Here is the full transcript of former TV anchor Vanessa Vancour’s TEDx Talk: I’m Mexican. Does That Change Your Assumptions About Me? at TEDxUniversityofNevada conference. This event occurred on January 21, 2017.
Vanessa Vancour – Former TV Anchor
I have lost count of the number of times someone asked me, “How come you speak such good Spanish?” Spanish speakers as well as non-Spanish speakers because I know I am not what they imagine when they think of a Latin American. My favorite way to reveal I speak the language, though, is by jumping into conversations happening near me.
Because the other person will usually say, “Hablas español?” usually followed with, “I hope I wasn’t saying anything inappropriate.” We usually assume that we know a person’s background but what I learned at a very young age is that I will never know a person’s story unless I ask. I know that I’m not what most people picture when they imagine a Mexican-American, and I don’t fit the assumptions that some people have about the children of immigrants.
According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, more than 11 million people living in the U.S. are undocumented immigrants. And according to the Center for Migration Studies, more than 5 million children born in the U.S. live with an undocumented parent. And at one point, I was one of them.
My mum is from Mexico. She was born and raised in the state of Colima, where my brother is also from. I asked her about her experience crossing the U.S. border for the first time last year and recorded our conversation. For the first time in my life, I understood how courageous she is.
I also realized that my generation, the children of these immigrants, we will never know fear or loss as deeply as those who came before us. This story about an illegal crossing is an important part of my family’s history. It has greatly influenced my ability to stand before you today as the American daughter of a Mexican immigrant who is now developing the first bilingual Spanish language media program, as a faculty member at the Reynolds School of Journalism.
In 1976, my mum’s brother was already living in the U.S. so he arranged for her to meet with a Coyote, or a human smuggler, at a motel in Tijuana. Tijuana is a Mexican city bordering California, and it’s a 27-hour drive from Tecoman where my mum was living at the time.
She was only 20 years old when she crossed the border illegally to live with her brother, leaving my brother, who was only two at the time, to live with our grandparents in Mexico. Her first attempt at crossing was not successful. As she ran across the desert, the people around her started yelling, so she threw herself into the bushes and held her breath. She could hear the tires of the border patrol vehicles approaching. They were all detained and sent back.
Just a day or so after that experience, she was connected with a different Coyote, and this time she did enter California successfully. She worked as a nanny for a year in southern California before she moved back to Mexico. Six years after that experience, my mum lived in Tijuana, with my brother, and that’s where she met my dad. She is going to be so mortified, when she realizes that I’m telling this many people how they actually met. Because, growing up, she would make my sister and me say that they met through a “mutual friend.” Sort of think of it as the Mexican match.com of the early 1980s.
There is a matchmaker, a woman in Tijuana who had a book, with pictures of men and women looking for love, and the story goes my dad saw my mum’s picture and picked her out, and he would drive more than two hours, one way, just to see her. And even though she didn’t speak very much English, and he didn’t speak very much Spanish, this somehow worked out. They got married, my mum and my brother moved with my dad back to Long Beach, California, and she took English classes there when she was pregnant with me. She became an American citizen in 2000. Thank you. I identify as a woman of color. I straddle two worlds. As a white woman and as a Mexican.
What most people don’t know about me is that I feel like my truest self when I can speak Spanish. As a white woman I have people confide in me their insecurities around diversity or immigration. They’ll ask me things like, “So how do I approach them, without being offensive?” I have well-meaning colleagues who go through a roster of ethnic-sounding last names trying to pick out diverse students, only to find out that that student is not actually Hispanic. And as a Mexican, I hear how some Latinos talk about the ignorant white person.
Some share their incredible stories of their journeys into the United States with me. I also witness the discrimination that exists both against the Latino who either doesn’t speak English or against those who don’t speak Spanish fluently. It is amazing to me that nearly 30 years after being hurt by some of the things people said about my mum, I still have people tell me that any time they hear someone speaking Spanish they automatically assume that they are illegal.
Or that one of my students at the university was warned by her own parents that her teachers probably would not expect much from her, because she is Mexican.
Or that one of my colleagues was overheard saying that the only reason I have the job that I have now is because I was the only Hispanic candidate. I didn’t speak English until I was five. I vividly remember being pulled out of kindergarten to count gummy bears in English. And growing up, people would often ask me if I knew Spanish so well because of my Mexican nanny. Yeah, I always wondered why they wouldn’t just assume that she is my mum.
It also never occurred to me that my friends’ parents weren’t also pulling over at the strawberry field on their way home from my elementary school and running out of their cars to yell, “Allí viene la migra,” “Allí viene la migra,” the way that my mum used to do, to warn the field workers that there was an immigration van around the corner. So your parents didn’t do that?
Everyone here today has made an assumption about someone. Someone you are meeting for the first time, and most likely someone you already know. We are really good at forming judgments of other people. We jump to conclusions based on how they look, how they sound, by their last name, whether or not they have tattoos or piercings, and certainly by the color of their skin. I’m guilty of it too.
I emailed a film maker asking if he would consider talking to my students about the provocative content he produces. He has a Hispanic last name, and he is outspoken about being an undocumented immigrant. I thought it would be a great fit with my bilingual project, given his Latino background. I never heard from him, and then last summer I got to attend a conference where he was one of the keynotes. And at one point he mentioned his Filipino background. I sank into my chair, because I just committed the exact same mistake that I warned other people against. And I am still so embarrassed about that.
Assumptions are limiting, and they can have a severe impact on our life. Assumptions represent fixed views. But how do they even form? Is it influenced by your identity? By your family? Maybe it’s what happens to you. But you know who approaches life without bias? Children. I love watching my daughters navigate new situations because it reminds me that we aren’t born with preconceived notions.