Employee Perspectives

Finding My Place: At Work and Among Family

October 9, 2020

By Natalie Mayen, Manager – Catalyst 

“We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!”… a line from a movie I’ve seen millions of times, Selena, and one that continues to bring me chills each time I watch. At a young age, I never realized how much I would connect with those words until I got older. I grew up with a mix of cultures and traditions – I was raised by a Mexican mother and stepfather, a Guatemalan father and a Peruvian stepmother. I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life, so I’ve always been surrounded by people with diverse backgrounds. Never did I consider what it would be like to work somewhere where I felt like an outsider because of my different upbringing, let alone think that what I chose to do for work would also leave me feeling left out of my own family because it was new to them too, this line of work wasn’t something they were familiar with.

Taking it back a few years – I was in my second year of grad school, getting ready to start my first internship at a PR agency (this was before I joined Golin). I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew it was going to be a huge shift from leaving my job at the Chicago Park District. I expected a change of pace, wardrobe, daily to-do’s, etc., but what I wasn’t ready for was the huge cultural shift. I remember the nerves of my first day at a new job were immediately overcome by the culture shock I experienced. No one looked like me or had a similar background, it was clear, I was different. I was one of two Latinas in the room. I remember the first few weeks I even reconsidered whether this is what I wanted to do. I tried to ignore it and instead focused on excitement when my first onboarding was scheduled. That was until I found out I was put on the assignment because I was Spanish-speaking and the focus was on a “spicy product.” Now I wouldn’t have minded helping if the plan was developed to target the Hispanic consumer because the product indexed high within that market or insights led us to a plan that was developed for the consumer – but no. It was simply pitched to these outlets because it was “spicy.” Next came a time when someone said, “Aww look at your cute Mexican shoes.” I assume she thought they were huaraches, which left me stunned because they were Toms. As if any colorful shoe I wore deemed them “Mexican shoes.” And then there was a time that a former co-worker went to Mexico and brought back candy, and when I didn’t know what was on the table I was met with remarks like, “Isn’t this something you should know?” I realized that this is something many LatinX faced, they are automatically labeled Mexican when they really come from different parts of Latin America or are expected to be experts on all things considered “Mexican.” The stereotype followed me everywhere.

These were just early moments that I realized that I was going to have to get really comfortable with making others feel uncomfortable because changing who I am or how I grew up was not an option (nor would I ever want to).

What many people didn’t realize is, while I was dealing with finding my place in a new world, mine was changing at home too. I was the first in my family to finish college, go to grad school and venture into the corporate world. While my parents were ecstatic and proud, there were people in my family who met my accomplishments with critique. So often I heard from relatives that I was “Fufurufo” – aka pretentious, better-than, etc. And even though it sucked to hear, I understand this was something new for my family too and they were learning as much as I was. If I missed a birthday, dinner, or any event for anything work-related it was a blow to them, so it was almost easier to reject the unknown then to try to understand where I was coming from. I wasn’t trying to lose touch with my culture and family, but I was still learning to balance between them, work, school and everything in my life.

It’s been over five years since the day I stepped into that first agency and I know there is still so much work to do. Sometimes I have to remind myself that even though it’s easier to revert to just observing what’s going on, if I don’t say something, who will? While my parents have always taught me to speak my mind, I also come from a culture that tells you to keep your head down and just work hard. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “calladita te ves más bonita” which translates to, “you look prettier when you stay quiet.” While we aren’t talking about looks here, you get the point. So, while we are constantly encouraged to stand up for each other, I truly believe I will be heard now more than ever. I know sometimes it’s hard to break out of what you’ve heard growing up so, to anyone who is going through this internal battle, ponte las pilas, the time to speak up is now!