I now am a gainfully employed adult with a masters degree; hence the long writing hiatus. Occupation had to get got, son! Anyway, I can vaguely describe where I work as a rural middle school. Although it’s a very nice community, the rural-part does have its drawbacks; which I will rant about here.
I was recently approached by a well-meaning co-worker about our Hispanic heritage month display. She wanted me and the other two Hispanic staff members to write bios to use in the hall decoration. My immediate reaction was to laugh; but then I realized she was not joking. And as I struggled to regain my composure, I looked on as my other older Hispanic co-worker enthusiastically agreed to the wall addition. They discussed how they, “Just didn’t want anyone to feel excluded.” Excluded from what? I didn’t feel excluded at all; but now, I’d been singled out.
The wall display in question had already gone up a few days before, complete with ginormous red chili peppers, paper cacti, and maracas because apparently all Hispanics live life like an Old El Paso commercial.
I happened to walk by on the day they were setting up the display, and the teachers were festively listening to Latin music to set the mood. Naturally, they stopped me and asked what the song was saying. After listening, I explained that Shakira and Alejandro Sanz were passionately singing about how much they lamented having to lose someone they love due to infidelity. To which these full grown adults responded, “Oh wow, that’s a very American problem!” — Really?! Are you really shocked that people in other countries sing love songs too? Is this the Twilight Zone?
But, I can see how the video might have given the impression that the song was about the perils of cooking in a sexy oil spill or something….
Although, I was upset about the project, I couldn’t really wrap my mind around why it upset me on such a visceral level. It felt racist, but I couldn’t really pinpoint how since the idea to “include” me as a “role model Hispanic” was not meant to be mean or hateful. So I decided that since everyone else was on board with this nonsense, I would just go along with it. After all, I would like to be hired to a more advanced position next year so it is best to appear to be a team player, right?
So still a bit miffed, I sat down to write my bio. I included that I was born in Germany, named my hometown in Texas, and listed my degrees and accomplishments along with a few hobbies. Simple. Before printing, I checked in with my co-worker and ask if that is all she needed. To which I was told to try and show more connections to my heritage, “Because the students can’t make those connections for themselves… talk about like your grandfather.” Lady, my grandfather was an American citizen! *Do you want a story about how my people swam across a river? Because, I’m sorry, but that is not my Hispanic narrative! — Is what I should have said. Instead I muttered, “Yup. Connections. I’ll try.” *I don’t know about the other grandfather.
So before returning to my desk and typing a big, “Fuuuuck you,” I took a breath and remembered that this was going up on a wall to be read by children. So, I simply added a Background section to my bio and briefly explained where El Paso was in relation to Juarez; and how my father’s job in the US Army landed us in Germany where I was born. Then I printed it and refused to look at it again.
The whole thing made me think about how layered and complex my identity is as a Mexican woman; American citizen; overseas military brat; educator; academic; wife; writer and artist. It’s frustrating to think that when people see me all they see is the first thing on that list. My heritage is a very big part of who I am; it certainly is not all that I am.
And that’s my story about race and culture in rural Georgia. Hooray!
Next year, I will volunteer to help with the wall décor to avoid promoting social stereotypes in the future.