Posts Tagged ‘identity’

Racism or curiosity? Where are you from?

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Anyone with an accent, dark skin, or Asian features knows it. One of the most common questions we get asked is, “Where are you from?” Usually, it comes right after you exchange names but sometimes, if you’re a New York City cabbie for instance, that question may get asked even if your questioner hasn’t seen your face.

Humans are curious creatures, and most of the time those asking –myself included—are looking for a way to connect. When people find that you’re from their home town or city, they might ask you what school you went to. Or they might mention an acquaintance who lives in your town, works in your company or attends the same church. We do this all the time.

But what happens when people who were born in this country, or those who are second or third generation American, continue to be asked,

“Where are you from?” And when they answer,
“Newark, New Jersey,” they still get,
“No, really, where are you from?”
“Newark, New Jersey.”
“But where are your parents from?”
“Newark, New Jersey.”

Usually, this line of questioning doesn’t stop until you answer what they really want to know, “My great grand parents came from Guadalajara, Mexico.”

Although the intention of the person asking the question may be good (they may be interested in finding out more about you), the impact is often what we call a microaggression, a verbal or non-verbal act that is indirect and often invisible, through which people express prejudices in a covert way.

In this case, it is as if you are denying this person’s identity as an American. As if their identity is forever tied to that of their remote ancestors, something we don’t do with white, Anglo Saxon people. As a matter of fact, this question means something entirely different to a white person. It means what city or town were you born in. And if you kept on asking, “No, really, where are you from?” They’d look at you as if you were crazy or deaf.

Putting up with these kinds of microaggressions on a daily basis hurts, and inevitably, it creates resentment. Think of comments such as, “No offense but Hispanics are all loud. And don’t get me wrong, my best friend is Hispanic,” as if that qualified the speaker to generalize about a whole group. Or the surprised observation about an African American who speaks well, “She’s so articulate,” which in a subtle way implies most blacks are not. Or the comment, “When I look at you, I don’t see color. You are different than other Latinos (or Blacks),” denying that person’s dark skin which is part of their identity.

The truth is that there’s a microaggression in each one of these comments, although most likely those making them think they are being complimentary. The problem here is the incongruence between intention and impact.

I’m not pointing fingers. No one group owns the patent on microaggressions. At one time or another, most of us have said or done something that made someone different from us feel uncomfortable. Most of it comes from ignorance of what triggers these feelings in others. A lot of it is lack of cultural capital.

The best way to minimize these hurtful acts is to be aware of your intention and carefully imagine the impact that your words or behavior have on someone with a different background.

And if you really are curious about where your cabbie is from, maybe you could start by sharing something about yourself.

“Hey, I’m Peter Van Der Haas, and my parents are from Holland. What’s your heritage?” or “What’s your ancestry?” That may go a long way toward your cabbie taking the shortest route to your destination.

Mariela Dabbah’s new book Poder de Mujer was just released by Penguin.

This Op Ed appeared on Fox News Latino in March, 2012

The funniest mistakes I made in English

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011


Regardless of where you stand on the Spanglish debate, for those of us who live in both languages there comes a time when you will inevitably put your foot in your mouth. Case in point: I was trying pants at a cute little store in Buenos Aires. I came out of the fitting room, checked myself in the mirror and said, “Estos pantalones no hacen nada por mi,” literally, “These pants don’t do anything for me.” Only in Spanish, that sounds absolutely ridiculous, which is exactly why the confused sales woman asked, “What were you expecting them to do?”

In terms of language, that was a pretty bad trip. Later that same week, as I was riding in a taxi, the driver took the service road instead of the main highway. Concerned, I asked the driver, “¿Por qué toma la ruta de servicio?” To which he replied with what I might have taken as an insult to my Argentinian pride, “Are you from Uruguay or something?” The word I should’ve used was “colectora,” rather than the literal translation of “service road.”

These mistakes don’t just happen when I’m back visiting family in my native country. They also happen at much less appropriate times, such as when I’m presenting in front of a large audience. Usually, Murphy’s Law is in full swing during these occasions, and the more important the audience the deeper my foot goes into my throat. A good example is the time when I was sharing the importance of networking with great speakers at conferences. I said, “They usually have a very large rooster of contacts.” The good thing is that I usually catch myself just as the words are leaving my mouth. “Or is it roster?”

As bad as that sounds, that wasn’t half as bad as when talking about leveraging the Latino advantage in the workplace I said that, “Latinos create strong bondage with other people.” Not two seconds had gone by and I added, “I mean bonds, bondage is something else, right?” But of course it was already too late and the audience was laughing hysterically, while I hoped nobody was recording the presentation for a quick YouTube upload.

Spanish language learners suffer through these mishaps all the time as well. How many times have you heard people say about a situation, “Estoy embarazada” (I’m pregnant) when what they really want to say is, “Estoy avergonzada”? Or, “Estoy constipada” (I’m constipated) instead of ,“Estoy resfriada” (I have a cold)? , “No me realicé” (I didn’t make myself) instead of , “No me dí cuenta” (I didn’t realize). Or, “Te voy a introducir a Pedro” (I’m going to insert you into Pedro) instead of, “Te voy a presentar a Pedro” (I’m going to introduce you to Pedro).

