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10 Things NEVER to Say to Latino Executives

It’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. After trying to fit in a mostly white corporate culture in the 1980s, Jim Huerta’s boss challenged him about whether he was “being Latino enough.”

Huerta spent the first 12 years of his corporate life working in the mining industry, where most employees were white. People regularly butchered his name, so he pronounced it without a Spanish accent. Huerta developed a relationship with a white-male mentor, who, upon hearing Huerta say his last name without the Spanish accent, corrected him, using the Spanish pronunciation of his name.

Following that interaction, Huerta regularly used the proper Spanish pronunciation of his name and “the response became immediate. It was a look or a question asking, ‘Where are you from?'”

“The conversation was different,” Huerta recalls. People started asking him “‘How do your people do that?’ or ‘Do you eat that kind of food?’ Those questions never came up before and I wasn’t taking them as flattering investigation of who I was. I was being categorized as not necessarily ‘one of us,'” says Huerta.

Questions and comments steeped in stereotype can alienate Latino executives. The problem for the company is that the best and brightest will leave for places where they feel welcomed and like a valued member of the team.

Here are 10 things you should not say to Latino executives:

1. “Don’t worry, you’ll get the promotion, you’re Latina.”

This comment tells the Latino person that his or her ethnicity speaks louder than accomplishments; it’s a classic affirmative-action stereotype that Latinos and Blacks deal with constantly. Donna Maria Blancero heard that comment regularly when she was the lone Latina professor at a university in Arizona. Now the senior vice president of research and intellectual development at the National Society for Hispanic MBAs, Blancero says her methods of coping changed over the years. “At first it would leave me speechless and then leave me angry,” says Blancero. After years of hearing that line, Blancero started to respond with, “Really? I thought it was because I had a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university, teaching awards and a publishing record.”

2. “When did you arrive in this country?”

This comment assumes that everyone of Latin descent is a foreigner.

3. “Hola! Habla Ingles?”

This question is patronizing, especially when those three words are the only Spanish the speaker knows. Just speak English.

4. “Do you live with your parents?”

Don’t assume that because someone is Latino, he doesn’t live on his own. When Huerta worked for a white male who was president of the division, his boss asked him if he lived with his parents. “I would at first joke to try to make him see I was uncomfortable, but finally I stopped answering him … He slowed it down, but keep in mind this guy was a money maker for the firm. You almost have to bite your tongue until there’s a little blood seeping out the side of your cheek. If you get angry and offensive, it’s not a matter of right or wrong. It’s a matter of a senior leader saying you’re too sensitive.”

5. “You’re not like them.”

“My first response is ‘How do they act?’ because I might say, ‘Well, I do act like that,'” says Huerta.

6. “Can you show me your knife?”

Raymond Arroyo, chief diversity officer at Aetna, No. 30 on The 2010 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity® list, was asked this question by a sales associate 20 years ago when he traveled to Toronto with three other Latino executives. At the time, mainstream news reportsout of New York City told about Puerto Rican gangs wielding knifes. Arroyo suggests that Latino executives, when facing such prejudicial comments, not “be too sensitive and educate [people] when you can.”

7. “Why don’t all you Latinos stop doing that?”

This statement assumes that because a person is Latino, he or she can influence an entire group. Latinos certainly are a varied group, from different countries of origin and with different race/ethnicities/cultural background. Lumping them all together is a common and silly assumption.”The question is steeped in stereotypes. Another stereotype is that … because we are Hispanic or Latino, we are going to solve the problems of our communities. They will come to us with questions about selling [to Latinos] or human-resources questions,” says Federico Preuss, counsel at Aetna.

8. “You’re not white.”

Earlier in his career, Preuss was filling out forms as a new employee when a human-resources executive asked, “What are you?” Preuss, who is from Argentina and whose grandfather is from Germany, has a typical “white” look. Latinos can be of any race.

9. Butchering a Latino’s last name.

“It’s no one’s fault,” says Preuss, who has given up trying to correct people who mispronounce his last name. At Aetna, while other executives may refer to each other using surnames, most times people refer to Preuss using his first name, Federico. Preuss suggests Latino executives correct people in private rather than public. “Try to talk it out and not get angry to a level where both of you won’t get over it,” says Preuss. “If you really want to be an executive, you need to take a positive view of things and try to teach and not correct. The person corrected will be embarrassed and might look at you as a candidate who won’t grow well in the organizations.”

