Mexicans in U.S. feel prejudice on all sides

Posted on July 25, 2012 at 12:56 pm

By Gabriel Medina Arenas

Maybe it’s white Americans offering you a backhanded compliment. “You don’t look like a Mexican because you are not fat or short,” they’ll say. “You are beautiful.”

Or it might be fellow Mexicans in the U.S. challenging you for who speaks the most authentic Spanish or knows the most about Mexican holidays.

Or perhaps, on a vacation back to Mexico, it’s your fellow Mexicans being disrespectful to you because of your casual clothes.

Whatever form the prejudice and discrimination might take, upper-scale Mexicans working in the United States say they’ve experienced it all.

Marty Ramirez, a psychologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Health Center, believes, based on his experience with Hispanic clients, that most Mexicans living in the United States have experienced discrimination in some way. Some, he says, are ashamed to recognize it, others forget it, and still others try to hide it.

Ruth Clayton, 33, a light-brown skinned Mexican who works for Ameritas Life Insurance Corp. in Lincoln, Neb., said she gets angry when people here think she’s from Spain rather than Mexico. Many people generalize, she said, and make false assumptions about Mexico and the physical appearance of its people.

Ruth Clayton says she plans to teach her son the meaning of Mexican traditions so he understands them but does not follow them just because everybody else does it. / Photo by Gabriel Medina Arenas

The fact that some Mexicans get angry when some people assume they are Spanish might be related to Spain’s conquest of Mexico in the 16th century and the resulting resentment towards Spaniards. Some Mexicans assume that most Spanish people have white or lighter skin than Mexicans, so it can be an offense if someone tells a Mexican they look like Spanish and not dark-skinned as most Mexicans.

Similar things have happened to Gabriela Calzada, 46, a Mexican doing post-doctoral work in veterinary immunology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“There are many stereotypes,” she said. “Many people here think that all Mexicans are short, dark-skinned and work in the kitchen or as janitors.”

People have mistaken Calzada for European or Middle Eastern. Because she doesn’t fit the physical stereotype and because she is highly educated, she said, some people just won’t believe she is Mexican.

At the same time, Calzada said, she believes she has experienced discrimination for being Hispanic. She once lost a job opportunity to another woman with less experience, and she suspects her being Mexican played a part in the decision.

“I had all the qualifications to get it,” she said. “I think they didn’t give it to me because I’m Hispanic, but I could be wrong. She only had a bachelor’s degree, and I have a Ph.D.”

A 2010 Pew Hispanic Center study found that 34 percent of the Latinos surveyed reported that they, a member of their family or a close friend had experienced discrimination in the past five years because of their race or ethnicity.

Even though there is still discrimination against Hispanics, it seems like things are better for them. In the 1930s, 90 percent of the schools in south Texas were segregated. During that same period, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service deported about 500,000 people of Mexican descent, among them U.S. citizens and U.S. legal residents based on their ethnicity to get available jobs to desperate unemployed white Americans, according to Kevin Johnson, in his book, The Forgotten “Repatriation” of Persons of Mexican Ancestry and Lessons for the “War on Terror.”

In the ’40s American sailors and marines stationed in Los Angeles attacked Mexican-American pachucos in the Zoot Suit Riots because they assumed all Latinos who wore high-waisted, wide-legged pants, a hat and long coats with padded shoulders were criminals. The violence was ignited by the murder of the Mexican José Diaz, a case known as the Sleepy Lagoon murder in 1942. About 600 Latinos were arrested and charged with suspicion of assault and armed robbery, according to James B. Rule in his book, Theories of Civil Violence.

In the 1960s, student protests supported by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) managed to introduce bilingual and bicultural programs into American schools near the border of Mexico, according to the website History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, developed by City University of New York.

Calzada knows that her son Iván, who plays soccer, and some of his teammates were once verbally abused by the opposing team for being Hispanic. Iván said his classmates sometimes call him “beaner” or “wetback,” but he tries to see it as a joke.

Sixty-one percent of the Latinos in that same study called discrimination against Hispanics a major problem, up from 54 percent in 2007.

This same survey — done among 1,375 Latino adults, 542 native born and 833 foreign born — reported that 49 percent of the Latinos found Americans to be less accepting of immigrants now than five years ago, 20 percent found they were more accepting, and 28 percent saw no change.

Clayton and her husband, an American, have a son they are raising as bilingual and bicultural. Because the Mexican and American cultures are different, they know it will be difficult.

“I’m very worried because I don’t want to be discriminated by my own child,” Clayton said. “I’m going to teach him the meaning of Mexican traditions so he understands them but does not follow them just because everybody else does it. For example, I will explain him the real reason why we celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Mexico.”

Many Americans and even Mexican-Americans incorrectly celebrate Cinco de Mayo as Mexico’s Independence Day. But the Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on Sept. 16. May 5 — Cinco de Mayo — commemorates the Battle of Puebla between Mexico and France, an incident that happened 41 years after Mexico gained its independence from Spain.

It is not only white Americans who are capable of prejudice toward Mexicans. Clayton said she thought she would face discrimination from non-Hispanics, but she was surprised to find a similar reaction from her fellow Hispanics.

“Some of my Chicano and Hispanic subordinates and coworkers are not friendly at all,” she said. “There is a stupid kind of competition game between people of different nationalities of Latin America that live in the U.S. to determine which country represents better what it means to be Hispanic or who speaks more proper Spanish.”

Clayton said some Chicanos at her job try to compete with her to see who is “more” Mexican by talking about traditions such as Quinceañera parties. These parties, which celebrate a girl’s 15th birthday, can be lavish affairs costing their families a great deal. One of Clayton’s coworkers told company executives that all girls in Mexico had such parties. The fact that Clayton had not had a Quinceañera party suggested she might not be Mexican enough.

