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A Little Respect, OK?

Submitted by on October 27, 2009 – 11:32 am16 Comments

nilkibenitez headshot for TikiTikiBy Nilki Benitez

I was born and raised in the United States. When I started to come of age, probably a few years shy of my Quinceañera, I began to realize the gift of heritage. With my shoulders back and my chin up, I proudly announced “Colombia!” to the ubiquitous question: “And where are you from?”

I think you can probably imagine the reaction I would get, and the comments I would hear in response when my parents were asked the same question. You can probably also see how a young girl raised in the D.A.R.E. anti-drug campaign, eager to be accepted, not so eager to be associated with bad things, could slowly start to reply to that question a little more quietly and hesitantly, a little less proud.

Although things have changed throughout my life –and there are many more things associated with Colombia today than there were in the 1980s (thank you Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Shakira!) – there has been relatively little change in the response people have when they hear me say I’m “from” Colombia.

When I was young I used to hate it when my mother would slam into people for making the drug joke. I mean, they were just trying to be friendly, relate with us, you know, have a good laugh, ha ha, right? It was humiliating to see their embarrassed faces as they stood corrected. I mean, full-grown adults looking like sheepish children regañados. Even worse was when the perpetrator would try to defend the trespass, and what would result could be a heated volley of words in the shoe department, so no new Keds for me.

The thing is, now I’m all grown-up. And thus, I’ve learned, by trial and error, what I can, and what I won’t put up with. After 35 years of being cornered into defending my heritage, time after time, to someone who hasn’t bothered to think before speaking, I, like my mami before me, have had enough!

So, if you will, let me just lay it all out there for those who are inclined to make light of the drug tragedy in Colombia: Making a joke about drugs to someone of Colombian descent, who has endured and suffered through the deaths of thousands, and seen the fear of millions, is equivalent to meeting someone of German descent and hailing Hitler. Seriously, it’s that bad. It’s offensive. It’s painful. It’s not funny. Please, don’t do it.

You wanna talk Colombian flowers, emeralds, music, coffee, literature? You’re on! Just, please, lay off the drug talk.

Now, gente, what are some common things people say regarding your heritage that break your heart (or, make you want to break a bottles over heads…)?

Do you speak up?

How do you feel about being asked where you’re from when you are born and raised in the U.S.? What is your response?

Nilki Benitez, who has a degree in oceanography, splits her time between the East and West coasts. She writes feature-length screenplays as well as short stories, poetry and fiction. Some of this work can be found in her blog Musings. Nilki also is the development director of BlueFlowerMoonDream Productions, the family division of the Los Angeles based production company, Sancocho Entertainment. She is currently developing Allstarz! a show that highlights the philanthropic spirit of school-aged children. Nilki’s also recently launched a blog highlighting all that is beautiful about Colombia and is working on a compilation of interviews with prominent Latinos in the Arts.

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  • Ailen says:

    I always get asked if I came over on a raft and for a Cigar connection. Oh, and I was in college during the Elian Gonzalez debacle…so that became my nickname (our names contain the same letters)

    I was born in Cuba, so I tell people that’s where I’m from. However, I just had a kid, and I really hope he proudly tells people he’s Cuban/Venezuelan/American (a.k.a. Cubazolaricano) when he’s older.

  • Melek says:

    Great post Niki!

    It’s all about politely addressing these type of ignorant remarks and educating people, one at a time. My experience is that from embarrassment they quickly move on to appreciation.

    Talking of “respect”, it drives me crazy when I first meet someone and through conversation they find out that I’m Cuban born and my family left Cuba in 1962 … you would think that they would know why … and put 2 & 2 together … and yet … they come back with a line like: “I admire your leader Castro” …. so I just smile and move along …

    I wish you well :) Melek

    “If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.” ~ Zen proverb

  • Thanks for sharing! I hear you, I hope it changes for our children! My daughter loves Colombia and I cringe to think one day she’ll hear something derogatory-I’m trying to compile as much information as I can about the positive aspects of Colombia so we can battle the negativity!

