It’s been a colorful and joyous pan-Latin celebration on Telemundo during the World Cup. Every team from Spanish speaking countries has been celebrated and their Colombian, Argentinian, Peruvian, Costa Rican, Mexican, Uruguayan, and Panamanian fans given a platform for exuberant expression in support of their own national teams as well as, despite soccer rivalries, support of one other.
As the ball has spun and been cannon-balled into goals, Latino families and friends have partied for a month connected by gooooooaaal exuberance and wrenching heartbreaks. The group scenes and emotions have emphasized our communal or collectivist tendencies. As much as it may sound like a cliché, it’s true that familia is exceptionally important to Latinos. This all-in enveloping of familia in the Latino ethos comes from a sense of communal identity – who I am is defined by whom I belong to versus the more European-American interpretation of individualistic identity – who I am is defined by my own self.
But underneath that communal Latino kumbaya there are divisions that put cracks in the U.S. Latino mosaic — a shadowy side of the Latino reality in the U.S. when it comes to sense of community that we Latinos must address. Latinos are just now beginning to acknowledge the barriers we ourselves create among us that further complicate the obstacles we find in corporate America.
This has been evident not just in our first-hand experiences, but it was corroborated in the research for our book, “Auténtico.” Divisions, that if allowed to fester and remain unaddressed, will hold back Latinos from demonstrating the collective power that should come from being 60 million strong.
Let’s look at what some of these divides are and how can we best address them.
In the U.S., the most divisive differences among Latinos are the ones around national heritage. While a seemingly harmless issue, and even fun when it comes to World Cup favorites and bragging rights, these nationalistic fissures are the most debilitating in terms of Latinos gaining collective power commensurate to our rising numbers.
This phenomenon is caused in part when Latinos view themselves primarily in terms of their nationality and not necessarily identifying with Latinos of all other nationalities. Having great pride and viewing one’s own nationality positively is not wrong or destructive. It does create a problem when individuals identify exclusively with their country of origin and view Latinos from other nationalities as deficient or inferior. When this happens, the result is a more narrow and exclusive view of their Latino identity.
There are times when it appears we are fighting over ethnic turf such as when a Mexican-American living in Los Angeles claims that they are not going to let a Puerto Rican in New York be a spokesperson for their community. Until Latinos can collectively and cohesively address this dimension of Latino identity, Latinos themselves will be responsible in part for the lack of Latino advancement in corporate America.
Socioeconomic differences often overlap with the national identities divide. For example, Cubans who fled the island during Castro’s revolution have a higher per capita income than Mexicans and Central Americans, causing some elitist attitudes. Or consider that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth and can sometimes have a condescending attitude toward Mexicans and others whose parents, or they themselves, are here undocumented.
Another factor is the classic Us vs. Them dynamic that develops to allow groups of people to judge and negatively stereotype other groups. This causes Latinos to fall prey to the very forms of discrimination they themselves face in white corporate America.
Latinos can also carry bias against people of different races. As a people we have not been exempt from expressions of racism toward those with darker skin or Asian physical features within, or outside, our own communities.
Facing up to this racial prejudice in ourselves can be difficult because many of us have been on the receiving end of discrimination. We may bristle at the idea that racism may be present within our culture. However, there is an unmistakable pattern in our Latino communities: the darker one’s skin, the less favored they may be in the eyes of the public, employers, and even family members. The stories are plentiful of lighter-skinned siblings faring better than their darker-skinned kin.
In Latin American countries where almost everyone is ethnically Latino, the visuals are stark. Those who are darkest skinned tend to be lower on the socioeconomic ladder. In Brazil, which is about 50 percent Black or mixed race, or in Colombia, where that figure is 25 percent, there is a near-zero Black Latino representation among executives, senior leaders, and managers.
In the U.S. this legacy shows up in underlying racial tensions between Latinos and African-Americans. It’s a complicated dynamic, since many Latinos are also Black racially. But lighter-skinned Latinos often must look in the mirror to see that they too may be susceptible to unconscious racial bias toward Afro-Latinos, Afro-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Africans.
Spanish Language and Accent Divides
Latinos can also be judged by other Latinos for their accented Spanish or English, or for not speaking Spanish at all. Accents and language are indeed heartfelt and important topics to many Latinos in defining their cultural identity. Many Latinos feel that English-dominant European-Americans heavily weight their assessment of the value of words by the density of the accent of Spanish-dominant speakers and thus try very hard to reduce and eliminate their accent.
For other Latinos, their accents are a source of deep pride. How they sound, including their accented English, is part of their Latino identity. It is a marker of who they are culturally in the same way that rolling one’s r’s or pronouncing Martinez, Ochoa, Herrera or Castillo in the original Spanish rather than in American English are language markers of a Latino identity that is so paramount that even when they could use the more Anglicized name, they don’t.
Latin American-born Latinos often feel they can’t relate to Hispanic American Latinos who grew up in, or in close proximity to, mainstream American culture to the point many of them don’t even speak Spanish. The Latin Americans struggle to understand how this can be possible.
Grew Up in Latin America versus Grew Up in the U.S.
One of the most apparent divides left unspoken is the sense that Latinos who grew up in Latin America may, in relation to Latinos who grew up in the U.S., enjoy preferential treatment from corporate America when companies seek to increase their Latino diversity.
Spoken more in whispers than in pronouncements, observations are often made that Latino executives being extolled by companies as evidence of their commitment to diversity are not Hispanic Americans, but rather Latin Americans.
Besides the issue of Latino representation in corporate America, the differences between Latinos those born and raised in Latin America versus those born and raised in the U.S. can be quite stark. Latinos from Latin America grow up surrounded by their Latino culture, the Spanish language and don’t experience the burden of being labeled as being a minority group. Whereas Latinos born and raised in the U.S. are aware of their minority status, may not be fluent in Spanish and may have in fact been advised to downplay their connection to their Hispanic heritage and customs.
Overcoming These Divides
Obstacles to a greater sense of common purpose and unity among Latinos still exists. However, the Latino experience in the U.S. is replete with powerful stories proving there is Latino unity. Some of that unity has always existed. Some of this cohesiveness is new as Latinos begin to connect with the reality that their growing numbers will only translate into greater power and influence if there is greater sense of common purpose.
This sense has also accelerated as the anti-immigrant and anti-Latino walls have gone up. External threats such as we are currently experiencing make these intra-Latino fissures trivial in comparison to what truly is an existential threat from rising xenophobia against people that don’t look like white America.
Given all this variety, Latino identity cuts across a wide spectrum of choices of how much of that identity to embrace. This spectrum can range from fiercely nationalistic to the fully assimilated into mainstream American culture. Indeed, the range of choices of how to express our Latino selves in American society are as diverse as the people who make up the Latino/Hispanic fabric en los Estados Unidos de America.
In the same way that we ask the majority culture to value our Latino differences, we can’t let the diversity among Latinos divide us. Inclusion must begin with the familia.
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 Hay Group. 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 Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity.”