American LifeLegal Alien

By Jeannie Rivera Jul 18, 2013 1:34PM


The insult du jour seems to be to calling talented Americans with brown skin non-Americans, but in much meaner terms. The most recent target of these attacks is singer-actor Marc Anthony, JLo’s ex, whose magnificent rendition of God Bless America at Wednesday’s All-Star game elicited angry reactions in social media.


His detractors questioned how in the world a Hispanic (although the word they used has four letters) ended up on stage in such an important night for baseball.  For heaven’s sake, this is "America’s pastime," complained hundreds of Twitter and Facebook users.


“Welcome to America where God Bless America is sang at our national pastime by a Mexican,” read one of the few tweets that doesn’t include the “f” bomb or some other profanity in it.


Marc, by the way, was born and raised in New York. His parents are from Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory since 1898. But knowledge isn’t something to be expected from bigots. They cling to their ignorance with desperation and refuse to be enlightened. That’s why I believe that those who have come out in Marc’s defense highlighting that he is Puerto Rican and not Mexican are missing the point. 


Those who spew racial hatred aren’t concerned with such technicalities. Whether Marc hails from Puerto Rico, Mexico, or Cuba, is irrelevant to them. They saw a brown skin person on stage, who happens to speak Spanish (if not as fluent as his native English) and that was enough to set them ablaze.


The racially-uniform America these people long for has never existed. (Unless their idea of paradise is to revert to pre-Columbian America.) It is ironic, to say the least, that these individuals fantasize of such a non-existent place during an All Star game. Is as if somehow they've missed that their beloved sport has been elevated to an art form time and again by players with last names like Clemente, Rodriguez, and Rivera. But again, we have already mentioned that knowledge isn't their forte. 


We saw the same types having a tantrum not too long ago. In June, 11-year-old Sebastien De la Cruz of San Antonio sang the national anthem during the NBA finals. The haters blasted the boy –the son of an American veteran- with every nasty term reserved for immigrants and demanded that he goes back to Mexico. De la Cruz was born in Texas.


I dare say this won’t be the last time we see this movie. Racism is almost as old as the human race. It affects people who, on their own merits, are unable to feel adequate unless they put someone down. Yet, that doesn’t mean we are to look the other way.


We may not be able to end racism for good but we can keep it from spreading by denouncing it when we see it regardless of what group is being singled out. We can make it very uncomfortable for racists by calling them on it when we see it (like that guy sitting next to us a bar telling a Jewish joke, or the coworker that stereotypes blacks). Sometime it may take writing a letter to an organization, or asking a corporation to stop supporting something or someone.


Whatever action the moment calls for, we have to convey clearly that when it comes to racism, we are intolerant. This depletes the oxygen from the flames.



By Jeannie Rivera Jun 19, 2013 3:35PM

Ann Coulter has been relentlessly making the case against immigration reform for a few months now, appearing almost weekly in a national show to disparage against the current efforts in Washington. Her rationale? It goes something like this: Hispanics will vote Democrat no matter what. So, why bother?


Here’s why. If the GOP wants to stop its “demographic death spiral as a party,” as described by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina earlier this week, it must do a better job on how it deals with issues sensitive to Hispanics and other minorities. In other words, Republicans need to give us a reason to vote Republican.


What has happened with the Latino vote is hardly an enigma. More of us used to vote for the GOP as recent as 2004, when 44 percent of our ballots were cast for G.W. Bush. But a few things happened between then and 2012. Namely, a barrage of anti immigrant rhetoric and policies generated by GOP politicians (Gov. Jan Brewer in Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Texas, Congressman Steve King of Iowa, to mention a few.)  So, not surprisingly, only 14 percent of our vote went to Mitt Romney in 2012.


Coulter’ crusade against immigration reform isn’t helping these numbers. She isn’t an elected official but is frequently in their presence, often invited by them, at conservative gatherings all over the nation. Her charge that Hispanics aren’t willing to consider the Republican Party is disproved by history and social studies. A recent one by Latino Decisions, a leading political research group, found that 45 percent of Latinos would be more likely to vote Republican if the tone on immigration reform discussions was different.


The same poll, released earlier this month, found that a majority of Latino voters are following the immigration reform debate in Congress and that actions taken on the immigration bill directly influence how Latinos evaluate both parties.


This is a thorny, complex issue. I think I speak for many when I say that I don’t expect a magical bill that will solve all of the multiple layers of problems we have created over decades of piecemeal approach to immigration. But the tone of the discussion is just as important. Loud Republican voices like Coulter’s who recently wrote a piece around the theme “Hispanics are lazy” are not helping to stop the GOP’s Latinos votes hemorrhage.