10. “Do you speak Spanish?”

“That’scode for, ‘How Latino are you?'” says Henry Hernandez, a management consultant and former vice president of diversity and inclusion at American Express, No. 12 in the DiversityInc Top 50. “It’s almost a double-edged sword being asked that question. Being Latino, many times the challenge a lot of us face is that we may not be Latino enough or Hispanic enough for some of our peers. But you can’t make an assumption that because someone is Latino they’re bilingual or that they’re first- or second-generation [U.S. citizen]. My wife is fourth generation and I am second generation and her Spanish is much better than mine.”

7 Comments

  • Michelle Boyd

    Love this article and learned a great deal. It has given me something to think about in terms of my interactions with Latinos. I plan to discuss it with my co-workers and friends. However, I don’t agree with #10. It has been my experience that when this question is asked it is to establish the person as an even more valuable resource. Therefore, we don’t just assume they can speak Spanish (a huge stereotype) and when we have an unexpected need for a Spanish speaking person, we are not embarrassed.

    • Luke Visconti

      Thank you for your kind words—but I disagree with you about No. 10. Questions like this are almost always a no-win for the person being questioned. Please read this column: http://www.diversityinc.com/ask-the-white-guy/ask-the-white-guy-where-are-you-from-how-to-deal-with-racist-remarks-intentional-or-not/ Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Henry Hernandez

      Hello Luke and Michelle, I’m The Henry Hernandez (formerly with American Express) that made the reference in No. 10. The context of the question and many times the person asking, can determine the interpretation and response. If it’s in the workplace and the person asking is Latino, it could be an ice breaker or probe on identity alignment. Believe me when I have many Latino(a) friends and colleagues that speak no Spanish and are very committed to Latino causes and advocacy. If a non-Latino is asking, unless it’s related to job requirements or topic that’s related (reading a menu or article), it could be to an icebreaker. However, the gaffe sometimes follows with, ‘Your English is really good and you have no accent!’ I get them one a lot!! When it becomes a real issue is when a Latino colleague starts conversing in Spanish and is “surprised” when the other person says, ‘Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish (See the movie La Bamba). Their response might be ‘Oh, your parents did not teach you Spanish?’ Then, it becomes…’Houston, we have a problem!’ Just wanted to clarify – muchas gracias, Luke!

  • Ken Gilberg

    My group handles advertising for the U. S. Hispanic market and most of what we produce is in Spanish. When I interview people for a job, I always ask them if they speak Spanish because it is a valuable asset for the job, but I ask them the question regardless of their ethnicity. I have turned down Latinos who didn’t speak Spanish and hired some U. S. born Caucasians who did. The important thing to remember was that Spanish fluency was important for the job, regardless of the applicant’s ethnicity.

  • Re the living at home as an adult stereotype, it’s a stereotype because true. My cousins who living in the “home country” are still on the teat in their 30s. Pathetic, if you ask me, a second generation Hispanic American. Unfortunately this unwillingness to grow up carries over in the more recent immigrant population. Luckily my parents understood the value of assimilating into various aspects of American culture, and my siblings and I moved out in our early twenties like normal people. I don;t see what’s so offensive about asking a Hispanic person if they still live at home. There’s a high probability the answer is yes. Can’t we be curious about or fellow man?

  • Question:
    10. “Do you speak Spanish?”

    Answer:
    Disculpeme pero no hablo Espanol.

  • I just ran into another colleague in the ladies room who happens to also be of Latino descent. I’m not fluent in Spanish – at all. I barely get through a conversation with my grandmother. I was speaking with my colleague when out comes the diversity manager saying, “I’m surprised you are not speaking in your native tongue.” I replied, “I am. It’s English.” She tried to change the subject stating we are more versed in Spanish then she is. Whether or not that’s true, I felt she was insensitive – especially being the manager of our diversity office. This might be something to add to the list of things not to say to a Latino.

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