Fierce

A Man At A Literary Convention Admitted To Assuming He Thought An Award-Winning Mexican Author Was ‘Waitstaff’

Reyna Grande is the author of the bestselling memoir, The Distance Between Usfor which she received several accolades but earlier this week she opened up about the racism she recently faced at a literary gala. She was in awe of the company she was in among the author lineup that included famed writers Barbara Kingsolver, Joyce Carol Oates, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which left her feeling grateful to be invited. While taking in the grandeur of her surroundings, she touched her name tag as a reminder that she belonged there but then she was reminded why she felt so out of place to begin with. 

“As I made my way into the crowd, a white man stopped me. ‘Excuse me, where are the restrooms?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. He looked confused. Then he noticed my name tag — just like the one he wore — and apologized. ‘I’m sorry, I thought you were…’ His voice trailed off. He had assumed I was one of the waitstaff,” she wrote in an op-ed on The Lily

She shared how upon entering the author gala held at the Library of Congress earlier this year, she felt “inadequate” but it was that encounter that only reinforced that feeling of being Other.

“I’m an author, too, I wanted to say. I belong here, too, but there was still a part of me that wondered if I did,” she wrote. 

She opens up about the Impostor Syndrome that still plagues her despite her success, a feeling she says many Latinx can relate to because of the current political climate. 

Trump’s strict immigration policies targeting undocumented immigrants is only one example of how his presidency has affected the Latinx community but for Grande it’s personal. 

In her memoir, she wrote about her life before and after she arrived in the United States from Mexico as an undocumented child immigrant. 

She was born  in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico and when she was two years old her father left for the U.S. to find work and two years later her mother left to join him. She and her siblings stayed with their grandmother until 1985, when Grande was nine and she made the trek up north to “el otro lado” as she calls it in the book. In the 2018 followup  A Dream Called Homeshe shares the experience of becoming the first in her family to go to university and what that meant for her. 

She recalls her father insisting that a higher education “was the only way to succeed in this country” but even now, as a successful writer she finds that success isn’t enough. 

Grande has received an American Book Award, the El Premio Aztlán Literary Award, and the International Latino Book Award among others but for some like the white man she encountered at the gala, she was a person of color and that meant she was more likely to be working the event than attending it. 

Overall, the publishing industry is 79 percent white and the editorial department of publishing houses are 82 percent are white while Latinx only make up 6 percent of the industry overall. 

Grande recalls searching the crowd for someone who might be Latinx yet of the 144 authors.

She counted about 13 Latinxs in the festival lineup — including accomplished writers Julia Alvarez and Valeria Luiselli. This lack of representation is common among all industries —  a recent study found only 3 percent of movies featured Latinx actors in lead roles from 2007 through 2018 in the 100 top-grossing films. 

The study also found that 28 percent of the top-billed Latinx actors participated in illegal activities in violent and non-violent crimes while only 4 percent of jobs held by Latinx characters were in STEM careers.

The stereotype of Latinx as criminals, uneducated, and poor in Hollywood only perpetuates that idea in the real world and as Latinx now has to defend themselves when the president condones these stereotypes, it only reinforces how representation is crucial to making progress. 

Julián Castro is currently the only Latinx presidential nominee, U.S. Representative AOC continues to call out injustices, and Sonia Sotomayor is the first Latinx Supreme Court justice — but that’s not enough. 

There are 59 million Latinx in the U.S. making up 18 percent of the population and 11 states currently have more than a million Latinx residents. However, there are only 36 Latinxs in the House and four in the Senate indicating that before progress can be made,  there needs to be more diversity among those in power that better represents the U.S. population. 

When Latin American foods and fashion are consumed by people of all races but the cultures behind them aren’t recognized or respected, it means situations like Grande’s aren’t isolated. 

But Grande’s experience ended on a somewhat uplifting note when she realized the dinner at the gala that night was tacos, which originated in her homeland.  “As I watched the tacos being enjoyed by all the distinguished guests — all of us under the fancy ceiling of the library — I realized that if tacos belong at the Library of Congress, so do I,” she wrote.    

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