By Jeannie Rivera Jun 14, 2013 2:11PM

I have been a fan of Sebastien de la Cruz since I first saw him perform in America’s Got Talent last year. His voice is powerful beyond his 11 years of age; he is humble, gracious, and proud of his Mexican heritage. 


Some people don’t appreciate the latter and attacked the boy with the nastiest of racial epithets when he sang The Star Spangled Banner earlier this week at the NBA finals in his San Antonio hometown. Critics flooded social media with insults to Sebastien and his family. Last night, Sebastien pushed back by making their ears bleed. He sang the national anthem again clad in a Mexican charro suit.


Kudos to him. Racists don’t always merit that we engage them in a discussion likely to accomplish little, but we should never ignore them. El que calla, otorga. To be silent is to be complicit.


I’m fascinated by the argument some still make that we should pay no attention to racist people. To paraphrase a friend’s argument in Twitter, that by minding too much what ignorant people say, we add wood to the fire and provide them with a wider audience. This is partially true but in this case, a necessary risk.


Racism is a choice. We aren’t born infected with racial bias. When an adult chooses hate over tolerance, that isn’t a choice I have to respect anymore than I have to respect anyone’s choice to be a womanizer, or to exploit other human beings, for instance. Thus, by pushing back we let the racists know their choice isn’t respected and it isn’t tolerated in this country of ours. We let them know they –not any of the groups they like to single out- have become the outsiders. Their hate should not be met with silence because it sends the message that we don’t care or, worse, that their comments have a place in the national discussion of race and identity.


Now, pushing back means different things at different times depending on the circumstances. Stooping down to their level is never a wise strategy. Sebastien’s family and the San Antonio Spurs recognized this and found a brilliant way of pushing back that strikes back at the haters’ phobia of having a person of Latino heritage sing the national anthem.  He sang at the game last night… again. He wore the charro outfit again. Take that.


Más claro no canta un gallo. Whether some like it or not, The Star Spangled Banner is Sebastien’s national anthem too.



By Jeannie Rivera Jun 7, 2013 5:38PM

This is a story about a story that refuses to go away, and when you think it has faded it somehow resurrects and shows up again. I’ve seen it play out in Florida, Texas, Arizona, California and many more places. This time it popped up in New Mexico, at a Whole Foods store.


Two employees were suspended for speaking Spanish among themselves while on the clock. Whole Foods denies having an English-only policy, but a statement provided by one of its executives suggests that - official ban or not - the company’s corporate culture frowns at employees speaking anything other than English.



Whole Foods' handling of this issue, along with the online responses to the trending story, highlights a point much bigger than when it is appropriate to speak another language. The spotlight is, once again, on an increasingly multicultural nation that is struggling to come to grips with some aspects of its diversity. Language is a touchy one because many Americans see it as a defining element of the American identity. That’s not to say, however, that English can’t coexist with other languages.


The point I’m making is hardly revolutionary. Take Spain, for instance. Spanish has been the predominant, official language of the land for centuries. Yet Catalan is still going strong in Cataluña (Barcelona area) where kids learn to write and read it in elementary school. The millenarian language of Euskera is used freely in the northern central area of the country where it is very common to see road and store signs in both Euskera and Spanish. The Spaniards don’t think of themselves as anything other than Spaniards because two or three languages are the norm in some areas of their country. They don't become automatically suspicious either when they hear these languages around them even if they don't understand them.


So, what is the big deal? Ben Friedland, Whole Foods Market Rocky Mountain Region executive marketing coordinator, makes the argument for “uniformity” because he believes having everyone in the store speak the same language is conducive to a safer working environment. In a media statement, Friedland said that this is the reason Whole Foods policy states that “all English speaking team members must speak English to customers and other team members while on the clock.”


Oh, please. How exactly is it that two employees discussing the restocking of aisle three in Spanish impairs anything or anyone? What kind of danger would be imminent if they refer to the very expensive organic lettuce as “la lechuga cara”? This is nonsense and I doubt that Mr. Friedman –or the PR machinery that wrote his quote- believes what they are saying. But for them, delivering a quote devoid of substance is easier than having to admit that Spanish speaking makes them, and some costumers, uncomfortable. Why? Because it is yet another sign of an increasingly multicultural America that some would rather not have.


