“You’re Just Another Wetback”: The Reality Of Latino Professional Experiences

Tony was a Latino man in his late fifties who wore a long black ponytail down his back. His face had the look of someone who had, as he put it, “been baptized by fire.” He’d had a tough upbringing in Los Angeles. Decades later as a successful attorney in Seattle, Tony clearly held onto some of the bitterness from his youth. You could see it in his eyes. His high school teachers thought he should be an auto mechanic. Perhaps they thought that by guiding him into a trade, they were actually doing this young Latino a favor. And in a way they did. Their advice provided Tony with the motivation needed to become a professional. “Going back to my experience as a young man and the idea that I should have been an auto mechanic made me so angry it was the last thing I was going to be” he shared with the group of Latino attorneys in Seattle on a cold night. Because of the discouragement and vocational tracking he was given by his teachers when he was young, he feels a special obligation to give back to the Latino community. He says, “I think we owe something. You know beside shoving it in people’s faces that I’m around, I think that I owe something.” You could hear his frustration in his voice as he shared how the notion of giving back was intertwined with his pride in showing people that Latinos can be much more than auto mechanic or laborers.

His experiences with racism have seeped into every area of his life, not just in his profession, and not just when he was young. When asked about the effects of being a minority on his life he says,

I’m always aware of it. And it’s subtle. It’s subtle… for example when I bought my home on Bainebridge [Island] and it overlooks the water. I was outside and I don’t know what I was doing and my neighbor says: ‘Oh, are you the gardener.’ And my actual gardener who is about 6’3” and a white guy with blonde hair says, ‘No, that’s the owner.’ And the face on the person was like, totally changed. And that’s what I have experienced for 55 years. That’s the kind of thing that you see. As a Latino or Native American or any kind of minority that you, you’re just another wetback or you’re just another migrant farm worker or whatever until you are a professional and that suddenly your stature changes, and you have to be aware of it whether it’s been brought out to you or whether you’ve faced it or you’ve experienced it, it’s there….[The] whole idea of being a minority and working as a professional, you almost have to be outstanding in order to be accepted.

Being “outstanding in order to be accepted” is something Tony has accomplished. However, when pressed about what costs it has meant for him he says

You have to work harder, it seems than if you were not a minority. It’s like women have always said being minorities you know you have to work twice as hard as a man in order to do the same job it’s that kind of attitude that is out there. And especially I think here in Washington, although it seems to be a bed of liberalism, though the discrimination is very subtle. You know, they talk about the glass ceiling. It does exist here. It does exist.

In order to survive as a Latino professional in a white world he states

You have to be able to be, I don’t want to say switch hit, but you’ve got to be flexible or you’re going to be left out.

On the other hand when it comes to the subject of language he laughingly states, “If you don’t speak Spanish in L.A. you’re toast.” Despite having had greater expectations placed on him as a professional of color because of perceived incompetence, or maybe because of the need to work twice as hard than his white colleagues to prove he was credible, his views are very conservative, particularly when he talks about individual initiative, drive, and ambition. He is very much against “handouts”, which he believes are a waste of money:

It’s like a little kid you know if you give them a toy, you know it doesn’t mean anything as much as if they worked, saved their money and go to the store and buy it with their own money that they feel this is something special and they take care of it. That’s how I feel about my education because I had to work for it. I missed out on all the affirmative action, you know, I was too old and by that time I’d already been through law school – at a cost of only $10,000 I might add. All those things I think are important but I think that ….you point them in the right direction, but not hold their hand all the way through. I think that’s what’s important. I think just indiscriminately throwing money out there, I think is a waste of money.

As a registered Republican, Tony sees affirmative action as just another obstacle for people of color:

One of the things that I’ve faced especially strong is the effect of affirmative action. And I have heard people say: ‘Oh, did you get into school through affirmative action.’ Which means that you weren’t good enough to get through the normal ways. You got in because you were a minority. And that comes up periodically.

However, Tony’s conservative views are mixed with the reality of his experiences with racism, stigma, and exclusion as a Latino growing up in America. The life of a Latino professional is “a very big balancing act” he proclaims. As a member of the Washington State Bar Committee on Diversity he found that there was some acceptance “for some degree of minorities.” But not for many partners. When asked by his colleagues to name one Latina partner in a major law firm in Seattle he replied, “Can’t. You can’t.”

The experiences that Tony describes of his life as a person of color are not unique to his chosen profession of law. They are unique to his being a Latino in America where a Latino is treated like just ‘another wetback’ as he put it. Tony’s story could be the experience of any Latino professional whether a banker, a real estate agent, a doctor or even a professor. The school tracking into a vocational trade such as a mechanic is an all too familiar experience for Latino males, as is the secretarial tracking for Latina females; the negative experiences growing up in the California or other Southwestern States are shared by most Latinos; the assumption that he was the gardener if he was in a fancy neighborhood; and most of all, the assumption that he doesn’t belong in America—these are all experiences that stem from the racialization of Latinos as poor, undocumented, alien, and unwanted. Tony’s experiences are the reality that any Latino with an education and money could encounter because of the way Latinos have been racialized in America.

Central to issues between whites and Latinos is the racial framing of Latinos. In a recent book titled How the United States Racilizes Latinos: White Hegemony and Its Consequences, several scholars document the racialization of Latinos in America.Cobas, Duany, and Feagin begin by defining this phenomenon as follows:

The racialization of Latinos refers to their definition as a “racial” group and the denigration of their alleged physical and cultural characteristics, such as phenotype, language, or number of children. Their racialization also entails their incorporation into a white-created and white-imposed racial hierarchy and continuum, now centuries old, with white Americans at the very top and black Americans at the very bottom (p. 1)

Tracing the pattern of racialization throughout the centuries, Cobas et al. provide ample evidence to demonstrate that Latinos have been constructed as “unwanted and disreputable aliens.” This can be seen in today’s immigration debate, which link Latinos, regardless of their citizenship status, to being “foreign and dangerous.” Tony can never truly escape from this reality, no matter how successful he becomes.

This is an excerpt from a book manuscript by Mária Chávez, assistant professor, Pacific Lutheran University