Blog Post

Latino Authenticity and Identity: Assimilate, Opt-Out or Double-Down

September 18, 2018

Adapted Excerpts from “Auténtico: The Definitive Guide to Latino Career Success” (2017)
co-written by R. Rodriguez and A. Tapia

“He’s not a real Latino.”
“I really don’t know what cultural world I belong in. I’m confused.”
“Just call me Super Latino.”

The emotional feeling of being a Latino or Latina in the US can range wildly from being affirming to confusing to feeling vulnerable.

In our research of the Latinx experience in the US we established that being Latino is as much about choices as it is about the heritage. This means that Latino identity relies heavily on how individuals choose to deal with their cultural surroundings. In response to external stimuli, they can accept and internalize their cultural surroundings, deny them, or change them.

Choosing is complex because of the myriad pressures Latinos and Latinas face in their journey to define themselves in a society that often disparages their identity and seeks to impose definitions on them rather than allow self-identification. This identity struggle often gets carried into the corporate world experience of many Latino professionals.

This struggle was true for many of the Latino executives we spoke to during our research for “Auténtico,” those who at some point had to come to grips with their own sense of Latino identity and ways to express it in the workplace—or even try to hide it during certain phases of their careers.

This key “To Be or Not to Be” decision by the Latino executives was at the heart of the professional journey of many of the leaders we interviewed. The confluence of cultural and family pride currents flowing from one side and of stinging discrimination currents flowing from the other presented continuous dilemmas on how to best manage their own expression of cultural identity in the workplace.

Based on our research and personal observation, we have categorized four different lenses used and paths Latino leaders have taken when it comes to their Latino identity.

The Unapologetic Latino

Unapologetic Latinos fully embrace their Latino identity and chose not to hide it, even in the most non-Latino of environments. They are the very illustration of the Latino leader who chooses to double down on their ethnic identity when faced with conscious or unconscious peer pressure to assimilate. Through their exceptionally successful educational trajectories and their stellar careers, several of the Latino leaders we spoke to never lost their sense of being Latino and, in fact, it serves as a salient characteristic of their identities in the workplace.

A key attribute of unapologetic Latinos is that they can appreciate the beauty of being Latino and at the same time are able to recognize certain features, those attributed to Latinos that others may perceive as negative, and adjust accordingly without being any less Latino.

The Equivocal Latino

The Equivocal Latino profile often emerges from an upbringing where European-American culture was quite predominant in the person’s life without a deeply infused Latino cultural being instilled by the family. This often sets the initial parameters of a person’s identity. For those we refer to as Equivocal Latinos, parents and extended family members tend to instruct the children about the boundaries of their Latino identity. What they learn at home about themselves as Latinos (for example, “We are better than others,” or “We are less than others,” or “We are no different than others” etc.) lays the foundation of their Latino identity.

The familia (parents, aunts, grandparents) may have been deeply rooted themselves in the Latino culture, but the cultural messaging and acculturation was missing or done with a lighter touch. This often takes place out of the parents’ desire for their children to be assimilated, and therefore accepted, by mainstream American society. In some of these households, the parents actually chose not to speak Spanish to their children and encouraged them to socialize as much as possible outside the Latin culture because they saw it as an opportunity to increase their children’s chances to break out of the barrios they themselves felt trapped in.

The Equivocal Latino dynamic can also be circumstantial when it is played out in the workplace but not in personal lives. This means that Equivocal Latinos sometimes define themselves situationally and are astute fulfilling the perceptions and expectations of others. Thus, their identity is based more on their personal interactions than their Latino background.

The Retro-Latino

It is possible for some individuals to maintain an orientation throughout their lives with little or no movement or change. But life as an Equivocal Latino is not predetermined as something people have to stay with if they do not want to. Latinos constantly make choices about how they see their difference and how they accommodate societal messages about themselves.

The Retro-Latino goes to great lengths to reconnect, rediscover, or discover those roots for the first time. They end up taking Spanish, learning how to dance salsa, bachata, or reggeaton. They start reading Latin American literature, begin hanging out with more Latinos, or joining Latino organizations for the first time. Others even start to date Latinas or Latinos, which they had never done before.

Remember that some Retro-Latinos may not have been fully exposed to their Latino background, history, or culture during their childhood. But as individuals mature and change their surroundings, the lens with which they view their Latino-ness may widen.

Several of the leaders we interviewed for “Auténtico” grew up in mostly white environments and had their Latino identity awakened when they moved to a place where there were more Latinos or where Latinos made the effort to find each other and network.

An increase in being proud to be Latino awakens a desire to let those aspects of their Latino heritage peek out, slowly at first, and incrementally revealing themselves more fully until it becomes a combination of a cultural identity blossoming from within, accelerated by increasing the number of Latino culture inputs, leading to an identity metamorphosis.

The Invisible Latino

The Invisible Latinos are the ones who ignore or even disown their Latino heritage, often won’t even acknowledge that they speak Spanish, don’t want their parents to come visit them, or just pretend to be as white as their college friends or workmates even though they did grow up with a Latino experience.

They prefer to identify themselves and others as “just people,” and claim to be color blind because of their preference to view each person as distinct from their ethnic or racial background. These are the ones that Latinos who do own their heritage at some level have a difficult time not judging.

Some Latinos who may have more Anglo features, such as blonde hair and blue eyes, may choose to connect more closely with their “white” features and all that it connotes over their Hispanic heritage. They see their whiteness as the essential and primary element of their identity and view the world through a white-tinted lens. Invisible Latinos also tend to view the shortage of Latinos in senior roles as the result of individual failure and not as bias or discrimination against Latinos.

Don’t get us wrong. Invisible Latinos can attain success, but our book “Auténtico” is a Latino executive manifesto, not just an executive manifesto. The invisible ones may be executives, but they’re not Latino executives; they’ve disowned that part. They’re not manifesting. “Auténtico” is the manifesto of leaders who are successful and who definitely embrace their Latino-ness.

The fact that none of the executives we interviewed disowned their Latino identity tells us that a dimension to strong leadership is authenticity. We don’t believe it’s any coincidence that these individuals are successful leaders and that they never gave up and disowned their heritage.

Dr. Robert Rodriguez, is President of DRR Advisors LLC, a consulting firm specializing in Latino talent management programs. Besides being a co-author of Auténtico, Dr. Rodriguez is also the author of “Latino Talent: Effective Strategies to Recruit, Retain & Develop Hispanic Professionals.”

Andrés Tapia is a Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry. He is a leading voice in shaping a next-generation approach to diversity & inclusion. Besides being a co-author of Auténtico, Andrés is also the author of The Inclusion Paradox: The Post-Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity.”