I was recently asked to give a presentation about women in the workforce to a group of Latina undergraduate students. After the panic about speaking in public wore off, I started asking myself, what could I possibly teach them?
I started thinking about my experiences (as a student and professional) and how they have been shaped by the cultural imaginary of Latinos in this country. Too many stereotypes persist and continue to negatively affect Latinos. You know them. I will not waste my time listing them here. I will, however, say that after going through the long list of stereotypes that have kept and continue to keep my people oppressed, the next things that came to mind was the Latin Explosion of the late 90’s. This explosion introduced Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, and Shakira to the American mainstream. One of the most frustrating realities of this so-called “explosion” is the idea that these people became famous overnight. Just in case you did not know this, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Shakira and the newly popular Sofia Vergara were HUGE in Latin America and filthy rich before their “cross-over” to the American mainstream. We had already loved and obsessed over them for years. History lesson: there are 32 Spanish-speaking countries around the world. Of these 32 Spanish is the official language of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Spain, Equatorial Guinea and Puerto Rico. Each of these countries has a rich complex history, their own entertainment industries and again…lots of famous people. Anytime I hear an ignorant American-made statement about Latinos in this country, I remember Susiemaye’s mama and her words of wisdom, “We were kings and queens when they were still running around in caves.” But, I digress. Lets get back to my dilemma. What can I possibly tell these young women about being professional Latinas in the workforce? How can I equip them for the challenges they will surely encounter?
In my research I came across an article in the most recent issue of Latina magazine: “Latinas at the office: do we need to tone down our sex appeal?” The article focused on different Latinas who have been negatively affected by their imagined sex appeal. One of these women, Debrahlee Lorenzana, is currently in a lawsuit with Citigroup. Her allegations: she was fired because her male colleagues and supervisors believed she was too distracting at the office. After seeing images of her in her business attire I couldn’t help but marvel at her beauty (she is indeed breathtaking) and wanting to be her (if only I could rock stilettos like that).
While reading about this case, I started thinking about the current cultural imagery of Latinas. The so-called “Latin Explosion,” did in fact open many doors and in many ways solidified that we actually existed. We knew we existed but apparently white people didn’t. It isn’t a coincidence that after Jennifer Lopez’s rise to fame, several people (black and white) told me that I looked like/reminded them of Jennifer Lopez. Side note, I don’t look like Jennifer Lopez.
So, who are today’s mainstream Latinas and what can we say about their representation in the media? On basic television: Sara Ramirez (Grey’s Anatomy’s resident hot, lesbian Latina doctor), Eva Longoria (Desperate ‘hot Latina’ Housewife), Sofia Vergara (Modern Family’s hot, young Latina wife), Rosalyn Sánchez (Without A Trace’s hot special agent) and Salma Hayek (most recently Alec Baldwin’s hot Latina girlfriend). In movies: Jennifer Lopez, Eva Mendez, Zoe Saldana, Rosario Dawson, Jessica Alba, America Ferrera, Penelope Cruz, Paz Vega, Michele Rodriguez, Rosie Perez and Christina Milan; all of them often cast as the hot Latina light-skinned girlfriends of white men (but that’s another post). What do all of these women have in common? You guessed it: they are all HOT Latinas.
So what are these young women about to encounter after graduation? As women and as women of color, the obvious: sexism, racism, and working harder than everyone else because they have to prove they are (one) qualified and (two) deserve to be there. As Latinas: working with people of other backgrounds who very likely have only been exposed to one-dimensional representations of Latina women – hot, sexy, curvaceous, (and my favorite) spicy. They might be even hotter if they have accents or not quite Latina enough if they either lack the accent (because maybe their people have been here for over 300 years) or if, heaven forbid, lack the curves.
My presentation will of course include a modified version of this tangent and the following list of advice. As my online community of feminists, activists, scholars, sisters, friends, professionals and colleagues, I invite you read along and add to the list whatever advice has proven to be beneficial for you.
- Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.
- First impressions can make or break your career, which means you must dress for success.
- Invest in a quality/appropriate wardrobe. If you are on a tight budget: frequent department stores such as TJ Maxx, and Marshalls. Also, don’t sleep on Goodwill or the Salvation Army: I have found many of my favorite pieces in second hand stores.
- Respect and acknowledge every individual’s contribution to your company/institution. Everyone from the cleaning personnel to the administrative assistants, to the company CEO makes significant contributions to your organization.
- I have had just about every possible job you can imagine. I have learned to make friends with everyone especially those that didn’t have the access to the resources/paycheck that I had. How did this help me? For starters, when I was a waitress – I was having lobster dinners (because I loved the cooks and they loved me). While I was a graduate student, I never paid for the many lattes and brownies that got me through it. They say it’s important to have friends in high places but experience has taught me that it’s more important to have friends in all places, especially when they are people of color.
- Know the ins and outs of your field.
- Stay informed. Read newsletters, journals, magazines, blogs etc. that incorporate current events/updates/important discoveries in your field.
- Define clear goals for yourself.
- What do you want from this career? How will you get there?
- Find a mentor.
- This was great advice I received from a fellow Latina. The mentor doesn’t have to be a woman or even of the same race. Find a person in the position you want, forge a professional relationship with them, find out what they did to get where they are, and start making moves to get there.
- Mentor other young women.
- The reality is that there aren’t enough women of color in positions of power. It is important to role model professional success for young girls who are constantly bombarded with negative messages of what it means to be women of color.
- Read. Read. Read.
- Read books that focus on leadership and managing people. Some of my favorites include: How to Win Friends and Influence People, See Jane Lead, and Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office.
- If you can’t afford to buy these books, head to your neighborhood library or spend lots of time at your favorite bookstore.
- Attend seminars geared toward cultivating your leadership qualities.
- There are plenty of organizations out there. Do your research. Sign up for a workshop that will help you advance your career.
- Find support groups for women/women of color in your field.
- If there aren’t any, start one.
- Work should NEVER be your life. Make your physical, emotional and mental health a priority. No one is will do this for you.
- Incorporate a balanced diet and exercise program to your lifestyle.
- Make sure you get enough sleep.
- Make the time to do something you love and spend time with the people you love.
- Stay connected to your college/university alum network.
- Often times, alums are the best way to secure internships or even get your foot into the door.
- After you graduate make sure you give back to your college/university.
- I know that the thought of giving money to your already rich institution (while still paying student loans) might make you scream. However, making donations (however small) to specific scholarships for minority students or cultural groups on campus makes your alma mater know that you mean business and want to make sure they continue investing in their students of color.