Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Neighbors/Vecinos

Prejudices are part of who we are


By VERONICA HOYOS LEONARD

Veronica Hoyos Leonard

Most of us harbor some form of prejudice. I don't think we were born with it; it's a learned behavior from our families, friends, society, politicians and culture. Prejudice, discrimination and bias are a part of being human, and we may never rise above it. It's the way most of us are. So how do we live with it?

I've learned from my own experience that at any moment I can change from being the discriminator to be discriminated against. As Ralph W. Sockman wrote, "I must be courageous when I'm in the minority and I must be tolerant and supportive when I'm in the majority."

My mother was an Irish-American, born in Washington. She was a tall, blond, blue-eyed Caucasian. While studying art in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, she met, fell in love with and married my Mexican father. She lived her life in central Mexico from her early 20s until she died in her early 60s. Despite the fact that she lived in a town with many American residents, she still was in the minority. She was never truly accepted by my father's family and the local society. She could not be a Mexican citizen, and in those times she could not own property. She loved to tell jokes, but we did not understand her sense of humor. We could not comprehend why it was very important for her to have a driver's license and a current passport. I remember in conversations that she said she was from Vancouver, Canada, because she felt intimidated about saying the United States.

When I enrolled in a Mexican beauty pageant in the Camino Real Hotel in Mexico City, I had to bring my mother as a chaperone. As I entered the large ballroom with my mother, I remember the judgmental looks she got from the Mexican group. My mother immediately said, "I'm going back to our room. I don't want to cause any problems for you because I am an American." I told her to stay with me and "I don't care what other people think—you're my mother."

< All the beauty contenders' mothers seemed to bond naturally, having breakfast together, reading the daily newspapers and supporting their daughters. My mother was excluded from the group—she was the minority, the outsider. She was being discriminated against by these Mexican women.

I never understood then the courage she must have had to live in Mexico, marry a Mexican and have Mexican children until I married an American from Wisconsin. One of the things I liked most about him was that he had no bias. He had never been to Mexico, yet he accepted me for who I was as a person. His sisters, however, were very different. I felt ignored and disliked by them. My jokes were not funny to them. I was different.

Discrimination is a very hard thing to prove because in most cases it's very subtle. Most people nowadays don't come to you and say, "I don't like you because you're a Mexican, an American, fat, or gay." However, when we're being biased we project a negative energy and communicate what we feel with nonverbal signs. The problem is that someone being discriminated against, without difficulty, recognizes these signs.

Most people visually accept me because I'm Caucasian with green eyes. The problem arises when I open my mouth. I have a Hispanic accent. Every day I encounter the question "Where are you from?" The majority of times the answer is not going to create a positive response. Most people associate my country of birth with illegal immigration, drug trafficking and gangs. A few people, mostly in the Wood River Valley, have been in my hometown and their response is very warm. But that is the exception.

I do not know how to overcome this issue. I tried responding, "I am a citizen of the world, the whole planet is my home." It didn't work. People keep asking, "What country?" I tried asking people to guess my country of origin for a dollar. Most people name all the countries in Eastern Europe. I also tried answering a cool country like France, Spain or Austria, but that is lying.

As a result, I decided to swallow my pride, to be courageous and to answer with full confidence, "I am from Mexico!" No, I am not an illegal alien, I don't wear a sombrero, I don't drink tequila and my mode of transportation is not a donkey.




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