There's An Immigration Gap In How Latinos Perceive Discrimination

Nov 5, 2017
Originally published on November 8, 2017 3:02 pm

Valery Pozo still gets angry thinking about it. It was about a decade ago, and the immigrant communities in her hometown, Salt Lake City, were on edge because of recent immigration enforcement raids in the area. Pozo's mother, an immigrant from Peru, was on the sidelines at her son's soccer game when another parent asked whether she was "illegal."

"To me, that was clearly a racist question and a racist assumption," Pozo recalled.

But her mother saw it as a harmless comment, despite Pozo's best efforts to convince her that it was something bigger.

"I said, 'Here we are just like any other family, playing soccer and doing things with our community, and we're constantly "otherized",' " Pozo said. "And I remember pointing that out — that no matter what we do, we'll always be seen as other or different."

Her mother attributed the soccer parent's comment to the fact that immigration had been in the news. And the parents on the soccer team were so nice, it couldn't have been more than an innocent question.

Pozo says it has always been like this in her family. She notices the subtle ways that the white people in her community, nice as they may be, remind her family that it doesn't truly belong. Her mom thinks she is making a big deal about nothing.

That is why her mother didn't want to be interviewed for this story. She has never been subjected to discrimination, she said, so what was there to say?

A survey conducted by NPR, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that Latinos born in the U.S. — those like Pozo — were nearly twice as likely as immigrant Latinos — those like her mother — to say that someone had used a racial slur against them or had made negative assumptions or comments toward them because of their race or ethnicity.

Emilio Parrado, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says this is not an unusual finding. It tracks with much of what is already understood about how a Latina's or a Latino's immigration status affects how she or he perceives racism and discrimination.

He says there are many possible reasons for this. One is that U.S.-born Latinos may in fact experience more discrimination. Because they are more likely than immigrants to be educated and ascending the economic and social ladder, this often puts them into contact — and competition — with white Americans for degrees, jobs and political power.

"Discrimination is a strategy of the dominant group to protect itself, to protect the benefits that they have," Parrado said. "So discrimination is something that emerges not when people are culturally different, but that emerges when people compete."

Parrado says there is another factor to explain why immigrant Latinos are much less likely to report having been subjected to discrimination than U.S.-born Latinos.

They come from countries with different social and racial contexts, so when they first arrive, many "don't understand race relations in the U.S."

"For immigrants, there is a process of learning that you are being discriminated against," he said.

He says many immigrants will begin to notice ways in which they're treated differently or poorly but not immediately attribute that treatment to race or ethnicity or the way they look.

"Immigrants tend to think that it's their own fault," Parrado said. "That it's because they don't know the rules, or they don't know English."

But their U.S.-born children often know that that is not always the case, because they do know the rules, they do speak English and yet they often have the same or similar experiences as their parents.

"The children of immigrants, they know that it comes from ethnicity, and not from the behavior of immigrants," Parrado said.

Karina Ramirez understands this. She grew up in the U.S. Her mother, Fabiola Hidalgo, grew up in Ecuador. They currently live in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Ramirez, an independent journalist, says she has been followed around in fancy department stores simply because of the way she looks.

Her mother, Fabiola Hidalgo, has had similar experiences. But she didn't immediately think her appearance was the reason. She recalled one time when she was waiting in line at a bank.

"It was my turn, and a man came and cut in front of me," she said, speaking in Spanish. "And the bank tellers were telling him it was my turn, but he demanded to be served before I was. I just stayed quiet."

But back in her car, Hidalgo started to cry.

"I cried because I felt like the lowest person in the world," she said. "But I thought to myself, 'Well, I'm new to this country, and I don't speak English,' " so maybe there had been something she didn't understand.

Her daughter, Karina Ramirez, gets emotional hearing her mother tell the story. She believes the thing her mother didn't understand was that in the U.S., she would be constantly subjected to racially motivated discrimination.

"When she started telling me about all these instances that she lived, it's like I wasn't there to stand up for her to defend her," Ramirez said.

