In my English class, my school implemented a new curriculum where we had to read about diverse cultures and people – I thought that this would be a brilliant opportunity for students, especially white students, to be more understanding of others. That day, we read a personal narrative of a Latina woman discussing her experiences in a predominately white town. What struck me most was when she took her family shopping on Michigan Avenue, a store manager assumed they were part of the laundry cleaning service to wash the clothes displayed on the mannequins. As I recoiled in shock at her story, I heard resounding snickers in the background.
I shook it off. Maybe their disrespect was a fluke, a one-time thing. Yet, when they started reading the parts in Spanish out loud, one of the kids would exaggerate the accent to the point that the words were indistinguishable from each other. I felt a pit in my stomach.
Afterward, we had to discuss our annotations and key ideas from the text out loud in class. I was the only Latinx person in the class so I knew that everyone expected me to contribute the first comment, but being the only Latinx person in the class was an enormous responsibility resting on my shoulders. It felt like I only had a few short minutes to convince the world that Latinx people were just like everyone else. To speak for everyone who is Latinx. To defend my “raza,” or race. It was the first class in which I was truly alone.
I remember raising my hand and talking about how the media stereotypes people of Latinx descent with jobs pertaining to servitude and laborious jobs. I connected this to history where Latinx people were denied education in the middle of the twentieth century due to their appearance and lack of fluency in English.
It was one of those moments where I truly felt part of the discussion; in the predominately white school I attend, we rarely read things that I could identify with.
Despite my response, one of my peers also raised his hand to comment: “I think that’s solid, but I still think that most b*****s can’t be totally Mexican when they shop on Michigan Avenue. I thought Mexicans shop at thrift stores – so doesn’t the article hint that they were getting whitewashed, and that the manager thinking that they were laundry workers was a reminder of where they came from?”
His words jumbled through my brain – it made no logical sense. He implied that I was whitewashed, that I “lose” a part of myself by submitting to the dominant culture. He hinted that I needed to prove my Latinx culture as if there were a checklist built on the pervading ignorance of many people around me.
I remember the snickers and the look of disbelief of my teacher as everyone’s eyes trained on me. I don’t remember exactly what I said but I remember the wave of emotions. A lot of anger and frustration. Some traces of disappointment. And loneliness because I, merely one facet of the Latinx community, couldn’t represent it alone.
I don’t know if I can convince everyone that the Latinx community isn’t short, stupid, or overtly sexual. But I do know that my identity isn’t up to those that create stereotypes based on ignorance. Telling me what I am supposed to be doesn’t change my identity. Telling me I am not enough as a person because I do not fit your predetermined notions of Latinx people won’t change who I am. Bombarding me with uneducated beliefs regarding who I am supposed to be doesn’t change it, either.
But it does change how I view the world. This isn’t a story of pity. This is a story of strength. Microaggressions in the classroom don’t define me – they strengthen me.