English is and should be the common language of the land. To loosely quote Mr. Friedman, it’s the language that unifies us. Whoever wants to make it here needs to learn it. But English is already coexisting with other languages and no corporate policy will change that cultural phenomena. The faster we come to grips with it and use it to our advantage, the better it will be for everyone.


Who knew? An impossibly cute biracial little girl is causing controversy in the web. She represents an America that is already here that some wish it weren't.

By Jeannie Rivera Jun 5, 2013 9:17PM

One of my best friends married a Dutch guy and out of her caramel-skinned, Puerto Rican self came a light-skinned, blue-eyed baby. Everywhere her and her son went, people looked on with curiosity trying to decipher their relationship. There was nothing wrong with that as long as “the line” wasn’t crossed. Inevitably, people often did by assuming my friend was the nanny, or worse, by asking the little boy in a whispering voice if he was ok as they kept a suspicious eye on my friend.


Accepting biracial kids as the natural byproduct of the American melting pot we so like to brag about is perhaps one of the last frontiers of racism in this country. The recent Cheerios controversy painfully illustrates it.  If you missed it, some people went crazy over a commercial for the cereal posted in YouTube that features a biracial little girl, her white mom and her black father. Racists came out of the woodwork posting nasty, hurtful comments toward non-white people. The cereal maker, General Mills, shut the comments section down. I had the displeasure to read many of them in my quest for understanding what makes these people tick. That’s an hour of my life I’m not getting back.


The comments that annoyed me the most, are those from people who veil their bias behind alleged concerns that are faker than a $3 bill. “It’s not the parents I’m concerned about,” chimed one of these individuals. “It is the poor children I worry about. They grow up not knowing what or who they are.” The implication here is that anything other than being 100 percent of any given ethnicity is confusing and can bring on identity problems. The “poor children” will struggle trying to define themselves culturally as white, black, Hispanic, Asian or a little bit of all of those. Oh, the agony.


What a crock. Cultural identity is never flat. Within every ethnicity there are groups and subgroups that fuel diversity and enrich the cultural landscape. A Caucasian whose ancestors hail from, say, Norway, and grew up in Minnesota, is likely to be very different from an Irish American from Boston. Throw a couple more ethnicities in the mix and you have more layers, and a more extensive cultural heritage –and gene pool- that makes for an America with people of many hues and colors where no group holds the absolute super majority anymore. That, my friends, is what the “I-feel-bad-for-the-poor-children” people are really trying to say.


I have news for them. Census data shows the number of biracial kids in America grew by more than 25 percent in the last decade. The America these people fear is already here and I contributed to it. I am the mother of two beautiful biracial children who are as American as an arroz-con-pollo dinner, complete with apple pie for dessert. They are who they are –half Latinos, half gringos- and quite comfortable with it. Racist people annoy me but they fail to concern me much. My friend Jim Stratton, a columnist with the Orlando Sentinel and the white father of an African American girl said it best: “From my experience, the most persuasive arguments against racism have always been the racists themselves. Sure, their message might get you angry, but the messengers mostly just seem pathetic, sad and small. Angry clowns trying to whip up an audience in an empty tent.”


Some believe it is also a state of the heart.

By Jeannie Rivera May 22, 2013 5:13PM

I’m was at a business event in San Antonio when one of the speakers, the head of a local Hispanic chamber of commerce, referred to being Latino as “a state of mind”.   


All around me, dozens of people who identify as Latinos nodded in agreement. Many of them have been in Texas for six and even seven generations. They are Americans, they are Texans, and they are on-your-face proud Latinos.


It made me think. How does this happen? Their experience is quite different from mine. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, I visit the island often, my parents live over there. It is easy for me to feel in touch with my Latino roots because I’ve never been too far from them, physically or otherwise. Yet there is no doubt I’m in front of a group of Latinos that are as in touch with their cultural heritage as me even if they’ve never lived in the country of their ancestors. Or so I thought.


I asked my cab driver about this phenomenon on my way back to the airport. I wanted to know how he had been able to keep his cultural identity from getting diluted in the process of assimilation. Adolfo, the driver, gave me a confused look.


“As opposed to becoming what?” he said. “Most of us were here before anyone else arrived.” His own family, he said, has been in the San Antonio area for as long as he can trace his family tree.  “We are Texans. We are Latinos. We are Americans. ”


In a few words, Adolfo had defined a true melting pot experience as one in which all of the elements of who we are come together in perfect harmony. None supersedes the other.  There is no need to give anything up. Assimilation doesn’t mean loss of identity, as millions of Latinos in this country have shown the world.


