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'Not OK': Younger generations confront immigrant parents on race, Black struggle

Latinos raised in the U.S. are challenging older relatives who are not as familiar with the nation's history — and its persistent racism.
Demonstrators lock arms and march during a protest in New York on June 14, 2020, following George Floyd's death.
Demonstrators lock arms and march during a protest in New York on June 14 following George Floyd's death.Kevin Mazur / Getty Images

MIAMI ­— After growing up with progressive Cuban American parents who eventually divorced, Natalee Rivero was surprised at the reaction of her mother’s boyfriend, who got up during a July 4 barbecue and went inside after seeing Rivero and her husband's T-shirt that read “Cuban Americans for Black Lives Matter.”

Rivero, 30, tried to have a conversation with her mother about it, “but she wasn’t hearing it,” Rivero said, surprised her mother defended her boyfriend's reaction.

Around the same time, Sandra Portal-Andreu found herself explaining to her parents why the death of George Floyd was a tipping point for many Black Americans.

“It was an interesting conversation and it was frustrating at times,” said the 41-year-old artist, who felt her parents were being “fed information” that equated the protests over Floyd’s death with violence, looting and antifa.

Across the U.S., the racial reckoning following Floyd's death has led to uncomfortable and at times heated conversations in immigrant families, where younger generations are pushing parents over stereotypes, assumptions and even outright racism against Black Americans.

Portal-Andreu, born and raised in Miami, said her Catholic high school exposed her to different cultures and made her dreadfully aware of pervasive racism toward Black people. By contrast, her Colombian-born mother and Cuban-born father were less knowledgeable about the buildup to the protests that gripped the country.

After much discussion, she and her parents concluded that though violence is not an answer, "we came to an agreement that protests are necessary."

Most Americans are only now learning about seminal events in Black history. Despite the fact that the Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the worst outbreaks of racial violence in American history with enduring repercussions, it received little to no attention in U.S. history books or school teachings. Many Americans first heard of it from the recent HBO series “Watchmen.” In Florida, the Rosewood Massacre and the Ocoee Massacre are historically significant but receive scant attention in school curriculums.

There's even less knowledge among immigrant families about the persistent racism and discrimination against Black people in the United States.

University of Miami sociology professor Jomills Braddock said many immigrants "come with a cultural perspective about African Americans that has been exported from the U.S." It's usually based on popular culture and, more recently, social media.

"It's quite understandable that their knowledge of African Americans and African American experience is not just limited," Braddock said, "but also slanted in a particular way that is unfavorable to African American individuals and the African American community in this society."

The legacy of racism, colonialism

Beyond the lack of knowledge and stereotypes around the Black American experience, there is widespread racism embedded in Latin American countries that immigrants can bring along with them when they migrate. The legacy of colonialism and slavery left social, economic and political consequences that persist to this day.

Across Latin America, people have claimed for years to not have the same racial divisions that plague the U.S., saying they never had Jim Crow laws or segregation in public spaces. But in reality, Afro descendants and Indigenous people tend to be at the bottom of the barrel in terms of education, income and positions of power.

“Latin Americans will often tell you, 'We're not racists; we're just classist.' But of course, social class intersects race. People with higher economic levels tend to be white, while those with lower economic levels tend to be of color,” said Eduardo Gamarra, political science professor at Florida International University. “Most of our societies are fundamentally racist against darker people.”

Gamarra said democratization in Latin America in recent decades has done more than import American movies and music: It has also brought on the American debate on racial relations. Afro Latino and Indigenous social movements have expanded, and countries like Brazil and Colombia have instituted affirmative action programs based on race.

In Miami, a city that is 70 percent Latino, the average fair-skinned Latino does not get discriminated against — and that contributes to a lack of understanding about persistent violence and inequities against Black people.

"Because of racial divisions, because of segregation and not having shared experiences, because of the limited and distorted history of the way race is covered, Blacks and whites have different exposure, different views and different understandings of the state of racial relations," Braddock said. It also means they have different understandings about how much racial progress has been achieved and how much more needs to be done, he said.

'Things aren't like that'

Because of the nation's racial reckoning and the broad appeal of the HBO series "Watchmen," many young people in particular have taken the initiative to do research about the Tulsa massacre and educate themselves.

“That knowledge, among the younger generations, isn't knowledge that's coming from schools or formal forces of information," Braddock said.

Across the country in Los Angeles, younger Latinos are challenging older family members in a city known for its diversity — as well as racial tensions.

"There are times where my mom has gotten mad at me — she said something that was racist toward Asian folks and I said it was not OK, and she will sit down and talk about it later," Esthefanie Solano, 27, of Long Beach, told NBC News.

"I won’t apologize for having conversations about race. I let her have her feelings but we sit down," Solano said. "I try to share what is happening around us and connect how other communities are impacted, like how Chinese families are scapegoated with Covid and how they are blamed, and I give her examples of how we are scapegoated as immigrants. I create comparisons."

Saul Ríos, 64, admitted his two daughters have had many conversations with him where they tell him, “No, pa, things aren’t like that; they are like this.”

Ríos, who emigrated from Mexico in the 1980s, said his daughters, ages 27 and 38, reprimand him when he makes “inappropriate jokes” that make fun of another group or race.

"I think jokes are a way we deal with things, in Mexican culture," Ríos said. "My daughters tell me that even with jokes, we make things that are not good seem like they are OK, because it is like we make them less serious."

Ríos said his daughters have taught him about the need to support the Black community.

"While we Latinos face discrimination, to be a person of color in this country, specifically to be Black, is something that comes with a lot," Ríos said, "that at times we have a hard time recognizing because we are so wrapped up in our own experience."

Ongoing conversations are important in a country that still resists learning its real history, Braddock said.

"Because of the political divisions that exists today, there are contemporary efforts to keep knowledge about Black history —which is really American history — from being fully documented and vetted," he said. He pointed to the ongoing opposition to teach the New York Times' seminal "1619 Project," which threads slavery into all aspects of the country's history, and the debate over critical race theory.

Jeremy Perez, 18, who lives in L.A., challenged the idea that it's only older generations who need to rethink their views on the legacy of racism and discrimination, saying this is also an issue among his peers.

"I have seen some really f----- up messaging group text with things they think are just funny about race, women and some stupid stuff. I don’t think my generation is woke like you all like to say," Perez said. "I think we just need to lead by example and try to keep talking with each other."

Carmen Sesin reported from Miami and Cora Cervantes reported from Los Angeles.

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