Monday, June 27, 2005

Am I An Acceptable Hispanic?

I don’t wake up every day thinking about my ethnicity, but I have been giving some thought to it recently.

I’ve run into a bit of racism in my life. No doubt my father had to put up with more of it, but I’ve been aware that it’s there. Lately though, it’s been popping up in the strangest places. Like my neighborhood, and my work.

I like my job, so I am going to try to ignore it there, but I’m not sure how to react to the humorous attempts at putting down African Americans and Hispanics. What enters my mind when I hear a joke aimed at Mexicans is, if I looked Mexican, would I have been hired for the job? Never mind that I’ve given a standout performance so far. As everyone who’s been discriminated against on whatever level knows, you can be the best candidate for the job, but if the employer can’t get past your age, color, gender or obvious ethnicity, you’re screwed.

My neighbor is an interesting case. Her flat-out dislike of Mexicans and inability to distinguish between the different cultures (and races) within the Hispanic community makes me wonder what she truly thinks of me. She told me she lumps all Hispanics into one barrel. Yet she comes to my house for visits and takes care of my dog when I’m away. Had I been a recent arrival into the neighborhood, instead of being a long-time resident (I’ve lived here longer than she has) would she still be as friendly to me as she always has been? Would she have looked at my last name and automatically thought, “here comes trouble?”

When, after hearing a particularly long rant from her against Mexicans (which in her mind equals “illegal aliens”) I said if I looked Mexican, I may not have been hired at my present job, I received an “I couldn’t care less” look from her. That troubled me.

So am I an acceptable Hispanic? Does my college degree and command of the English language make me a more desirable minority than if I dropped out of high school and couldn’t speak English? If my last name were Janell Meyer, what assumptions would people make about me? Would my dark hair and complexion give anyone pause, or would they just assume I was a swarthy midwesterner of German descent? (Actually, I am German, AND swarthy AND a midwesterner, but that’s not really the issue here.) What matters is that my last name will make some people assume that I’m illegal. Some people may not want me living in their neighborhood. And some people may just not want to hire me.

And as for those coming to this country for a better life, I admire their guts. The only true native Americans had their land stolen from them, and they’re not living such a great life now. My neighbor said she doesn’t feel like this is her country anymore. I said the native Americans probably felt the same way when the white man came over. Again, no sympathy. The analogy was totally lost on her. She merely remarked that nearly every country in the world has been conquered at some point and people need to get over it. It’s funny how white people freely invade other countries with no thought of manners, but when slightly browner folk start moving in to the good ‘ol U.S.A., well, that’s a travesty. How dare they take our crap jobs from us! How dare they do the dirty work our high school and college graduates deserve!

Face it folks: immigrants are here to stay, unless we really close our borders. As long as it sucks elsewhere in the world, people are going to continue to risk their lives to come here any way they can. And anyone who can survive in a foreign country where they don’t know the language is braver than at least 99 percent of the people who were born here.

When I interviewed a prominent Fort Wayne citizen years ago about Germanfest, he mentioned how much business in Fort Wayne was conducted in German. There apparently was a German-American bank in town. Imagine the uproar if a Mexican-
American bank opened up today, or if any of the local banks really decided to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community.

But, as my neighbor ironically said, “people need to get over it.” And if this blog made you resentful of immigrants, take a look in the mirror and realize had it not been for some great-great-grandparents with guts, YOU might be the one struggling to learn an entirely new language, slaving away at a crap job and facing resentment and prejudice at this very moment. Think about that the next time you see an immigrant of any race or ethnic background. Chances are their children’s children will be just as American as yours are now. Just give them time, give them time.

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