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Opinion: Pochos, Prejudice and Spanish-Shaming

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.
Volunteer Justino Mora, left, joins members of the mariachi band "Los Munecos" to urge people to vote early in the Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2010 elections in Los Angeles. Sign reads in Spanish: "Everybody to Vote."Damian Dovarganes / AP
Photo of Kristian Ramos
Photo of Kristian RamosKristian Ramos

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.

Such humiliations were not limited to my youth.

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.

Given all the anguish that not speaking Spanish has caused me, why didn’t my parents teach me the language of their parents and grandparents? The answer is related to what we see today - rhetoric that belittles different languages and people.

My parents grew up in deeply conservative Texas when there were signs in restaurants that read, “No dogs, Negroes or Mexicans allowed.” In the first grade, my mother was not allowed to eat her lunch in the cafeteria because she spoke Spanish. My parents learned in their “English Only” program that it was children who exclusively spoke English that would grow up to become successful Americans.

Don't get me wrong - my parents are not victims. They are proud of their Mexican heritage. But by the time I was born, they had become accustomed to thinking, dreaming, working and speaking in English. Their Spanish became secondary and only spoken with my abuelos and other non-English speaking relatives.

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.

“English Only” policies originated from the Nativist beliefs we saw inherent in “Operation Wetback,” the mass deportation program employed by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Photo of Kristian Ramos as a child in El Paso, Texas.
Photo of Kristian Ramos as a child in El Paso, Texas.Kristian Ramos

In my parent’s time speaking Spanish was associated with being Mexican, and back then being Mexican with undesirables. Back then this was done by folks from all parties, unfortunately this sad and troubling legacy is being given a “fresh” and re-energized facelift by GOP candidates like Donald Trump, who opened his presidential campaign with calling Mexicans “murderers and rapists” and a call for implementing a program similar to the shameful “Operation Wetback.”

Yet problems facing modern conservative ideology are not limited to immigration reform. Trump also questioned why Jeb Bush should be speaking Spanish on the campaign trail. Jeb for his part has said we should not live in a multicultural society. At their core many conservatives reject our increasingly multicultural society. The current denial of the contributions of a diverse America is what makes the political climate so toxic, just as it did when my parents were in school.

I am a proud American, proud of my country just as I am proud of Latino contributions. Latinos provide $1.5 trillion in buying power to the American economy, we will make up 40 percent of employment growth in the next five years and our employment is increasing faster than other groups. We are contributing and deserve respect.

In reaction to conservative xenophobia my parents never taught me Spanish. Yet, though I live in a time far removed from the one my parents did, the use of toxic rhetoric when referring to not only Latinos but people of color has accelerated during this campaign season.

That makes for a difficult duality as a pocho. There's the desire to return to imaginary homelands of our past as we chafe against the brutal realities of our present. America often painfully reminds us of who we are, just as it reminds us of who we are not.

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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