She says she feels as if it's her responsibility to point out the ways that racial discrimination, even subtle racism, affects her mother's life. Her mother says that thanks to her daughter's lessons, she is learning, and unlike before, she is beginning to speak up.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

And now, a story about what happens when two people experience the same thing. One person sees the experience as discrimination, the other does not. According to a new survey from NPR, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Latinos born in the U.S. are more likely to say they've experienced racial discrimination than Latinos who came to this country. NPR's Adrian Florido has the story.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Valery Pozo's parents left their native Peru for Utah 30 years ago. She was born in Salt Lake City that same year. She's lived there her whole life in a mostly white neighborhood. She remembers about a decade ago when immigrants in the area were on edge because agents were conducting immigration raids across the city.

VALERY POZO: And my mom was at a soccer game with my brother, and a parent asked my mom if she was illegal. And to me, that's clearly a racist question and a racist assumption.

FLORIDO: Her mom saw it as a harmless comment, but Pozo was furious.

POZO: I said, here we are kind of just like any other family, playing soccer. And I remember pointing that out, like, no matter what we do, we'll always be seen as other or different. And her saying, well, it's kind of a hot-button issue, and it's in the news.

FLORIDO: Pozo says it's always been like this in her family. She notices subtle ways that the white people in her community - nice as they may be - remind her family that it doesn't truly belong. Her mom thinks she's making a big deal about it.

POZO: Because, for her, she's not from Salt Lake. I don't think she would ever say she's a Utahan, even though we've lived here 30 years. So I can see how that might be a difference in how she perceives things versus how I perceive things.

FLORIDO: That difference is why Pozo says her mom didn't see any point in being interviewed for this story. She's never been subjected to discrimination, she said, so what was there to say? NPR's survey found that Latinos born in the U.S. were nearly twice as likely as immigrant Latinos to say that someone had used a racial slur against them or made negative assumptions or comments toward them because of their race or ethnicity.

EMILIO PARRADO: You know, that's not an unusual finding.

FLORIDO: Emilio Parrado is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He says there are so many possible explanations for this gap in perception. One, he says, is that U.S.-born Latinos may actually experience more discrimination. As they gain education, better pay, better jobs, they come into competition with the dominant racial group.

PARRADO: And so it's in that competition that the dominant group reacts with discrimination.

FLORIDO: Another way to explain why immigrants report less discrimination...

PARRADO: So when you ask immigrants that first arrive, they don't understand race relations in the U.S. With Latinos, it's very clear because there are no Latinos in Latin America. You're Argentinian. I'm Argentinian. You're Chilean. You're Colombian.

FLORIDO: But in the U.S., many non-Latinos don't see those distinctions. They just see Latinos not from here. Parrado says immigrants may start to notice they're treated differently but not really know why.

PARRADO: Immigrants tend to think that it's their own fault. It's because they don't know the rules. It's because they don't know English. But the children of immigrants, they know that they come from ethnicity and not from the behavior of immigrants.

FLORIDO: Karina Ramirez understands this. She grew up in the States.

KARINA RAMIREZ: I currently live in West Palm Beach, Fla.

FLORIDO: She says she's been followed around in fancy department stores and thinks it's because she's Latina. Her mother, Fabiola Hidalgo, has had similar experiences but didn't think it was because of how she looked. She remembers one time when she was waiting in line at a bank.

FABIOLA HIDALGO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: When it was her turn, a white man cut right in front of her despite protests from the bank tellers. Hidalgo says she stayed quiet, but back in her car, she cried.

HIDALGO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I felt like the lowest person in the world," she said. And yet, she said she didn't pay much more attention to it. She'd just arrived in the U.S. She didn't speak English and assumed she must have done something wrong. Her daughter, Karina, gets emotional hearing her mother tell the story.

RAMIREZ: I got sad for a second.

FLORIDO: How come?

RAMIREZ: So when she started telling me about, you know, these instances that she lived, it's almost like, again, you know, I wasn't there to stand up for her, to defend her.

FLORIDO: Ramirez says she now feels like it's her responsibility to point out the ways that racism, even subtle discrimination, affect her mother's life. Her mother says that thanks to her daughter's lessons, she's learning, and unlike before, is starting to speak up. Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.