Peñaloza: Consider Your Words

Ignorance isn’t an excuse anymore.

by Mariana Peñaloza | 2/14/19 2:25am

 I can’t speak anymore — not without people attaching the same searing comment, like a parasite, after every point I make. It’s rattled in my brain since my first term here as a freshman. 

The “Feisty Latina.” Sometimes “spicy,” if they’re feeling unconventional.

I spent my first term looking for safe spaces on campus and non-threatening people to be friends with. I thought I found them. While I was having dinner with some of these friends, they spewed trigger words like “illegal” immigration, reverse racism and overused welfare. I felt uncomfortable. I was the only woman at the table. I was the only minority at the table. I was having dinner with privileged, affluent and predominantly white students who never understood what those inaccurate words meant — that these phrases were created to undermine people like me. 

I tried to explain this. Immigration is not illegal. Racism feeds on existing white supremacy and colonization indoctrinated even when white people are the minority. Income disparity directly targets black and brown communities because of racism and creates an unbreakable cycle. And that’s when he said, “I know you’re a feisty Latina, but relax.”

Immediately, my identity became their favorite justification for ignoring my experiences and opinions. I was talked at, not talked to. I can’t ignore this, but can I forgive it? Can I forgive willful ignorance? No. I can’t. I won’t.

I grew up around ignorant people, but I don’t blame them. I lived in Hialeah, Florida and went to school in Opa Locka and North Miami, but understood I was fortunate. I had teachers and mentors who told me to transfer to magnet schools independent of my zip code, which I did about three times. This meant I went to the one of the few well-resourced schools around impoverished neighborhoods. But racism and income inequality robbed the other minority students of resources they needed to wage war against ignorance. What teachers could help them navigate underfunded education systems? What support did they have besides themselves? Yet with them, my identity was never vilified, reduced and fetishized. Their ignorance was a product of circumstance: of being black, brown, Latinx and poor. 

Coming to Dartmouth, every conversation I have becomes political. People wonder about my opinion, only to radicalize ideas I never thought were radical and question an identity I never used to have to explain. I’m tired of excusing the attempts to silence my dissent and subversion; my presence here does both. I’m fighting in unknown terrain — where the privileged have the territorial advantage. My words are non-violent and my responses are reactive. Why, then, am I demonized and painted as destructive? I ran out of excuses for those whose comments disparage me, but I shouldn’t have to excuse the comments that feed into stereotypes and share a dalliance with micro-dehumanization. Do your research. Learn about worlds outside of the parochial Dartmouth bubble. Eduroam not working doesn’t validate the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes that reinforce bigoted narratives. I understand — as a first-generation, low-income minority — that coming to Dartmouth doesn’t break down all barriers, but ignorance is not a viable excuse. 

The label — feisty Latina — feels like a sick joke. I’m the punchline necessary for comedic relief when talking about serious, controversial issues. In and outside the classroom, the juxtaposition between the epithet feisty Latina and the eloquent, yet passionate, (white) student belittles my political power while elevating their perspective. Beyond the insidious stratification of my ideas and making them irredeemable, the use of the label as men’s trademark flirtatious rhetoric towards me is not sexy. I’m asked to speak Spanish on command, like a party trick, when people notice I speak English with an accent. I say I’m Colombian and Peruvian, and people wonder about “Narcos” or joke about substance abuse. I talk about my family, and somehow I always have to explain that the term “anchor baby” is inappropriate. Criticizing immigration and foreign policy renders me synonymous to “illegality.” It proves to me that people don’t try to see me beyond Latina. Yes, my identity shapes my experiences. But shouldn’t people want to see beyond that label? Understand my experiences? Not stereotype them and impose them onto other Latinxs or impose other Latinx experiences onto me?

Consider what minority students on a campus that was never meant for them feel when they hear stereotypes as your truths. Actively participate and engage in conversations that highlight minority voices rather than dismiss them. Facing oppression is not new for me, but there is no reason I should continue to put up with it.

I’m going to speak again, and no one will be ready for it.