by Ollin Montes – originally published in Gazillion Voices Magazine, 2014
My love affair began in second grade. This relationship started with playful cuddling on comfy chairs during reading time in Mrs. Brown’s classroom. By my teenage years, we spent time late into the night together in my room. Since my days as a bright eyed elementary school boy, books and I enjoyed an intimate relationship. Books blessed me with the opportunity to learn diverse and beautiful words in English. My parents labored to ensure my bilingual upbringing did not compromise my ability to speak both English and Spanish effectively. People often call me articulate because I speak well. Most people, however, assume that I am white because I am articulate. Their misguided views sustain the tacit belief of Latin@ stupidity. It also minimizes the challenges Latin@s like me overcame to become articulate speakers.
Books and I didn’t have a classic romantic relationship with instant mutual attraction. At the outset, we hated each other. Living in a bilingual household complicated my ability to master both languages. When I was a boy, I remember struggling to understand what my parents said to me. I also struggled to communicate in both languages. I was placed into a literacy lab during the first grade where I and other students who struggled to read received extra help outside of the classroom. In spite of the help, my first grade teacher warned my parents that I would likely need to redo the first grade. Upon hearing this, my parents leapt into action. They revised a commonly played game in Mexico called Loteria, an equivalent to American bingo. They replaced spanish words in the game with english words to help me learn how to read. My parents played Loteria with me four to five times a week. As a result of their love and support, I advanced to the second grade with the highest Lexile level in my class.
When people associate my intelligence with whiteness, it implicitly communicates that society expects stupidity and ignorance from Chicanos. On a daily basis, I bear the responsibility of undoing the erroneous views towards Latin@ intelligence. Often during a casual conversation when someone discovers I am a Chicano, they experience shock. I’ll witness their surprise course through the furrowing of their eyebrows, the subtle opening of their jaw, and the narrowing of the eyes. The infuriating aspect of these micro-aggressions is that their ignorance is well intentioned. The surprised person will remark, “Oh really you’re Latino huh, you are just so articulate.” Instead of reaffirming worth, this praise reifies society’s mistaken expectations of Latin@ abilities and intelligence.
This summer I was mistakenly assumed for being white during my internship. A coordinator of the program and I helped lead a training for middle school teachers at a school climate summit integrating Restorative Practices in the classroom. Once the summit ended the organizer of the event led a debrief with me and the leader of the training. The debrief unfolded, and she told me she was impressed by my public speaking skills and the articulate way I spoke. I thanked her and the meeting continued. Later in the debrief, she mentioned that her school district is diverse. She suggested that the next time the organization delivered the training that we bring diverse students from the school we work with. Yet, it did not dawn on her that I was a Latin@. I felt my breathing constrict as I managed my anger. I wasn’t Latin@ enough for her. I didn’t fit her mold of a Latin@. My style of speaking undid her mistaken perceptions of what Latin@s’ capabilities. She never considered that a Latin@ could be well spoken and intelligent. I felt in a bind. My unconditioned response was to let her know in a less than diplomatic way how hurtful her ignorance was to me. I knew that wouldn’t have been productive. At the same time I didn’t want to inauthentically pretend nothing happened. I didn’t know how to address the impact of her comments without affecting my internship. I – to the best of my ability – calmly remarked “I’m Latino.” And like all the other white people before her, I witnessed the pause, the narrowing of the gaze and heard the comment uttered by so many white mouths in my life, “Oh…. You are Latino …. I didn’t know. You are just so articulate.”
Well intentioned comments can efface the support and efforts Latin@ families invest in helping their children succeed. My mom constantly created new Loteria boards to help me practice my reading and pronunciation. My father and I read every day after he arrived home from work. In spite of his fatigue, he approached each of our reading nights with enthusiasm and patience. I owe my love for words and ability to confound the expectations of society’s expectations of Latin@s to my parent’s investment of time and affection. Their efforts ensured that I could articulately speak English and Spanish as a Latin@. Eloquence is not the result of assimilating into whiteness. Patience and care built a love of words.
13 Years passed since the Second grade when reading and I kicked off our relationship. We remain faithfully committed to one another. Through the process of reading, my love of words grew. Books provided insights into new words and applications. Oral experiences on the other hand taught me that implicit racial prejudice exists in the world. I don’t hate the white people whose racialized expectations of intelligence I upset. We all share complicity in establishing intelligence as synonymous with whiteness. Jokes and comments shared among the public cement the perception that Latin@s speak broken and un-intelligible English. Movies, films and other media sustain archetypes for Latino@s as the funny and dumb Latino man whose stupidity provides comic relief. These messages of Latin@s obscure the truth of my pueblo’s abilities and intelligence.
Praise indicates someone’s talent and significance. I believe in expressing praise because it is a form of gratitude. Gratitude can strengthen connections and cultivate an individual’s strengths. Yet, praise needs to be examined before it is shared. Will my words contribute to sustaining misguided views of a people? Praise inspires and empowers. Spoken with ignorance, it cements inferiority.
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