'Latinos are drug addicts. They don't work because they're lazy and they depend on welfare." These are but a few of the ethnic stereotypes that have haunted me throughout much of my life as Puerto Rican-American. Growing up in an ethnically diverse but poor neighborhood in Chicago, I actually never felt "different" until I moved to an almost all white school in Massachusetts. There, I noticed that people would mutter under their breaths comments about racial or ethnic groups other than their own. Although the students would never have openly admitted to being prejudiced, and although they would probably deny that their comments were harmful, I felt singled out, uncomfortable, and threatened in such homogenous territory. Suddenly I realized that my skin and hair was actually noticeably different from my classmates. They noticed it too, and started to ask me what my background was. To avoid social discomfort I lied to them and told them I was "just American." By passing myself off as white, I avoided confrontation.
Since then, however, I have learned that my lies only serve to perpetuate prejudice in America. By being ashamed or afraid to talk about their roots, people of color allow the dominant culture to continue the myth of racial superiority. Therefore, through some soul-searching I have been able to regain pride in my ethnicity. I am different and proud of it: my cultural background is unique, exciting, and interesting. Now, rather than pretend I am white, I declare that my heritage is Puerto Rican and accept the fact that not everyone will be pleased with that. I still sense the snickering and other forms of subtle prejudice when I tell people who I am.
Now that I look back on my upbringing I can see how prejudice and racism has not always been so subtle; people of color have continually been beaten down so that poverty is a reality for many of them. The neighborhood I grew up in was ethnically diverse. I didn't feel different. However, problems like poverty, crime, and substance abuse were everywhere in the neighborhood. I know now that part of the reason why Latinos and other ethnic minorities suffer from social and psychological problems is that they have been haunted by prejudice. Poverty becomes a vicious cycle, as many Latino parents can't afford to send their children to good schools.
I was the first person in my family graduate from high school. Determined to rise above the hardship that had plagued my family, I left the comfort of my home for college in Lowell, Massachusetts. Unexpectedly, I experienced prejudice personally for the first time while in college. Amid an atmosphere of political correctness, students would mutter under their breaths comments about different ethnic groups. Asians, Jews, Blacks, and Latinos were stereotyped and labeled. I learned to keep my mouth shut. For the first time I felt I had to actually hide who I was. Although my classmates would say out loud how they hated racism and believed everyone was equal, their words and actions said differently. As the only Latino in many of my freshman classes, I found it difficult to admit I was different. In spite of having darker skin and hair than my classmates, I told them I was white. I wanted to fit in, and I knew that they would treat me differently if I told them I was Puerto Rican. My lie worked; classmates thought I must be European, which in their eyes was better than being Puerto Rican. When I overheard comments about Cubans, Puerto Ricans, or Mexicans, I kept quiet, too shy to speak up for myself and unable to challenge their beliefs. I was outnumbered, and I was definitely out of my element.
All that would change when the following year I met several Latino classmates. I was no longer alone. Befriending them, I was able to regain pride in my family background. Unlike me, they were proud of being Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican. We bonded because we had all experienced first hand what it was like to be ostracized because of our ethnicity. Admiring their confidence, I instantly felt guilty that I had denied my heritage for so long. Like a slap in the face of my family, I had denied the experiences and rough times that characterized life for so many ethnic minorities, including my mother. My mother left Puerto Rico in search of economic opportunity as well as freedom from an abusive husband. She had worked incredibly hard to feed and take care of her children in Chicago. By denying my ethnic heritage in order to fit in at school, I was doing her and the rest of my community a great disservice. Immigrants like my mother left behind a world of familiar faces, places, and language. Thrust into a new environment, immigrants like my mother had to start from scratch, earning minimum wage, enduring harsh winters, feeling left out of mainstream American society because of skin color, language, and social class. One of the reasons why ethnic communities flourish in urban centers is that they create a conclave in which people can be free to be themselves and proudly practice their culture's customs and codes of conduct.
My culture is a huge part of my personal identity. I know that now. I first became conscious of that fact when I met other Latino students at my almost all-white college. My ability to relate to them was due in part to the fact that our families endured similar experiences of poverty, oppression, and prejudice. Our common languages also linked us together. I value several aspects of my Puerto Rican heritage, and language is one of them. Being bilingual is genuine strength that I know I can use to my advantage once I graduate and enter the workforce. I am also proud of my culture's customs: our food, our social relations, and our religion. Nothing about my heritage makes me uncomfortable, which is why I am sorry that I ever hoped to erase my identity to blend in.
When I first moved to Massachusetts I made a conscious decision to reveal little of my ethnic heritage. Hiding behind the blanket term "American," I allowed others to draw their own conclusions about my background. It was easy for me to hide my identity because I have Mediterranean features and no accent. As a result, they assumed I was "one of them," and I felt relatively safe. Later, I chose to surrender my false sense of security in favor of truthfulness and personal pride. I know now that if I had continued to hide behind the pretense of being white that no one would know who I really was; any friendships I made would be based on a lie.
Because being Puerto Rican is generally more of a liability than an asset in American culture, I have not noticed any privileges that come from my ethnic background. Sure, some celebrities proudly flaunt their Puerto Rican backgrounds, but for the most part, many people still believe that Puerto Ricans are all lazy or on welfare or are in gangs. It hasn't really become "cool" to be Latino so people still hold negative stereotypes toward Puerto Ricans, especially in communities with low population of Latinos. I have found that diverse communities are more welcoming of people of color than homogenous ones are; it was easier to be Puerto Rican in Chicago than in a small town in Massachusetts.
When after meeting other Latinos in college I started to come out about my true identity, some of the stereotypes and prejudices were thrown in my face. One of the most glaring examples of when I was treated unfairly was when I visited an academic advisor about graduate schools. She acted like I was crazy and said in a condescending tone, "Oh, you want to try to get into a graduate school? Good for you. I hope you understand that graduate schools are very selective and ... " I wanted to shout at her about my scholastic achievements but I knew it wouldn't do any good. She had it in her head that Latino students aren't successful. Many believe that the only reason why we got into college was because of quotas. Knowing how hard I worked to make it to college and how hard my mother worked to make sure that I could go to college after high school, ethnic stereotypes make me irate.
Some of the white classmates in college shunned me when I revealed my true identity. Many did not make eye contact with me. On the other hand, some students went out of their way to make a point that they weren't prejudiced. Many examples of being treated unfairly because of my ethnic background occurred in social settings. I have never been directly assaulted because of my ethnicity and no one has ever called me names to my face, but my Latino friends and I have been treated…