This is part of our Hispanic Heritage Month series, "Our Latino Heritage" where we profile a U.S. Hispanic from each of our Spanish-speaking Latin American and Caribbean homelands.
When Manuel Delgado arrived in the United States from his native Venezuela two decades ago, he magically "became" a Minnesotan.
“I was born in Caracas, Venezuela and I always had my eyes on the possibilities outside of Venezuela, so I got into grad school in Nashville, Tennessee at Vanderbilt,” Delgado said. “When people would ask me where I’m from, I would tell them ‘Venezuela’ but they would hear ‘Minnesota.’ And I was like really? With this face and this accent I seem Norwegian? But it was just their ear autocorrecting a word they had never heard before.”
Once Delgado got a little more experience with the rest of the country – he eventually realized that not all Americans love country music – it wasn’t much different even within Hispanic circles although he definitely wasn’t Minnesotan there.
“You laugh about it and at some point you get used to it. You learn to deal with a lack of information about who you are,” Delgado said. “But even with other Latinos, they would hear my accent and say ‘You’re not Mexican…are you Puerto Rican?’ They just weren’t able to place the accent.”
Delgado eventually got used to people asking what language is spoken in Venezuela and until recently, people had rarely heard of it. “Venezuela was not infamous, politically, as it is now,” he said. “Now they say, ‘Ooooh, Chávez.’”
The 248,000 or so Venezuelans across the country will nod in recognition with these anecdotes. As will the few who live in Delgado’s hometown of Houston, Texas – most Venezuelans can be found in the greater Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, California, Texas and New Jersey.
Delgado’s successful completion of his MBA at Vanderbilt University started with a career in technology, websites and software until one day he was in his car flipping radio channels and landed on a Spanish language radio station.
“I’m more of an NPR guy so to hit upon this station made me realize that it was no longer like when I got here and we didn’t see one other,” Delgado said. “I had an epiphany that the Hispanic community had hit a critical mass – the 2000 Census woke some people about the growing Latino population, with a few companies panicking and starting to acknowledge us. But it wasn’t until the 2010 Census that everyone awakened to the Latino community and got going.”
Shortly after that awakening, in 2003, Delgado opened Agua Hispanic Marketing, an agency focused on helping connect businesses and brands with Latino consumers. Part of his job is to prognosticate on the future of the Latino community in the U.S.
“When people would ask me where I’m from, I would tell them ‘Venezuela’ but they would hear ‘Minnesota.’ And I was like really? With this face and this accent I seem Norwegian? But it was just their ear autocorrecting a word they had never heard before.”
“I think in the last 20 years we’ve gone from being invisible to being uncomfortable,” Delgado said. “You see it with this whole Donald Trump political circus, the way his political statements are colliding with his financial interests.”
But, Delgado notes, though the Latino population has come a long way in both consumer spending and political power, there’s much work to be done in breaking the well-worn stereotypes that drive non-Hispanics’ understanding of our community.
“People tend to gravitate toward stereotypes like that all Hispanics are Mexican, poor or recent immigrants. Or that all Hispanics believe immigration is a big deal,” Delgado said. “Even the positive ones can be negative: if you believe that all Hispanics work hard no matter what, you start thinking that it doesn’t matter what they get paid because they’ll take anything.”
Other cliché’s to bust: that immigrants don’t assimilate as fast or as well as past waves of immigrants.
“I learned a lot about the evolution and acceptance of U.S. Hispanics from people in Houston who are 5th and 6th generation Texan. These are the people who never crossed the border, the border crossed them,” Delgado said. “They are Tex-Mex and they have their own culture even within the broader Latino culture, but they are very much about celebrating those multiple cultures.”
These days Delgado keeps a foot in both Texan and Venezuelan culture and is striving to pass both onto his two teen daughters.
“My wife is a blue-eyed cowgirl – she’s very, very Texan and keeps me well-connected to the Houston culture while I keep ties with my Venezuelan friends in what is a growing Venezuelan community here,” Delgado said. “We straddle both worlds without losing any of what we are and we pass it all along to our daughters. Mom speaks really good Spanish and loves arepas and passion fruit juice and dad sticks to English, unless of course someone’s doing something crazy and my Spanish comes out. We’re an American family for all intents and purposes, but we have that extra culture.”
“There is a meme among immigrants that says you can only express love in the language you first spoke,” Delgado said. “But I disagree. I think you can express love in the language you have learned to love. I tell my wife and kids how much I love them in English and there is no way it means less than if I said it in Spanish.”
Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based nationally syndicated columnist and an NBC News Latino contributor. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.