Tuesday, May 26, 2009

8 Things Never to Say to a Latina/o during Your Spanish Community Service-Learning

by Ann Abbott

Darcy Lear, my friend and fellow Spanish community-service learning colleague at the University of North Carolina, introduced me to this great website: DiversityInc.

As I think about ways to help my Spanish CSL students navigate the professional settings where they work in the community and prepare for their professional careers after graduation, I believe that their work in multi-cultural and multi-lingual environments can be a real asset to their future employers. My goal is to make teaching materials that ask students to do the following:
  • Reflect on the impact of diversity (or lack of diversity) in their learning environments.
  • Compare that to the role of diversity in the work environments where they do their community service learning.
  • Translate what they have learned about working in diverse environments into documents or deliverables that show future employers that they can transfer that knowledge and skills to the work environment in ways that add value to their organization.

DiversityInc's series of articles about "Things NEVER to Say to..." is a good starting point for students to think about their own assumptions. For example, are you guilty of saying--or even thinking--any of these "Ten Things Never to Say to Latino Executives?"

Here is a list of "Eight Things Never to Say to a Community Partner/Member During your Spanish Community Service-Learning." (I don't have ten. If you can think of two more, please add them in a comment here!) OJO: My students work with recent immigrants. Not all Latinos are foreign-born, of course.

1. "Are you a legal immigrant?" There is sooo much wrong with this question. First of all, we never, ever ask about anyone's legal status. Our community partners provide services for all people living in our community. Furthermore, hidden in this question is the flip side: "illegal immigrant." We do not use this term. Immigrants are immigrants. They may be undocumented workers or sin papeles, but we do not refer to a person as illegal. That is to deny the basic humanity and dignity of all people.

2. "What is your status?" Again, all our community partners provide their services without regard to legal status. If this is a question that you need to ask in order to access an outside service or file paperwork, then you need to call your supervisor immediately and let him/her handle the issue.

3. "What is your social security number?" Many forms that our students work with have a space for social security numbers. Never, ever fill this out yourself! We had a problem once in which a student of ours filled out a form for a client that included the wrong social security number. (It wasn't the student's fault; but now it is a rule that you never ask for anyone's SSN.) Identification is a very thorny issue for many of the immigrants we work for, and each community and state has different rules. The Refugee Center, for example, enourages people to get an ITIN. If in doubt, leave that part of the form blank.

4. "Are you Mexican?" Latina/o immigrants are from all Latin American countries. Never assume that someone who speaks Spanish is Mexican (or any other nationality). You can simply ask, "Where are you from?"

5. "You should learn English." It would be great if learning a language were easy. It's not. It's a long process that requires specific conditions. Adult learners working long hours, taking care of families here and there, with varying degrees of literacy in their first language have many obstacles to language learning. I've never met anyone living in the US who didn't want to learn English. I have, however, met a lot of people who simply had to prioritize other things in their lives.

6. "My family immigrated legally. Why can't everyone else?" The simple answer is, they just can’t. Except for special programs, only the educated elite can even apply for a US work visa. Even then, a small number of applications are accepted. Furthermore, I would encourage anyone who says this to do a little research about their family’s immigration story. It’s always wonderful when a person or family can immigrate with full legal status. But often people earn that status because of special agreements between the US and their home countries or because of special employment needs in the US (like nursing).

7. "You're so lucky to be in the US." Most people have no desire to leave their homes, families, communities and countries. It is a hard decision with many risks. There are benefits, but there are also drawbacks. And many immigrants simply want to make enough money to support the family they left behind and then be able to go back home. In the US, you often here that this is "the best country in the world." Best in what way? Certainly not in every way. Don't let ethnocentrism color your perception of what an immigrant's life in the US is like.

8. "I'm going to Mexico for spring break. Where should I go?" I'm not saying that you shouldn't be happy about the trips and study-abroad experiences that you have. However, do be thoughtful before sharing something like this. Our ability to simply take out a passport and go almost anywhere in the world (and to have the money to do so), is a privilege that many immigrants do not have. They often miss births, weddings and funerals in their home countries because of work pressures and the dangers involved in crossing and re-crossing borders. And realize that many people (even in the US), do not have the opportunity to travel for leisure, even within their own national borders.

Any more? Let me know your ideas!


  1. I'm thinking that I could have chosen a better image. This model is way over-accessorized. Ha.

  2. Maybe #9 can be "what's it like to be....?" as in asking one person to represent a whole group. Teachers have to fight this all the time--if there's a Chinese-American student in your class you cannot ask that student to be the scholar on all things Chinese or Chinese-American. We can't expect heritage speakers of Spanish to represent any experience beyond their own personal experience.