  • Thank you, Melek. I hope to get there someday when I can smile and walk away-I really admire that! I have recently started practicing Buddhism, so I’m sure it is possible! Thank you for the zen quote-it’s so simple, yet overwhelmingly powerful!

  • Diana says:

    Great work, Nilki. I, too, am from Colombia and your words speak straight to my heart. Thank you for putting this out there. Can I share this with my community?

    Adelante hermana Colombiana/Americana!

  • Thank you, Diana! Please do share. I would love to hear more positive ways of how people cope with this sort of situation!

  • Stacey In CO says:

    This is a really great post. Nice job!

  • Hi Nilki,

    Great post and much needed. Would an Irish person you just met be offended if you joked about their drunk grandfather? Or would a new Italian acquaintance appreciate a joke about being part of the mafia? It’s not uncommon for people across the world to harbor stereotypes about people outside their own ethnic group. But your post correctly points out that some aspects of national identities are not polite subjects for jokes.

  • Mari says:

    I’m Puertoricana and I get this all the time! Do you carry a knife? Do you have a green card? I get asked those questions all the time. People also are shocked when they learn that I was raised in suburban CT, that my parents are still together and that both my parents are college educated and my dad even has his MBA. It’s amazing. Thanks for the great post!

  • Oscarh says:

    Thank you Nilki for this beautiful post. It comes from your heart and resonates in all of us who have endured similar experiences. I applaud your initiative and the brave attempt to rescue of a vituperated country. There is a lot of hope in your words and a sincere invitation to procure an ongoing effort toward peace, against violence and to highlight what is positive in the world. We have had enough of the commercially-motivated badness in the news. Adelante!!

  • Thank you everyone, so much. Your comments are all a tremendous source of support, hope and inspiration! Gracias.

  • Evenshine says:

    My husband is from Colombia, and I remember distinctly the moment my brother found out we were dating: “Colombia, huh? Does he deal in the drogas??” Meaning, of course, to be funny.

    I’m not sure why people assume that this kind of thing is funny. The thing to remember, much like the raft and Elian Gonzales and wetback comments, is that the person is simply showing 1)a desire to be funny and 2) their own ignorance. Pity is my usual response, though I get a bit flustered when people assume that my husband must be cutting grass for a living.

    If we are to be true patriots, though, we have to swallow the bitter with the sweet- and this is true for more than Colombians- it’s equally applicable to us gringos/as as well.

  • Niki!

    What a great post! I feel the same way. It really irks me when I get such a ridiculous response to saying I am from Colombia and I am happy you have laid it out so clearly.

  • Izaura says:

    Your words talk so loud and clear to me. We must join forces to help educate and change attitudes and a new attitude from the new generations of Latinos will be invaluable. Well, let me tell you that I have tried through education, fighting, screaming and just pulling my hairs on frustration. I have finally decided that there is a lot of well meaning stupidity among people who do not have any intention of insulting but who have not been ever in a situation of displacement or discomfort and their way to relate ends up been insulting to many. So,it is typical that as soon as speak with my strong accent these type of people tend to be interested in finding out where I am from. I get interrupted in the middle of my conversation to have to respond to their eternal question: “Where are you from?” and I respond: do you mean where is my accent from? or where I am from. This puts them in an difficult situation and more than not you can see their embarrassed expression (so, now hopefully, they know how it feels to be asked this question over and over by total strangers) and I continue…I am from here – I live here and have lived here for 40 years and I am planning to continue been from here – now if you are interested in knowing where my accent comes from then it is form Colombia, I was born there and I proudly speak Spanish as my first language, sadly I never learned any of my native languages. They for sure were not expecting this long answer!!
    This I hope will help people to be more careful- It is OK to ask the question but why? they need to know that since they are not interested in really knowing about me, they do not have the right to ask me about my accent either. I feel like they just want me to recognize aloud that I am a foreigner and I just wouldn’t play the game anymore.
    Congratulations for your words. I am very proud of young Colombians like you. RIR

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