The Voices of Intersectionality: Life as a Disabled Latinx

May 8, 2019
3:05 PM

(Photo by Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

The term intersectionality is attributed to legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. In 1989, she spoke on the importance of viewing the cumulative effects of being both Black and female.

Three decades later, the concept of intersectionality is widely adopted and inclusive to individuals who experience oppression in society because of the intersecting effects of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism, class oppression, etc.

As members of the Latinx community, we are familiar with the effects of prejudice and racism. We may also understand the oppression as members of the LGBTQIA and Latinx communities or women and Latinx communities, or Latinx and of black or brown race.

Yet, there is the often forgotten and rarely discussed, Disability community. Disabled individuals make up roughly 26 percent of the U.S. population and are affected by the oppression of ableism—that is discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.

The combined effects of being marginalized through ableism and racism, as a Disabled Latinx, can weigh heavily. Individuals who identify as members of these two communities face discrimination on a daily level. Lack of access to businesses and services, employment and housing discrimination, prejudice and racism are regular sources of injustice.

Voices of Disabled Latinx

At the same time, realizing the richness and resilience of both Disability and Latinx identities can also be a unique experience.

“My ethnic identity is a source of pride. My disability has been a challenge in my life but has also taught me many things about life and myself,” said Tania Azevedo.

Azevedo was born with Cerebral Palsy and is an ESL Tutor and Classroom Assistant in San Diego, CA. As a Mexican-Portuguese-American, her disability has not impacted her cultural and family experience.

“I have always been included in cultural activities within my family circle. We always adapt,” stated Azevedo. “I think being disabled and Hispanic are both a part of the person I am. I am proud to be Hispanic, Portuguese and disabled.”

As a Disabled Latinx who is also a woman, Azevedo is a member of three intersectional groups that are susceptible to social injustice. 

“Being a Latina Woman and Disabled can be a source of oppression and discrimination,” said Azevedo, pointing to how these injustices present themselves in her life. “I have faced more disability-related barriers in terms of accommodations in school from elementary to the university level, previous jobs I have had and, in general, the way I am perceived because of my disability.”

Azevedo added, “It is about inclusion and true acceptance, not just tolerance.”

It is that same unique perspective that drives 40-year-old College Professor Humberto Gurmilan.

“My disability has made me an even more unique individual,” said Gurmilan. “I embrace both, but I think that being Latino and having a disability does give me a unique perspective that not many people have.”

The Mexican American, Southern California native became disabled as a result of a surfing accident 25 years ago. “I suffered a spinal cord injury while surfing,” shared Gurmilan. “I dove off my board head first into the water and hit the bottom, causing a fracture of my C-5-6 vertebrae.”

Gurmilan is Vice President of his local School Board and Founder of the Gurmilan Foundation; a charitable organization that supports individuals with disabilities through scholarships and grants. His involvement in cultural activities is also unwavering.

“I am very fortunate that my disability has not affected my participation in cultural activities,” stated Gurmilan. “I am active and fully immersed in both cultures and that’s because I have a great support team of family and friends.”

As a quadriplegic who uses a wheelchair, Gurmilan faces obvious physical barriers and identifies socioeconomic, attitudinal and, emotional challenges as sources of disability-connected barriers as well. As a Mexican American living in California, he says he doesn’t feel excluded culturally.

“I live in California so in terms of ethnic or cultural barriers, I don’t have many… but, that doesn’t mean others don’t have these barriers,” said Gurmilan. In fact, life as a Disabled Mexican-American has contributed to Gurmilan’s sense of pride and empathy.  “This identity has allowed me to reach so many more people,” said Gurmilan. “I relate with both sides and have acquired a huge sense of empathy for both the Latino and Disability communities.

The perception of 19-year-old, Puerto Rican high school student Vanessa Ramos is perhaps the most straightforward.

“My life, as it is, is normal,” said Ramos. “I consider myself to be very blessed, I love my life and I am thankful to God for it.”

Ramos was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy and uses multiple assistive technology and medical devices. In addition to a wheelchair and ventilator, she speaks through the use of computer technology. Ramos Shared, “I am not able to speak so, when I was in preschool, I received a computer that could be controlled with my eyes since that is the only thing I can move, I type in what I want to say and it says it for me.”

“One of the greatest things I’ve been given is a voice.”

A voice. Isn’t that what each of us treasures? A voice to exclaim our anger against an ableist and racially oppressive society? Or, a voice to proclaim the wonder and richness of our cultural identities? In either circumstance, voices will certainly be heard.


Val Vera is a writer who covers disability culture, lifestyle, politics, law, and technology. He tweets from @ValVeraTX.