By Florencia Vallejo-Ortiz
Among the many things I love about Canada, specifically about the multicultural city I live in, is that, every time you meet someone, they ask you or you ask them: “Where are you from?” Even if they were born and raised in snowy Montreal, they’ll tell you about their grandparents’ background. I find this pride in cultural heritage amazing. However, when I answer, “I’m from Cancún,” I get two kinds of responses:
“Where? Oh… Caaan-coon. I once went to the Club Med there.”
“Really? Do people live there? Are schools at the beach?”
I have to explain that, as in Vegas, schools are not in casinos; as in Florida, schools are not in Disney World; in Cancun, schools are not on the beach. Despite this, it is better than answering “I’m from Mexico.” In which case I get worse responses, such as:
“Mexico! I love tacos” (Yeah, they’re not hard-shell, by the way).
“OHHHH! Do you know El Chapeau Goose-man?” Or even worse: “Pablou Esoubar?” First off, Pablo is Colombian. Second, no, I do not know the biggest Mexican drug lord.
I acknowledge that there are many other immigrant experiences, some better than mine and some way worse. I’m grateful for the privilege that it is to be living in Canada for the third year. Regardless, I still face racial microaggressions in my daily life and I believe these should be addressed.
The year I came to Canada, Trudeau was elected. I couldn’t be happier with my decision to move here (specially now, seeing who the US’s 45th is). Walking through the city, I was amazed by the multiculturalism in every corner, in every restaurant, in every face, in every smile. In Mexico, we are almost all Mexicans, or tourists, as there’s not much international immigration compared to Canada. I have learnt so much from so many cultures, in so little time. Among other things I’ve learnt that I am a woman of color and a visible minority. Back home, I was considered “white,” here I could clearly see the morena of my skin (which faded away through my first winter). I wish I could say I came upon this realization gradually, but I did not. I was hit in the face with it.
My first and last year of high school in Canada, began with the usual question: “Where are you from?” “Mexico”, I said. In my classmates’ minds, there are two types of Mexicans:
Those who wear sombreros and travel in burros.
Drug dealers (mind you, Netflix’s “Narcos” series was first aired that year).
In their minds, because I was in Canada, I was not the first kind. So, their answer to my response was: “Is your dad El Chapeau?” I laughed with them. It hurt, but I laughed, trying to fit in and understand what they found so funny about the thousands of deaths that drug trafficking causes in my country every year. They didn’t realize they were offending my country, and even worse, offending me. My dad is not a drug lord. He’s an admirable professor and respectable lawyer, who works very honorably and enables my studies in Canada. I thought they were only high schoolers and it was normal to face these immature comments. I wouldn’t take it personal, they were just mindless “jokes.” However, I was impressed when my teachers also “joked.”
My status in Canada is as a student-visa holder, which means that, my first year in Canada, I didn’t have a work permit. As it happens, in 11th grade, our English and French classes encouraged us to create our CVs and begin looking for a job. In one of my classes, we were discussing job interviews and our experiences job-searching. I mentioned that I wasn’t allowed to work just yet, to which my teacher (yes, my teacher), in front of the whole class, said: “So, how legal are you?” and laughed. Everyone in the classroom laughed. I felt humiliated. I felt as if my lungs were punctured, so I just let out my breath with a laugh imitating theirs. Thinking back, I could’ve responded: “legal enough to be sitting in your classroom” or “what makes a person legal?” I am a human and I should be treated with respect, as anyone else, especially in a classroom, despite my legal status. Another teacher, when talking about the same issue, suggested I should “go to the reserves,” because there I could get a job and get paid “under the table” … I don’t even want to go through the layers of white supremacy in her comment. Teachers, making these mindless “jokes” enabled my classmates to make even worse “jokes.” When Trump came along, I heard comments 24/7 about “the wall.” There were many other international students at my very small high school, many coming from the Middle East, others from Asia, and now I just cringe and regret not speaking up when they encountered similar racist “jokes.”
One would think my school was “special,” considering that students were not allowed to speak their mother tongues (unless it was English, of course), erasing all opportunities to bond with fellow paisanos or at least other Latinos experiencing a similar cultural shock. However, I faced this outside of the classroom as well. When I got my work permit and began looking for a job, the first thing that was mentioned in every interview was that I was Mexican. “Yes, I know. I’ve been Mexican since I was born.” I wish I had answered. I applied to multiple jobs, among them to work in a fashion boutique with an in-store café. In my interview, the owner told me I was “more suitable for the backroom or kitchen.” I must mention I’ve visited the place since it opened and yes, there are white, blonde, tall, thin, able-bodied, cis-gender, Canadian, young women working in the boutique, while there are immigrants, mostly Asian women, in the kitchen. In other instances, guys, attempting to “flirt” with me, try to show off by telling me how much they know about El Chapeau or telling me how “exotic” I am, as if I was an animal.
My mom, a yogi, raised me to not take things personal and let things go, which helped me to ignore these comments. And my dad, a lawyer, raised me to be a critical thinker, which has encouraged me to also be critical of my own country. I’m not a nationalist or very patriotic, but I am proud of my culture and country, while remaining critical of my government and its corruption. But being critical about one’s own country is like being critical of one’s siblings: only I can say they’re annoying, but no one else is allowed.
When I listen to Canadians critiquing their public healthcare system, I cannot help but comment how, back home, people die while waiting for days in the public hospitals. It is hard for me to keep to myself and not mention the privilege it is to be Canadian and have free healthcare, free education, and many other very decent public services. It is hard for me to sit in class and listen to the atrocities of residential schools and efforts of reconciliation while thinking about how, back home, First Nations people are still treated as “less-humans.” It is hard for me to read about the investigations of MMIW and think about the Mujeres de Juarez. It is hard to talk about Montreal’s Student Movement, and remember the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968, or participate in protests here and think about the desaparecidos de Ayotzinapa in 2014. It is hard for me to point out the difference between the richness of Mexican culture and the warmth of its people, and its crime, misogynist society, and corrupt government. It is hard for me to defend my country when my country doesn’t defend its people. I’ve learned to manage these feelings by engaging and learning about social justice and doing, little by little, whatever I can to help erase, quoting hooks, “the imperialist, white supremacist, patriarchy” in the world.
As incredible as my anecdotes may sound, many visible minorities, some intersectional, like me, face microaggressions every day, and, as some teachers are not doing their job in educating to embrace and accept all cultures, it is up to us, the visible minorities, to stand with pride and honour our heritage. So, now, I don’t apologize for my thick accent, but happily teach my friends how to pronounce my name properly, and, when faced with corrections on my third language and pronunciation of croissant, I respond with an honest thank you and a proud: “by the way, it’s not guacamoley, it’s guacamole.”