A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experience of being a white participant in the faith and work movement. Since then, it struck me that this series should actually be a multi-author endeavor–the whole idea is that our faith and work community ought to learn from people with other racial identities. In that spirit, I’ve invited a few friends of great wisdom to contribute to this series. – Ben Norquist
By Eddy Davila
It’s a standard scene for me: I approach the Latino attendant at the deli counter or the local taqueria to place my order in my native Spanish accent. Two reactions always ensue: A look of confused surprise and the question, “Where did you learn Spanish?” In the area where I live, this level of fluency is normally accompanied by brown skin. “My house, growing up,” I respond, and then smile and say, “What about you?”
I am a white-skinned, 1.5 generation immigrant from Nicaragua, and I live in a community where most Spanish speakers are brown-skinned Mexicans. This can mean that I am forever displaced, but instead I choose it to mean that I belong in both worlds: that of the Anglo-American and that of the Mexican immigrant. While this may complicate my personal identity, it also affords me a significant amount of perspective and allows me to serve as a bridge builder between the white and brown communities. I hope that my story can help do that here too.
Like many immigrants, I grew up in a home where stability was a scarce commodity. My family came as political asylees, fleeing a country devastated by war and political insecurity. When we came to the US, we found the political stability we sought but encountered another kind of instability: we were on our own. My family arrived in the United States without being able to speak English. We had little family in the country and had lost contact with our family in Nicaragua. After the immigration process, my father’s college degree had even become irrelevant. It was a financially stressful life. My mother tells me of a time when my father worked three jobs and still ate macaroni and ketchup every day so that the kids could have a slightly more substantial diet. Money was hard to find. Work, as I learned from my parents, was all about survival.
When I was in middle school, my father had a severe heart attack and lost his job. The doctors said it was due to high stress and a poor diet. We were fortunate enough to have health insurance, but the insurance agency wouldn’t let my father work without losing his insurance. This put our family in financial jeopardy since our emergency fund, stored in a box in our linen closet, was less than robust.
So my father did what every Latino would do to survive: he took a job that paid cash. He became the janitor of two warehouses, but since his health was in such poor shape, we all pitched in—another common Latino survival tactic. Monday through Friday, from 9pm till 12am, the whole family would drive out to clean the warehouses. I’m sure it was humiliating for our dad at the time, but the kids remember that season with deep affection. We worked together and everyone contributed to the need of the family. Yes, work was about survival, but those days also taught me that family is what makes work meaningful and fulfilling.
Much later, while in grad school, I needed part-time work with a flexible schedule. I applied for many desk jobs, but finally received a call back from a hamburger restaurant. It wasn’t my first choice, but if running a register would help pay for school, it was worth it. Though I find it humorous now, I was disastrously nervous about the interview. Though I was bilingual, had a bachelor’s degree, and had been working since middle school, I felt woefully unqualified for the job. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but like many immigrants, I had internalized racist attitudes. I intuitively felt and assumed that white people would be better than me at everything. This infected my self-worth and seemed to especially sabotage the social side of work, including my ability to interview well.
This wasn’t the only racial dynamic happening in the interview. I also remember an uncomfortable moment when the hiring manager said to the general manager, “I think he would be better on the register instead of the kitchen.” This unassuming statement released a flood of confusing emotions and insecurities about my presumed identity. Was I being interviewed for a kitchen position even though I applied to be up front? Was I expected to work in the kitchen because I had a Latino name? And why had they changed their mind? Did I appear less Latino than they expected? Where do I actually belong?
It is impossible to know what they had been thinking, but the possibility that I could be right makes my skin crawl. It would not have been good to be sent to the kitchen because of my name, but it would not be any better to be sent to the front because of the privilege that comes from my white skin. For each of the four years I worked there, I wrestled with similar insecurities. I could identify with both sides of the restaurant but I felt as if I didn’t really belong anywhere. It was only much later that I realized the insecurities never left me because the workplace was segregating what I was trying to integrate in myself.
To be continued! Image: Flickr.