The details may change, but every Latino shares a version of the same story: that moment when another Latino attacked her . . . for not being Latino enough.
For my friend Ali, it happened during her first week at college. She had pledged a sorority, and as she stood in the middle of campus one day trying to spread the word about her organization, she noticed a group of Latinas across the way who were promoting their social activism efforts. Ali walked over to introduce herself, but as soon as the girls saw her sorority pin, they turned their backs on her.
"You can't be that," one of them said, pointing at her lapel, "and also be one of us."
For my friend Luis, it happened when he was growing up in Chicago, the son of a Colombian father and an Anglo mother. Even as he was being bullied constantly at school for being a "spic"--this was during the early 1970s, and Luis was the only Latino student in his class--his Colombian family rejected him, he recalls, because he was light-skinned, telling him he acted too "white."
For me, the moment occurs whenever a certain type of Latino finds out that I don't speak fluent Spanish, as recently happened on a business trip with some other Latinos from the media industry. During our first meeting, as we were all chatting, various members of the group slipped into and out of Spanish--but one of the women noticed that I made comments only in English, and asked me point-blank if I spoke Spanish. When I shook my head no, she proceeded to berate me, to accuse my Ecuadorean father of being a bad parent, to insist that I head back to school to take Spanish classes.
Worse yet, throughout the rest of the day--whenever I was in earshot--she would speak only in Spanish to my colleagues, and then make a big, exaggerated point of stopping herself, staring at me, and saying, "Oh, right, I forgot--this one doesn't speak Spanish."
It was humiliating, isolating, mean. But what upsets me most of all is that every single Latino I have talked to about this experience has nodded her head in recognition--and then proceeded to share with me a similar experience of being made to feel that, somehow, she wasn't a "real" Latino. Maybe, as in my case, it was about language; or maybe it was about having light skin, or dressing too preppy. I mean, just take one look at Latina magazine's Facebook wall and you'll see Latinas judging other Latinas for everything for having blonde hair to serving duck on Thanksgiving instead of tamales.
Why does anyone think she is the ultimate authority on what it means to be Latino? And why do so many of us continue to insist that there's some sort of checklist that must be adhered to before you're allowed to identify with your heritage?
These are questions I have no answers for--and that trouble me more, not less, as our population continues to grow.
That's because as we continue to gain in number, we are also going to become more and more diverse. It is that diversity that is one of the biggest sources of our strength and power, and if we don't start embracing it--instead of belittling it--we will never achieve our full potential.
Besides, as evidenced almost every day in news headlines--like Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain "joking" that he would put up an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border--there are always going to be plenty of people out there directing hate our way. Let's not add to the problem.