“Frankly, I think it’s tacky,” she said. “I didn’t have a party like that, and many other Mexican women don’t have it either. I explained to them that in my opinion it was ridiculous that some parents would spend all their savings on something like that.”

Clayton also believes some of her Hispanic subordinates might be jealous because she has the kind of job offered only to people educated in Latin American countries, where they learn to write and speak formally in Spanish.

The 2010 Pew Hispanic Center study found that 69 percent of the Latinos born in the U.S. believed that new immigrants strengthened the country, while 20 percent of them thought that new immigrants were a burden to the U.S.

Eighty-five percent of the foreign-born Latinos in the U.S. thought that new immigrants strengthen the country, while only 7 percent of them believe that new immigrants are a burden to society.

Ramirez, the UNL psychologist, was born and raised in Nebraska, though his parents are Mexican. He said some Mexicans might envy those who are more educated and they metaphorically try to bring them back to the “barrio.” People don’t necessarily want him to move back to the neighborhood where he grew up, but they want to remind him he is no better than them just because he doesn’t do manual work or is highly educated. So, in a way, he still belongs to the barrio, whether he recognizes that or not.

Such a reaction makes Clayton angry. “Many Chicanos feel very proud of their Mexican blood, but they don’t have a clue who is the Mexican president or who are the famous writers. Some of them have never even been in Mexico and claim that they are more Mexican than me.”

Clayton speaks English with an accent, and she said she has been criticized for sounding like Sofia Vergara’s character on the ABC sitcom “Modern Family,” a show with which she was previously unfamiliar.

“I watched it because I was curious and found out that Vergara’s character has a very thick accent,” she said. “I agree my accent is not perfect, but it’s not as bad as hers. I think she exaggerates it on purpose.”

The Pew study found that 20 percent of the Latinos surveyed said they had felt discriminated against because of their language skills in English, less than half the people— 46 percent — who felt the same way in a similar survey done in 2007. That means Hispanics feel less discrimination based on their English proficiency today than five years ago.

Ramirez said that many upper-class, highly educated Mexicans he has met are shocked when they experience certain kinds of discrimination in the U.S. because many didn’t suffer that in Mexico. He also said that highly educated Mexicans who are not born in the U.S. do not identify with Chicanos — Mexicans born in the U.S. — or their civil rights movement.

“Some of them look down on us,” he said. “They are shocked when Americans discriminate against them and lump them in the same category as Chicanos.”

Ramirez said he has met some UNL students born in Mexico, young people who come for one or two semesters and say they identify more with Americans of their same socio-economic status than with Mexicans or Chicanos who have less money or education.

Still, some Mexicans living in the United States say they have never experienced discrimination here. They feel the prejudice when they return home to Mexico.

Salvador Moguel, 49, an associate professor at Union College in Lincoln, said he has felt much more discrimination in Mexico than in the U.S.

“The only way people respect you in Mexico is if you have a lot of money, if you dress in elegant clothes or if you know some important people,” he said. “I dress comfortably, with tennis shoes, T-shirts and shorts, so people have mistreated me for that reason when I go on vacations.”

Money is the main factor that generates social division in Mexico, according to a 2010 national discrimination survey by Mexico’s National Council to Prevent Discrimination.

Six of 10 Mexicans surveyed believed their economic situation was the main reason for their experiencing discrimination.

Erick Saavedra says he is proud to be Mexican. “I love my origins and my country." / Photo by Gabriel Medina Arenas

Erick Saavedra, 41, who has lived in the United States for 20 years, is one who agrees there is more discrimination in Mexico than in the U.S.

“I’m proud to be Mexican,” he said. “I love my origins and my country. But there is so much corruption. I hate that the politicians and the people in charge discriminate against the working class so much. That doesn’t happen so much in the U.S.”

In December 2011, Paulina Peña Pretelini, the daughter of the strongest Mexican presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, insulted the Mexican population by re-twitting a message written by her boyfriend. The tweet said “Greetings to the bunch of idiots who belong to the proletariat and criticize those they envy.” Peña Nieto apologized for his daughter behavior through his Twitter account.

In Mexico, Moguel said, people are discriminated against if they are dark-skinned, poor, farmers or indigenous.

Four out of 10 of the Mexicans surveyed in 2010 by the National Council to Prevent Discrimination, said darker skin tone is the main reason for discrimination in Mexico, and three out of 10 said people are insulted in the streets for that same reason.

Saavedra, who lived in the U.S. for several years without documentation, said he has never experienced discrimination in the U.S.

“The only resentment I feel towards Americans is the fact that the U.S. government stole half of our territory,” he said.  “I have never felt discriminated here, and I feel grateful with this country. In Mexico, people work to barely eat. Here, I’ve got enough money to buy a car, buy a house and travel on an airplane. I would have never even dreamed of that in Mexico.”

Still, the 2010 Pew Hispanic Center survey reported that 36 percent of the Latinos living in the U.S. thought that immigration status was the main reason for being discriminated against, up from 23 percent in 2007.

Twenty-one percent of the Latinos surveyed listed the main reason for discrimination in the U.S. as skin tone, 20 percent said languages skills, and 17 percent said income and education levels.

Moguel also pointed to what he believes is a cultural difference between Mexicans and Americans. In Mexican banks and government offices, he said, many employees are rude. American employees, on the other hand, are very polite to their customers.

And he offered a more personal example. “I am afraid whenever I see a policeman in Mexico,” he said. “They are very corrupt and always want money.

“When I see a policeman in the U.S., I feel protected and good.”

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