and dirty. The often-spoiled American middle and upper classes can’t imagine themselves in such positions. If it doesn’t involve Microsoft and a laptop, it seems they want nothing to do with it. When former Mexican president Vicente Fox stated several years ago that Mexican immigrants do the work in the U.S. that our nation’s Black population won’t, he got branded a racist and a bigot by the usual voices on the far left: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc. But, I can relay from first-hand experience that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, large numbers of Hispanic immigrants poured into New Orleans to help clean up and rebuild the city. While the mostly Black population was airlifted to other cities where they took up residence in hotels and sports stadiums, Mexicans, Guatemalans and the like were making their way into the decimated “Crescent City” to make it habitable again. I don’t believe the far left complained about that part of the racial divide.
President Obama and his supporters can laud the “Dream Act” all they want. But, it’s not my issue. Even though I’ve been unemployed for some time, I’m not likely to run to the nearest chicken slaughter house or peach orchard to look for work. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out how he and his trophy wife can appeal to Hispanic voters without offending the Republican base that has come to loathe Latinos. Immigration isn’t a Hispanic issue; it’s an American issue. I want political operatives to stop placing Latinos beneath that single umbrella – immigrants, illegal immigrants, Chicanos. ‘You people.’ Our people. We’re American people. We don’t all look alike and we certainly don’t all think alike.