As Adolfo’s cab pulled away from the airport’s curbside, it occurred to me that his taxi is a metaphor of who he is. On his dashboard, a plastic statue of the Virgen de la Guadalupe watched over him. On his bumper, a “Don’t Mess with Texas” sticker declared him a proud son of the Lone Star state. Is being Latino a state of mind? Perhaps so. But for Adolfo and many others it is also a state of the heart.





Her decision is brave and correct. Unfortunately, many American women don't have access to the potentially life-saving test that guided Jolie's decision.

By Jeannie Rivera May 14, 2013 8:20PM

Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a double mastectomy in light of her abnormally high chances to develop breast cancer is courageous, and so are the thousands of women in this country that are battling breast cancer without the resources that Jolie has.


Many of them are Latinas because breast cancer doesn’t discriminate. Every year, more Latinas die of breast cancer than of any other form of cancer.


Jolie explained Tuesday in a New York Times column she penned that she made the difficult decision –she called it her “medical choice”- after a genetic test confirmed that she carried a mutation that causes cancer. In her case, she said, the chances of developing the disease were 87 percent. 


One of the finest points Jolie makes in her editorial deals with the issue of access. Fortunately for her, receiving and paying for the best medical care isn’t a problem. That’s not the case for many women in this country and around the world.


“Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries,” writes Jolie. “It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 [the genetic testing she underwent], at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.”


Cancer is one of those ugly diseases that expose the disparities that still exist in our country. Consider this. The National Cancer Institute says that even though white American women are more likely to develop the disease, Hispanics and blacks are more likely to die from it. Economics and access to care easily explain the disparity. Minority women often discover they have the disease when it is at a more advanced stage. Regular mammograms, not to even mention genetic testing, is out of their reach.


With her revelation Jolie, who has long being a champion for many humanitarian causes, opens a national discussion on the politics of health in this country beyond Obamacare and Washington. It’s not about the politicians. This is about women putting their bodies through hell as they battle cancer so they can see their kids graduate from high-school, make it to their wedding, see their grandchildren. These women are warriors.  All of them deserve the same fair chance to beat the illness that Jolie has. 

By Jeannie Rivera May 8, 2013 6:16AM

As the story of the three Ohio women kept in captivity for a decade unfolded, I watched in horror the Puerto Rican flag sway in the porch of suspected kidnapper Ariel Castro. I was angry, ashamed even.


I was not alone. My social media Latino friends, especially those of Puerto Rican descent, were not just upset and disgusted about the crime but also saddened the suspect was one of us. Their blunt comments for the alleged aggressor aren’t suited for publication. But many of them were ready to dispense justice for Amanda Berry, Gina De Jesús and Michelle Knight.


The fact is that same connecting thread that transmits joy and pride when one of our own achieves, also carries anger and shame when stories like the one from Cleveland develop. It isn’t rational – I understand that psychopaths come in all ethnicities. But that doesn’t spare me that punch-to-the-gut feeling.


It has to do in part with that sense of community that binds us even stronger when we are away from the homeland. The cadences of the native tongue, the smells of the food we grew up with, and the sounds of the music to which we learned to dance, becomes the glue that holds us together in our new country.  We share all of those things with each other, and we view those that understand that code as equals in many respects. We expect from those almost relatives (given our broad definition of family), the same things we expect from those closest to our hearts. We expect them to do no harm, work hard, be kind, make a difference in the world, and make us proud.


And then there’s the albatross of racism. The minute I saw that flag I knew that plenty of ignorant comments would ensue. There are already pundits using the Castro brothers as reasons why Congress should be careful when considering immigration reform, notwithstanding that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.


Thus, when something like this happens we feel shame, anger and sadness. It is as if we would’ve been betrayed. We know we can’t control the actions of strangers any more we can control what the people close to us do, but that doesn’t make it better.


I wish with all of my heart that these young women –Amanda Berry, Gina De Jesús and Michelle can heal, move forward and thrive. I sure hope as well that Castro –if guilty of this heinous crime- pays for it dearly.


About the author
  • Jeannie RiveraJeannie Rivera

    Jeannie Rivera is an independent writer and former newspaper reporter who lives in Central Florida with her family, a guitar, a few orchids and a bunch of books. She doesn't have pets and this is unlikely to change. She's penned stories for The Miami Herald, The Orlando Sentinel, BBC Mundo, AOL and others. She was raised in Puerto Rico where she learned to sing, cook good food, be a good mom and throw boisterous parties (she gets great story material from these.) She enjoys traveling, good wine, great books, her two boys and sleeping.