Destroying Stereotypes: What It Really Means to Be Latinx
Stephanie Sanyour is a bilingual writer based in Austin, Texas. She has experience working on a variety of platforms including TV, web, print, and non-profit organizations. Stephanie originates from Chile, and loves writing stories that relate to her roots and multicultural background. She hopes her work will engage and challenge readers to better understand the Latinx experience in the United States.
Who are Latinxs? Some people would describe us as undocumented, job-stealers, drug-dealers, and even rapists. At least that’s what you see on TV nowadays. According to the Pew Research Center, there were 56.5 million Latinxs in the United States in 2015, and this statistic is expected to grow to 107 million by 2065. A few stereotypes cannot reflect the stories of millions. It’s our own stories that tell who we really are.
Meet Clemen Wilcox. She comes from Colombia. When you think of Colombia, you may think of drugs and violence, but Wilcox describes her hometown of Pereira quite differently.
“Life in Colombia was awesome!” says Wilcox. Pereira, her city, used to be the richest municipality in Colombia due to the coffee production. After joining an American company to work as an engineer, Wilcox realized she needed to acquire a new skill. She came to Minnesota to learn English in 2002, but promptly realized that this task wasn’t as easy as she thought. Determined to excel, Wilcox went back to Colombia, quit her job, and moved back to Minnesota to become a full-time student. But when Wilcox returned, she fell in love, and made the United States her new home.
Wilcox considers herself a privileged Latinx. She speaks English, has her own business, and works as Research Engagement Specialist at the University of Minnesota. But her privilege is different.
“People don’t look at me as a person. They look at me as a Latina, as an immigrant, as a person with an accent, and as a person of color,” says Wilcox. She clearly remembers a time she was horribly discriminated when asking for a table at a restaurant. “I was told all of the tables were unavailable. Then a couple just came in and they were given a table. I spoke to the owner and he said, ‘We don’t have tables for people like you.’ I will never forget that moment,” Wilcox says. While she doesn’t tolerate this hatred, she doesn’t judge those who treat her this way. “I understand that they haven’t had the chance to be taken away from their ignorance. If they had the chance to meet me or others like me, they would understand that it’s not about looks, and it’s not about stereotypes,” she says.
Because Latinxs are resilient, we don’t let those who discriminate us to bring us down. Instead, we turn hostility into success. That’s the story of Sofia Cifuentes. Cifuentes and her mother made the move from Colombia to the United States in 2011 when she was only eleven years old. She still remembers the violence lived at the time after the death of drug lord Pablo Escobar.
“The country was very chaotic,” she recalls. “Some people thought that the only way to provide for the families was doing illegal things like threatening or kidnapping people.”
Cifuentes didn’t know English, but she overcame that barrier and became a high performing student. Impressed by her achievements, Cifuentes’ teacher encouraged her to give a speech on immigration reform at her high school. One hour later, some students committed the unthinkable.
“A group of white boys threw tomatoes at me. It was definitely an act of indifference and bullying that came from a place of bigotry and lack of wanting to understand,” says Cifuentes. Feeling angry and humiliated, she went to see the principal to demand punishment for her perpetrators. The principal’s answer marked her life forever.
“The principal said he couldn’t suspend them because they’re one of the families with the most money and suspending them would be bad for the school. Those boys never apologized to me,” she continues. Feeling like her voice didn’t matter, Cifuentes quit theschool. It was this memory what inspired her to make sure something like this doesn’t happen never again. She now holds an influential leadership position as Academic Counselor at IDEA Public Schools in Austin, Texas.
“I wanted to be one of the people making decisions on how I make kids feel at school, and how they treat each other. I know my decisions and how I react to injustice will really stick with kids for the rest of their lives,” she says.
David Romero also dedicated his career to education. He knows first-hand what it’s like to struggle in school, and how confusing the higher education process can be. Romero is the co-owner of Academic Push, a company that helps students and families understand the college process and open more doors for students to get to college. Romero and his family came from El Salvador when he was sixteen years old.
