Is It Just Me?

“Showing Up” to Work as a Latinx Professional

My introduction to how to show up to work as a Latinx professional first came from what I observed at home. Growing up, my father was what I believed to be the quintessential businessman. As a teenager, I helped him pack for business trips to places like China, Russia, Uganda, Haiti, and Switzerland. While he starched and pressed his button-down shirts and neatly rolled his neckties before placing them in his suitcase, I sat on the bed and listened to stories which—no matter the plotline—almost always centered around the importance of hard work and making a good impression. As a Latinx man of Afro-Caribbean descent, he sometimes alluded to the racism he faced at work and in the world, but my takeaway from the stories he chose to share was that hard work and discipline might soften any blows I encountered upon landing my first job.

As the years passed, I began to put together my own definition of what it meant to be a professional and Latinx in a work environment. Like many others, my definition was built mostly on assumptions and loose interpretations of what I saw and thought I understood. One day while cleaning out a closet, I uncovered a set of tapes on which my father could be heard repeating vowel sounds and simple words in English. On the tapes, his Spanish accent was thicker than I ever remembered it to be. When I showed it to my mother, she told me they were from a period in which my father studied with an elocutionist (a person who gives lessons in correct pronunciation and articulation) to lessen his thick accent at work. Without questioning it, I put the cassettes back in the closet and gave it no further thought. What emerged in my mind without me realizing it was the incorrect idea that English was the only language acceptable in a professional setting, a belief that was confirmed every time I overheard people complain about coworkers having private conversations in Spanish or make disparaging remarks about not being able to understand someone because of their accent.  

The more time passed, the bigger the gap between who I was at home and who I believed I was expected to be at work grew. At home, we ate black beans and rice, plantain, yuca, and arepas. We listened to Celia Cruz, Julio Iglesias, and the same CD of Venezuelan folk tunes on repeat. Although my Spanish was never what one would consider fluent, I could still understand the majority of conversations when my father talked to family back home or tuned into Sábado Gigante on Univision. At work, no matter the environment or institution I found myself at, there seemed to be an unspoken, universal belief that the things that made me who I am and made me feel connected to those around me were considered “other” and had no place in a professional setting. 

What became apparent to me over time was that these two worlds, my world at home, which was lyrical, sensual, and colorful, and the world of work, which often felt sterile, silent, and void of culture, were two entirely separate spheres. If I wanted to exist in one, I would need to put the other aside. For years, I accepted this distinction (the divide between who I was as a person and who I was as a professional) as a fact of life. I assumed everyone had to put aside parts of themselves to fit in and be accepted in the workplace. And because I was taught to trust and respect authority, I took the advice my employers gave me as gospel. I put up my curly biracial hair when I was told it was “unprofessional”. I never showed up with bacalao to the office potluck, because who would eat that? And never took the time to work on my Spanish because I could not yet see a direct connection between it and my professional development.

Upon arriving at Clark, I showed up in the way I was accustomed to—at first. I kept my culture out of conversation and shielded myself from comments and ideas about identity that didn’t sit right, even when I couldn’t put my finger on why. It was only when I began to connect with students who dared bring their whole selves to our appointments that I started to understand what it truly means to “show up” to work as Latinx. It isn’t just about speaking Spanish versus English, the food you eat, or the spaces your family inhabits around the globe. It is about sharing an origin with others, and using that origin as a foundation we can hold onto as we branch out into the world and learn to define ourselves. 

It is a process—bringing one’s whole self to work. For those who have had to hide parts of themselves because it was the only way they knew to protect the most cherished parts of who they are, it’s a slow but worthy endeavor. I cannot promise those who try it that it will go without incident. I cannot guarantee immediate gratification for those who take the leap. But I can say that every conversation in which I’ve shared my heritage with a student or colleague is a step towards merging my two identities (my personal and professional self) into a more authentic version of who I am—not who I think the world wants to see or who others perceive me to be.  It is the only way I can truly show up to do the work that matters most—the work of discovering who I am, what impact I want to have on this world, and helping others do the same.

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