One night at the end of ninth grade, my family and I were waiting for the bus near USC. My parents were happy because we had just seen a documentary my older sister was in about a garden in South Central. Our good mood ended when three white boys drove by slowly and screamed out of their car window a racial insult that I think was “wetback” and flipped us off. I wanted to yell at them but I was afraid they’d stop the car and start beating us. It made me think of African Americans who were lynched in the 1900s, and I was scared. My mom said “niños pendejos” (stupid boys) to the air. They had ruined a good night.
This was the first time I had faced racism and it made me wonder if people looked down on Latinos. But I didn’t find out why until 10th grade, when my class did a project on stereotypes in the media. That day our teacher was talking about the stereotypes of different people. We learned the stereotypes about Mexicans: that they are poor and lazy. I didn’t know that was how a lot of people saw us. My mom would always tell me to work hard and get my education so I wouldn’t become a dropout. I thought it was just my mom’s way of motivating me. But now I realized that she didn’t want me to end up like the Latino students in my neighborhood who don’t go to college. I suddenly realized what Latino students meant when they teased one another by saying, “You’re such a Mexican.” At lunch if someone said, “I ate this delicious torta” another Latino would say, “Oh you’re such a Mexican.” They were basically saying it sucks to be a Mexican. I wished I weren’t a Latino with brown skin.
Before I learned about stereotypes, the image I had of myself was of a student who liked to play soccer and listen to music. I thought that I was like everybody else; I didn’t consider race or its importance. The new image I had of myself was of a “Mexican” who is unsuccessful and stupid.
I tried to get rid of my accent
I was ashamed of who I was. I stopped wearing my Mexico soccer jersey and just left it in my drawer. I didn’t want an accent because I thought it made me sound less intelligent. Once I told my mom that I was only going to talk to her in English. I thought that if I talked only in English, I would lose my accent. For a few hours I talked to her in English, saying “Why?” and “When will the food be ready?” instead of “Por qué?” and “Cuándo va a estar la comida lista?” But my mother couldn’t understand what I was saying so I gave up and continued talking with her in Spanish. I also read books out loud in English because I thought it would help me lose my accent, but it didn’t help because I was just reading in my accent with no one correcting me.
At the time, a few of my Latino classmates called me “beaner.” I had thought they called me that because I liked Mexico. But when I learned about stereotypes, it was embarrassing because it meant somebody who was a failure. I wondered if they understood what beaner meant. I wanted them to use my name but I thought people would think I was overreacting so I didn’t stand up for myself. It wasn’t until 11th grade that I told people to stop calling me that. When other Latino students started using it too, I decided it had to end. I told them white people invented that word to look down on Mexicans. After that they stopped calling me beaner.
I thought that it would be hard for me to be successful because I am a Latino and people look down on them. My school required students to interview eight people who work in the field they have an interest in. In 10th grade I was interested in microbiology. I was excited about my project. I thought that I would be able to use a microscope to look at microbes. But when I called scientists to schedule an interview, I thought that I was not going to be taken seriously. I thought that my accent made me sound stupid. When I’d ask if I could interview them most of them said, “No, I’m busy.” Looking back now, I’m pretty sure they were busy, but I thought that my accent was the reason those scientists didn’t want to talk to me.
I managed to get two interviews but I stopped trying to get more because I wasn’t motivated. During the interviews I was conscious of my accent and I stuttered, which I thought made me sound unprofessional and unprepared. The scientists answered all of my questions and showed me around the lab. They were being nice so I thought maybe my accent didn’t matter and that helped me relax.
Other Mexicans made fun of me
Being called a failure by another Latino made me believe that I was going to be failure. One day in 11th grade we were having a group discussion in history class. Two kids at my table were insulting another kid, telling him he looked like someone who sells gum on the streets. I was staring because they were being rude when the kid next to me said, “You look like one of those Mexicans who sells food on the Metro.” I saw the people at the table laughing at me and I felt embarrassed. I told him that he was also Mexican. He said, “I don’t look as Mexican as you.” I was confused. Was it his light skin that made him less of a Mexican and more American?
That was the first time I’d heard someone say I don’t look as Mexican as you. Could it be that the people who succeed in this country are those who look American? I hated these thoughts. It made me wonder if I belonged in the United States. It made me wish that I were a different race. It made me lose confidence in myself.
Toward the end of 11th grade I started to realize that not everyone was looking down on me. For a school project, I chose to write restaurant reviews. When I went to a restaurant in Little Armenia, it was just me and another table of white people. “Oh wow,” I thought, “This place looks fancy and expensive. I don’t belong.” As soon as I sat down, I started to sweat even though it wasn’t that hot. I took off my jacket.
I saw the waiter talking to the chefs and I thought they were judging me. I kept thinking, “Are they going to serve me?” But I didn’t leave because I had to write a review. Minutes later, the waiter stopped talking with the chefs and took my order. He was happy to serve me and asked me if I needed anything else. I ordered frog legs and when I finished eating I saw the owner and I knew I had to talk to him for my project. I started asking him questions about his restaurant and I guess that he liked that because he gave me a free baklava. After I left the restaurant, I thought, “That wasn’t bad at all.” I was just overreacting because of my past experiences.
As I went to more restaurants, I felt more confident and I wasn’t as nervous. It helped me realize that not all people think of me as a failing Latino. Now I take my friends and family to most of the restaurants I have visited.
Also in 11th grade my class read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Growing up in the 1930s, Angelou doesn’t like herself because she is African-American. She does not like her “nappy” hair and dark skin. In the book she is trying to discover who she is as an African-American woman and starts to accept herself more at the end. She looks at her grandmother as a strong, successful African-American woman. She owned her own shop and one time she stood up to a white dentist who wouldn’t help Angelou when she had a bad tooth. It felt like I was going through the same thing as her. It made me realize I’m not the only person who struggles to feel accepted and that I can get over it.
One day my teacher asked the class to share what they thought was the most important thing for a person to succeed in education: getting support from your family, economics or handling stereotypes and racism. I was the only person who chose handling stereotypes and racism because it had affected me. I said that facing stereotypes and racism was most important because if you don’t know how to handle it, you won’t have the confidence to succeed—like when I thought that my accent ruined my chance of getting an interview. The fact that that choice was listed helped me realize that it’s something that a lot of people face. It made me feel normal.
Becoming a leader at school gave me confidence
While I was running for school president my senior year, I wasn’t sure I was going to win. But I told myself that to be successful I have to stop looking down on myself. When I won, I realized that I can be successful and people like to listen to good ideas.
Before, I was trying to be more American by getting rid of my accent. Now I realize that speaking Spanish doesn’t make me less of a person. It means I’m more educated because I can speak two languages and I should practice it more instead of trying to forget it. I read the Spanish newspaper La Opinión to find out what’s going on with immigration policies and to practice my Spanish.
I know I can be successful because it’s me who gets to make that choice. My plan is to attend college. I want to prove to people who think that Latinos are failures that we can be successful. I do belong in the United States. An American is a person who overcomes struggles to become successful and that is what I’m doing.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in our September 2012 issue. It’s been included in this issue on our website because it was one of our four stories that we published in 2012 that won L.A. Youth a runner-up award in the 2013 Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism.