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  • Writer's pictureElliot Figueroa

Hispanic, Puerto Rican or Other; A personal understanding.

“Don’t be talking like no ‘Rican!”

Those were the words that have stuck with me longer than the bump on my head from a spray can he smacked me with. Fatherly advice that ultimately would come to shape my understanding of racism in ways I am still coming to grips with. You see, my Dad meant more than just talk the talk. He meant to walk the walk and look the part. And it did not come from a place of reverse racism against our own culture but from a deep understanding of how our sun-tanned skin and the difficult pronunciation of our last name would impact every aspect of my life. It came from having spent his entire career proving himself beyond the perception of Puerto Rico’s third world-country-colony-commonwealth-state confusing status. I would soon come to realize that my experience, albeit different and less palpable, would be quite similar.

In the summer of ’89, we relocated to Central Florida, the land of Mickey Mouse. This was adventurous but certainly not a holistic joyous occasion for my Dad as he had to give up his career and a source of great pride. By this time in his profession, he had ascended to the C-Suite and had regional duties with one of the country’s largest auto parts distributors and retailers. More impressive than simply having achieved this was having done it rising from the local ranks of the company’s Puerto Rican locations. By his own account, he did not credit his success to his education or his prowess in office politics. Instead, he routinely reminded us that it was important to be the smartest person in the room and that did not necessarily mean the one with the most schooling. This notion was largely attributed to how you communicated with people. How you said things being far more important than what you said. He often compared it with speaking “Shakespearean when you need to speak Shakespearean” and “Street when you need to speak Street.” But most important was knowing when to speak which.

And so, my Dad education was filled with advice on slowing down my speech, writing clearly, and using the correct annunciation and pronunciation. Mind you this was an arduous task as I began to formally learn English at the age of nine, by which time my cadence and rhythm of quick Caribbean Spanish had taken hold. As my brain transitioned to the new words and phrases, I often found my thoughts beyond the speed of my tongue and trampled over words repeatedly. This was much to the chagrin of my Dad who heard me speak to friends and family with an undeniable slang in order to capture entire thoughts without using entire sentences.

It wasn’t until I became of age, after the military, and began to apply and interview for potential careers, that I realized the depth of this advice. It was not simply about talking clearly, although being able to communicate with a team of employees is quite necessary. Instead, it was about shedding the conventional and stereotypical assessments that came with being from another country. I consider myself fortunate. In large part due to my lighter complexion, education, and certainly in choosing the hospitality industry as a career, I did not feel racism so bluntly. Yet this does not mean it was not present. My career path more than my overall success was shaped by my culture and yet I find myself asking for no reparations and I suffer from no regrets. I understood this at an earlier age than most and made accommodations for it.

This understanding, however, has led me to reconcile my success with the advice my father gave me. He wanted me to understand how to continuously code myself and therefore conduct myself differently with different people in ways that other races never have to. It instilled in me an ability to understand my audience and adjust my volume, pace, annunciation, and cadence in order to create as little cultural ripple as possible. The best validation of this idea was being told I did not “sound” Puerto Rican or that I “spoke English so well.” And yet it makes this clichéd remark no less bothersome and disturbing.

I do not look back at my career and see any opportunities I missed that were not in large part due to decisions I personally made. I do, however, look at the decisions I made and think that it if was not for my cultural wake, I would have made them differently.

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