“My parents’ idea to come here was opportunity, but also safety,” he says. Romero’s parents somehow predicted what would happen if they stayed in the country. “When we came in 1999 it was when things started getting worse in El Salvador. I was lucky that my parents did it,” he continues. But coming here was challenging. The family had to wait thirteen years to complete a lengthy immigration process.
Romero is fortunate to not have experienced much discrimination, but he believes the way you are treated really depends on where you live.
“I didn’t feel in that position in Iowa, but here in Texas is not blatant that people will tell you, but I feel it’s more present,” Romero says. He ignores this hostility, affirming that those same people will soon see why they need us. “As we continue to grow into the fabric of this country, we will continue to add more to the society and the value of the country itself. If it wasn’t for the Latinx community flourishing in places, it just wouldn’t be the same,” Romero says.
Ilonka Soto Pelyvas has a flourishing business, enriching her community one stitch at a time. She is an entrepreneur and the director of Austin School of Fashion Design in Austin, Texas. Pelyvas knew she was born to be an artist. Growing up in Chile, she used to design clothes for dolls and sell the designs at her school. She fell in love and followed her husband to Dallas in 1999, but he eventually became abusive.
“My husband tried to keep me isolated,” Pelyvas explains. “At first, he would say you can visit your family anytime you want, or go see your friends, and then it wasn’t really true. The more independence that I got, the more problems I got with my husband. It was always bittersweet.”
Pelyvas qualified for VAWA, a program that gives protection to non-citizens who are victims of violence or crime by a US citizen or permanent resident. She doesn’t see herself as a victim, but as a survivor. “It inspired me to become a fully independent person,” she says. It’s been twenty years since she left Chile, but has no regrets. “It’s been the best decision I’ve ever made. You can love a country and consider it home even if you weren’t born there.”
Pelyvas is Chilean-Hungarian. As a mixed Latinx, she doesn’t quite fit the typical stereotype.
“People have issues with the way I look,” she says. She explains that this reaction that comes because of a color-coding system that’s engrained in American society. “Just because you don’t fit the most basic cliché of the label, people don’t recognize you, and sometimes they are not nice to you because of it.”
But Pelyvas doesn’t believe in labels. “I’m very proud who I’m, of what I do, I’m very happy where I’m in life, and I will never identify myself with that.”
As a child, Marco Perez was unaware that people identified him with labels. Perez came from Guatemala to New Jersey when he was two years old. He grew up in a household where the language and customs of Guatemala were the norm, and didn’t know that the world outside would be so different.
“I didn’t know I was being discriminated against for half of my life,”says Perez. Marco recalls a time when he wasn’t welcome in his own neighborhood.“I was the only non-black kid, so I was picked on at school, and I was beat up many times because I was different,” says Perez. Trying to avoid his bullies, Marco skipped classin tenth gradefor about two months. Because the school was overcrowded, the school never told his parents. Perez’ future was at great risk. Joining gangs seemed very attractive. “MS13 and La Mara Salvatrucha were birthed in Long Island and then expanded to Central America, and I was there. I was one of the people that could have started that type of situation because of the need,” he says.
Perez turned his life around. Inspired by childhood memories when he accompanied his dad while he cleaned hospitals for a living, he became a successful healthcare professional. He is a now Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist and the CEO of United Latino Professionals, a networking organization that provides opportunities for professionals from all sectors to network. Perez understands that coming to the United States came with sacrifices, but he’s thankful for his father’s decision.
“This is just the place to be! I don’t know what my life would have been if he hadn’t done that,” he says. Perez is proud to call the United States home, despite the current lack of tolerance for people like him. He feels this is a matter of ignorance.
“This country was founded on immigrants, and the people that came here whether intentionally or not, built this country, continue to build this country, and continue to make this country great,” he continues. Marco encourages those who believe in stereotypes to get to know us. “We work very hard in order to give our families the best possible opportunity that we can. We are not rapists, and we are not violent people. We are not what Trump makes us out to be.”