Although these false cognates, literal translations, and similarly sounding words that mean entirely different things in Spanish and English are usually a source of confusion, they can also be a great way to poke fun at yourself. Which is the best way to deal with the situation even for public speakers like myself. Just as I publicly acknowledge I’m prepositionally challenged, most of the time when I make a mistake I self-correct, or I candidly ask for help from the audience when I forget a word or I can only think about it in Spanish. The trouble is what do you do when the audience doesn’t speak Spanish?

My friend Brian is fond of reminding me of the time when I was sharing a story about trying to get his girlfriend to come for a walk with me. I had run into her early in the morning as she was walking her dog. “But she was wearing… what do you call those shoes you wear in the house?” And he looked at me in disbelief and asked, “Slippers” And I just went on, “Right, she was wearing slippers so I knew she would say no to my invitation.” From that day on, every time he sees me he says, “What do you call the… slippers???” I tell him that until he learns to speak a second language, he won’t earn the right to tease me.

The truth is that if you only speak one language you save yourself all of this trouble. But then again, you don’t get all the benefits of being multilingual and multicultural.

So here’s my recommendation for those fortunate enough to be suffering from embarrassing (or shall I say “pregnant”?) moments such as the ones I just shared: lie back, relax and enjoy the ride!

An earlier version of this column appeared on Fox News Latino and Huffington Post

Best career advice

Monday, February 7th, 2011


If you are like most people, you’ll probably end up fitting more than one career in your lifetime.

I started working in market research, moved to educational book distribution, then launched my writing and speaking career and have managed to develop a strong media presence at the same time. Although I enjoyed the various stages of my career I have to say that right now, I am happier than I’ve ever been before. The reason is in the perfect alignment of my passion, my talent, my knowledge and my skill set, something that is really hard to do.

It may take you a few years to figure out how to create this alignment in your life, but it’s worth the preparation and exploration that it takes to get to that point. That process may be easy if you already know what you’re passionate about or it may require some introspection if you are not sure.

What’s important is to keep in mind that doing what you love to do while using your talents and the knowledge you acquired both formally and informally will bring you a level of joy that is hard to compare with anything else. It makes you feel alive every day in a way that you don’t when your job is just a paycheck or just something that gets in the way of living your passions.

So, start looking right now at what makes you excited, what makes you tick and explore ways in which you can turn it into your career. Before you know it, all the stars will be aligned and you’ll be living your dream!

Do you lose your identity if you’re punctual?

Monday, October 25th, 2010


I had been walking in the wrong direction for twenty minutes with the most impossible heels. The pain in my right shoulder was getting worse from carrying my computer, and the worst part was that I was going to be late for my presentation. I couldn’t get anyone to answer my calls and I was about to lose it when I was finally able to reach my contact and let her know about my delay. When I arrived, mortified about the situation, my host, who was kindly waiting for me at the door, said with a smile: “Don’t worry about it, we are on Latino Time.”

For the first time in my life, I was happy that LT existed. Having been raised by a German mother, more often than not, I live in conflict with the timing of many of my Latino friends and colleagues as I’m usually the first to arrive everywhere.

During the presentation, part of the Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations, I spoke about how we can modulate our levels of Latinoness throughout the day and depending on the roles we play.

Going back to the example, in this country, punctuality is key in obtaining others’ respect and trust in you. So you must consider it a basic trait for professional success. But, if you have a party at your house over the weekend you’re probably not going to send out invitations with a beginning and an end time as most Anglos would. We experience time more as an event than as a chronological episode. Which means that the party starts when you arrive and it ends whenever it ends. For Anglos it is more like an 8- 11 PM thing.

The problem begins when this trait spills over your professional space and you are consistently late to turn in your projects or to a conference call. This can have an immediate impact on your personal brand as your colleagues and bosses make assumptions about you being untrustworthy.

It’s good to realize that you are not just Latino (or Mexican, Salvadorean, Dominican, etc.) Your identity is made up of numerous experiences, influences, beliefs, culture, religion, sexual orientation, race, and so on. Paradoxically, modulating the Latino aspects that may negatively affect your career opportunities is something very Latin.

We are a group known for our adaptability therefore, there’s no need to fear losing your Latino identity as a result of making these small adjustments. The ability to manage the different aspects of your identity according to the situation you are in or the role you’re playing at the time, is the best demonstration of your Latinoness in action.

If you liked this blog, you may also like: Uncover your Latinoness

Our identity

Saturday, December 6th, 2008

I was just up in Ann Arbor, Michigan presenting to a group of MBA students who are members of the Hispanic Latino Students Business Association at the Stephen. M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

The group was wonderful and during lunch we talked a little bit about where each of us was from. As is the case more often than not, a few students had a mixed background. The winner, however, was a young man who looked Korean. He was born in Korea and moved to Chile when he was two years old. He lived between Chile and Paraguay until he was seven or eight, time at which his family moved to Brazil.

A little while back, he moved to the US to study so, by now, he speaks Korean, Spanish, Portuguese and English and judging from the languages I heard him speak, he does so pretty well!

“What do you say when people ask you ‘where are you from’?” I inquired curiously.

    “Brazil” He responded with no hesitation. And then went on to explain that when he lived in Brazil, his Korean friends had the same Brazilian influences that he had. But once he moved to the US he realized he had less in common with the Korean community here, as they are from Korea. “That’s when I realized I was really Brazilian,” he said.

And of course, many Brazilians identify with the Latino culture, so here he was, hanging out with the HLSBA group.

So, when people ask you ‘where are you from’, what do you say?