BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- What do you do when you get trapped in a stereotype that doesn’t apply -- or just plain hurts?
This is not a trivial question. As Hispanics start populating academia, newsrooms, boardrooms and courtrooms across the country, they face the tricky terrain of interacting with people who have different backgrounds and upbringings. And sometimes those folks say the craziest things.
Recently, the Chicana writer and Huffington Post blogger Michele Serros wrote about once finding herself as the only Latina at an elite national writers conference in California. In addition to being the only participant from a rural farming community -- and not from some Latin American country -- she experienced the following crack:
“At the lunch buffet line, another aspiring writer nudged me. ‘Look,’ he motioned to a basket of tortilla chips. ‘l guess they knew you were coming.’”
“When that happens, you just have to roll with the punch and see where it’s headed,” said Luis Martinez, a human resources consultant and executive coach in Rochester, N.Y. As a Cuban immigrant, he gets a lot of questions about cigars and baseball -- two topics he cares little about -- and has learned to take it all in stride.
“Sometimes when it’s something serious, you really have to stand your ground and explain in as civil a way as you can why someone has made the wrong assumption about you,” Martinez told me. “But other times it’s not worth the trouble. You read the body language, the tone of voice and go from there. It would take someone being really over-the-top, extraordinarily ignorant to make me stand my ground.”
Having gotten such an evenhanded answer from a professional relationship pro, I had to wonder if there were other, zingier, ways to respond to such situations. The kind that maybe a brilliant satirist could get away with.
I called Lalo Alcaraz, the nationally syndicated Mexican-American cartoonist and “jefe-in-chief” of the humor site pocho.com. But he, too, counseled against telling someone who blunders to take their tortilla chips and shove ‘em.
“I get out ahead of it, I like to proclaim my beanerness ahead of time because then it’s like, ‘If I can say it, then you can say it. Maybe.’”
Frequently mistaken for some of his more direct cartoon alter egos, Alcaraz said, “People get uncomfortable around me, they think I’m some thoughtless militant. But I’m really not out there barking at people. So I think I maybe overcompensate, but I can usually spot when someone’s being lame and racist or being sincere.”
In the past, Alcaraz has coped with uncomfortable food references by “just putting it out there.”
“I was in an office party situation once and I brought in pan dulce,” which is sweet Mexican bread. “I’m not a stereotype machine, but I enjoy pan dulce, everyone should like pan dulce, so why not?”
Aurelia Flores, founder of the Latina leadership site powerfullatinas.com and senior counsel at a Fortune 500 company, completed my trifecta of experts who suggested giving stereotype-laced comments the benefit of the doubt.
“If I go into any situation where I’m the minority thinking ‘These people are jerks, they don’t understand me,’ that’s not going to get me anywhere,” Flores said. “But if we try to figure out where the other person is coming from and meet them there -- even if we’re thinking in our heads, ‘How clueless is this person?’ or conversely, ‘What an a------!” -- it might help me or someone else.”
“Like it or not at that point, you’re the representative Latino or Latina of their world and you don’t want to leave them feeling like, ‘Not only do I not understand these people, but they’re all so uppity -- I was just trying to be nice,’” Flores said. “While it’s not fair to have to deal with other people’s misperceptions, you have to be open to the possibility that they might actually be trying to relate to you on a personal level.”
This is the secret to dealing with life’s little slights: Assume the best and just try to be nice.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group