I am a Puerto Rican psychologist who has lived and worked in Massachusetts for more than 17 years. I first heard of Councilwoman Nancy Navarro —who represents the 4th District of Montgomery County in Maryland and is Venezuelan American— when national news broke that she was mocked for her accent during a Zoom meeting with other stakeholders. At the time she was arguing for an improved vaccination infrastructure for Black and Brown communities in her state.
The experience immediately resonated with me and transported me back to many incidents I have experienced in predominantly white Anglo spaces. There are two common threads to those experiences: One is the hyperfocus on my accent as opposed to what I am actually saying. Second, the assumptions made about my capabilities based on my accent. As a Latina working in such spaces, it is a reminder that even educational privilege or positions of power do not protect us against racism and xenophobia.
Upon hearing Councilwoman Navarro’s experience, I was immediately transported. Like sitting in a movie theater, I was visualizing experience after experience of abusive othering. As a mental health professional, I have noted a contradiction in many public health settings. While simultaneously broadcasting that more Spanish-speaking providers are sorely needed, their Latinidad is not often supported. Language is so powerful in the eyes of some that it can become all you are as a professional.
For example, I have been introduced countless times as the Spanish-speaking psychologist or just as “Spanish.” Earlier in my career, I was tokenized to only cultural expertise while other similarly prepared colleagues got to cultivate an area of technical expertise. I have had the experience of being the one and only Latina in a training or workspace and asked to do non-clinical things such as interpret for someone filling out a form or can you talk to someone’s mom real quick and find out something for some other clinician or administrator.
I have noted that there is an expectation that I articulate my name, “Goosman,” to make it easier for Anglos to pronounce. I had a male colleague characterize my accent as “sexy” in the context of a work-related phone call. Some of the most painful memories are from being chastised from speaking Spanish with other Latinx colleagues in white Anglo spaces. I can vividly recall the looks, suspicion, and paranoia; as if our conversation is too much (e.g. too loud, too disruptive, too long, too mysterious). I have had people say from another side of a room that we are being disrespectful, others have sat down and demanded to be included in English and for us to disclose what we were saying. Why do they feel entitled to know what we are discussing in a private conversation?
Councilwoman Navarro’s response after the incident was “wear it with pride and keep moving forward.” Her reference to the concept of pride as strength resonated. It’s like she flipped the situation and made what was depicted as a weakness, an actual source of strength.
Holding on to my cultural pride, traditions and my Boricuaisms have helped me through shaming and othering in the past. And I am not alone. These experiences happen to so many people, often in spaces in which they have much less power and privilege than me. Latinx immigrants especially, in my opinion, have a superpower: Resilience and perseverance. When I see a Latina like Councilwoman Navarro, I think of her as a superhero because I know she has had to work triple hard to be in her position and is using her power and energy to help her community.
So with pride and honor, I salute Councilwoman Navarro ¡y pa’ lante!
Lara Guzmán-Hosta started her training as a psychologist in Puerto Rico and completed her studies in MA, where she now resides. She practices in forensic mental health, with a focus on multicultural mental health and how it intersects with the legal system.