Fiery. Docile. Sexy. These are some of the stereotypes Latinas often navigate in the workplace.
Sara Inés Calderón, 29, a media professional says that sometimes coworkers expect her to cede to their opinions or believe that her role is to serve them. They manifest their bias, for example, by asking her to get photocopies, a task they can clearly do themselves. She says that older white men often have these preconceived notions because “they’ve never adjusted to changes, so they’ve never adjusted their expectations. And it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re racist.”
On the other end of the spectrum is the stereotype of the fiery-tempered Latina. Thanks to TV and film, the image of an angry, wildly gesticulating Latina is common. Beatriz Ruiz, 26, a State Farm Insurance, Office Representative said that when she complained about her male coworkers making rape jokes in the office, her reactions were chalked up to her being “passionate, and expressive.” She was disregarded because of this stereotype and it caused a tense work environment.
Generalizations make it difficult for women to do their jobs. Adriana Diaz, 32, a nonprofit professional, says that when she worked in a leadership position for a union, it was difficult for men to take her seriously not only because she was Latina, but because she looked very young for her age. They assumed she was inexperienced. “You have to really assert yourself to be taken seriously,” she says.
Esther J. Cepeda, 37, a nationally syndicated opinion columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group, says that in the various industries she’s worked in, people have drawn conclusions about her upbringing. “People assume I had a dramatic, impoverished childhood. They think I grew up in the barrio. They don’t know that my parents came here with college degrees and that I grew up in Wrigleyville” (a fairly affluent Chicago neighborhood). It’s difficult for some people to understand that Latinas come from diverse backgrounds, that we’re not all maids in Manhattan.
What can also undermine Latinas and women in general is not the stereotype itself, but a “stereotype threat,” which occurs when people worry that they may fulfill a stereotype by performing poorly. Their anxiety then makes the stereotype a reality. A study found that when women were even subtly reminded that men were better than women at math, their tests scores suffered. Studies also show that this “stereotype threat” is also the cause of educational achievement gaps for black and Latino students. Latinas must grapple with expectations based on both their gender and race. Some women are unable to overcome these assumptions and actually participate in them. Ruiz, for instance, says that one of her supervisors who was also Latina, “was prone to flying into rages at the office.” She would then justify her behavior by saying “you know how we are.”
The key is to avoid participating in these generalizations. If you choose to be the scary, hot-tempered Latina in the office, you’re doing yourself and your fellow Latinas a disservice. Diaz advises, “Don’t feed into it yourself. We give into in and then complain about it.”
Margaret Heffernan, CEO also advises women not to give into or reinforce the stereotype in any way, and to become close to friends and colleagues who see you as a whole person.
A positive attitude is also necessary in navigating stereotypes. Cepeda says, “I always assume that people are doing their best and mean well.” She also believes that having a sense of humor and correcting people immediately is the best method in dealing with inaccurate generalizations. “Sometimes you see your coworkers more than your family, so it’s best to be forgiving and ensure people know where you come from. Sara similarly believes that you have to call people out but also have a sense of humor. For instance, when a coworker mistakes one Latino ethnicity for another, she jokes, “no, that’s another kind of Mexican.” Sometimes a generalization is so inaccurate that one can’t help but laugh at the sheer absurdity.
Addressing the problem directly and thoughtfully appears to be the most effective method in dealing with stereotypes. A study from Western Michigan University found that confronting participants about their racially stereotyping comments caused a decrease in that behavior during consequent activities and that polite confrontations were as effective as aggressive ones.
Latinas need to deal with these problems delicately. If we don’t speak up, we fulfill the expectation that we are docile. If we erupt into a rage, we participate in the fiery Latina stereotype. These kinds of reactions will only hurt us in the long run. We can make a difference for ourselves and for each other if we confront these preconceived notions with confidence, honesty, and tact.
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Madrid, Spain, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. She is currently a book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and a contributor for The Huffington Post, AlterNet, and Mamiverse. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Witness, Anti-, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in Jezebel, Ms. Magazine, and American Public Media. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, or erikalsanchez.com.